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In-Depth: Rubinelli On Genius Products' Move Into Games

Mike Rubinelli heads up game acquisitions for Weinstein Company-controlled media distributor Genius Products (Line Rider), and in this in-depth Gamasutra interview, he discusses chasing the Katamari aesthetic, getting involved with developme

Chris Remo, Blogger

April 29, 2008

24 Min Read

Mike Rubinelli's resume (EA, Capcom, Take-Two, Midway, and THQ) reads like a reference list of major video game publishers, so his current post in product development at home video distributor Genius Products is new territory. Genius, which is 70% owned by major independent film studio The Weinstein Company and distributes all Weinstein movies on DVD, recently announced its plans to enter the video game publishing market. The company's first game will be Line Rider, an inXile-developed console adaptation of Boštjan Čadež's Flash-based internet mega-hit, to debut on Nintendo DS, Wii, and the PC in the near future. Gamasutra sat down with Rubinelli for a lengthy interview into why Genius is treading into this highly-competitive space, the involvement with the notorious Weinstein brothers, the publisher's hands-on approach with developer inXile, and the crushing realization of middle-management limbo that drove Rubinelli into more entrepreneurial waters. Why Video Games? First off, do you want to just describe why Genius is making its move into this segment, and then I'll have more specific questions? Mike Rubinelli: Sure. Absolutely. About three years ago, Genius was sort of known for a company that distributed these $1 or $2 DVDs that were super-cheap, and they were not doing very much business. The guy who used to run Warner Home Video - Trevor Drinkwater - came in and was appointed to rebrand and reenergize what Genius was in the DVD distribution world. [Correction: Mr. Drinkwater was head of U.S. home video sales for WHV.] Trevor's background, by the way, is that he was the former COO at Take 2, and he worked for a guy named Jeff Lapin during 2002 and 2003 at Take-Two. Trevor came in. He's a former sales guy from Nabisco and whatnot. He looked at it and said, "We need girth. We need an anchor, so to speak." So he, along with a guy named Steve Bannett, went to barter with Harvey Weinstein after their divorce from Miramax, and said, "Let's get you an aggressive distribution rate for your titles, because now that you've got content at Miramax you're going to be showing theatrically, you're going to need a DVD distribution outlet in North America." So they negotiate a fairly aggressive distribution rate with the Weinstein company, and got their entire film catalog and the DVD distribution rights that go along with that. That was in 2005. So along with getting the Weinstein business and products like the Scary Movie series and Sin City and whatnot, they used the Weinstein revenue and built up their infrastructure. They built up a great distribution platform to which now they go and distribute all DVD product for the WWE, for Children's Television Workshop, for ESPN, for Discovery Kids, along with a bunch of really prominent brands. So Genius has this really retail-centric model that relies on great distribution. Trevor in his infinite wisdom said, "I'm basically selling the same physical box with the same optical media, a lot of times replicated at the same plants in the same fires. Why not plug in the games solutions? Since I was at Take-Two, games have a good margin, I have an appetite to do this, and the Weinsteins potentially have content we can get first look deals on, so why don't we explore the gaming space?" Sort of the comeuppance of Genius is that it went up from $30 million in revenue just three years ago, and last year they reported doing north of $470 million in revenue in their fiscal 2007. It's growing pretty quickly and substantially, but all that's a distribution model. Now they're getting into production deals and output deals and what have you. Trevor had an appetite, along with Bob and Harvey, to get into the games business, so we organically started looking at what content we can acquire, and what licenses we could leverage for the license side to get into the gaming business. That's the genesis of it all. There aren't too many other examples of companies that have those distribution ties to films and videos and operate in the games space. Warner is one, so I guess there's a tenuous connection there with Trevor. Other than the optical media similarity, what drove that actual move, in terms of being able to compete? It's a pretty different thing from a marketing and development perspective. MR: It really is. I think the thing that I think about... I've been in the business for 17 years, so I've seen the MGMs come and go. I've seen the Warners come and go, and come again and go again and come again. And I've seen Universal and Universal Games, and then it was Vivendi Universal, and all the iterations of Hollywood trying to figure out how to get into the gaming space and saying, "You know what? We'll just put some of our creative guys on it, we'll leverage our licenses, and then we'll be in business." And then two years down the road and a lot of red ink later, they decided, "Gee, this is