Founded in 1982, EA was ancient enough to remember the days when games were made by auteurs, but it had always been forward looking when it came to business strategies. By the turn of the century EA had grown into one of the companies that the major motion picture studios regarded as a safe pair of hands. It was big, corporate and dependable. It had the distribution model to get games onto shelves worldwide. It was, in short, the videogame equivalent of a movie studio.
When game designer Jason Vandenberghe joined EA in 2000 to work on 007: Agent Under Fire one thing that struck him was the psychological fallout from the videogame industry’s rapid evolution. In the beginning, videogames had been made by individuals, visionary coders and garage auteurs. As corporate giants like EA began to dominate the landscape many from that older generation struggled to get to grips with the realities of working in what was now a corporate, global industry. “In the 1990s and early 2000s, everyone who got into the games industry ended up there by mistake,” Vandenberghe says. “We didn’t have a sense of what it should be like. We projected our artistic desires and then when someone came along and said actually what you’re going to be making is Harry Potter or Barbie’s Wonderland, it felt like a missed opportunity.”
For many videogames industry veterans, cosying up with Hollywood was difficult. Back in the 1930s, the movie business had chewed up and spat out many of the great literary talents it had lured to Los Angeles. F. Scott Fitzgerald, purveyor of one rejected screenplay after another, turned to booze. Hemingway sniped that Spencer Tracy in The Old Man and The Sea looked like a fat, rich actor pretending to be a fisherman. Nathanael West dreamed of angry mobs rioting outside Hollywood premieres in his novel The Day of the Locust. For the videogames industry in the 2000s, the situation was similar. Here they were, giants in their field, being forced to work on titles that had “soulless cash-in” stamped all over them.
As corporate giants like EA began to dominate the landscape many from that older generation struggled to get to grips with the realities of working in what was now a corporate, global industry.
“What I saw again and again when I came into EA,” recalls Vandenberghe, “was people who wanted to be game artists and who wanted to make the cool game that was in their brain and they were being hired to work on James Bond. They wanted to make Quake but instead they were making Bond. It created this incredible tension dynamic where people were deeply frustrated.”
In response, Vandenberghe developed a talk he’d give recruits to explain the dynamics of working with movie studio IP. Its bullet points were simple: embrace your constraints; understand the limitations of the franchise; satisfy the expectations of your audience. “If you’re going to be working with Hollywood, you need to put your ego aside and say ‘Why do people love this brand?’ and then construct your gameplay around that.”
In such discussions it was possible to see how videogame design was becoming caught between its commercial, technological underpinning and its awareness of its own ability to reach for something bigger - a medium that was capable of visual and storytelling art. That schizophrenic tug was also being played out at a much bigger level too. Rubbing shoulders with the studios, videogames companies like EA were starting to demand that they be taken seriously on an artistic level as well as a commercial one. Games, they felt, were beginning to take on cultural significance. They deserved to be treated with more respect than lunch boxes. It sometimes led to an incredible amount of antagonism between the movie studios and the games companies.
One memorable instance of that came as EA tackled the Bond franchise. The character’s copyright on-screen was held by Danjaq, co-founded by Albert R. Broccoli after the release of Dr. No back in 1962. While working on GoldenEye: Rogue Agent, EA found itself completely out-scaled by Danjaq and its vice-president Barbara Broccoli. “This one organisation was the size of all of Electronic Arts,” recalls Vandenberghe, “so they really considered us an extension of their marketing arm. We were in there with the backpacks and the comic books. We were calling up saying, ‘Hey we want to be taken seriously. We want to make these changes to your IP, push it in this way, and be artistic with it’. The response was, ‘No, no, and NO, friend. You’re not going to do that.’”
The relationship between EA and Danjaq became increasingly fraught, particularly as EA tried to push itself as a creative, artistic force. They weren’t content to be seen as a mere toy company. They knew that videogames, as a medium, had the power to be much more - to engage with the Bond character just like a movie could. “It took a while for the Bond franchise to work out how to benefit from the movie,” says designer Phil Campbell who worked on three of EA’s Bond games. “At first it seemed like the games were a totally separate entity. But then we started using the real Bond. When Pierce Brosnan became the character, and the games went third person, that totally changed everything.” The closer videogames moved towards the photorealism of movies, the more pressure there was on the relationship between the two industries. “There was a moment on GoldenEye: Rogue Agent where they wanted to have Bond go bad,” recalls Vandenberghe. “They pushed Danjaq on this but they said no. So one of the EA directors on the project picked up the phone and called Barbara Broccoli directly and said: ‘Hey, you’re not getting this information. Your monkeys underneath you are not passing this information through’. And the story goes that her response was: ‘This question has already been answered. I don’t have time to be worried about your little game.’ And CLICK, she hung up.” Vandenberghe and his colleagues at EA were shocked. The corporate directors - who the design teams always thought of as the “macho, business guys” - had been totally emasculated.
About the book
Hollywood is under attack from videogames. Movies defined the 20th century but games are now pushing them aside as the medium that captures our time, fascination and money. Generation Xbox digs into the love-hate relationship between games and cinema that has led us to this point. It’s a story of disaster, triumph and Angelia Jolie in hot pants.
Learn how Steven Spielberg’s game-making dreams fell apart and why Silicon Valley pioneers wooed Stanley Kubrick. Discover the story behind the failed Halo movie, how videogame tech paved the way for Avatar, and what companies like Ubisoft and Valve are doing to take gaming to the next level.
Based on more than 100 interviews with leading figures from videogames and Hollywood, Generation Xbox is the definitive history of an epic power struggle that has reshaped the entertainment landscape.
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