Crispy Gamer

Players: Bill Gardner



Oh, to walk a mile in publisher Eidos' shoes...let alone bear the heavy burden of sitting atop a company that's been in the news for all the wrong reasons of late. But that's exactly what CEO Bill Gardner gets to do day in and out, extinguishing fires and fielding the calls of rightly zealous journalists and angry investors.

Consider just a few of the issues that have kept him burning the midnight oil in recent weeks. Fresh from successfully rekindling gamers' love/hate relationship with the hit-or-miss Tomb Raider series, the company recently found itself at the center of a poo-storm surrounding promotional efforts behind next-gen crime thriller Kane & Lynch. And as if the outfit wasn't busy catching flack for allegedly having CNET editor Jeff Gerstmann fired over the title's critical drubbing, it was preoccupied with fielding accusations of having posted fake review scores in supporting advertisements -- all while faced with the task of squeezing returns from a holiday season in which $20 million development budgets and greater retail competition than ever were the norm.

Ever wondered what it takes to perform that kind of juggling act -- or to apply the boots to the right behinds -- that keeps businesses like this afloat in times of crisis? Meet our first interview subject, whom we discovered (refreshingly, we might add) isn't afraid to dispense with the corporate mumbo-jumbo and cut right to the chase.

Crispy Gamer: What's it like being the CEO of a videogame company these days -- a lot of executive washrooms being upgraded from gold-plated toilets to platinum?

Bill Gardner: It is tough out there. The competition is strong, the costs of development and marketing are high, and the consumers are not as predictable as in the past. I wish the executive washroom were getting upgraded along with anything else. Instead, we have moved to the outhouse!

Crispy Gamer: What are just a few of the responsibilities you're faced with on a daily basis? And what makes someone qualified to handle that sort of job?

Gardner: Well, day in and day out, a CEO is responsible for the overall health of the company, including parts and labor, human resources, sales, marketing, and dealing with the press. More often than not, there are looming large issues in any one of these areas that must be addressed in a timely manner or else "the other shoe will drop.' What makes anyone qualified? I would think that a lot of experience in dealing with every aspect of the business, from sales and marketing to finance, logistics, inventory planning and control -- and, last but not least, understanding your products and their potential appeal to the market over a period of many years. There doesn't seem to be a shortcut for anyone who thinks this is easy.

Crispy Gamer: Where does one pick up this kind of experience: Can kids go to school to study "Lording Over Underlings 101" or "Bamboozling Investors?'

Gardner: They only wish! Certainly, a good education is fundamental to business, as is a lot of common sense (does anyone have that anymore?). As for "Bamboozling Investors,' that seems to be a course that I haven't found, yet. This business, like all businesses, has its risks and rewards, and more often than not, investors hear what they wish to hear rather than performing the appropriate diligence and making informed decisions -- which includes examining management practices.

Now, as for the "Lording Over Underlings 101" course, that's been taught at many top-notch Ivy League schools I think, and is perpetuated in some large corporations out there. These guys seem to be making their way into our business more and more these days, so I would suggest that your readers try to find a university that offers this class.

Crispy Gamer: Rumor has it you might have started your own videogame publishing company (O3 Entertainment) before. Mind sharing the story, and any joys or ulcers that you gained as a badge of honor from the experience?

Gardner: Oh, God. That was an experience. We launched with really modest expectations and spent a lot of our personal money to get products launched. As always, the developers were late and all had unrealistic expectations (look at the TRST data, you developer sorts). The truth is that most of the products that are available to independent developers are NOT AAA games -- the big guys get those. So you spend a lot of time and money to build additional relationships -- getting licenses, looking at bad products and listening to a lot of developer hype.

The joys for all concerned are in seeing products actually reach the retail shelves. The ulcers come from dealing with the venture capitalists (ughhhhhh), the financial institutions, and everyone else's unrealistic expectations that you can "ramp like Google.' I don't think that I gained any badge of honor from the experience, because it became somewhat routine in that the tasks are exactly the same (with the possible exception of cleaning the toilets and the office) for a small company as with a larger one. If you want to start your own thing, be prepared to work hard and long and to suffer multiple sacrifices.

Crispy Gamer: Sitting at the top of the pile can be a double-edged sword: Everyone from critics to shareholders seem to think they can do your job better. Why wouldn't the average trash-talker want to don your mantle?

