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McGee in the Game Capital of the World
Joe Devlin and Emily Berk
This piece was originally published in Coastviews, October 1999 issue.
Game designers look like everyone else
Consider Ian McGee. As director of production for AndNow LLC of Half Moon Bay, he's one of the guys behind the smart-mouthed little hero of the hit game Tiny Tank. Ian sports no obvious tattoos, no nose ring; his hair is not dyed with fluorescent paint. Nor is Ian alone. "There have to be at least fifty people living in the Half Moon Bay area that work in the game business," he says. "Some of the Barbie games come out of Half Moon Bay. Tenth Planet, the educational game people, are right down the street from my office at AndNow. And then there are all the people who freelance and commute to Sega and Sony over the hill."
AndNow LLC (www.AndNow.net) is a local but international company. It was founded by two locals, Ed Annunziata and Gerry Blau, who left Sega three years ago. Ed is best known for creating the mega-best selling game Ecco the Dolphin. Gerry engineers the deals. Twelve people work out of AndNow's headquarters in an unassuming Half Moon Bay office. Thirteen more work out of AndNow's Moscow (Russia) office and eleven live and work in Budapest, Hungary.
Officially, AndNow creates "intellectual property with unique characters and interesting storylines for exploitation across a variety of media." Translation: AndNow designs original games. Take for example, Tiny Tank, a new AndNow game that was just released by Sony Computer Entertainment of America for the Sony PlayStation.
Tiny Tank may sound like just another shoot 'em up, but Tiny is more than just a lethal fighting machine. Yes, he is a gun-toting, mortar-shooting, rocket-launching killer. But in the world from which he comes, voters must approve every dollar of military spending. Some marketing genius came up with the brilliant idea that a really cute tank could win America's heart. Enough money was raised to make him truly lethal. Of course, being a lovable, dewy-eyed killing machine can confuse a guy. Tiny stars in commercials asking for money which Tiny peppers with expletives that have to be bleeped out. One of Tiny's enemies is so tough that he can only be defeated while decked in tutu and toe shoes during ballet practice.
It's definitely "original" intellectual property. The on-line game review magazine ConsoleDomain.com recently raved that Tiny Tank is "thoroughly fun," "fresh," and "down-right hilarious."
Getting Titles Like Tiny Tank To Market Is Tough
With luck, Tiny Tank will make Sony and AndNow lots of money. But it won't have been easy, says Ian. "Executives in the big game companies are always looking for derivative products, games that look just like whatever game is currently hot. It takes two or three years, 1 to 3 million dollars and a team of twenty to thirty people to create a state-of-the-art game. Game platforms change radically every year or so. By the time you clone a title, the market could be long gone. My job is to figure out what technology will be hot in a year or two, work with my team to come up with a fresh new idea to take advantage of the opportunities the technology provides and then convince a major publisher to back the project. It's a technically demanding job with tangible frustrations and rewards."
"I make sure that everything that has to happen happens. Some of the graphics and video is done here, some is done overseas, some is done at Sony or by other contractors chosen by Sony. Add the work of scriptwriters, sound editors, marketing people, techies at Sony and it's controlled chaos. We keep our disparate work force coordinated through the religious use of chat programs, net meetings with video cameras and email up the wazoo. Sometimes we have to meet face to face, so I fly off to off to Europe or they come here. Every project brings unique challenges. For example, the collapse of the Russian economy has made it very hard to pay our Russian employees."
Once Tiny Tank was finished, more complications arose. "We originally developed the game for MGM but when Sony saw the game, they liked it so much that they wanted it. It hung in limbo for months while MGM and Sony dickered over terms. They cut a deal and the title hit the store shelves in September, along with TV ads. Now that Sony is providing full backing, AndNow is spinning off international versions. "It is a real trip to see Tiny quipping in Japanese," says Ian.
Spicing Up Half Moon Bay
Ian thinks Half Moon Bay is the perfect location for a company like his. He appreciates the quiet, but can get where he needs to be in minutes. "These days it is getting easier to coordinate the efforts of a far flung staff like ours electronically. But it still helps to be close enough to drop in on a customer when the need arises. Sony is in Foster City and Sega is in San Francisco, close enough to get me to a meeting on an hour's notice. On the other hand, we are far enough away so that we don't get bugged all the time and we are left alone to get our work done."
Coastal weather is not an issue for the McGee family. "We had lived in Derby, England so the fog doesn't faze us. I love the constant cool temperature here. In England you can see rain, sun, fog and hail all in the same day. In Half Moon Bay, things stay pretty constant season to season." Ian's wife, Laura, loves taking their kids, Patrick (8) and Amanda (3), to the beach whenever she can.
Ian and Laura wanted to live in Half Moon Bay for quite a while before it came about. Then, a few years ago, they visited the coast on "what must have been the most beautiful February in the history of Half Moon Bay," recalls Laura. They decided to make the move. Although they deliberately chose the small town life, they knew they would have adjustments to make. "While in England, we had gotten into Thai food because English food was so terrible. When we moved here, I wasn't able to get the spices I needed. I could get things like galangal (Thai ginger) in San Francisco, but some of the other ingredients were very hard to find." In time, this problem has been solved. "Finally, we bought ourselves a kaffir lime tree. And, lately, you can get foods like lemongrass in Safeway."
Changes in the Game Market
Ian hesitates when asked about changes in the gaming world in the next few years. "Part of my job is to help my company plan for change so I am not going to reveal any trade secrets here. No secret to say that all of us in the game business are watching what's going on with games on handheld computers with a great deal of interest. What's going on is really cool. Sit in on any meeting in Silicon Valley and you see many folks rapidly scribbling notes on Palm Pilots. Chances are, half of those people aren't really taking notes. They are playing games with each other. Palm Pilots can communicate with each other across a room. For example, there is a game called Jargon. Everybody playing sets up a list of buzzwords they bet the boss is going to use during the meeting. As soon as he says one, everyone claims it. And, of course, there are players bold enough to prompt the boss with questions whose sole purpose is to get him or her to say a word that will improve their score. Interesting market. Makes you wonder how any work gets done there."