Developer talent representation evolving alongside the industry
CAA head of games Derek Douglas discusses how Hollywood agencies have handled gaming over his 15-year career
When Creative Artists Agency head of games Derek Douglas first broke into the field at the William Morris Agency some 15 years ago, the games industry was in a very different place.
"We were still two or three years away from the iPhone," Douglas recalls in a recent conversation with GamesIndustry.biz. "Steam had just launched and it was still a nascent platform. The general feeling and all the reports were that PC is a dead platform. There was almost no digital distribution to speak of in North America and Europe. And China and Korea were distant, very foreign territories and we didn't understand their form of monetization. It seemed years away from crossing over."
And at the time, gaming simply wasn't a focus for Hollywood agencies. CAA had a fledging gaming division at the time growing under the watch of one of Microsoft's original Xbox leaders Seamus Blackley, but Douglas says there was no such focus at William Morris at the time. Instead, it treated the games industry as "a nascent side business" it worked in mostly when its traditional clientele were tapped for voice acting or writing work on a game project. Even at CAA, Douglas says much of the game division's focus was on bringing game franchises to linear media like TV and film.
"The gatekeepers really were the publishers. When everything was physical media, you really relied heavily on the publishers"
While at William Morris, Douglas says he took the approach of treating game developers the way the agency would treat talent from any other industry and representing them in their business deals, helping secure financing and distribution for their titles. That general idea hasn't changed -- Douglas has represented Obsidian Entertainment (until its acquisition by Microsoft), Bad Robot Interactive, Turtle Rock, ex-Rockstar North president Leslie Benzies, and former Arkane dev Raphael Colantonio's upstart studio WolfEye -- but the industry around him is vastly different than when he started.
"At the time, the gatekeepers really were the publishers," Douglas says. "When everything was physical media, you really relied heavily on the publishers. There was a big gap between a developer developing content and getting it on the shelves and in front of people. And the publisher was sitting in the middle of that, not only as a financier but as a distributor.
"If I smash cut to today and look at the world, you have a very different world. It's global distribution, digital distribution. You have consoles, the rise of PC, the rise of smartphones... If you're a developer, there are many ways you can attack the marketplace."
So even if the core service that Douglas offers -- helping developers get financing and distribution for their games -- hasn't changed, the industry around him has. Whereas before he might be shopping projects to 20 or 25 publishers, he says these days it could be 50 or more, with many of them having their own distinct "personalities" to take into account, from small-budget art house outfits to major publishers and platforms looking for the largest possible opportunities.
At the same time, Douglas says game creators are no longer quite so beholden to those publishers for financing thanks to an influx of capital. He points to the proliferation of gaming-focused venture capital firms in the past couple of years, and companies like Chinese giant Tencent deciding to step up their investment in Western studios starting about eight years ago.
"What was a very specific, niche business has broadened and broadened and broadened. And it's broadened the way gaming has broadened"
"So that's really broadened the landscape, but what that's also done is create a gap in expertise," Douglas says. "If I'm a great studio head, that means I run my business really well. It doesn't mean I want to get into the nitty gritty of raising equity."
He adds, "What was a very specific, niche business has broadened and broadened and broadened. And it's broadened the way gaming has broadened. It's broadened because it is now a culturally significant part of entertainment. More people are interested. More money is interested in gaming, and educated about gaming."
It helps that the people handling game properties in other media these days are more likely to be people who grew up with games.
"Early on in my career there was a handful of writers, directors, producers that 'got it,' that understood games and the audience they had," Douglas says. "I liken it to comic books a little bit, the rise of Marvel and DC in linear media. A lot of that is due to people who really understood it, grew up with that content, and understood how to bring it to another medium."
He points to Kevin Feige, chief creative officer at Marvel Entertainment, one of the key architects of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and an unabashed fan of the comics his films have been based on.
"More than ever, you're seeing the importance of community around developers and around their IP is paramount to the success of that developer"
"When you have someone like that, you can really explore and create great content based on underlying content that might have been devalued 25 years ago, 30 years ago," Douglas says.
The way people interact with gaming has evolved immensely over those years. Douglas says in 2002, cable network G4TV was the "dominant" way for gamers in North America to get linear gaming content. These days with YouTube, Twitch, and other platforms, there's a multitude of gaming content being created and consumed, with the consumers having become creators themselves. That shift has been so pronounced it's changed the way Douglas assesses developers' potential upside.
"More than ever, you're seeing the importance of community around developers and around their IP is paramount to the success of that developer. And maintaining that community is really important."
That's not to say it's the only thing that matters. Investors may be impressed by a creator who brings with them a built-in audience of millions from the word go, but it's a "nice to have" more than a "need to have."
"You still have to have the goods," Douglas says. "You still have to be a great developer, designer, whatever your discipline is. And you have to have an idea or pitch or game concept that fits and melds in with the market trends. You can't replace that with being flashy or having tons of Twitter followers. You have to have the fundamentals."
"If you have the fundamentals but don't necessarily have a huge social following or audience, that's still ok. I would rather find a group or individual that is diligent, hard-working, smart when it comes to the game they're creating, understands market trends and how they want to fit into those trends than someone who has a bunch of Twitter followers."