Gardner: Because he/she would then need to deal with all of the rest of the critics and trash-talkers! It never stops, no matter what you do, and more often than not, for legal reasons, you cannot respond to these people. If you are doing things well, someone always believes that they could do it better, and if you trip, they are right there saying "I told you so..."

It sounds like a thankless job, but in the end, hopefully you have a few people that think you did it right and will tell you so. The greatest rewards are in going home with a feeling that you are contributing something to the well-being of your employees and their families, and knowing that they have a better life because you did your job well. Every now and then I would love to trade places with the trash-talkers and second-guessers, just to give them a taste. It is really easy to Monday-morning quarterback.

Crispy Gamer: Ah, yes, and speaking of that -- what's Eidos' side on the story in terms of what happened regarding the incident with the supposedly fudged review scores posted as GameSpy and Game Informer's take on Kane & Lynch?

Gardner: I guess I would say that if we have a 'side" of [the GameSpot] story, it is best explained by the GameSpot post that came out here. In terms of "fudged" scores, I believe that if you look closely, you would see that this is not the case, but could be interpreted a couple of ways, depending on how one is so inclined.

When there is this level of controversy about an issue, there are those that will seek and grab onto anything that is remotely judgmental, and seize the opportunity to pile on. Having been responsible for the launch of many games that have been highly controversial (to say the least), I was not surprised that we could get picked apart for something. We are pleased with Kane & Lynch and it is our duty and right to say so, don't you think?

Crispy Gamer: One supposes so, but only to a point -- that said, how much truth is there to this whole "Jeff Gerstmann was fired due to pressure from Eidos over a poor Kane & Lynch review" controversy?

Gardner: Awwwww, come on. Again, I think that Gamespot answered all of this very directly. No matter what we say from here, we would get a raft of naysayers and disbelievers, so we do not see any benefit in saying the same things twice. I see it as a lose-lose situation. Say nothing and you are wrong, say something and you are wrong. It was never an Eidos issue to begin with...

Crispy Gamer: Perhaps, but what sort of challenges do larger-scale dilemmas like these present to you in terms of doing your job, and do you think they're simply symptomatic of larger underlying issues with the business?

Gardner: I think that the press sees the so called "Gerstmann-gate" and Kane & Lynch controversies much differently than we do, and this is typical. No offense intended, but the vast majority of our consumers do not pay an awful lot of attention to what we, in the gaming space, may think is "mission critical' and 'vitally important" or, as you stated, a larger issue. Consider that each facet of our beloved industry honestly believes that it is the cornerstone of the industry's existence: Developers honestly believe that they each control the fate of the world; publishers believe something similar; retailers, again the same; and the press does also. The truth is that no single group has that much power, so get over it and move on. Not that many people really care [to begin with].

How much of a challenge do these types of controversial issues present? Not a lot. We need to be prepared to deal with some issues that have a lot of meaning, like navigating traffic to get to work, catching the flight to London to make the budget report, or speaking with our children before they go to bed. That all has meaning and is important.

The "controversy" here was not about Jeff or Kane & Lynch, it was about the possible influence of advertisers on editorial content. That issue is one that we should address as an industry.

Obviously (I hope it is obvious), each controversial issue has it's own unique challenge, and in my job, I seek the wisdom and advice of my staff, but ultimately the buck stops here and the headache is mine alone to cure. Personally, I like to try to get the "complete story," analyze the issues and situations, look at several alternatives, then pick one and move ahead. I would say that we, at Eidos, do not have a lot of these issues, but we have our share, and hopefully, we have dealt successfully with each of them in the correct way. I know I will never please everyone, but then again, that is not why I am here.

Crispy Gamer: Do game companies really wield that kind of power with the media in your opinion? Why so or why not?

Gardner: I don't want to believe that game companies wield power enough to determine what a magazine/Web site/etc. writes nor whom they employ to write it. Certainly not the "mighty Eidos' in any case... I am certain that there are times when the press calls our child ugly that we are not happy. But that is their right, just as it is our right to make the games that not everyone would necessarily enjoy or play. That, I believe, was covered a long time ago in the First Amendment. Far be it from me to try to rewrite that impressive document.

Crispy Gamer: Looking at the amount of advertorial content now filling today's magazines, newspapers and Web sites, is there a bigger problem here than simple editorial integrity we're dealing with?

