A few weeks ago, while at the Montreal International Games Summit, I managed to pop in to the brand new Warner Bros. video game studio for a quick tour and chat with some of its key people. The studio officially opened last year, but just recently held an event to celebrate the fact that staff will soon be moving into newly renovated digs. The new offices will be in the same building, an office tower right off Montreal’s Latin Quarter, but a few floors up. Needless to say, the space is also much spiffier.
I sat down and chatted with studio head Martin Carrier and Reid Schneider, vice-president and executive producer, about what they’re going to be doing. Here’s what we discussed.
None of your titles have been announced, but you’re working on DC Comics games, right?
Carrier: We’re definitely working closely with DC on different titles, yet to be announced. It’s one of the reasons we talk to Geoff Johns and Jim Lee [the publisher's head honchos] on a regular basis. It’s interesting for our geeky side to be in touch with those guys, especially now that they’ve relaunched all the 52 [comics]. It’s a good time to be working with DC, there’s so much energy going on there. So yeah, [we’re in] the triple-A space and the casual online space.
What’s your projected size?
Carrier: Three-hundred [employees] by 2015, it’s the target date. We’ll see how fast we get there but it’s been good going so far. We’re up to 150.
How many did you start with last year?
Carrier: Four [laughs]. Four and no office. It was like there’s four of us, here’s a laptop, go home and I’ll call you when I figure something out. Then it was the hotel conference rooms, where we had wi-fi for a good month.
What was the first priority?
Carrier: Getting the admin backbone so that you could support the people coming in, you know payroll and all that basic stuff, and then starting to get people interested in what we’re planning to do.
Schneider: We were still figuring out exactly what kinds of games we were going to make so we were like, ‘Hey, you should come work with us at Warner Bros.,’ and they’d be like, ‘What do you make?’ and we’d be like, “So you have to come work with us at Warner Bros.!’ Then once we got some [non-disclosure agreements] in place, people were like, ‘Oh, this is really cool.’ It kind of snowballed on itself and we’ve been able to pick up some great people.
Is it hard to attract people when you don’t have a track record?
Carrier: Well, we have a pretty big logo and it is Warner Bros, so there’s an entertainment track record for the company. It’s a young company in the video game space. One of the things that really helped us is the trend of where Warner was going on the game side. Batman: Arkham Asylum had come out and that had really changed peoples’ perceptions of the superhero game. So when we’d talk to [potential employees] and say, ‘Hey we’re going to be working with DC,’ they could see potential there. We’ve been in the industry for a while so that gets us in the front door, but you still have to sell people on your vision for the studio. Being new and small and fresh is also an advantage.
A lot of superhero games aren’t very good. How do you plan to avoid that?
Carrier: We realize how good a job Rocksteady did with Arkham Asylum. They changed people’s perceptions and that’s why we’re not satisfied anymore with sub-par superhero games. Now, it’s like they should be better than all the other games. So what’s their secret recipe?
Schneider: If you look over the past decade of superhero games, there were two. The first one was when Neversoft made Spider-Man, I think it was back on the PS1. People were like, ‘Wow, this is really good,” and then a couple of things came out that were okay. Then Rocksteady came out with Arkham Asylum and that again changed the expectations. If you look at the similarities between the two, they weren’t based on movies per se. They were just taking that really rich fiction from the comic books and exploring the characters. It’s not about hitting the movie date or some arbtitrary date, it was giving the game the time it needs to be successful and really just concentrating on the quality of it.
Is that the mandate you have from the bosses in California? Just make good games?
Schneider: Oh yeah, it’s absolutely the mandate.
But are they going to want you to tie into movies and that sort of thing?
Schneider: No, we’re not going in that direction. It’s really about make the game what it needs to be and forget the movies.
Movie studios used to just license their games but now they’re opening their own studios. You obviously think that’s good, but why so?
Carrier: What’s positive is there’s a newfound respect for games. In 2007, Warner was just a licenser of [intellectual properties]. They didn’t think video games were important enough to have their own production studios. Now, it’s a case of, ‘Wait a second, this is a real entertainment business. We should have our own studios so we can really inject some quality into the products that get out there.’ To me, that was the message. It’s come into its own. How you make quality products is by working closely with production. There’s no barriers between us and them, we’re part of the same family, so it’s much more conducive to creating quality.
Schneider: [Warner Bros. president of interactive entertainment] Martin Tremblay comes from the production side and he knows that when you have your own studio, you can make strategic moves much faster. So if we’re building a game and think we can do something differently, we can move on it quickly, whereas if we’re working with a contracted developer, it’s really, really challenging to be able to [do that] because there are contracts involved and the legal side of it. You never know when you’re working with a third-party group where their priorities are. We could be one of many projects that they’re building, whereas if we’re an internal studio we can really push and say this is the most important thing we’re working on and invest where it makes sense.
Are the cheap movie cash-ins still going to happen?
Schneider: We can’t speak for everyone but if you just look at the market, the number of those and the money they’re bringing in is dwindling. Those days where publishers could do stuff like that and make money from, it’s just not the same. There’s a real stratification of games where only the really high-quality games with mass market appeal are making money. That whole middle layer, where there were movie games or cash-ins, that market is gone.
Are you limited on what you’re able to do? Does your mandate stop at Looney Tunes and DC?
Carrier: It’s such a vast library of IP, so it depends. We work closely with the TV, animation and cartoon networks – that’s part of being an internal studio, we get to see what’s under the hood for the coming years to be able to align to that. We’re not restricted to any specific genre or anything like that.