a lousy business to be in. What were we thinking?" I think where our approach is different from a lot of those other guys historically is that...you know, we sort of know that we don't know. We're going into this with eyes wide open. We're being very practical with our bets and smart about how we do this. As an example, with the Weinstein Company, it could be like, "Well gee, let's take all their films and turn them into games." That's sort of a cheap and easy and not very smart way to do things, but I think that's the way a lot of other studios would've done those things in the past. Just because you have a movie and it's going to do between 60, 70 million, 100 million dollars at the box office doesn't necessarily mean that it's going to be a good game. For example, there was a discussion around 1408 about a year and a half ago about whether we should turn it into a game. It was like, "It's going to be a big summer blockbuster. It's got John Cusack, it's got Samuel Jackson. Sam Jackson is beloved by video game fans." But after we got the script, we said, "Well gee, this is a psychological thriller." Psychological thrillers don't necessitate being a good game. You can look at Fatal Frame and a few others, but it's not always an obvious play. So what we tried to do was say, "Okay, look..." Sorry for not answering your initial question about optical media and what is the tie back and the strategy. Oh, I was just bringing up an example. MR: Gotcha. So back to that sort of thing...you look at somebody at Best Buy. Jill Hamburger is the buyer at Best Buy, she's head of all consumer entertainment. Jill used to be a video game buyer, and now she's a video game and DVD buyer. So we have an existing relationship with her, and we feel like since we can get an audience with these people in power who can make these decisions, we feel like we have a bit of an advantage, because we have status at a lot of other big-box retail stores. We can go to Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Target, and K-Mart, and we have a sales relationship with these people. We have to go out and acquire the EBs and the GameStops of the world, but we feel like we can sell direct 90 percent of the people who buy the video games at these retail accounts. We felt like that initial hurdle would be hard to clear, and it's not always necessarily true with Warner and whatnot, because their sales people on the home video side are their sales people on the gaming side. [Correction: Warner Bros. representatives contacted Gamasutra to clarify that it maintains separate sales staff for gaming and home video in all territories.] Whereas we have sales people on the gaming side that are dedicated to gaming, and that's all they do, but the relationships are historical, so we leverage those relationships. Does that make any sense? Defining The Scope Yeah. You also personally addressed another question I was going to ask, which was, given those retail relationships that you already have that maybe a lot of game publishers don't have as strongly, does that drive the audience you're going to be targeting, as far as the more core gamer and mass market? Line Rider trends toward the mass market, I would think. MR: It does. And let me answer the last question first and the first question last. Line Rider is a perfect example of what we're going to attempt to do. We're not going to go out and, you know, try to...out-Call-of-Duty Call of Duty, or Halo, or any first-person shooters. We're not going to compete with those guys. We're not going to compete on the big role-playing front. We're not going to say, "Look, we're Genius, and we're under control by the Weinstein Company, so give us money and market share." It's funny. When I get the initial press on Line Rider, everybody's like, "God, Genius. Who's Genius?" Genius this, and Genius that. I'm like, "Look, the story is Line Rider. The story isn't Genius." To me, the story has to be about the product. The publisher's story will come out at some point, and it will be told by people such as yourself when there is an interest to know what that is. But to me, the stars of the company really are the titles, and the titles have to speak volumes about who we're about. The titles have to be our branding. You look at a title like Line Rider, and you say, "All right, Line Rider is great." I think the initial reaction is going to be, "Oh, Genius is going to do casual games. Look, they signed up Line Rider," when the reality is that we're going to sign up titles so that when we go to the critical press community, we don't say, "Here's our first-person shooter," or "Here's our sports game or our driving game. Please consider us with all these other games." No. "Here's our unique-playing game that you may or may not know, but once you play it, you'll understand why we signed this up." There's a certain charm and appeal and uniqueness to it. I play every game under the sun, and if I'm bored in an hour - which happens more often that not - it's like, "Okay, whatever." I move on. I think that would have to happen with the gaming press, because not only do you guys play everything, but you have to play everything to be cognizant of everything that's going on in the marketplace. You have to be aware of trends. You