Gardner: I am not certain that I understand this question. Wouldn't you say that "advertorial" is just a different word for "advertisement?' We could all write "advertorials" on our own Web sites and pretend it was something different, but most intelligent people would see through that.

Look, let's be honest here, the press wants and demands advance access to newsworthy information and content, and they want it EARLY, correct? Otherwise they would be writing about things in the past tense. Frankly I don't see the difference between now and how things worked in the past. We have a new medium in Web sites that want to grow then sell out to someone really big to make a zillion dollars and retire to Hawaii. Sounds familiar to me.

We aren't a perfect industry, by no means, but maybe everyone should look closely into the mirror before the stones start flying!

Crispy Gamer: Mind walking us a through an average day in your loafers, so gamers know what it's like to be king of the hill? (You can skip the parts where you light cigars with burning $100 bills and browbeat subordinates until they cry, unless you think people would be into that boring stuff...)

Gardner: Average day, hmm...your readers won't like this. I get out of bed at 5 a.m., and get ready to drive about 45 minutes to work. I arrive before 7 a.m., have a mocha-decaf-non-fat-latt&eacure; (not really, I don't even know what that is), and answer e-mail until my brain is numb. Next comes a day full of meetings -- some fun, and many not fun. These pleasant tasks occupy most of my day. Finally, assuming that I do not have a business dinner with a developer, editor, magazine publisher, European colleague or a board meeting or other activity scheduled, I can go back home, arriving between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. -- unless, of course, I'm on the road.

All of your readers are now probably saying: 'A-ha! I knew he was lying... Now the juicy parts!' But in terms of travel, let's take Las Vegas, for example. OK, so, instead of 5 a.m, I arise at 3 a.m. so that I can get to the airport in time to catch the 7 a.m. flight. I have a cup of bad coffee and struggle through security so that I can get into the middle seat that someone has managed to acquire for me on the airplane. After being delayed for up to an hour, we finally get to Sin City and I find that I will miss my first appointment and that my schedule is screwed up for the remainder of the day.

Following hours and hours of dealing with people that remind one of used car salesmen, I am then ushered off to a dinner meeting with members of the 'fourth estate,' who are busy trying to see how much of an expense account I have and whether or not they can plug a hole into it. After enduring several hours of listening to their inebriated stories, I finally get back to my hotel, and start responding to email until REALLY late at night. The next day, I have the pleasure of doing most of this again. After two or three days of this, I get back onto an airplane, in my center seat, and head off to yet another exciting airport in a city that I won't see, arriving late and exhausted, and wondering if my family still knows who I am. Do this for a number of years, and then tell me how lucky I am to have the job I have, ha-ha.

As you can see, the cigars and browbeating are just the start...

Crispy Gamer: Eidos is a company that's seen the highest highs (see: Tomb Raider) and lowest lows (yeah, er... Tomb Raider again). What happened there? And how does a firm manage to accomplish so miraculous a turnaround?

Gardner: Now there is a good question. I came to Eidos in the summer of 2005, with Tomb Raider: Legend under development. The franchise was a disaster, primarily because of greed and other evil acts by "someone" before my time. But that is no excuse. I think what happened over time was that the company needed to keep the franchise alive and the finances afloat, so products were rushed out prematurely. We needed to step back, get the new game right, go back to the retail and press people, and "fess up" to what had happened, and fix it. I think that we did a pretty good job of that.

Crystal Dynamics worked really hard to get the next game right, bring it in on schedule and completed, and our PR, marketing and sales teams humbly re-approached the market and gave more than had been expected. We needed to be certain that we respected our audiences, the retailers, the press and most of all our consumers and delivered more than had been promised. It took a tremendous amount of cooperation and goodwill from everyone to accomplish this.

Crispy Gamer: Let's be honest: When it comes to software, not all is created equal. So all PR speak aside, a couple questions -- do you love all your proverbial children (read: games) equally, and do publishers knowingly set out to foist crappy titles on an unsuspecting fan base?

Garnder: We should love all of our proverbial children equally, but we probably do not, in truth. We are not blind. We can see that some of these products have warts, or aren't quite up to the same level as others, so we need to help them along. I only wish that we had the wisdom and insight that the fourth estate seems to have.

