Jason Rubin, president and co-founder of Naughty Dog, threw down the gauntlet at the 2004 D.I.C.E. Summit in Las Vegas in early March, when he challenged the industry to value the talent of individual developers instead of grouping studios as faceless teams. While some have observed a disparity between the way the film industry regards its celebrities and the more timid approach the game industry takes toward its creative talent, few have presented their research as dramatically and as forcefully as Rubin.
Using the invitation of pop icons to game premieres as a jumping off point, Rubin projected his developers' manifesto onto a screen more accustomed to reflecting convergence charts and character models. He passionately argued for developers to seek help in promoting themselves, to take advantage of the collective bargaining power of agents, and inject themselves into the mainstream consciousness as the artists behind the entertainment medium that pundits consider the new opiate of the masses.
Rubin pointed out a strong connection between the gaming industry of today and the film industry of the 1950s, in which celebrities were still beholden to ironclad studio-specific contracts. Those film stars banded together, and talent forced a change that led to the system in place today, where stars, directors, writers, and everyone involved in producing the film are now free to work on whichever studio's project they see fit.
Given the research, passion, and direct action Rubin has brought to bear on this issue, coupled with the strange mixture of a standing ovation followed by muttered grumbles between the slot machines, we had to explore this further with him.
Uncredited developers absorbing Rubin's anti-communist manifesto.
GD: What steps can a studio take to promote the names of one or two of their key developers?
JR: Certainly the first step is to identify those key developers. Many development studios still adhere to the egalitarian, yet impractical, view that they can market the team as a whole instead of the directors that run it. The media is interested in people, however, not teams. You cannot interview "Naughty Dog," you have to interview a person. It is the personal story that makes the article interesting. Failure to focus on individuals when doing publicity for the team is a good way to make sure that the publicity never happens. Additionally, the team is not comprised of equals. Although I would never want to lose any of my incredibly talented artists or programmers, I would rather have one of them quit than my game director. The previous is unfortunate, the latter is a catastrophe. This difference in value must be accepted.
Once the key personnel is selected, it is up to the team to make it clear to the publisher that they believe publicity for these team members is as important to their future as the dollars they receive for making the game. The fact that I have incessantly pushed myself and my partner Andy in front of the camera should not be mistaken for vanity. Of course I have to make great games, but there is also a connection between my notoriety and Naughty Dog's game sales. This in turn means I have more to spend on bonuses, so the process increases the income of all the people I work with. Stephen Spielberg does not do makeup or camera work. He is not solely responsible for the product he makes, and certainly I am not either. But there is an acceptance in Hollywood that he is going to be the name on the box and in front of the press, and that that helps everybody he works with. We need to get there.
What shocks me is that many talented game directors in our industry don't see this connection. They sign on for a high paying, and very comfortable, position inside a publisher. But if a director does this at the expense of self publicity then they are tilting their long term earning potential downward. The publisher is paying them well so that they can apply the value they create to the publisher "brand" instead of the individual. Frankly, I don't believe publisher brand can mean any more in the Video Game industry than it does in Hollywood. Universal Pictures has always published everything from crap to cream movies; Vivendi Universal will always publish everything from crap to cream games. But it is certain that when the unknown director tries to get a better gig they won't be able to compete against those that fought all along for publicity.
GD: How far can we take the Hollywood analogy before it breaks down? For example, we may have Spielbergs in the industry, but our Tom Hanks is Mario, IP owned by a publisher. Besides the project lead, who are good candidates for celebrity status?
JR: I don't think the Hollywood analogy breaks down. The game director who made Rise To Honor is no less important than the director of a Jet Li movie. There is very little difference between Shrek and Lara Croft. This is especially true if the Lara Croft game paid a top actor to voice her. In fact, Lara Croft is a perfect example because she has been in both movies and games. I know more about the director of the movies than I do about the game creators-and games are my industry.
Each product is different, but I see the game director, the art director, the producers, and the programming director as obvious, though not exclusive, choices. If the game is heavy in art, then maybe it is only the art director. On a game that is all about technology, then maybe it is the programming director. The important point is that having live talent in the product vs. inanimate characters does not lessen the value of those that put the product together.
GD: Name brand talent are still asked to create sequels with limited budgets instead of creating ambitious new games. What's missing from this picture?
