A couple of days ago I suggested the video game industry could use a few "boutique developers" designing high-quality games positioned somewhere between big-budget titles and indie games. I noted that film studios like Miramax have found a lucrative sweet spot releasing ambitious, edgy films targeting the film-enthusiast audience, proving such a strategy can be artistically and financially successful, at least in the movie business.
Today, Gamasutra published a story on Genius Products, co-owned by Miramax founders Bob and Harvey Weinstein, and its decision to enter the video game market. Genius will publish Line Rider - winner of the 2007 GDC award for innovation.
The story contains an extended interview with Mike Rubinelli, head of product and aquisition at Genius, who describes the company's strategy and their awareness of how often big media companies have fumbled the ball.
I've been in the business for 17 years, so I've seen the MGMs come and go. I've seen the Warners come and go, and come again and go again and come again. And I've seen Universal and Universal Games, and then it was Vivendi Universal, and all the iterations of Hollywood trying to figure out how to get into the gaming space and saying, "You know what? We'll just put some of our creative guys on it, we'll leverage our licenses, and then we'll be in business." And then two years down the road and a lot of red ink later, they decided, "Gee, this is a lousy business to be in. What were we thinking?"
Rubinelli describes the Weinstein's thinking - influenced by their experiences in theater and film - about how to establish a company driven by creativity without being harnessed to a "signature" or a casual/hardcore moniker.
Line Rider is a perfect example of what we're going to attempt to do. We're not going to go out and, you know, try to...out-Call-of-Duty Call of Duty, or Halo, or any first-person shooters.
We're not going to compete with those guys. We're not going to compete on the big role-playing front. ... [T]o me, the stars of the company really are the titles, and the titles have to speak volumes about who we're about. The titles have to be our branding. ... [W]e're going to sign up titles so that when we go to the critical press community, we don't say, "Here's our first-person shooter," or "Here's our sports game or our driving game. ... No. "Here's our unique-playing game that you may or may not know, but once you play it, you'll understand why we signed this up." There's a certain charm and appeal and uniqueness to it.
He goes on to discuss Genius' intention to revise the standard industry "formula for success" in ways that enhance creativity and enable risk-taking:
For people to say, "Oh, I played this game a year or two years ago. It's like that, but it's got more levels. It's like this, but..." We don't want to do that at all. I think what's happening in the big publisher circles is that it feels like they have to make these $10 or $15 or $20 million development spans, and because the price tag is so high, they work to turn this into a bit of a science.
It's like, "Okay, the formula for success for this game is it has to have a $10 million marketing campaign, it has to have this many levels, it has to have online play, it has to have these eight buzzwords, and it's got to have this and that. We've got to spend this much money, which means that the development team has got to be this big and it's going to take this long to develop."
They try to back their way into a product more often than not. I think that can be really dangerous, but when you're spending that kind of money, you know, you want to be safe...We want to take on stuff that we feel like is creatively very interesting and not necessarily meaning that we have to spend $10 to $15 million on development. I mean, we may, but we would only do that if we felt that we had a game that really stood out and was incredibly unique.
It obviously remains to be seen whether or not Genius and the Weinsteins can navigate the peculiar video game space, produce unique and creative games, and make money doing it. Their initial strategy seems to be focused on identifying promising indie game designers and backing them with resources and distribution. We'll see how effectively they're able to build and sustain an environment necessary for great games to emerge.
It's easy to be skeptical about Genius evolving into a vibrant boutique development studio, but the Weinsteins have a history of proving the naysayers wrong in Hollywood and on Broadway. I'm not betting against them.