Publisher Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment
has aggressively expanded its presence in the industry by taking a full or majority stake in eight studios over five years, gathering a wide range of talent for internal development.
The company has acquired a majority stake in Arkham Asylum
developer Rocksteady Studios, and owns several development studios, including Monolith (F.E.A.R.
), Traveller’s Tales (LEGO
franchise), and Turbine Inc. (Lord of the Rings Online
WBIE also purchased publisher Midway Games and its developers, such as NetherRealm Studios, which is currently working
on a new Mortal Kombat
for Xbox 360 and PS3.
Gamasutra recently sat down with Samantha Ryan, senior vice president of development and production for WBIE, to discuss the company’s recent expansion, studio independence within Warner Brothers, and how Midway’s integration into the company has affected internal development.
Mergers And Acquisitions
You used to be head of Monolith, right?
SR: I did back in the day. I joined Warner Brothers formally about four years ago, almost four years -- three and a half. Monolith was acquired about five and a half years ago, but it was about three and a half to four years ago that I was officially stepped up to head all of production and development, not just Monolith but all of them.
Who is it that’s been in charge of all the acquisitions that have happened since Monolith?
SR: So it’s really a joint effort, most of the various developers do report up through my product development organization. But an acquisition is a tough thing; it takes a lot of people to pull it off; finance and HR and biz dev, all those crazy folks. Legal, lots of lawyers…
These seem quite targeted -- what are the requirements to be acquired by WB?
SR: We’re looking for great developers, so I don’t know if there’s any special requirements other than we want to find people that are really top of their game. I’ve been an internal developer, Martin [Tremblay, WBIE president] has been part of internal development, a lot of us have all worked in internal development, not just the product development side.
So we know it’s all about the teams, it is all about the people and the teams and that’s it. And so it doesn’t matter what genre you’re in, if you are doing great things then we want to talk to you.
I suppose that whenever I ask this question, the answer is the same…
SR: The proof is in the pudding? And sometimes the pudding’s not so good! I’ve been really happy with the folks we’ve acquired. I think they fit different niches, and they fill different properties in different ways, and they bring something to the table so that they’re not all of one type, but they’re nicely spread out and they’re all very good quality.
There are nine studios now?
SR: There are three in Seattle, one in Chicago, one in Montreal, one in Boston, and two in London. With Rocksteady, we are a majority stakeholder.
When is it there going to be "enough" expansion that you‘re set?
SR: We’re actually, I think, going to go through a bit of a settling period for a little while, where we’re going to focus on just getting all of the stuff that we’ve just acquired well-incubated and really focus on the games. So I don’t think you’re going to see a ton more acquisition, maybe like a little tiny one as a complementary piece. But beyond that, I’m hoping we take it easy for a while.
Warner Brothers has been extremely aggressive…why so much so fast?
SR: Well, there’s opportunity in the marketplace. It’s a real changing marketplace these days, and I think Midway is a perfect example. I think Mortal Kombat
looks amazing, I think that team is amazing, and I was surprised that others didn’t step up, because why would you not want to own one of the best franchises in the game industry?
And I think it goes to Warner Brothers, being what they are, has a lot of opportunity right now and some of the other publishers are really struggling but we’re on our way up. So I think that’s accounting for some of what you’re seeing.
Yeah I guess by opportunity, when I hear that, I think 'Warner Brothers has money still, everybody else is broke.'
SR: [laughs] You said it, not me!
Creative Freedom Versus Profitability
In terms of the future plan, do these studios have to be profitable now or is it more of a long term investment?
SR: Well they don’t have to be profitable so much as the sense that I want them to make great quality games, and it’s our job as a publisher to take those games and bring them to the marketplace with the best PR and marketing. I don’t expect them to do that, I expect them to focus on making awesome games.
How much control is the parent publisher going to be exerting over its own studios or majority share studios considering you’ve got internal development in Montreal and these other studios that are kind of under the umbrella but not necessarily directly controlled?
SR: I really value creativity, and I’ve been a developer myself. And I know it’s all about the developer, they’ve got to have the vision, and they’ve got to be the driving force, and our goal is to support them. So I don’t see any significant changes. Of course it’s a partnership because as a publisher we’re always looking at the marketplace, what new hardware is there, what are the new trends in the marketplace. But as far as creative vision, that’s up to the teams to own.
