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PAX East 2011: Activision Studio Heads Vouch For 'Owned But Independent' Model
PAX East 2011: Activision Studio Heads Vouch For 'Owned But Independent' Model
March 12, 2011 | By Andrew Vanden Bossche

March 12, 2011 | By Andrew Vanden Bossche
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Once-independent studios praised how parent Activision allows its subsidiaries to operate relatively autonomously, in a panel called "Owned but Independent" at PAX East in Boston on Saturday.

Dan Amrich, former games journalist and current social media manager of Activision, hosted the panel, asking panelists from Raven, Vicarious Visions and High Moon Studios about the pressures of their parent company and the challenges with working with outside IPs.

The panel at the consumer-centric PAX East comes amid an ongoing lawsuit between Activision and former heads of wholly-owned Call of Duty studio Infinity Ward, and just weeks after the closure of UK-based subsidiary studio, Bizarre Creations.

Amrich said his aim was to help dispel the notion that publishers and studios are constantly at each others' throats, citing his own difficulty understanding the relationship back when he was a journalist. Of particular concern to him was the pressure that came from above, and his impression at the time that it was a stifling force for owned studios.

Jennifer O'Neal, executive producer at Vicarious Visions, found herself wondering about the lost creative opportunities with being a subsidiary. But talking with her studio heads, she found they felt felt as if they were "not in as risky of a position as we were when we were independent."

Yet at the same time, she said that Activision allowed them to be able to spend their money more freely on technologies such as motion capture, which as independents would be too risky or impractical a move.

Eric Biessman, who had been with Singularity developer Raven Software since 1994 and currently is senior project lead, actually said that he felt less pressure from parent Activision than when he was independent. Even without direct ownership, his company still worked under contracts that he felt were far more controlling than Activision ever was.

"If we didn't turn in a milestone every month that wasn't exactly what was listed in our contract they wouldn't pay us," he said, which left his company head paying his employees with credit cards.

Peter Della Penna, head of High Moon Studios, was grateful for Activision CEO Bobby Kotick's support of the "independent studio model," which allowed his studio to, among other things, continue to surf during lunch breaks.

"You're good for a reason," he said, speaking for Kotick, "and the key to that is the studio culture." The responsibilities Activision placed on the studio of keeping on budget and delivering quality games never changed High Moon into something it was not.

Activision didn't force Della Penna or High Moon studios to work on properties they didn't want to work on either. He acknowledged that while Activision would suggest properties he felt weren't suited to the studio, he would still seriously consider them and discuss with the publisher whether working on those properties was a good idea.

Della Penna, whose studio's most recent game was Transformers: War for Cybertron, also said he wasn't sure that original IPs led to efficient usage of their time. "When you're creating new worlds and characters you get a lot of people with opinions," he said. He felt that his studio's passion for a certain license helped workers focus on the game rather than distracting them with the difficulty of agreeing on a new imagination.

Discussion of interference from outside forces seemed to keep segueing into the studio's relationship with licensors, and the ups and downs of dealing with outside IPs. Della Penna described Activision's process as "structured, but not heavy-handed," while Eric Biessman's experiences with licensors ranged from the passionately helpful to the passionately meddlesome.

On the other hand, Biessman's experiences with Raven's original IP, Singularity, involved a lot more pressure from Activision than licensed projects. It kicked off from a small internal team that worked on a playable demo they could show to Activision, but an original IP meant much more involvement from the the parent company. "It's more work for us to make sure they feel it's worth it," said Biessman.

Della Penna and Biessman agreed that it was not a good economy for original IPs, echoing Gears of War designer Cliff Bleszinski's recent quote about the death of "middle class games" as being a tragic reality of the current climate.

Even so, Della Penna suggested that despite the reputation of Activision and other large publishers for turning out the same licensed games, original IPs are still a vital part of the business. "As a publisher you need to think about the future," he said.


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