Several months ago, a New York Times article on the indie game scene framed big corporate game publishers like Electronic Arts and the heroic indie game intellectuals like “Braid” creator Jonathan Blow as church and state. Never the twain shall meet, it implied, and that’s to the good of the plucky, iconoclastic indie guys.
The truth is that gamemaking’s a big ecosystem with creators and dealmakers that cross-pollinate and interconnect in a variety of ways. Chris Hecker, the motor-mouthed designer who’s incubating the head-spinning “Spy Party,” honed his chops on EA’s “Spore.” “Portal,” 2007’s critical darling released by Valve, grew from a student project called “Narbacular Drop.” Andy Schatz helped craft “Whacked!,” an early influential Xbox Live game for the first generation of Microsoft’s game console. He then passed through EA before founding Pocketwatch Games, which won for Excellence in Design at the 2010 Independent Game Festival Awards for its game “Monaco.” Want more evidence that indies and majors can co-exist peacefully?
Look no further than “Shank.” This pulpy, over-the-top side-scrolling brawler’s getting ready for release through Electronic Arts, even though it’s being built by indie studio Klei Entertainment. EA Partners began more than a year ago as a way of fostering games that the publishing giant wouldn’t necessarily develop internally. After hits like “Brutal Legend,” the division has updated its mandate to include pursuing relationships with smaller game development entities. That’s been helped along by Outreach Director Jamil Moledina. Before he became an exec at EA Partners, Moledina served as director for the annual Game Developers Conference, which made him a one-man access point for gamemakers all over the industry.
“Shank” looks like a cartoon that the characters in Quentin Tarantino’s “Grindhouse” film universe would watch on Saturday mornings. At first blush, it looks like something that’d be too quirky to bear the EA stamp. We first got in touch with Moledina and then Klei Entertainment CEO Jamie Cheng to see how their hand-drawn game came into the fold.
Jamil, you’ve worked around developers before, but is this your first gig on the development side? What were the biggest surprises in this section of the industry?
Jamil Moledina: Yes, strange as it may seem given my GDC background, this business development role at EA Partners is my first time at bat in the game business itself. Working for as long as I did with developers in my past job, and seeing first-hand the general skepticism toward publishers, probably the biggest surprise to me was how developer-centric EA Partners really is. I called several of the signed partners before taking the job, and they all seemed to view their relationships as mutually rewarding, and as the best they’d experienced in the business. Now, seeing things from the inside out, it’s very clear that everyone in EA Partners shares a passion for zealously advocating and supporting their partners and titles, and valuing talent as a key business goal unto itself. In short, I was surprised to find myself perfectly at home.
What would an indie developer studio need to have in the portfolio to form a relationship with EA Partners?
JM: Having shipped a great game to this market is always a plus. We look at the critical and commercial success of a studio’s prior titles, or their prior individual work if they’re a startup, but most importantly, we play their games to see how much fun they are. It sounds somewhat simple to say out aloud, but really we’re all gamers here at EA Partners, and we’re relying on our judgment as much as on the data. At the end of the day, we’re confident to place our bet on proven talent. If a studio has all that, I’d encourage them to ping me directly – my first name at ea dot com.
You’ve also been part of agreements with big developers like the one EA struck with Epic Games for “Bulletstorm.” How different are the moving parts when you’re switching up from Epic and “Bulletstorm” and Klei and “Shank”?
JM: Great question. Nothing in principle is different. Both of those studios and indeed all of our partners are at the top of their game, and we work with them as equal partners. Tactically, there are execution differences, for example the marketing strategy and execution is scaled differently for a downloadable game, but the dedication of staff and talent on our side is the same. From our point of view, this is a reasonable approach, given our long-term talent-centric priorities.
When and how did the conversations about the partnership begin? How far along was development on “Shank”?
JM: We had shared our readiness to support the indie community to several prominent influencers in the space, including Creative Artists Agency. We were fans of Klei already, but their agent at CAA put us in touch for the first time around last year’s PAX. “Shank” had its first level playable, and we absolutely fell for it. The mix of perfect brawler controls, classic action movie visuals, and sheer badassery made the title really stand out for us. We knew from that moment that Jamie and Jeff were going places, and we had a chance to hitch a ride.