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How CAA Plans to Liberate Game Designers

One CAA agent wants the video-game business to be more like the movies. The first step? Set the talent free.

How CAA Plans to Liberate Game Designers
WELL POSITIONED Jenova Chen, left, and Kellee Santiago called on CAA researchers for advice on broadening the audience for their PlayStation 3 game. | Photograph by Jason O'Dell
WELL POSITIONED Jenova Chen, left, and Kellee Santiago called on CAA researchers for advice on broadening the audience for their PlayStation 3 game. | Photograph by Jason O'Dell

What Seamus Blackley remembers most about his childhood outside of Santa Fe is rockets. Not flimsy out-of-the-box rockets — these were built by the children of scientists at Los Alamos National Lab, and like their parents, the kids aimed for the stars. "We would get them going 400 to 500 miles an hour," he claims.

A former jazz pianist and physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, Blackley was one of the principal architects of Microsoft's Xbox. Now, as the head of the video-game division at Creative Artists Agency, Blackley has set his sights on another stellar goal: revolutionizing the industry by empowering its real but rarely acknowledged stars, the game designers.

Blackley has won over Gears of War designer Cliff Bleszinski; helped emancipate Sims mastermind Will Wright from his longtime employer, Electronic Arts; and courted emerging developers such as Kellee Santiago and Jenova Chen.

Agents, Blackley claims, are a necessity. Unlike the makers of film, television, or music, video-game creators are faceless. Because the industry has tied its financial fate to the franchise model, publishers push brands rather than individuals and often bury credits. "Creative people can be pushed around," says Tim Schafer, the CAA client behind Brutal Legend. "I can't just walk into a meeting with a publisher and say, 'I'm the man.'" But Blackley can, and he argues that doing it is in everyone's best interest. "When creatives are happy, they do better work," he says.

Part of the CAA strategy is to push clients into a variety of platforms. Paul Bellezza and Matt Korba were still students at the University of Southern California when the CAA team approached them about their whimsical, monochromatic project The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom. Since signing on, they've "talked to a lot of non-video-game people," Korba says. "If an intellectual property can be a movie or a children's book or a cartoon show, we're putting our feelers out."

Santiago, the producer of the PlayStation 3 downloadable game Flower, credits CAA's research department with helping her and designer Chen figure out "how to get people to play our game who don't read [game blog] Kotaku."

The endgame for Blackley is building a new financing model for games, which have typically been funded by a single publisher, who retains the rights. Blackley recently helped broker a deal for independent developer Grasshopper Manufacture and EA Partners for an action horror game produced by Shinji Mikami, the creator of Resident Evil, and directed by Goichi Suda, the designer of popular Wii titles Killer 7 and No More Heroes. The deal relies on debt and bond financing, which is common with television and film but almost unknown in gaming. Investors have been uncomfortable with the way games are made. "The iterative process of finding what's fun in a game is frightening to movie people," Blackley says. "The trick is to show them that iteration is safety when it's in the hands of an artist." His artists.

A version of this article appeared in the April 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.