Written by Eric Yee Tuesday, 13 March 2012 12:50
I recently had a chance to talk with Morgan Ramsay, the author of Gamers at Work: Stories Behind the Games People Play. Gamers at Work features interviews with many business leaders who have helped to shape and continue to change the video game industry. Gamers at Work shares the stories of these individuals and an unparalleled look inside the business of video game start-ups, publishing, distribution, market trends and venture capital.
Yee: Tell me how the idea for the book came about?
Ramsay: Well, the book started out as a series of interviews for a blog. That blog had no traffic. Nobody knew it existed, so nobody would read the interviews. "Well, that's not good," I thought. "I need to do these stories justice." And turning a nothing blog into something that people care about takes a great deal of time and effort, especially if that responsibility falls squarely on your shoulders alone.
In the past, I had read Founders at Work by Jessica Livingston. I loved that book. I knew developers who also loved that book. I thought I could write a similar book that focused on the video-game industry. After all, I had already started doing interviews, and a book would solve my manpower problem. I'd also have a publisher who could ensure that everyone who should be reading the book was reading the book. So, I looked at the copyright page, pitched Apress on a new series, and we were off to the races.
Yee: How difficult was it to land the interviews in this book?
Ramsay: When I started the book, I had worked in the video-game industry for nearly a decade, mostly in marketing and supporting the people who actually make games. I also helped reboot the San Diego chapter of the International Game Developers Association with local developers. When you work for a long time in a field that requires you to meet people, you make plenty of connections. I reached out to the people who I knew, and over a six-month period, I put together the roster for the book.
I wouldn't say that obtaining interviews was hard. Most people I've encountered in this industry are exceedingly generous, but their generosity is constrained by their availability. Around half of the people I invited to participate in this project declined. My real challenge was coordinating with 18 chief executives to simultaneously conduct as many interviews as possible.
Yee: Many of the interviews paint a picture of not only various startups but of the growth and changes of the video-game industry. Did you purposely structure the interviews to cultivate a historic view?
Ramsay: That was always the plan. I approached these interviews as stories and the interview as a storytelling device. I wanted to illustrate that the challenges of entrepreneurship have not become any easier since the early days. Atari cofounders Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney started a console manufacturer in 1970 with $500 in capital and spare parts. With inflation, that's probably around $3,000 today. By 1991, console manufacturers needed billions of dollars just to launch competitively!
Today, the playing field is flatter, the learning curve is faster, and there's a lot of money out there; however, there is also substantially more competition. What businesses need to accomplish merely to stay in the black is only becoming harder. Most companies in this industry are not sustainable. They can't get off the ground, they can't last more than five years, or they can't achieve profitability in a reasonable time. Only a few have succeeded despite the odds. We need to learn from those few. We need to consistently revisit how we're doing business, so we don't repeat the mistakes of the past.
Yee: In the preface, you mentioned that one day you may start a video-game company. How long has that idea been in the back of your mind and why?
Ramsay: I'm an entrepreneur. I've been starting businesses since I was in my teens. I look at the video-game market, and I can see plenty of untapped opportunities for launching focused, highly profitable studios. There's one that I really want to pursue because I'd really like to have a hand in bringing games of a type to market. Given the state of the industry though, I'll hold off until Entertainment Media Council, the nonprofit association that I founded to support entrepreneurs and business leaders, really starts to make a difference.
"I personally founded, funded, and incorporated EA on May 28, 1982. Initially, I worked out of my home and began recruiting artists, channel partners, advisors, and prospective employees." Trip Hawkins, founder of Electronic Arts
Yee: Tell me a little more about your history creating companies. You mentioned that you have been an entrepreneur since you were a teenager.
Ramsay: I've started three companies thus far, but I had plenty of false starts, including a web design agency and a recording studio. I also began planning a social network for high school and college students at least seven months before Mark Zuckerberg opened Facebook to high-school users. However, the first of my ventures that I'd consider tangible was an experiment with virtual goods. The margins were high, but I wasn't too excited by the work, so I sold off the assets within a year to refocus.
I then started an ad agency called Heretic. We specialized in using strategic communication to influence consumer behavior. I was heavily influenced by books like The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore, and Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter. I wanted to apply the psychology, or rather epidemiology, of how ideas spread to brand development. This was well before the word "meme" had entered common vocabulary. We also provided other services in the management and information technology domains, such as business planning and disaster recovery planning. Our clients ranged from entrepreneurs, small businesses, and nonprofits to the Fortune Global 500 in the defense and entertainment industries. I was CEO for seven years until we closed up shop.