have to...and it's not just hardcore console gaming, it's casual gaming, it's mobile gaming, it's Internet and online gaming, it's XBLA, it's PC, it's DS...I mean, you guys get so besieged with things that I think your threshold for pain and your tolerance for creativity has got to be fairly high. It feels like that sometimes. MR: That a title...for the critical gaming community to say, "Look what we're doing. We wanted to really capture your imagination. We wanted to be different, but not for the sake of being different - to meaningfully be different, and to be really fun and captivating." For people to say, "Oh, I played this game a year or two years ago. It's like that, but it's got more levels. It's like this, but..." We don't want to do that at all. I think what's happening in the big publisher circles is that it feels like they have to make these $10 or $15 or $20 million development spans, and because the price tag is so high, they work to turn this into a bit of a science. It's like, "Okay, the formula for success for this game is it has to have a $10 million marketing campaign, it has to have this many levels, it has to have online play, it has to have these eight buzzwords, and it's got to have this and that. We've got to spend this much money, which means that the development team has got to be this big and it's going to take this long to develop." They try to back their way into a product more often than not. I think that can be really dangerous, but when you're spending that kind of money, you know, you want to be safe, and the roadside headlamps will be littered with publishers who made bad gaming decisions. We don't want to be one of those groups. We want to take on stuff that we feel like is creatively very interesting and not necessarily meaning that we have to spend $10 to $15 million on development. I mean, we may, but we would only do that if we felt that we had a game that really stood out and was incredibly unique. That may have been a little bit wordier than what you hoped to hear, but that's the philosophy of Genius. When you look at our product line, you're like, "Okay, now that I know what Michael said, that bridges back to his message about creativity and uniqueness and oh, this is fairly obvious why they're doing this." I had an agent tell me the other day...because I hadn't bought any of his titles. He pitched me like ten things over the course of eight months. He's like, "Gee, you haven't signed up any of our titles. Why?" I was like, "Well, none of them really meet our criteria." I explained him to what we were doing, and he was like, "Oh, so you want to sign up like six Katamaris." And I'm like, "Well, in a word, yes! Not necessarily quirky Japanese gaming, but fun, unique, different, captivating, really imaginative..." You don't need to go out and spend $15 million on development and another five to ten on marketing just to get your message across, because the game stands on its own. So maybe on the other side of the coin, you did mention one of your...I interpret this as a strength, that you get first looks at certain Weinstein releases, but that it would not be very smart, as you said, to just take all the Weinstein properties and turn them into games. How much of that do you expect you will be doing? MR: It's funny. I think as their studio starts to get their legs under them, we will look at maybe doing one or two a year. Okay. MR: I think realistically, that's probably where this sits. The Weinsteins may ship, at theatrical, maybe 12 to 14 - or maybe a little bit more than that - movies a year. It's nice, because there's not a lot of pressures saying, "Gee, we're coming out with Superhero Movie. Where's the game?" It's nothing like that at all. They've been great in that regard. We see the scripts, and we see the dailies, and we talk to the people in the production departments and costumes and whatnot, and it's been pretty nice. They've been an asset to us, but they haven't been pounding us over the head saying, "Where is this?" It almost sounds like what you're looking to build is the sort of publisher who doesn't necessarily chase all the mega-blockbusters, but also doesn't want the associations that people usually have with a budget publisher. MR: Right. That's absolutely true in the sense that if we get into the mega-blockbuster licensing business, we're not going to outbid EA and THQ. When these guys want something, they'll get it. Even if our dollars were the same as those guys and we were willing to spend more than those guys, we don't have the track record. We don't have the development track record, we don't have the technology base, and we can't point to a long line of titles we've sold millions of copies of, so the licensor will look at us and say, "Well gee, that money is nice, but EA is EA, or Namco is Namco, and we're going to go with someone who has existing technology and has a team in place. It's going to be this team. Their last game did 800,000 units on this one platform, and blah blah blah." So why waste your time going after things you can't really obtain? We don't need to be really big really soon. I think we just want to build slowly and methodically, and build stuff that we think are good, fun-to-play games. "Oh My God. I Am Completely