Despite the fact that Hall’s former employer Monolith was eventually acquired outright by Warner Bros. the studio itself made games for other publishers, such as FEAR for Vivendi and Condemned for Sega, while Hall managed the development of licence-based games such as 300, Justice League Heroes and the now-canned Dirty Harry at external studios – games which would eventually be distributed by traditional games publishers.
Yet there’s now a big advance in WBIE’s strategy. In February, Hall announced his departure to start his own company – while he retains a consulting role another Monolith alum, Samantha Ryan, stepped up to take his managing post. It was just another step in formalising the change at WB – just a month prior, the film company’s game division had taken a stake in UK publisher SCi, trading licences, distribution and investment cash for a 10 per cent chunk of the Britsoft firm. And two months ago Warner confirmed intentions to found a European sales and marketing team based in London.
But of course, that team will need product to sell into retail. The latest development is the formation of WB Games in Kirkland, Seattle. Located alongside Monolith, it represents a widening of the talent base internal to WBIE, as Ryan looks to grow the number of games the company produces, the variety of IP it uses, and the number of studios it works with via development deals and acquisitions.
Develop spoke to her to find out more – and what she thinks a division of a big media company that values talent over distribution can offer that traditional games companies don’t.
So, firstly, what can you tell us about the new studio in Seattle?
WB Games is a new production company based in Seattle and it will run all of the self-published titles that WB works on, such as the Justice League or 300 games earlier this year. Our goal is to increase the number of games we’re producing by five or six time what we’re currently doing in the next five to six years.
Will that be through in-house or external development?
Both. We currently only own Monolith and they have three games in production at any one time – which obviously will go through Warner Brothers. Then we have a host of worldwide developers that we’re working with.
We also hope to acquire more developers over time.
Where will those acquisitions take place do you think?
Anywhere. I really feel that Monolith is the template for what worked well for Warner Brothers – which is that you acquire a games studio because it makes great games and has the right people and everything works well, and not disturb that.
So for potential studios I wouldn’t want to move them or disturb them, I would just want to buy them and let them continue to do the great work that they have been doing.
Will there be any specific genres WB plans to focus on?
Nope, we’re going to do everything. We do acknowledge that a large part of our portfolio will come from our theatrical properties and some of the great library IP that Warner Bros has accumulated over the years, such as Loony Tunes, but we expect 30 to 40 per cent will come from original IP.
And what about formats – any specific focus? There’s obviously a big shift towards Wii and DS at the moment…
We’ll cover everything. Really it will come down to the game itself – some ideas are great for the Wii, some for the DS, some of the PSP, some for next-gen. We’ll hit everything – it just depends on the property itself and who the audience is.
We’ve seen a lot of licence-based games over the years and drives by property holders like Warner Bros move one of their franchises from one medium into games, but do you think new IPs could make the return journey and move beyond games into other mediums?
Absolutely. I don’t see why not.
Do you have any third-party development deals in place already?
We’re already officially working with studios around the world, such as Red Tribe in Australia, developers of Looney Tunes, Way Forward in Los Angeles is working on Loony Tunes: Duck Amuck, and of course Traveller’s Tales in the UK who are working on LEGO Batman for release next year.
We also have quite a few other partners worldwide we are working with but those titles are unannounced so far.
For Warner Brothers, the move into games first took place in 2004 – how has the strategy now evolved to this new development ramp up?
It’s simply an extension of our strategy so far. Jason Hall came in first and played a great role in getting everyone ready to understand what games is and why it can be profitable. Now we are moving into the next phase – everyone at Warner Brothers really understands that this is an important category, so now we are in our expansion phase: hiring, starting the new business in Europe to increase our sales and marketing capacity. It’s simply a continuation of what began a few years ago. And it’s exciting!
Like Jason, you came from Monolith to head up Warner Bros Interactive – how does it compare, moving from running a single studio to being the head of the global games operation for a movie studio?
There are similarities and there are differences. I really like the Warner Bros culture and have always felt comfortable working with people from Warner Bros, so for me working closely with them was a great opportunity.
And I clearly have a games development background – that gives us an edge because we can go in and ask the questions that game developers ask developers that publishers don’t necessarily ask developers, which has been a really beneficial approach for us so far.
Plus, I’m personally a big proponent of sharing ideas and I really feel like all the developers we work with should share their ideas in close contact and talk about how best to make games – because making games is not easy, and the more we can promote a development culture that’s open and sharing is a huge benefit.
As you say, having the developers heading up the operation is a different strategy to many other publishers. How much is that approach of putting the creative people in control part of the Warner Bros ethos?
WB has a history of really valuing creativity and valuing the creators – you see that all the time in theatrical productions where there are producers and directors that have worked with Warner Brothers for years and years and years because their input is so valued. And you’re really only now seeing that extend into the games space where a real value is now placed on the creators – the developers – and they are being correctly integrated into the business side of things.
Other ‘media giants’, like Disney, have aggressively entered – or reentered – the games development space since WBIE was founded in 2004 – does that surprise you?
Not at all – these bigger companies now see that games is an important category and want to step into it in a more meaningful way.
What do those bigger movie companies bring to games that traditional games companies don’t?
When you’re talking about someone like Warner Bros they have one of the largest libraries of IP in the world, and that wealth of creativity and ideas is a huge pocket we can draw upon. And at the same time they have a great understanding of how to work with talent because that’s their business, they work with talent every day and that is very beneficial to the developers to understand they are really valued – it’s not a production line mentality where you are just cranking out props and environments, it’s a value of their creative process. That’s something given the studio’s rich history in entertainment that they can bring – other publishers offer that as well, but someone like Warner Bros has a unique angle on that aspect of creativity.