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Talent agents a new force in the video game industry

29 March 2010
LOS ANGELES--It happened to the motion picture industry in the 1930s and the music trade in the 1960s. Talent agents, initially brushed off as nothing more than opportunistic middle men, succeeded in making themselves vital parts of the machinery, helping the fast-growing but messy businesses mature.
Is it time--finally--for the same thing to happen with video games?
Agents have been trying to plow this turf for more than a decade, succeeding with helping industry giants like Electronic Arts navigate Hollywood. But a deep cultural divide between the slick, Armani-suit-wearing agent crowd and rumpled computer-code-writing gamers has proven difficult to bridge.
Sure, it made sense for a few extremely elite game creators to sign on with the likes of Creative Artists Agency and United Talent Agency. But in a booming business, why would most big-shot developers--or even small-shot ones--need help finding jobs, and why would publishers, burning through talent, want a bunch of agents around to slow them down?
Fewer people are asking these questions now, with upstart video game agencies like Digital Development Management growing rapidly. Indeed, with the $46 billion worldwide video game market in upheaval--budgets are soaring for console titles even as free online games sharply cannibalize sales--agents are suddenly awfully useful: finding the right talent to complete increasingly complex titles, structuring deals across media, bringing in third-party financiers. And more agents than ever are looking to make a name for themselves in video games and new media, a consequence of layoffs after the merger last year of the William Morris and Endeavor agencies.
"Agents, after trying for a long time, have become crucial to this particular entertainment genre," said Elizabeth Daley, the dean of the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts, whose video game design program was recently named No. 1 in the United States by Princeton Review.
"As the budgets get bigger and the moving pieces get more complicated, you're a fool to try and handle deals by yourself," she said.
Video game agents come in two distinct varieties. On one side are broad Hollywood agencies that extrapolate their movie and television approach to the pinnacle of the video-game business. United Talent spends most of its time working with prominent game writers like Susan O'Connor (BioShock, Gears of War) and the top echelon of publishers. Ditto Creative Artists, although it is also trying to cultivate a handful of promising young designers.
On the other end of the spectrum are scrappy, under-the-radar companies like Digital Development Management, or DDM, that focus solely on video games. Founded in 2006 by Jeff Hilbert, one of the first agents to specialize in the genre, DDM is finding success catering to teams of developers--the movie business equivalent of an independent production company versus one superstar producer.
"As games cost more to make, publishers need to make sure the teams have been well vetted," said Joe Minton, DDM's president.
Or to put it more bluntly: "Our industry is so young that we still have studios that are successful despite themselves," said Trevor Fencott, chief executive of Bedlam Games, a Canadian developer of next-generation console games and a DDM client. "But in this environment, do you really want to hand a check over to a developer that's brilliant but really bad at running a business?"
Minton's corner of the video game world is growing the fastest, at least by clients. DDM, which is based in Northampton, Mass., but has offices in five other cities in the United States and Europe, now represents more than 700 developers clustered at about 15 studios. In just over three years, the firm has completed more than $200 million in deals with about 20 publishers, Minton said. Among DDM's clients are well-known development studios like Zombie Games, Slightly Mad Studios, Loose Cannon and Ninja Theory.
"I do think there has really been a sea change from skeptical to 'Ahh, this is what an agency does,' " he said.
Not that it has been an easy road.
"I was really wary of these agents--why are they getting in the way?" said Shane Bettenhausen, director of business development at Ignition Entertainment, the British publisher of games like Muramasa: The Demon Blade and the forthcoming Arc Rise Fantasia. "I have to be really honest with you, they have turned out to be extremely helpful."
DDM recently brokered a deal for Ignition to publish Zombie's new title Blacklight: Tango Down, a multiplayer shooter game set for release this summer via Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network.
Part of DDM's approach is to help development studios with basic operational needs in addition to scouting new deals. For instance, the firm helps clients develop business plans, figure out how to control costs and standardize operations in general. A research department advises on creative decisions--how many cars and tracks do the most successful racing games have?--while something called the DDM Network tries to increase ties between clients.
"These guys are not just glad-handing, deal-making guys," said Christian Svensson, vice president for strategic planning at the game maker Capcom. When agents talk to him about a development studio that he is not familiar with, he said, "Our team is going to spend a little more time paying attention to them."
Source: By Brooks Barnes; NY TIMES
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