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Entertainment Media Council

25th April 2012; By KnucklesSonic8

In the face of uncertain conditions and internal struggles, persons with aspirations set towards the game industry can take comfort in the fact that there continues to be growth. 
Years ago, some of the positions currently available did not exist, and the thought of starting your own game development company seemed foreign. Today we see the pursuit of such endeavours has been made easier in some respects, especially with the increased focus on mobile and indie gaming. As a result, startups big and small are springing up all over the place. But how can those with entrepreneurial goals stay positive in an unforgiving, fast-paced environment? If you catch yourself thinking of your own circumstances as you read this, you would do well to consult the words penned by Morgan Ramsay, founder of Entertainment Media Council. Ramsay's book, Gamers at Work, provides insights from the viewpoint of various individuals with different backgrounds and career paths who have experienced their own levels of success in the industry. I was very fortunate to get the opportunity to talk to Mr. Ramsay about his book and seek out positive reasons for goal-oriented individuals to move ahead despite challenges they may be facing.

Wiiloveit: Before we start discussing your book, could you share a bit of your background with us? What sorts of clients have you worked with in your company, and how did this set things up nicely for the creation of your book?

Morgan: They say that entrepreneurs wear many hats. Well, every hat I've worn has somehow turned into a business. More than ten years ago, I was freelancing as a graphic and web designer for technology and entertainment clients. I was also a UX designer for browser games whose developers were trying to emulate the runaway success of a game called CashWars.

Then, in 2002, I decided I liked the idea of fronting an ad agency so much that I started one. I recruited a friend and artist as my business partner, named the company Heretic, and we signed our first client -- what is now a Fortune Global 500 defense technology conglomerate. Over the years, we worked with game developers, recording artists, and Hollywood celebrities, as well as nonprofit organizations and small businesses. San Diego being a Navy town, we also did a lot of work for veterans.

I became involved with the International Game Developers Association, in part to find new clients in the video-game industry. I ended up working with Jason Della Rocca, the executive director at the time, and a Rockstar Games executive to reboot the San Diego chapter. I served as vice chairman for two years, and during that time, I decided to try my hand at starting a nonprofit association for entrepreneurs and business leaders. I closed down the agency as a show of commitment and founded Entertainment Media Council.
Gamers at Work, although distributed by Apress, is our first publication.

Let's get right into it, then! Since you used the preliminary pages to go into some detail about how the book came to be, I'll leave that for readers to discover on their own. However, I'm especially curious about your process for narrowing down the interviewees. Could you tell us about that process? If you had more chapters to work with, who else might you have liked to include?

From the outset, I wanted to interview "the world's most successful entrepreneurs in the video-game industry." This meant I had to start with not only the largest but also the most influential companies throughout video-game industry history. However, I'm an expansionist, which means I favor strategies that start you out somewhere local and then move outward over time. I work in San Diego, so the first founders I called on were: Chris Ulm, who co-founded High Moon Studios in Carlsbad and now runs Appy Entertainment; Feargus Urquhart, who co-founded Obsidian Entertainment in Irvine; and John Smedley, who co-founded Verant Interactive and now runs Sony Online Entertainment in San Diego. Once they confirmed, I moved outward until the roster was complete.

All told, we had more than 30 founders confirmed to do interviews for Gamers at Work, but somewhere along the way, we decided to publish two books. We moved 18 founders to the first book and the rest to the second book, Online Gamers at Work, which is in development now.

Thanks to the gracious support of Genevieve Waldman at NCsoft, Peter Molyneux signed on before then to write the foreword. Most people recognize Peter for creating the
Fable series at Lionhead Studios, but he also co-founded Bullfrog Productions in the 1980's, whose games included classics such as Populous, Magic Carpet, Theme Park, and Dungeon Keeper. He was really the perfect choice for the foreword. Although I would have loved to have interviewed him too, there wasn't enough time.

You made an observation in Chapter 9 that small developers are often focused on a single product. The argument is made that they should really be thinking about where it could extend beyond that, which may include expansions or a full-fledged series. How do you feel this focus would translate to not only the decisions made in the conceptual stage, but also to design, user interface, and visual aesthetics?