Middle Management" You personally have a very strong history in the games industry at EA, Capcom, Take-Two, Midway, and THQ, and Trevor with Take-Two as well. That's a lot of the major publishers. This seems like a pretty different scenario. Is part of it just being able to be more targeted, for you personally? How does this follow that? MR: That's a great question. It's funny, because nobody's really asked me about that in the gaming media, so I appreciate it, but...there was this seminal moment for me at THQ. When I was sitting down with a gal named Carolina Beroza -- she was one of my executive producers -- and every Monday I had my five one-on-ones with my five direct reports to executive producers who had all sort of overloaded their franchises. It really was a Q&A time for me. You know, "How's your progress going? What are your problems and solutions? What do we see on the horizon? What about this and that?" I sat down with her -- and understand that in my production organization at THQ, we had 60 people managing 80 SKUs and deliver about $500 million of revenue that last year. I sat down with Carolina, and she said for like ten minutes, "Okay, here's my problems. Here's my issues. Here's how I'm going to solve them. Here's what I'm going to do for staffing. Here's how I'm appealing to slices." To me, she was parroting back all of these pearls of wisdom I had given her over the years, in terms of how you approach these things, and to me, it was like this real, "Oh my God. I am completely middle management." You know? For me, the love of the game and the joy -- what I had gotten into this business for -- had been completely taken away from me. In this industry, more often than not, unless your name is Sam Houser, you have to ascend into management to meet your financial goals, and then you realize that ultimately, what you have is a job. You have a job and you show up and get paid for it. It wasn't that I didn't love what I did, but I felt like I wasn't being true to myself, necessarily. To me, it's all about the creativity. It's all about the building of stuff. I used to justify it by saying, "Well, I'm building infrastructure and peoples' careers, and I'm helping them find developers and build franchises." But I wasn't getting my hands dirty, and to me, that's why you fly out of bed in the morning and stay up late at night and you read the mags and play everything, because you really want to make a difference. You want to build entertainment that makes people happy. To me, I wasn't doing that anymore. That got to be a really sad reality. Looking at my options after I left Capcom, I've been consulting with Trevor and the Weinsteins, trying to educate Bob and Harvey on the business. It was funny. Bob had this sort of lightbulb moment, where we were talking about The Godfather. Because he wanted to understand the gaming business and where its development has been and where its marketing has been and all of these things. And we're talking about The Godfather, and he said, "Well gee, I've seen The Godfather on TV everywhere. I know that license. It's a big movie license. How much is EA making on this?" Bob's a real bottom-line guy. I said, "Well, all I know is the North American sell-through data. It's this on this platform, and this on that platform." And he's like, "What's development spending?" And I was, "Well, nobody knows, but it's rumored to be this amount of money." And he said, "What'd the license cost? What are they paying?" He was crunching all these numbers in his head, and when it was decided that financially it probably wasn't the best proposition for EA - in fact, they probably got hammered on it a little bit, at least initially - this lightbulb went off in his head and he goes, "I get it! Video games are like Broadway! It's a ton of money, and on opening night, if your reviews are terrible, you're dead." He was sort of right. If you look at it in the theatrical sense, [movies] have the box office release, the rental chain, pay-per-view, subscription television, pay television, and international markets. They have all these other ways to recapture their potential spent. But in gaming, if you make a bad game and you come out, you're dead. You can port it to every platform under the sun. It still doesn't change the fact that it's not a very good game. So while I was consulting them and helping them figure out how to get into the gaming business, they said, "Look, we want you to do this. We want you to come in and take this on." I said, "Yeah, but I want to build the things that I want to build, and I want to be really involved in the day-to-day, which means that I don't want to staff up a group of 50 production guys who just have to churn and churn all the time." So they're like, "Knock yourself out." That's sort of why I am where I am and doing what I'm doing. So far, it's been tremendous. It may be jumping ahead a little bit, but the next two things we're going to announce, from a games standpoint, are to me super-exciting and objectively really cool. The Developer Relationship Okay. Just in terms of your process, for example with Line Rider, how hands-on are you as a publisher? How involved do you get with inXile in the actual development? MR: Pretty intensely. When I first saw the