JR: There is often value in sequels for all involved, and certainly I have chosen to make a few. The key word is "chosen." The question is why other top talent are not calling the shots in our industry. In Hollywood up and coming directors are project takers and top talent are project makers. If the up and coming director shows his or her skills in making successful pictures, then he or she is sought after and get to pick projects to work on. Too many misses for top talent and they find themselves taking the projects they are given.
The bottom line is that our industry works that way as well, but many developers don't have the confidence, negotiating skills, or notoriety (see above) to make it happen for themselves even after multiple successes. If you are a developer that has significant success in your past and you find yourself unable to pick your projects, then you need to accept that you are doing something wrong. If you are working inside a publisher, then you need to get the guts to break free. Too many developers take no for an answer. I never did. Finding a good agent can give you confidence, opportunity, and someone to push your name at the same time.
Rubin wags his finger at publishers who value pop celebrities above developer talent.
GD: Once a studio establishes its individual talents, and a higher budget, how can it prevent pricing itself out of the market?
JR: Unless a developer is unreasonable about their worth, they cannot price themselves out of the market. On the flipside, unless a developer is realistic about their worth they cannot garner the maximum amount possible for their creativity. As in Hollywood it is all a question of risk and potential. If a developer proves itself consistently capable of on-time launches, kept budgets, and large unit sales, then the publisher (or whoever funds the project) knows that they are taking less risk and are more likely to have great success on the project. To purchase that reduced risk and increased chance of a hit the publisher pays the developer more. The line delineating how much is "fair" is always moving. The fair amount, however, is more than every single developer, including Naughty Dog, presently gets. Publishers have hidden the talent behind successful games behind their "brands" for so long that even they don't know taker talent from maker talent.
GD: You and others have called for an open disclosure of budgets, so that developers can negotiate with publicly available objective standards. However, publishers often consider that information confidential. How do we get that open disclosure started?
JR: I am sure it is "confidential" what top Hollywood talent gets per project, yet a week after signing even I know what they make. Isn't it convenient how information that would help the developer is considered strictly "confidential," while information that helps the publisher is "needed to conclude the transaction"? We must change this paradigm. Certainly having an agent that represents significant numbers of developers gets us around this roadblock. Are they not allowed to use what they know?
GD: Beyond getting the names of the talent on the box, how can creative talent be promoted to the mainstream consumer? Does this mean doing The Daily Show with Jon Stewart when a game premieres?
JR: Ideally, game talent would be doing Jon Stewart's show, but we have a long way to go. There was a period when game publishers felt it was in their interest to publicize developers. EA was founded on this principle. Andy and I had our photos on the two products we did for EA in the early 1990s. Photos! Publishers have certainly changed their tune. The picture they are painting of game industry is that the Publishers take select franchises and properties, add their valued branding and marketing talent, and then have the videogames developed in factories. Jon Stewart doesn't interview factory workers.
The road to Jon Stewart starts with agents and publicity firms looking out for the long term interests of the developer, not the specific product. Radical thinking, yes, but it is time. The argument is continually made by publishers that personal publicity compromises the product's publicity. Funny that it doesn't in Hollywood. If working internally at a publisher prevents a developer from hiring this type of help then the costs of that loss must be weighed against the benefits of the position. Five years from now if two developers go looking for non-game-industry funding, the one who was on Jon Stewart is going to have an easier time finding it.
GD: How do you strike the right balance between being celebrity talent and a representative of the talent of the team?
JR: I am always clear that the projects I work on require the talents of everybody involved. If the interviewer comments about a specific element of the title, then I mention the person or persons most responsible for that element so that the interviewer knows that I give credit where credit is due. I always try to mention the name of Naughty Dog's game director, art director, creative director, and programming director. I do the best I can do, but inevitably the question "how did you get into videogames" will be asked. I can't tell 65 stories. I tell my own, and I don't feel guilty for doing it.
GD: What games are you playing now?
JR: NFS: Underground. They did a great job with the feeling of speed, and I just can't stop collecting upgrades. My goal is to create the ugliest "Frankenstein" car possible. I just wish I knew more about the developer....
Note: Rubin announced his departure from Naughty
Dog as we were going to press, and he was unavailable