A Hollywood Tale - Part Two
Tigon's Ian Stevens looks further at the film-game relationship, deal-making and development, and publisher transitions
Following on from the first part of the interview with Tigon's Ian Stevens, in which he offered some insight into the behind-the-scenes relationship between films and games, here the former Butcher Bay and Call of Duty producer looks at some of the business decisions involved, talks more about how Tigon works with others, and looks back on tricky publisher journeys with both Dark Athena and The Wheelman.
Q: Talking more about the problem with translating films to games, fundamentally it's the difference between interactive and passive entertainment, which is incredibly difficult to quantify because it's experience-based - a lot depends on the individual as well, and what they bring to it. But it seems a genuine shame that five years on from the original strong film 'conversion' of Riddick, there really hasn't been that many other really good film-game tie-ins... Is that because Hollywood doesn't understand the language?
Ian Stevens: They don't, and the set-up is so horrible. It is a business for them - the studio goes ahead and slates the films for production in the next couple of years, and part of that revenue stream is licensing and merchandising. For a lot of those guys over the past twenty years, making videogames has been the same thing as making action figures, and putting your characters on cereal boxes, or making pyjamas. And that's been a very successful model.
But games hasn't really had its own model, and the onus has been on the game-makers to force that shift, because for those guys there's no problem. So often the starting point pre-determines that these things will be bad, because depending on how long it takes for that film studio to get that license deal made, you often get a really talented team that's then told: "Okay, you've got twelve months, make a game - and by the way, the date is the most important thing, so whether or not it's good, do your best."
Actually, that's not what they really say... they really say: "We want the next Gears of War, but we're only going to give you twelve months, and you can't move your date, and you gotta make something that isn't intrinsically fun, fun."
At some point I'd love to give a lecture about how some of the most talented people in the industry are the guys who we tend to respect the least, because they're actually making decent games out of impossible situations. I'll tell you, as much as people might have complained about Wheelman, if you gave that team in Newcastle - through all that they've struggled with, technology, corporate business, all these different things - the kind of opportunity that someone like Valve has...
Most often what I'm trying to do is give health to the set-up. I do a lot of day-to-day design and production, but a lot of the time I'm involved in business development too - I'm trying to just give these guys an honest shot, and get parties to agree that 12, or 14, or 16 months is probably not in the best interests of building on their brand.
It's hard, and there aren't many examples, because the models are stagnant and unhealthy and haven't changed. That's shifting slightly - I think Wanted, which Universal did, as an extension of that franchise is interesting, because they funded it themselves, there's no film tied to it. I applaud them for that, regardless of how it reviewed and sold, because they're trying. And we tried with Wheelman, we tried to go out there and create an IP that would exist as a game and as a film, and would have the time and resources.
Inevitably things happened to make that difficult for us, but all the same, we tried. That wasn't something that was happening even two or three years ago.
Q: It's interesting to note that games don't generally seem to transition that well into film properties either, so maybe it's a little tough to take the moral high ground...
Ian Stevens: Yeah, but it all happens for a reason. There are no analogues - it's really hard to take something that's native to a certain medium and just draw a line, which is what people are usually trying to do... and what they're encouraged to do.
I remember, with Butcher Bay, being told explicitly that it was a movie game - that these ideas about making it a first-person shooter were crazy. Just make a third-person action game about a guy that can see in the dark, find something that's good enough... Splinter Cell... it's done!
I just think a lot of people don't want to try either, which is another problem.
Q: To be fair, though, risk - especially in the current climate - is a tough thing to convince anybody to take.
Ian Stevens: It is, but my own personal opinion is that gaming is the Field of Dreams, so to speak. If you build it, they will come. This industry has always grown and been led by innovation and quality, and games that do something new and interesting, or are just plain good.
I think investing in that, in whatever form it takes - whether it's new IP or licensed IP or whatever - is what the focus should be. That's not necessarily where everyone's head is at, so it's a different problem that affects us. General issues about how publishers are trying to make games, and make money, exacerbates some of these things - risk tolerance, risk models and so on.
It's interesting to me - when I was working at Vivendi, on the one hand they had Blizzard and all these guys where everything they make is gold, and on the other hand they had this Games division that's losing money hand-over-fist. Why you don't borrow from one to administrate the other...?
When those Blizzard guys go to DICE and they show lists of games that they cancelled over the years, what they're telling me... okay, I'm Rob Pardo, the guy that designed World of Warcraft, and guess what? Three out of four of my ideas are actually kind of bad, and I don't really know it until I build them and find out.
