Hollywood has undoubtedly warped our perceptions of what an agent should be like. Years of exposure to the cliche of the Los Angeles power-broker, chomping cigars by the poolside, talking rapidly and loudly in swearword-peppered soundbites into a mobile phone while idly patting the bottom of a would-be young starlet; this is the image of the all-powerful media agent, the man who makes deals happen and lubricates the commercial wheels of the creative industry. Fanciful as it may be, it's not entirely removed from the truth in every case, and is certainly not entirely a positive image - especially if you're one of the creative people, or the publishers, faced with having to deal with such a character.
It may well be the influence of that very image, as well as a natural mistrust for anyone who seeks to take a slice of the money from any deal simply for brokering that deal, which has led the videogames industry to resist the rise of professional agents. The majority of developers negotiate directly with publishers, and vice versa - a far cry from other creative industries such as music, film and most notably literature, where publishing houses will rarely even consider looking at works that don't come to them via an agent.
All of that, however, may be set for a change. At the end of last month, Nihilistic Software - the team behind the critically acclaimed Vampire: The Masquerade - Redemption and EA's Marvel Nemesis: Rise of the Imperfects - signed on as the latest client of Interactive Studio Management, a business management firm for indepenent studios. In other words, an agency. They join a client list which already boasts several impressive names, including longtime Epic Games collaborator Digital Extremes, and Ontario-based Silicon Knights, whose track record includes Eternal Darkness on the GameCube and working with development legend Hideo Kojima on Metal Gear Solid: Twin Snakes.
According to Francois Masciopinto, a senior agent at ISM, the widely held view that the videogames industry has been more reluctant to adopt agencies than other creative industries isn't entirely fair. "Keep in mind that our industry is very young in comparison to the industries you cited," he comments. "As the videogame industry matures, the use of agents is becoming increasingly important, just as it became increasingly important over time in these other industries."
Masciopinto is one of the newest agents to join ISM's roster. He joined the firm from Atari, where he had worked as director of A&R ("artist and repertoire" - a music industry term which refers to scouting and developing talent, in essence) and business development. A long-time industry insider with a history at several other creative industry firms both inside and outside the videogames sector, Masciopinto is a genial European whose eyes twinkle as he hints at untold stories of high-level misdeeds and dodgy dealings. On one hand, his experiences in publishing will undoubtedly be excellent fodder for a book at some point down the line; on the other, it's clear that he's been frustrated by years of dealing with the often unprofessional decision making and relationship management that muddies the water between many publishers and their development partners.
This, he believes, is where ISM and agencies like it come into the equation. Like many other agents, Masciopinto is a poacher turned gamekeeper - and faced with the conventional stereotype of the agent mentioned above, it may be surprising to learn that much of his reason for leaving publishing and setting out to apply his knowledge of that sector on behalf of developers instead is down to a genuine passion for videogames and the creativity inherent in the sector. Now, his role is to work with his clients to ensure that they get the best deal possible - not only in financial terms, but also in terms of having the best delivery terms, of ensuring that they are working with the right publisher for each individual product, and so on - and his experience of publishing A&R is understandably invaluable.
It's this factor, he believes, which will eventually cause studios to switch over to the agency model rather than simply having an in-house business development executive whose role includes contract negotiation "On a purely practical level, ISM has negotiated more contracts with more publishers than most business development executives," he explains. "As an example, a business development person at a two team game studio may negotiate one contract a year, while we may negotiate one contract a month."
"Additionally, we are in constant contact with publishers, learning of their changing expectations and needs, while a business development person at a game studio may not have the breadth and depth of contacts, nor the opportunity to meet publishers for the 18 to 24 months the team is in development," he continues.
That, in essence, is one of the core parts of ISM's offering - the agency can simply cover more ground than a business development executive, and not only that, it also has a breadth of talent which it would be practically impossible to develop internally at a developer. "Even a very good business development executive may not be strong in all areas," as Masciopinto points out.
"ISM is comprised of a team of people who are able to focus on specific areas of the business development issue. As an example, some of our agents focus on the contract negotiation side while others focus on selling and interpersonal relationships with publishers. As a result, we offer a more complete package, with expertise in all the key areas of business development."
While developers may welcome the helping hand that a firm like ISM can provide, however, you have to question whether publishers are happy to see people who have intimate knowledge of the tactics and practices of the publishing business switching sides to bat for the other team - almost inevitably forcing them into doing better deals with developers in the process. Masciopinto is cavalier about the reaction of publishers to the emergence of agency deal-brokers, however - and has little time for the sentiments of his former publisher colleagues, believing that ISM brings sufficient value to the table for publishers that their actual feelings on the matter are relatively unimportant.
"Whether we are welcomed or not may not be nearly as important as whether we are respected and seen as a value add for the clients we represent," he states. "We communicate to our clients the expectations and needs of the publishers, and that saves the publisher time from inappropriate and unprepared pitches. Additionally, often our role is in bridging naturally occurring communication gaps between the parties. While consulting with our clients during a contract negotiation, for example, we are clear to communicate to them the publisher's concerns. This saves the publishers time and grief, and that is of tremendous value to both parties."
That response hints strongly at one of ISM's own core values - and, perhaps, one of the reasons why Masciopinto is so certain that the firm's input will be valued by publishers as well as developers. The agency carefully selects its clients, rather than simply working with anyone who comes along - and like most top agencies in other creative fields, it chooses to work only with the best talent in the market, thus acting as a powerful preliminary filtering tool for publishers who may otherwise be inundated with sales pitches for product which simply isn't appropriate to their portfolio, or doesn't meet their minimum quality standards.
Masciopinto is keen, however, to point out that while ISM works with well-established studios - Digital Extremes and Silicon Knights are excellent examples - the agency is also prepared to work with start-ups, based on a variety of factors which could recommend a new studio to them. "We are selective," he confirms, "and look at the current state as well as the track record of potential clients."
"Our assessment is not only what the potential client has, but it also includes an assessment of what value we can offer the potential client. While it has become increasingly difficult for start-ups in the video game industry, we will consider start-ups based on the track record of the principals, the composition of the team, and other factors."
Moreover, ISM doesn't work on individual products. The firm's service revolves around building a strong relationship with an entire company, rather than just selling a specific product to publishers - an approach which allows it to work with development studios in a way which is more of a long-term partnership than a simple services relationship.
"This mutual commitment permits us to invest time and energy to get to know and understand our clients, which results in our being able to better advise them and take a strategic view of their business," Masciopinto explains. "We believe, and our history has demonstrated, that this approach works best for our clients."
Finally, we somewhat gingerly raise the topic of the conventional view of agents - the aforementioned pool-lounging, cigar-chomping, expletive-spewing, bottom-patting Hollywood monsters, beloved of fiction for decades...
"Really?" Masciopinto responds, smiling. "ISM has been in working with clients and publishers for many years and has a reputation for honesty and professionalism," he informs us - a stock response, undoubtedly, but a key point nonetheless. Building that reputation, and building trust for the idea of agents in the industry, won't happen overnight, but already many key development studios have come over to the idea, and more will undoubtedly follow. The day when all videogame deals will be negotiated through an agent is still some way off; but it is most certainly on the horizon.
Francois Masciopinto is a senior agent at Interactive Studio Management, and handles most of the firm's business in Europe. Interview by Rob Fahey.