console version, it was March of 2007. I went in and read their design document, and I said, "Well, this is all well and good, but..." And they had a November of 2007 final date. I said, "This is all well and good, but there's not enough there. The interface isn't intuitive enough, and the HUD clean enough, and when you look at the tools, it's as overwhelming as using Photoshop for the first time." There's all these things that I brought to the table that I think gave them a real consumer-eye perspective. I said, "Look, you guys should continue to march to your November date, but as you think about these things and redesign this on the fly and get ideas..." See, what invariably happens with publishers is that they say, "Okay, we've got 18 months to build a game." Or twelve months, or whatever the timetable is. They have their game design document, and then they build their technical design document, which is a milestone schedule and a task list and so on. On day one, they say, "Okay, we have X number of days to build this," and they build it. They put it in their financial plan, and forecast against it and everything. There's no room for creativity in that process, because on day one, you've got all these ideas that in theory looked great but in practice turned out to be lousy. So how do you account for that? "Well, this feature isn't any good, so we pulled it out." "Okay, so what are you going to add to it?" "Well, we can't add to it, because that will increase our schedule." There's really all these dynamics that are at odds with each other on the design side. That's why you see people like Epic say, "It's done when it's done," or how the guys at Blizzard don't give any final dates. They're really allowing creativity to flow. I'm not saying that we're Epic or id or anything like that. Not at all. But what we did do is that we said, "Okay, forget the November final date. We'll know when this thing feels right. Let's target a March or April final date and see where that gets us." So we continued to build content and assets and continued to build the feature set. Sometimes you're just lucky, right? So what happened is that TechDawg, who is the world's greatest Line Rider aficionado of all time, we get in contact with him, because we're just a fan of his. Before, we were just sort of sending him the game tech and getting feedback from him of what he thought. We actually asked him to come in and design all the puzzle levels for story mode. That's cool. MR: And he came in and starting doing this content in January and February. Mind you, we were supposed to be done in January or February at one point. Had that not happened and Matthew had not come on -- which is TechDawg's name -- we wouldn't have had story mode be one tenth as good as it is. So now when you play story mode, which is the biggest point of differentiation over the Flash version, because of the fact that there's now 40 puzzles you can play. They're very challenging. These things are unbelievably fun. We had them in before, but the content was okay. Probably a five out of ten. But now that he got involved and he personally designed every track, it's almost like you against TechDawg. It's like a one-on-one challenge. He's like, "Okay, I laid all these things out that I know how to do. Can you also do these things?" When you look at it and see all these targets and tokens laid out, you'll be like, "There's no way you can get that." In fact, I called him and said, "Look, this is impossible! This problem is not solvable." And he said, "Well did you do this? And do this and this?" And I'm like, "Oh my God, that's genius. That's pure genius." You see the brilliance in how his mind works. It's absolutely amazing. So we got him on staff. He's doing all the track design. He's giving us feedback on how it plays. All of a sudden, you have this game that feels really polished, feels really robust from a features standpoint, and feels like a really comprehensive game. I think the takeaways from the press tours are these guys who are like, "Wow, there's a real game here. This is so much more than we thought it would be." And that's a result of, as a publisher, allowing this game to breathe and really pushing back on them and saying, "Look, just because you want this for Christmas and want this done in October or November doesn't mean that's when it should be done. Let's make the right decisions from a gameplay standpoint, not from a calendar standpoint." I think ultimately, that was our biggest influence as a publisher. But we're very hands-on. Absolutely. Any chance, you think, of this coming to the downloadable platforms? MR: It's funny, I'm getting ready to have a conversation with John Shephard at Microsoft and talk to him about that very issue. I don't know that the whole game can come to a downloadable platform, but certainly elements of it can. Maybe we can do sort of customized versions for PSN or XBLA. But it's certainly being discussed.

About the Author(s)

Chris Remo


Chris Remo is Gamasutra's Editor at Large. He was a founding editor of gaming culture site Idle Thumbs, and prior to joining the Gamasutra team he served as Editor in Chief of hardcore-oriented consumer gaming site Shacknews.

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