They are free to call all of our children ugly, but we as parents do not want to see that all of the time. Sometimes we are not even able to see the issues, or we choose to ignore them, and thus we may inadvertently foist a crappy title on an unsuspecting fan base. My question back to you is this... Who did the foisting? When someone looks at a title and, say, loves it, but others pan it, and both write about it, who is foisting what? I have played a lot of games that had great reviews that ultimately stink, and then I have enjoyed many games that never even received a written word, because the fourth estate found them "unworthy.' All of us sit atop a double-edged sword here.

Crispy Gamer: What has the advent of next-generation systems like the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii done to the development and publishing process? Are things any more different, riskier or more challenging than in past generations?

Gardner: It takes more time and money, currently, to develop for the next-gen systems, generally speaking. This inherently causes greater risk and challenges than in the past, because if you miss, you miss bigger! As for the publishing process, it is about the same. It has always been risky in the publishing business, because of unknown social and economic situations like the economy going south for the winter, or unexpected strife, or the cost of gasoline exceeding the cost of a game. This happens, so the risks are there. I can't say that it is any worse now than it has been in the past, but it is more expensive.

Crispy Gamer: The future of gaming -- where does it lie? Are we really ready for things like online distribution, episodic content, convergence and other buzzwords?

Gardner: Ahhh, let me look into my Crystal Dynamics ball (sorry for that, I couldn't help myself). I only wish that I knew as much as the hype-artists and fundraisers. These guys know everything -- just ask them, they will tell you. I honestly have no idea what the future really holds in this business. Other than that it WILL be here (sooner than we think)! We change so much from year to year that I don't have lots of respect for those that claim to "see the future.' The customers will decide, as they should.

Crispy Gamer: By the by, going off on a tangent, we were pleased to note that the 'Hitman' movie didn't suck. Which makes us wonder: a) How in the hell did you guys manage to pull off the impossible, and b) For the inevitable sequel, any chance you could work in a cameo for Justin Timberlake?

Gardner: I would say that the movie was OK, and that the production company did an OK job with it. It is not easy to make a movie from a game, but they managed to pull this one off. I think that there have now been several examples of movies from games that worked. It took some time, but a couple of things have happened. The movie people seem to better understand games, and the game people finally understand that they don't know anything about making a good movie. So there you have it. Besides, didn't I just see Justin Timberlake in some movie on HBO where he was playing videogames and trash talking? Is he one of your faves?

Crispy Gamer: If there were one game title or franchise you'd love to add to Eidos' portfolio, what would it be and why? Note: Everyone says the AO-version of the recently Target-banned Manhunt 2, so you can't pick that one.

Gardner: Madden. It sells a lot and everyone loves to play it. Otherwise, I wouldn't pick anything real controversial that I would need to deal with.

Crispy Gamer: Rumor has it that SCi and Eidos are up on the auction block. What exactly are you folks looking for in terms of a potential suitor, and what type of company do you think would fit with your firm best - someone like an EA or UbiSoft?

Gardner: We're looking for someone to love us. We just want to be loved, doesn't everyone? Who would fit? Well, that is the $64 million question. I have my thoughts, and so do many other people. As for now, I'm not telling.

Crispy Gamer: We've recently seen some unexpected crossovers -- from Solid Snake's appearance in Super Smash Bros. to the Mario/Sonic games -- any chance of getting that Pok&eacure;mon meets Kane & Lynch tag-team effort of which we've been dreaming?

Gardner: Actually, I like the "Agent 47/Lara Croft/Chris Redfield/Jill-Valentine hunt for zombies in the tombs of Raccoon City" theme for a new title... How about you?

Crispy Gamer: Last, but not least, your company has given us such gems as Pocket Pool and Pony Friends -- apart from "cha-ching," what do you have to say in your defense?

Gardner: Guilty, your honor. Like everyone else out there, we have a few children that aren't as pretty as others. But seriously now, there are some folks that enjoyed those games. In our defense, these were not from Eidos' internal studios, but we did help the publishers/developers out by distributing the games for them.

Anyhow, are you trying to tell me that there is room for only AAA games that not everyone enjoys? Sometimes the simple act of swatting a bug or shooting pool is satisfying enough for some of us. There are a few "casual" players out there, so I am told... Or don't they count?

For a look at Scott Steinberg's credentials, check out his writer page.