One of my favorite business books is Built to Last: Successful habits of visionary companies, by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras. Starting the 1990s, they studied thousands of companies to figure out what made some exceptional. They focused on 18 companies that had lasted for generations, including HP and Disney, and explained what made them different.
And at our recent GamesBeat Summit 2019 event, we sorted through a lot of candidates to come up with 97 speakers. We studied those and — with a group of 10 judges — we gave a Visionary Award to Ted Price, CEO of Insomniac Games, which has been making games such as Spyro the Dragon and Marvel’s Spider-Man — a smash hit on Sony’s PlayStation 4 last fall.
We had 52 sessions. But I’ve singled out four of them that seem very similar in their intent to communicate how they are built to last.
Ted Price, CEO of Insomniac Games
Ted Price’s studio has nearly 300 employees, and it has a good culture too. I’ve been going back to view the videos of our summit talks, and we had a whole group of leaders talk about what it takes to run a long-lasting Triple-A game studio. Price talked about crafting culture and creating a vision with Morgan Webb, head of community and culture at Bonfire Studios.
In 1994, Insomniac started in a garage. It shipped an OK shooter game, Disruptor, and got enough to get a three-game deal with Universal Interactive. That led to Spyro the Dragon, a light-hearted family-friendly game. It aligned better with the founding team.
At first, the team just went heads down and kept making more games. But eventually, the company decided that it wanted to have a mission. Price was struck by a woman who told him that one of Insomniac’s games helped save her life. Price said another couple told him they met playing Insomniac’s Resistance: Fall of Man. They invited him to the wedding, and Price went. They had a couple of Insomniac’s action figures on top of their wedding cake.
From that, Insomniac created its vision statement of having a lasting and positive impact on people’s lives.
Vince Zampella, CEO of Respawn Entertainment
Vince Zampella, CEO of Respawn Entertainment, did a fireside chat with Ted Price, CEO of Insomniac about running a studio after the tremendous success of a new free-to-play game, Apex Legends, which hit more than 50 million users in a month. The game was one of the biggest surprises of the year, and Zampella shared how it came to be.
Price, who is a pretty good interviewer, asked how Respawn made the transition to free-to-play. And Zampella answered candidly that the team was still figuring things out, like how often they should come up with new content in order to feed the ravenous fans. Zampella said the company was glad that it hired a lot of people who have a lot of experience with fast-growing games. They concluded that they should pace the game on a seasonal basis so that the team wouldn’t burn out.
While Respawn was late to the battle royale genre, it knew how to prototype games and “chase the fun.” As the game got bigger and more of a serious project, the team had daily playtests, where everyone had to play no matter what else they were doing. Those playtests led to major changes in the game, such as a focus on three players in a squad instead of four.
Zampella’s team had to make some tough decisions. After the conference, Respawn acknowledged it would focus on Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order and Apex Legends, and it would postpone working on Titanfall 3. In that, the studio can avoid trying to do everything.
Rob Pardo, CEO of Bonfire Studios
Pardo grew up in the game business at Blizzard Entertainment, working on titles like StarCraft: Brood War, Warcraft III, Hearthstone, Diablo III, and World of Warcraft. He eventually became chief creative officer. And then in 2016, he walked away from it all and went off on his own with cofounder Min Kim to start Bonfire.
Pardo said the company wasn’t built from the culture of “move fast and break things,” a statement that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is famous for saying. Bonfire isn’t saying what it is making, other than that it will be an online multiplayer game for core gamers. Webb said the PC game’s purpose is to “build friendships among gamers,” with both cooperative and competitive games.
He described the whole process the company went through to figure out which game it wanted to do. The company went through a period of coming up with dozens of ideas, or “game seeds.” They sorted through them and wound up with a handful of seven game saplings. They went to work on them. Then they “stack ranked” the games. They came out of the process with one game proposal that everyone got behind.
That process was democratic, scientific, and creative at the same time. And it produced ideas that the team was passionate about and willing to talk through to come to some kind of consensus.
Owen Mahoney, CEO of Nexon
Nexon’s boss Owen Mahoney and Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter talked about running game communities that last for years. Mahoney drew an analogy from Nexon’s massively multiplayer online game worlds, such as Dungeon Fighter and MapleStory, to Disneyland. Somehow, after nearly 65 years, Disneyland keeps us coming back.
“That’s what we do,” he said.
Nexon has grown from around $1 billion in value years ago, when Mahoney was first getting engaged with the company, to more than $12 billion in value today. Mahoney thinks that artificial intelligence will revolutionize game management over time. AI will let Nexon tune challenges for players, making sure that the game is challenging enough and easy enough to keep players engaged.
For the future, Mahoney believes tech will have both immediate and longlasting benefits. Money for good game ideas is plentiful, as so many new platforms want to create cloud platforms or become the “Netflix of games.” But Mahoney said that innovation is scarce, and it often comes out of nowhere, like Fortnite or Apex Legends. It usually doesn’t have to do with graphics or story.
“When I think about what I want for Nexon, it’s the same thing I want the industry in 10 years,” he said. “We’ve got so much on our plate that we can do, and the only thing that stops us is our willingness to innovate. All growth comes from innovation. All innovation comes from risk-taking. And all risk-taking comes from the willingness to fail.”
People will fail and they will get bullied on Reddit, he said. But the party is in interactive entertainment, not movies or TV, he said.
In my own talk, I encouraged developers to aspire to do things that matter. I think these companies are doing exactly that. I encourage you to check out these videos because they represent some of the best thinking on building games that lead to studios that have a lasting and positive impact.