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Game Agents: Show Me The Money? Part 1: Introduction, Interview
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Game Agents: Show Me The Money? Part 1: Introduction, Interview

June 16, 2003 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next

Editor's Note: This week Gamasutra is publishing a series of articles about game agents. Like their counterparts in Hollywood, agents in the game industry represent the "talent" - game developers - and negotiate publishing and distribution deals for their clients. In return, the agents take a cut of the deal.

The number of agents in the game industry is increasing, and their influence is growing. There are many factors behind this: the consolidation among the publishers has increased the power of those that remain; there are more independent developers looking for publishers; Hollywood's business practices are infiltrating the game industry as more film/game deals like "Spider-Man" and "The Matrix" are being struck; and the growing ranks of agents are promoting their services to developers.

However, one factor that differentiates the game industry from Hollywood is the fact that actors have established several unions that regulate their agents. SAG (Screen Actors Guild), AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) and AEA (Actors Equity Association, for theater actors) "franchise" agents, which is essentially a stamp of approval that tells actors that the agents abide by the union's rules. That helps ensure a consistent level of service for the union membership (see for an example of an advisory that SAG issued last year to its membership) . There is currently no analog to for such a regulatory body in game development, so a deal with an agent goes awry, there are fewer options for recourse. One option could be the formation of a game union for game developers, or perhaps an independent organization like the IGDA (International Game Developers Association).

The series this week begins with an introduction to game agents and an interview with Zombie's co-founder and co-CEO, Mark Long. Long first began working with a game agent nine years ago, and is a proponent of their services. On Wednesday, we'll present the ups and downs of working with agents, from three developers' perspectives. Finally, on Friday we'll conclude with two articles written from the agent's point of view.

For listings of game agents on Gamasutra, go to Companies>Business & Legal>Agents, or [click here].


Game development is a multi-faceted discipline that requires skills in a large number of areas. Most third party teams seek out the most qualified talent available for the artistic, design and engineering positions. One area that is often overlooked is business development. Oftentimes the lead artist, designer or engineer will double as the business development specialist for the developer. While this may be a convenient choice for a team that is focused solely on making good games, it is usually a poor decision for teams that want to profit from their development efforts. In order to ensure that a developer makes sound business decisions and that its interests in negotiations with publishers are protected, it is imperative that teams are represented by an individual with business savvy and experience in negotiating development contracts. While this may sound like common sense, you would be surprised how few teams employ qualified business personnel to manage their affairs.

One smart way to handle the issue of business development is to work with an agent. While it is possible (and for some teams with the proper personnel preferable) to handle business development in-house, working with an experienced agent can mean the difference between success and failure for a game developer. My viewpoint on this issue is based on my personal experience as a developer that has successfully worked with an agent. Yet I know of other third-party developers who have worked with agents in the past and which have had similarly successful experiences.

There are many advantages to working with a qualified agent, from the design and creation phase to the contract negotiation phase to actual development. Agents can play a large role in helping developers come up with ideas that will sell. Because agents are in constant contact with the business development representatives from publishers, they often have a good sense of what types of games are in demand. This does not mean that an agent will create your design for you; rather, the agent can help to put you on the right track.

Once your design and prototype are in place, your agent can help you to find the right publisher for your title. The advantages here are obvious. Agents often have substantial contacts in the major publishing houses. They also will have a sense of which publisher will be right for your particular product. Thus, they can get you in front of the right people for your game. Agents can also assist in preparing you for your presentation by telling you what to focus on during your pitch.

Another key advantage to working with an agent is during the contract negotiations phase. Not only is a skilled agent likely to ensure that your rights are protected in the contract, but they are also likely to be able to get better advances and royalties than you could do on your own. The primary reason for this is that agents can maintain objectivity in the process. While a developer may be anxious to get the deal inked and move on, the agent will ensure that the developer does not sign anything that is likely to backfire if the development process does not go as smoothly as anticipated.

When a deal has been signed and development is underway, the agent still plays a vital role in the process. Agents can be turned to for advice when disagreements or misunderstandings arise in the development process. Not only can they provide you with competent advice in terms of your dealings with the publisher, but they can refer you to other teams that they represent who have encountered similar issues in the past. Thus, the agent can help put out fires during the development process and to ensure that everything runs smoothly from start to finish.

The primary "con" in working with an agent is that you are likely to forfeit anywhere from 7.5%-12% of the advance and royalties to the agent. While this may seem like a lot of money, in many cases an agent's work will earn more for the developer than the amount spent on his services. Another "con" is that agency deals are usually long-term commitments, ranging from three to seven years. Once again, this is not likely to be a problem if you are careful in choosing your agent and in negotiating a "best efforts" clause into your agency contract.

Of course, all of the benefits of working with an agent are based on the assumption that that individual has the contacts, experience and know-how to represent your company. It is also important to know that the agent is not overwhelmed with clients at the moment and that will have time to dedicate to your team. The best way to ensure that your agent is qualified is to get an agency bio, check out the agent's references and find out which games the agent has played a part in placing. It may also be possible to sign on with the agent for a trial period to make sure that the relationship makes sense from both sides. Obviously actions speak louder than words - research your agent's accomplishments before signing any long-term representation agreement.

From personal experience, the relationship our team has with our agency, Interactive Studio Management, has been extraordinary. They put our company, Saber Interactive, on the map and have been extremely helpful in all of the aspects of business development discussed above. Even though I have a law degree and I've been running my own business for the past six years, I would never think of working in the game development field without an agent. Their knowledge of the market, contacts, negotiating experience, objectivity and dedication to helping us produce and profit from great games. That's been a key element to our success over the past few years.

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