If you’re old enough to remember the gaming studios of the early 80s, you’re forgiven for feeling nostalgic for the culture that game development once enjoyed. In the past decade, the priorities of developers have seen a dramatic shift towards emphasizing “good business” over game design, largely dictated by management teams with an eye on the bottom line.
What lead to this change in emphasis? One difference is hard to contest: gaming became very popular and therefore immensely profitable. The new wealth in the industry did not flow into the hands of the artists and programmers actually making games – their wages have just about kept pace with inflation – but for management, owning a successful game company has gone from “live-in-a-nice-house-on-the-beach” sort of money to “my-own-private-jet” amounts of cash. The last truly mega block buster, Modern Warfare 3, made over a billion dollars in its first two weeks – making it over a hundred times more profitable than the original Call of Duty’s debut.
That sort of money has attracted serious financial interest in what was once considered a niche hobby. The game industry CEOs of the 80s and 90s were invariably garage-programmers and game aficionados who built their companies on groundbreaking titles and later sold them for tidy sums, mostly to buyers who had never touched a console in their lives.
Let’s take a look at the heads of successful companies in the 90s versus their modern counterparts.
Origin Systems, Inc.
Richard Garriott, CEO
A computer salesman whose mother drew the cover art for his first game, Alkalabeth, in 1979. It sold so well (by mail) that Garriott used the funds to found Origin, where he produced the pioneering RPG Ultima series and, arguably, invented the MMO genre with Ultima Online. Garriott was famously a member of the Society for Creative Anarchronism (read: a medieval cosplayer) and wrote his own alter-ego, Lord British, into his games. He was famously griefed at his own in-game coronation. Garriott sold Origin to Electronic Arts in 1993 and used the money to become one of the world’s first space-tourists, as well as building a medieval castle in Texas, where he now resides.
John Riccitiello, (former) CEO
The recently retired head of Electronic Arts, John graduated from the Haas school of business school in California before becoming a brand manager for Clorox Bleach. His success at managing household cleaning products lead him first to the soft drink industry, then into peddling ice cream, before finally landing him as the CEO of Wilson’s Sporting Goods. After his stint at Wilson’s, John transitioned to Electronic Arts, where he became a strong proponent of the one-game-a-year model for the Madden brand and (incidentally) killed off the gutted remnant of the Origin studio. His controversial tenure as CEO at EA included the acquisition of Bioware, whose successful sci-fi space opera series was so badly rushed that developers were forced to provide a free new ending to the series months later. His demand for excessive DRM and “social aspects” of the beloved Sim City franchise resulted in a “Sim Neighborhood simulator” that would become one of the lowest ranked products in the history of Amazon. The Sim City flop would ultimately be his undoing, as poor design priorities drove a stake through the heart of the once-profitable series and lead directly to his resignation.
John Romero, Co-founder
A young prodigy who pioneered the FPS genre, Romero got his industry start at Origin and quickly distinguished himself as an outside-the-box thinker on their Apple 2 line of games. Romero co-founded idSoftware in 1991 and immediately produced two genre-defining titles, Doom and Wolfenstein 3D – games which successfully blended arcade styles with PC gaming and would later be labelled as two of the most influential titles of all time. The relentless gore and disturbing imagery of Doom would also lead to Romero being labelled as a satanist by early anti-industry groups, particularly when he included his own decapitated head as an in-game decoration.
Romero quit idSoftware in 1996 to pursue other ventures, and the company would later be absorbed by the sprawling Zenimax media.
Which leads us to…
Robert A. Altman, CEO
Originally a lawyer, Robert Altman went into the tech industry after narrowly avoiding a felony conviction for lying to federal regulators about his work doing acquisitions for a Pakistani bank. Subsequently banned from the world of finance, he moved on to become the CEO of Adultfriendfinder.com, a site notorious for banner ads urging you to find sexy adult swingers in your area right now! The springboard of adult dating websites lead him naturally to become the CEO of the largest privately held gaming company in America, ZeniMax Media, which owns both Bethesda and idSoftware. While absolutely nothing in Altman’s resume would suggest he should be deserving of that position, he does have the virtue of being politically well-connected, and maintains close ties with Former Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell and Former United States House of Representatives Majority Whip Tony Coelho.
Sid Meier, Co-Founder
A strange character even by the standards of early game developers, Sid Meier was a part-time pipe organist and a full-time electronics programmer in Pennsylvania when he founded MicroProse in 1982. His first business venture was inspired by a marathon arcade session with retired air force pilot “Wild Bill” Stealey, in which Meier handily defeated the grizzled veteran at the 1980 classic Red Baron before convincing him to sell his computer games. The duo would produce a string of high quality flight sims in the 80s before striking gold with Civilization, the turn-based strategy game that launched one of the most successful series in history. The string of top-rated titles produced by MicroProse would lead to its acquisition by Spectrum Holobyte in 1993, and subsequently to Sid’s decision to quit and start all over again with a new company.
Though semi-retired, Sid still plays an influential role at his new company, “Firaxis”. Their multiple successes lead them to be acquired by Take Two Interactive, lead by…
Take Two Interactive
Strauss Zelnick, CEO
Continuing our tradition of CEOs who look like they should be pleading the fifth in front of a congressional hearing is Take Two’s Strauss Zelnick. For the CEO of a gaming company with over a billion dollars in revenue, Zelnick’s employment record is surprisingly light. His Forbes biography includes a list of board memberships of some of the most blandly named companies in America, including such corporate gems as “Alloys, Inc.” and “Direct Holdings Worldwide, Inc.” The most outstanding section of Zelnick’s resume involves his longstanding association with the Motion Picture Association of America, a film industry group that has spent millions of dollars lobbying for harsher copyright infringement policies. In case you’re tempted to mistake Strauss as just another suit who has bought their way into the boardroom, take a moment to appreciate his greatest passion: hitting the gym, a hobby which once landed him on the cover of Men’s Fitness magazine.
While it’s hard to find a CEO willing to discuss the problems in modern gaming management, Strauss delivered this zinger during the course of his fitness interview, which expresses the issue with surprising clarity:
“When you work in creative businesses there’s no question, when you’ve enabled or worked with or been associated with – or in my case, often sat on the sidelines of – a huge hit, it’s very exciting…”
Zelnick’s self-parodying statement is a clear a diagnosis of the problem in game development – namely, that the men and women who control the direction of games are too far removed from the results of their decisions. The “final bosses” of past decades were gamers, programmers, and entrepreneurs; today, they are business school graduates recruited by shareholders to maximize their returns.