In 2008, I founded Entertainment Media Council, which is what I'm involved with now. Entertainment Media Council is the first and only association for entrepreneurs, C-level executives, and senior managers in the video-game industry.
Yee: Where did the idea for the Entertainment Media Council come from? What is your long-term vision for the organization?
Ramsay: When I had the idea of starting Entertainment Media Council, I had left my role as a vice chairman at the San Diego chapter of the International Game Developers Association. The chapter had produced a number of attractive events related to the business of video games. These events, alongside my experience with rebuilding an all-volunteer organization, were formative. I was also inspired by organizations such as the World Economic Forum, Business Roundtable, and Clinton Global Initiative.
The video-game industry presents business leaders with unique, hard challenges that they alone cannot overcome. When you're working at a studio or a publisher, you're focused on the work in front of you. The "affairs of state" aren't critical to that work, or at least, they don't seem to be. To effectively address larger concerns about the volatility of this business, a third party that's dedicated to resolving them is needed.
Entertainment Media Council is that third party. In the near term, we will open our doors to new members and really start to deliver on our mission of advancement. In the long term, I want the video-game industry to be in a better place—to have an environment that's conducive to starting and building companies that actually have a chance to succeed like those featured in Gamers at Work.
"I have two daughters. I put the two daughters together and turned their bedroom into our lab." Nolan Bushnell, cofounder of Atari
Yee: How has your opinion of the video-game industry changed after writing this book?
Ramsay: I've watched the wheels turn long enough to know that the video-game industry is a volatile business. I think the book has only confirmed that observation. I did learn quite a bit about each of the featured founders, their personalities, and their businesses though.
Yee: What was the most surprising detail that these entrepreneurs shared with you?
Ramsay: When I asked about the impact of startups on their families and relationships, I expected to be told, "That's nobody's business." Instead, I was given intensely personal answers, or at least, that's how I saw them. From studying communication science in college, I knew that Americans are culturally defined in part by their willingness to disclose personal details about themselves upfront. But I'm an intensely private individual. I've found that if you ask about someone's private life, they're inevitably going to ask about yours. So, I've avoided those conversations in my life. Asking these founders what I viewed as invasive questions was a new experience for me. Looking back, I could have followed up on a few of their answers in more depth, but I felt like I was pushing it already.
Yee: Many of the questions asked during these interviews haven’t been discussed publicly before. There are questions that deal with failures and mistakes that some may be reluctant to talk about. Did you have any trepidation asking any of these questions?
Ramsay: None. In my experience, business leaders appreciate straight talk. Making mistakes in business is part of the process, and learning from them is critical to our professional growth. If you can't confront and resolve your weaknesses as a leader, you shouldn't be responsible for creating jobs, growing businesses, and securing the financial health of organizations. When people depend on you to make sure that they have jobs tomorrow, covering up the mirrors should be the last thing on your mind.
Yee: Now that the book has been published, I’m sure other video-game entrepreneurs will have stories they want to tell. Would you be open to another series of interviews for a second book?
Ramsay: There will be a second book. I signed the contract in September.
Yee: Can you give our readers any hints as to whose stories may be shared in your second book?
Ramsay: I can tell you that the second book is titled Online Gamers at Work. We will be dealing with stories that have a special emphasis on the industry's connected future. Video games are becoming increasingly platform-agnostic. The glory days of AAA are ending. We're seeing many new business models and technologies emerge as connected games become prevalent, such as Steam and Gaikai. Every founder in Online Gamers at Work is involved with connected games, especially social and mobile games. But I can't share the table of contents right now because the lineup can change at any time.
Here is the full list of entrepreneurs from the video game industry that appear in Gamers at Work:
- Trip Hawkins, founder of Electronic Arts
- Nolan Bushnell, cofounder of Atari
- Wild Bill Stealey, cofounder of MicroProse Software
- Tony Goodman, cofounder of Ensemble Studios
- Feargus Urquhart, cofounder of Obsidian Entertainment
- Tim Cain, cofounder of Troika Games
- Warren Spector, founder of Junction Point Studios
- Doug and Gary Carlston, cofounders of Brøderbund Software
- Don Daglow, founder of Stormfront Studios
- John Smedley, cofounder of Verant Interactive
- Ken Williams, cofounder of Sierra On-Line
- Lorne Lanning, cofounder of Oddworld Inhabitants
- Chris Ulm, cofounder of Appy Entertainment
- Tobi Saulnier, founder of 1st Playable Productions
- Christopher Weaver, founder of Bethesda Softworks
- Jason Rubin, cofounder of Naughty Dog
- Ted Price, founder of Insomniac Games
Make sure you check out Gamers at Work available at Amazon.com, Wal-Mart, Barnes & Noble and Indie Bound.