And I don’t have any intention of taking that away from them. They own the vision, we support the vision, and we help guide the vision so that it fits into our portfolio. But we bought them for a reason and it wasn’t to order them around or to drive what they’re doing in a different direction.
Recently there’s been a lot of friction between owned studios and publishers that’s been cropping up more than in the past, so it seems like different tactics may be required going forward.
SR: The thing that I really like about Warner Brothers is that WB is a content company, not just a games company. And WB is used to dealing with extremely talented directors, filmmakers, consumer products, TV, animation, and games is no different. It’s about having a great vision and great creative and being able to execute on that. And so I actually find WB to be quite good about understanding the way that we need to deal with our partners, very respectful of our partners.
Do you foresee any kind of interaction between those different divisions beyond what we’ve seen?
SR: Between the different game studios?
No, like film and games, in terms of cross-marketing…
SR: Oh yeah, yes, absolutely. We’re already doing some really fascinating stuff that our PR folks would promptly shoot you and me if I were to tell you about. But, over the next few years, I think you’re going to see some really awesome stuff that we’re doing that we’re really happy with.
Will you all be doing more with Midway content, now that you’ve got most of it?
SR: We do have some Midway stuff going on that I can’t really talk about right now. But there will be some, yeah; there are some great properties in there. Although already there's the Game Party
franchise which came from Midway, and it was one of the first titles on the Wii for the real casual, cost-conscious consumer. And I actually think we’re going to be in the same boat for Kinect. And the reception has been really great. I plan to take my son over there and show him shortly.
New Hardware And Control Interfaces
So what do you think, separately, of all the three new technologies: Kinect, Move, and 3DS?
SR: I think that they’re all really exciting. I want ‘em all to work. As a publisher, as a game player, I like options, I like that publishers are trying some new and unusual and different things. They all have their challenges for different reasons, but I really want them all to work and we have games for all of the platforms. So obviously, if they all succeed, it’s good for us.
It feels like some folks have been waiting to see what the reaction to 3DS is, and others have already been able to get started. Where are you guys in that arena?
SR: We actually have products under development now, so we have started.
With the internal versus acquired development teams, will they have different aims?
SR: No, all we want is good product, whether it’s internal or external. It has to be the right product for the right consumer, and it doesn’t matter whether their internal or external will work with both.
Internal Development And Studio Independence
Why create an internal team like the one in Montreal?
SR: If you own internal, it allows you to take greater risk, because you have more control. And also we can leverage technology and infrastructure across multiple efforts versus external where it’s kind of hit and miss. It’s way easier for us to invest internally in the next platforms, for example, versus external.
Some companies have used their internal developers, or sometimes external -- it depends, to do ports or additional SKUs of things that other studios do. When you talk about technology sharing and stuff, do you want to that across studios or not?
SR: We have no desire to force the developers to use tools and tech that they are uncomfortable with, so each developer decides what is best for their products. That being said, we share knowledge between all of the teams, and there have been cases where for example, one of our teams in the UK actually wants to use the MK
particle system and I’m like all for it like “you go boys, go use that particle system”. So where there are opportunities to share, we absolutely do that, too.
Turbine is a recent addition, but we plan to leverage their backend infrastructure across multiple titles, and we have some really exciting stuff with them that you’ll learn about next year.
I was asking because Midway, as an example, is a studio that tried to force one engine across the whole company.
SR: Yep, I don’t believe in it. Doesn’t make any sense, not a believer.
It seemed to contribute significantly to their downfall…
SR: I would agree with you, it’s a tough one. No, we don’t want to force that. But if a team wants to use another team’s tech, and there’s some pieces that could be shared or tools or art assets, we do try and encourage that. There’s a balance, though, between pushing too much of that.
The Mortal Kombat team, is it pretty much Midway Chicago?
SR: We’re doing some cinematics and a few extra things elsewhere, but it’s almost like 98 percent is all Chicago under Ed Boon and Shawn Himmerick.
I wonder how they survived from then till now.
SR: It was a really hard time, but I think they’re happy with Warner, we’re very respectful of their knowledge, we’re very respectful of everything they brought to that franchise in the past. And that’s really what they were looking for was a home where they didn’t have to rush it, where they didn’t have to, you know, “oh my God, the quarter’s going to close, we’ve got to shove something out the door or we’re going to be sunk”. Warner Brothers is a different world and I think you’ll find, if you interview them, they’re very happy.