There's something to that, and why that gets ignored by people... you've got the rest of the industry saying "Okay, you've got 18 months, go!"
Q: So how do you set deals in motion - what role do you take in development or publishing decisions?
Ian Stevens: Well, it varies from project to project. In general, we're typically looking for developers who have got a new IP. You've got a team that has an interesting idea for a game - we'll have an interesting idea about how to take that game and build a franchise and a universe, something that can exist as a film, an anime series, or whatever would be appropriate.
But it's sort of a leverage construction of a brand or a franchise across all media at once - of course leveraging our position, Vin's credibility, his talent and awareness to put deals in place to get those projects funded and into development. That's how we tend to work from a business development standpoint.
Then in terms of our day-to-day, it's really me. I'm pretty much Tigon, truthfully I'm the whole company... I talk to Vin and that's it. Assault on Dark Athena is probably a great example of our day-to-day, because there it's such a familiar environment for me, having been involved at Starbreeze and worked with those projects - so it's literally me on the phone with those guys talking about design and production issues, or code issues, art issues - giving them my guidance and being part of that discussion.
It's general production work, just that this independent production party happens to be involved - as would Universal Motion Pictures, because they're a stakeholder as well. Then the added level of involvement we get to have is when things like the Activision and Vivendi merger happened, and Activision says they don't want to keep Dark Athena... suddenly myself and Universal are out there trying to find a new home for this project, and there's a lot of business development happening that's not normally something I'd do as a designer.
So I think it's a bit difficult for people on the outside to get their head around what we do, because they're so used to publishers and developers and that's it. But the idea of independent producers is a fairly new thing for the games industry - there's ourselves and a few others. It'll be interesting to see what form Jerry Bruckheimer's studio takes.
Q: For Dark Athena, was Vivendi the initial publisher because they'd published the original game, or how did that work? How much can you influence those decisions?
Ian Stevens: Well, quite a bit. That's an IP that's owned by Universal in partnership with Tigon, so it goes where we want it to go, providing someone's making an offer of course.
But with Vivendi it was interesting, and I guess I'd be speaking more about Starbreeze than Tigon in this respect, but the two companies decided that they wanted to work together again probably in 2006 - on a couple of different projects, and Dark Athena was one of them. By virtue of so many things, that wound up being the only project. I think it began very much as a remake, a small project, and evolved over time into being something that seems so much more profound than how it began.
It wasn't a huge licensing deal when it began, but it became something much larger, and I think it just went to Vivendi because Starbreeze and they wanted to do business.
Q: Did it surprise you that the game was cut loose as part of the Activision/Vivendi merger?
Ian Stevens: No.
Q: Why not?
Ian Stevens: I worked with Activision for many years, I started my career there in the mid-nineties, and produced Call of Duty 2 for the Xbox 360. So I've known so many of those guys, their executives, since I was in high school. They love brands and annualisation, and there wasn't going to be a Riddick game every year. It was somewhat predictable, what happened.
We weren't surprised - and I certainly don't take that negatively, personally, or anything like that. They were very gracious to us, and they're wonderful people. I actually like them an awful lot - it just wasn't their thing. They were very helpful in finding Atari as a new party.
Q: There was another change of publisher for one of the games you're involved with - Wheelman went from Midway to Ubisoft, although for very different reasons. The team in Newcastle has been through a lot, so how important was it to get the game out of the door in the end?
Ian Stevens: It was very important - it was a finished game, and one that we were very proud of, relative to all of the challenges involved in just bringing that together. It was the second game of that kind I was involved with - Scarface was the first - and they're tremendously difficult, because you have to build so much, and create so much, just to get a lingering sense of whether or not it works.
In our case we had to build a functioning Barcelona before anyone could sit down and find out if it sucked or not. We thought very big in the beginning about what we wanted this game to be, we created some huge challenges for ourselves... and yet more came.
I think that most of those guys felt very passionately about getting that game out there, onto store shelves, and - good or bad - just finishing that story.
Q: In terms of the transition to becoming a Ubisoft-published product, was that something you were involved in?
Ian Stevens: Not very much - I think the thing that everyone took away from that transaction was an awful lot of excitement, because for Ubisoft it wasn't a game they needed, or had to have. The fact that they expressed interest and made that deal spoke to us about the quality of what we'd made.
I think a lot of guys felt very excited that a publisher we really respected wanted to put the product into retail. It was a good pat on the back for everybody - whether it was by necessity or not, Ubi coming to the table and running with it was a bit of a ray of shining light, for sure.
Ian Stevens heads up Tigon Studios. Interview by Phil Elliott.