Many people write off franchises as destructive, but this fantasy has no basis in reality. Jeff Braun, co-founder of Maxis, told me that an investor at the time said, "Video games are like vegetables; they have short shelf lives and they go bad quickly." Electronic Arts, followed by Broderbund Software and Sierra On-Line, pioneered the video-game franchise, enabling games to become enduring properties and inspire generations of developers.

However, franchises aren't just historically important; they're powerful tools for growing startups into sustainable enterprises. You can trace the growth of every major developer to a single franchise. Ensemble Studios had Age of Empires. Bethesda Softworks had The Elder Scrolls. Stormfront Studios had Tony La Russa Ultimate Baseball. The ability to build successively larger customer communities is most assuredly a competitive advantage.

Many of the interviewees point to key examples where timing was a real contributing factor in their successes. This was true in the case of Nolan Bushnell (Chapter 2) who had pitched his game, Computer Space, to a company that was clearly moving towards the decline stage in their business model. For people within the game industry who may be having trouble landing on their feet, do you think they need to go about viewing timing as the ruling factor that it is? Are there other variables that play a bigger role in the long term?

When timing is used as a euphemism for luck, luck is used as an excuse for failure. You know, "Well, the stars didn't align for me then like they did for Nolan Bushnell, so that's why things didn't work out." But Nolan was speaking from a position where he has had four decades to reflect on his past experiences. You have to be careful when you read retrospectives because drawing a fantastically wrong conclusion is fairly easy.

Let's try to see what was happening from Nolan's perspective. You're working with a video technology that enables players to directly affect what happens on screen -- to control a spaceship in virtual space. Meanwhile, your closest competitors are quite literally projecting the writing on the wall. If you were a game designer in the 1970s, you would have been influenced by games such as Monopoly, Risk, and Strat-O-Matic Pro Football. You would have recognized interactivity as inherently critical to games. When Atari came along, you would have thought, "That's the future. That's where we're going."

Was Nolan absolutely certain that Computer Quiz was a dead end for Nutting when he approached them? I don't think anyone can see the future, but I'd bet that he was confident that games played through a slide projector were no match for what was to come.

How do you see the face of entrepreneurship changing in the next five years? Based on your understanding of current trends and the extrapolation of these into the future, what do you feel success will boil down to as ambitious would-be graduates consider going down this route?

Through Gamers at Work, I believe that I've illustrated that entrepreneurship has not become any easier. Although the book tells the stories of early movers such as Atari, Electronic Arts, and Sierra, I also explored young companies -- of which the youngest, Robot Entertainment, was started just three years ago. Today's developers and publishers struggle with the same decisions as well as plenty of new ones. There are certainly more opportunities, but there is more competition, too. If you want to succeed as an entrepreneur, you must think strategically and act immediately. Where were we? How did we get to where we are? Where are we going? How will we get there? Success depends on how well you can extrapolate from the past and adapt your approach to the future.

What advice would you give to ambitious twenty-somethings (or even those younger in years) who are looking to be at the forefront of "the next best thing" in the game industry or want to get involved in similar pursuits?

Most of the entrepreneurs in Gamers at Work were between 25 and 35 when they started their first companies. Ken Williams was 25. Trip Hawkins was 29. However, Jason Rubin and Andy Gavin were 16, and Warren Spector was 50. I would advise against thinking of age as an obstacle.

To conclude, is there anything else you'd like to say to our readers about why they should pick up Gamers at Work?

Startups rise and fall at the flip of a coin in the volatile business of video games.
Gamers at Work shares the stories of the entrepreneurs who have managed to achieve what many have found impossible. Why did they succeed? What made them so different? What can we learn from these founders that we can apply to our own ventures? I hope that anyone who reads this book asks these questions, and joins the conversation about how we can address the vicious cycle so that we don't lose any more great companies, great jobs, or great games to avoidable failures.

Becoming an entrepreneur can certainly be intimidating, but the examples featured in Gamers at Work as well as Morgan's own example all show that it can be done. I'd like to take this opportunity to sincerely thank Morgan for his time and for allowing us to do this interview with him. Here's hoping that more will look into what Gamers at Work is all about whilst also looking forward to its upcoming follow-up.

To learn more about Entertainment Media Council, head over to their website.
To learn more about Gamers at Work, check out our book review.

Interview by KnucklesSonic8