Stolar speaks to Irish developers
|by Gearóid Reidy
Bernie Stolar may not have the most consistent record in the games industry, but at least you can’t say he hasn’t been there, done that and sold the t-shirt. The former chief of Sega of America has done it all since he first opened an arcade in Santa Barbara, and he has seen all the peaks and valleys this industry has to offer, as both success story and failure. The success of the PlayStation and the launch of the Dreamcast rank in the ‘success’ column, while the Atari Lynx and disastrous spells at Mattel and BAM were decided failures. Gearóid Reidy went along to see what he had to say to Irish game developers in Dublin recently.
Stolar’s now using his years of mixed experience as an advisor to the industry – and it’s first stop Ireland. Stolar, along with Havok’s Paul Hayes, was the keynote speaker at a workshop held by Enterprise Ireland, aimed at giving the Irish games industry a helping hand up – or a swift kick up the behind. In all about forty people turned up for the informal three-hour session. Stolar provided the experience, but it was Irishman Hayes, whose company’s middleware is undoubtedly this country’s greatest gaming success story so far, who had the best piece of advice to offer: “If you don’t believe in your game, if you don’t love games, just go home.”
It’s harsh but necessary advice in an industry where Stolar says he’s seen 120 companies come and go. Granted, Stolar’s been in the game a long while – most recently as President of BAM, along with stints at Sega, Sony, Mattel, and Atari along the way – but it's worth keeping your feet on the ground as the stakes become ever higher.
The battlefield is bigger than ever and still growing says Stolar, as the world’s biggest hardware company is pitched in battle with the world’s biggest software company and the world’s biggest kids’ company. “The PC is basically non-existent,” Stolar says, “the fight for this business will come to the living room, where the entertainment factor takes place.” The future of this industry will rest under your TV, it will do much more than play games, and it will almost certainly come with a ‘Microsoft’ or ‘Sony’ logo on its casing.
Broadband will be there, he says, but Stolar tellingly skirts around the issue. Not just because online gaming has been touted as taking over since Stolar launched the modem-equipped Dreamcast; it’s that broadband is just a means for delivery. It’s the content which, as usual, is king.
“The most significant thing we have is the brand,” says Stolar, “you have to build the IP (intellectual property) and own it.” He illustrates with an example from his time at Sony, where two guys from an unknown company called Naughty Dog showed him sketches of their game, Crash Bandicoot. Stolar gave them $4 million to build the game and Sony later bought the studio, making those two young men very wealthy indeed. “All because two young guys sat in front of me and poured their hearts out.”
This is going to become the predominant method of making games as smaller publishers die out and the games industry moves closer to a Hollywood model, where many small groups of developers become attached to a small, powerful number of publishers – the EAs, Activisions and THQs, who will become the equivalent of Paramount, Universal and 20th Century Fox.
But how is this going to work in a country where, Paul Hayes says, “the graduates are leaving. They’re all leaving.” Ireland, both men note, has the education, the talent and the desire to become a player in the development scene – it just needs the will. Perhaps Dublin’s Digital Hub has the potential to become the centre of a thriving Irish industry.
As a country that’s punched above its weight in the literature, stage and film industries, we’ve clearly got creativity in our blood. What it takes is practical measures to put that creativity, and the current good vibe amongst the nascent games industry, to use.
Get it down on paper and get it out there is the message from Stolar. “Put a plan together. You need to be at developer’s conferences, you need to come and meet with publishers in the US to get on the radar. Show them what you’ve got.” Again Stolar points to the Crash Bandicoot example, as well as to Sonic the Hedgehog, which was commissioned on the basis of a graphic. “Just don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”
Needless to say, it’s not as simple as that. Cold, hard cash is needed, and lots of it. Stolar says a PS3 game is going to need a development budget of $10 million – and Hayes notes that if it’s $10 million to make it, it’s going to take $40 to market. And if you thought those figures were high, Stolar points to his former employers, BAM, who went through $150 million in one year. “Of course,” he jokes, “they did a lot of stupid things.”
Of course, console development is not the be-all and end-all of the games industry, and there were many in the audience involved in the – much cheaper – mobile gaming development. The handheld business is set to restart after years of a Nintendo monopoly, when Sony launches the PSP next year. “Sony are going to pour so much money into it, it’s going to get a lot of attention,” says Stolar, pointing to companies such as Samsung who may also become involved in the industry in the next few years.
Of particular interest to the m-gaming representatives at the workshop was Stolar’s observation that the entire mobile gaming industry is trying to find the right business model – no one’s really sure how to make money out of it yet. But as the mobile industry moves closer to consoles in terms of authenticity and realism – moving away from something that looks just 'like a game' to something that looks real – the potential for growth is limitless.
Again, the most insightful comment came from Hayes, who noted that there is an entire world of people out there who are not yet playing games. “Even though we’re quite big, we’re by no means mainstream,” Hayes says. “We’re not going to be mainstream until we sell games in 15 minute chunks of time, which is what normal people have.”
Stolar's been in the business for a long time because, he says, “Every time I put a controller in my hands, I feel like I’m 15 again. It means I’ve never had to grow up.” A fine way to live, but it's past time the Irish industry grew up. Enterprise Ireland can provide some support, but it's up to us to make it happen.
Contact Enterprise Ireland at (01) 8082000 or at http://www.enterprise-ireland.com www.enterprise-ireland.com
Alternatively, you can contact mailto: Michael.Kenna@enterprise-ireland.comMichael.Kenna@enterprise-ireland.com, or in the Enterprise Ireland US offices, mailto: Colm.McGinley@enterprise-ireland.com Colm.McGinley@enterprise-ireland.com
Author Bio: Gearóid Reidy is a freelance journalist who has written extensively about the games industry, and is a graduate of Journalism from Dublin City University. In his spare time he saves the world as a small elf called Link.