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Can Austin Become the Hollywood of Games?

An all-star cast of game developers, game publishers, entertainment attorneys, and film producers met at SXSW in Austin to look at Austin, its strengths, and the hurdles it faces in striving to become a game development mecca.

April 10, 2006

8 Min Read

Author: by N. Evan Van Zelfden

“Before I begin the panel, I want to set the stage,” began one panel at SXSW's Screenburn, arguably the liveliest sessions. “My name is Rodney Gibbs, I'm with Amaze Entertainment. I'll be moderating the panel, and we make movie-based games. So perhaps it's good I'm in the middle, bridging the gap between film and games. We've assembled an all-star cast of game developers, game publishers, entertainment attorneys, and film producers, to look at what makes Austin do well in games.”

“More importantly,” Gibbs added, “What does Austin need to do to go to the next level? We share a lot of things between games and films. Personnel, infrastructure, even the titles of game companies are similar to the titles of, internally, film companies.”

“So we're trying to get some fights going,” Gibbs joked, “And see if there's some blood that can be spilled here today.”

Gibbs started by asking the panel, “What is keeping us from going to that next level? We've got a lot a great things going here. Some of these people at the table are on that short list of luminaries in the game world. But we haven't quite reached that pinnacle that some of our friends on the film side, like Robert Rodriguez, Richard Linklater, people like that. Their business is based in California, like ours, but something about the film world really seems to be growing, whereas on the game side, we seem to be struggling a bit.”

“When you make a game, you're in an office space,” said Ted Staloch, EVP of Publishing for Aspyr. “All the publishers out in LA: Activision, EALA, Pandemic: all great developers... Their office space looks just like ours. That's the creative side. The business side is publishing. The model of ‘how do you finance something?' That's where we need to grow up.” Staloch cited both his company, Asypr, and fellow Austin publisher, NCsoft.

Warren Spector picked up the thread, “We, as an industry, need to develop new financing models. The reason power is centered in other places, in the Bay Area, in Los Angeles, is because there is only one source of funding for games right now.” Spector was quick to point out that he meant AAA titles. “I can already see one of you staring daggers at me, out in the audience.”

Part of the reason that Austin archived such critical mass in the film industry is pretty obvious to Susan Kirr, who recently worked in production for the film, A Scanner Darkly. “Rodriguez, and Linklater, and Mike Judge live here and love to work here, and so have decided to work here.” That has caused Hollywood to come to Austin, to bring the money, and projects here.

Gordon Walton, of BioWare Austin thought one of the challenges, “of being the Hollywood of gaming, is the hits. We haven't had regular, sufficient hits. We do good games. A lot of good games come out of Austin. But the really great games? You can count them on one hand. And that's the challenge. We need more great games, from a diversity of people. And then there will be people beating a path to our door. For the talent, and for the mysticism of being around where hits get made. Why do people go to Hollywood? They believe there's magic there for making movies.”

Rick Triplett of law firm Graves Dougherty Hearon and Moody, explained, “You have to create an environment where creative people want to live and work. Once you do that, I think everything falls into place.” Triplett believes the financing will follow. “It's easy to get the money here. There are wire transfers.”

“We're missing a few pieces,” Walton pointed out. “We don't have a four-year graduate program. In fact, there's very few of those that are mature in the country. Again, count-them-on-your-hand kind of programs. There are probably thirty programs in the country, but only a handful of them are there [at that level, and] producing people. We don't have a fine arts school here, and a big part of what we do is visual. ”

Over the last several years, Austin has lost two major studios, and that's been a hold up for recruiting, said Walton. “Because, in the game business, people want to know that if the company they go to, [goes] out of business one day, they'll have another place to land without having to move again.”

Spector chimed in, “The reality is, when I go out to a publisher – the only source of financing around for me – when I say ‘Give me twenty-million dollars to make my next game,' they say, ‘Great. We own your ass and you retain nothing.' It's incredibly hard to retain IP rights… Any rights at all. I'm going out there, really trying to hustle, because if I owned Deus Ex, right now, my world would be different, you know?”

“There's a movie deal in place for that right now that everyone that has nothing to do with the game, is going to benefit from. And I'm not.” Spector concluded.

“When I think about the world, the world is flattening out,” Walton stated. “If you haven't read it, read The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. If it doesn't scare you to death, you're not comprehending what you're reading. And when I think of Austin, in the sense of the world, ‘How are we going to stand out? How is this community gong to compete?'

Walton continued, “When I think about what the government can do for us, they can make it attractive for the major players in our business to be here. And that's tax incentives, where somebody goes ‘I'd rather be here than California.'"

“Frankly, we're not going to get them here in Austin,” Walton said candidly, “Unless we have a better transportation infrastructure than we have today. I can't get the people with money to fly here, because they have to fly through two places to get here. So they'd rather do business with somebody where they can do it in one flight. Our airport is not competitive in a globalized world.”

“I don't know what the city or the state can do about that,” Walton said, “But anything is better than nothing right now. Because Warren and I fly places, to be supplicants, to people with money. Our relationships, in the long-term, aren't what they should be. Because the people we're dealing with, really don't want to be here. They think, ‘Oh, that's going to be a pain in the butt, going to Austin,' because they have to fly sixteen ways from Sunday to get here..

Warren concurred, “That sounds crazy, but it's absolutely true. People will not come to Austin to talk to us. We always have to go to them, and it's a real issue. The lack of direct flights – I can't believe I'm actually saying that in public – is an actual hindrance.”

Staloch offered a differing opinion in pointing out, “I know for a fact that Activision, EA, Ubisoft and Elevation Partners are all looking to build studios or some sort of infrastructure in Austin right now. I'm hoping that between NCsoft, Aspyr, and somebody else out here thinking of starting their own publishing company, that we can compete in the next five years. I will predict that in five years, Austin will have 3000 people or more in the video game space.”

“Dude, I'm not going anywhere,” Spector quipped.



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