Gamers At Work; An Insight To The Games Industry
In 1991, Tony Goodman founded a company named Ensemble Corporation with longtime friends John Boog-Scott and John Calhoun. It was a company which developed its own management and reporting software suite named Command Center, among other products. In 1992, Ensemble Corporation made the Inc. 500 and continued there until 1996; and in 1997 Ensemble Corporation was acquired by USWeb. In 1995, however, Tony Goodman has started another company named Ensemble Studios.
Goodman had wanted to start a video game company from his youth but soon realized that starting one would be a huge undertaking. So, Ensemble Corporation was Goodman’s start up project to gain capital and experience. In 1995, Goodman followed his passion, and with the success of Ensemble corporation behind him, and formed Ensemble Studios which was best known for Age Of Empires: Age Of Empires went on to become a successful series published by Microsoft.
In Morgan Ramsay’s book, Gamers At Work, success stories of games studios of every kind are explored between its covers. From old timey startups like Microprose, Sierra, and Electronic Arts to more modern ones like Verant Interactive and Junction Point Studios. The book is presented in simple interview style, a back and forth between Ramsay and the particular person he’s interviewing. This makes the book very readable and lets the individuals personalities show very clearly on the paper. The interviewees are long winded, but in a good way. Never once did I find myself wishing that they had elaborated more on a subject, nor felt that they droned on for too long.
But perhaps I should stop here for a quick statement about how I am not a book reviewer. I am however a very big games enthusiast, and many of the interviews with the older studios founders gave me simple joy. “Wild” Bill Stealey (cofounder of Microprose), Trip Hawkins (founder of Electronic Arts), Ken Williams (cofounder of Sierra On-Line), Nolan Bushnell (cofounder of Atari) all have a voice in this book. Which is a good thing, since at the time those companies were producing games, I was still at an age to play the games, but not at an age to understand the industry. Only now, years afterwards, can I appreciate all of the interesting stories of running those companies. I must confess though, I always had an image of Ken Williams being a bit of a games programmer who made simple games with his wife when his company was started off, which of course he was. However, he identifies himself as a much more aggressive businessman at that time in his life than the gentle image in my mind would have me believe.
But of course from the stories presented in this book its hard not to think of anyone of these people being aggressive businessmen. Even for the simple joy of making computer games there is a tonne of business going on in the back end which is often under appreciated or oversimplified by gamers themselves. Many early game companies decisions to self publish such as broderbund, Electronic Arts, and Microprose would make peoples heads spin in the current games environment. Currently there are tools available for the indie games designers such as Desura, Steam, and even the internet itself. These things didn’t exist back then, even video games stores weren’t something that truly existed. Bill Stealey describes spending his evenings and weekends calling up the east coast from computer store to department store looking for buyers to stock his games. The distributions networks of today didn’t exist then, and in fact were built in part by these companies.
But probably the biggest impact this book and the way its presented, is the show of dedication by each individual to make their companies the most successful they could make them. Whether by gaining capital via venture capitalists, making the companies public, or simply finding their own path, each course of action had its own rewards and pitfalls, from loosing complete control and independence of the company to making a massive success. I honestly wish I had read this book 10 years earlier. There is a literal wealth of information in just getting acquainted with the process of making games. No one interview describes the process completely such as licensing IPs, approaching publishers with their own IPs and general marketing, and hiring strategies. But when the combined message of the book is taken in there is a lot of information for the uninitiated to absorb.
But the book isn’t filled simply with dry boring business oration. The book is filled with little tidbits which showed how the companies ran on a day to day basis, bringing the book alive. Reading about Doug Carlston, Gary Carlston, their sister Cathy, and 3 other employees, which formed Broderbund at the time, stuffing cassettes in packaging in a house they rented in San Rafael while a line of UPS trucks was showing up outside to take their packaged products away and angry neighbours wondering what was going on inside the house made me laugh. Hearing how Sid Meier, who was instrumental to the success of Microprose, would collect his paychecks from the top of Bill Stealey’s refrigerator, not because they didn’t have an office, but simply because that’s they way he preferred it. Little morsels of the companies internal workings are littered throughout the book some humorous and others showing how desperate situations evolved for some companies.
I would highly recommend picking up this book for anyone who has any interest in the way games are made period. I especially recommend it to anyone who’s looking for some nostalgic reading about the games companies of the past.
More information about the book can be found at: http://www.gamersatwork.org/