Commentary > Game Over
The return of innovation?
Wave of veteran game developers launch their own studios
April 26, 2004: 8:33 AM EDT

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) In a gaming world increasingly dominated by Hollywood licenses, it's easy to believe innovation is dying. But with the price of making video games regularly topping $10 million, it's hard to blame publishers for putting out titles that appeal to an already established audience.

A curious trend has been developing of late, however. Big name developers, with strong track records, have been breaking away from the companies they helped build and launching their own studios. And they're re-entering the industry with some fresh ideas not only about the games they want to make, but how they want to make them.

Alex Seropian is the latest name to re-emerge. In 1991, Seropian founded Bungie Studios. In 2000, he orchestrated the company's purchase by Microsoft (MSFT: Research, Estimates). In 2001, Bungie released "Halo" which went on to sell more than 4 million copies and is largely responsible for the Xbox's early success. And in 2002, Seropian left Bungie, mostly to spend time with his new family, but partially due to frustrations with the game development process.

Now he's founded a new development house Wideload Games and he's looking to shake up the development process.

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"It really seems to me that the model developers use to make games right now is breaking," he said. "It's already broken, in fact. ... Currently, the way people make games is they all work for the studio. It's like the way films were made in the old ways. ... That's an inflexible way to do it."

At Wideload, Seropian plans to lead a small team of core designers (current 10 people six of whom worked with him at Bungie). Their job will be to serve as visionaries, coming up with game ideas, creating or licensing the best engine to make the game, then assembling a team of independent developers and artists to do the heavy lifting.

By using contract employees instead of an in-house staff of developers, Seropian believes he can cut both the time and cost it takes to create today's games. Firms are paid for their contribution to the project, not their time meaning if there's an unexpected delay (something that's all but unavoidable in the gaming industry), Wideload doesn't have to worry about maintaining a payroll for 50 people while the problem is solved.

It's not a bad theory, but it's still an unproven one. Wideload's first game is just emerging from the prototype phase and is about to begin active development. Seropian won't say much about it, other than it uses the "Halo" engine, is an action game and will be available for the Xbox and PC. Wideload said it had secured a distribution partner for the game, but declined to name the publisher.

Wideload is hardly the only development house recently founded by someone with industry clout. In June of 2003, five employees of Blizzard Entertainment (creators of the "Diablo," "Warcraft" and "Starcraft" franchises) quit to form Flagship Studios. The company's first game (which will be for the PC) will be published by Namco.

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Another team, made up of senior members from Blizzard and Naughty Dog Studios (makers of "Jak & Daxter"), has formed Ready at Dawn Studios, which is working on a console game featuring an original character.

"The opportunity came about that we had worked on really successful titles in our fields," said Didier Malenfant, Ready at Dawn's president. "We had known each other for while and the opportunity was too good to pass up to get together and see what would happen.

Meanwhile, in the last month, two top developers at Ion Storm Harvey Smith (who oversaw "Deus Ex: Invisible War") and Randy Smith (who was key in the creation of the "Thief" franchise and has recently been working on the upcoming "Thief: Deadly Shadows") as well as Naughty Dog founder Jason Rubin have resigned. While none have officially announced their plans, it's a safe bet we'll see them all making games again soon, likely at independent development shops.

Whether any of these new studios will adopt Wideload's business model remains a mystery. If they don't, that could make things complicated for Seropian and company. Most developers with the talent to put together a true AAA title currently work for a studio or large development house, which would prevent them from working with Wideload.

Seropian, though, says he hopes to change that.

"That's my goal to take people out of studios and set them up independently," he said. "I've talked with a lot of people in the business about this ... and a lot of people are thinking this way."  Top of page

Morris is Director of Content Development for CNN/Money. Click here to send him an email.

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