Seattleites love to hate polluted L.A.
Angelenos can't imagine so many days without sun.
Yet ties between the video game and entertainment industries have forced the creative communities in these two cities to work together.
In many ways, they need each other. Seattle became fertile ground for video game developers with Microsoft Corp. and Nintendo Inc. in its back yard, while Hollywood has always been the world's movie capital.
Last October, Warner Bros. acquired Kirkland, Wash.-based Monolith Productions, developer of The Matrix Online multiplayer video game. That move was prefaced in early 2004 when Monolith's founder and chief executive, Jason Hall, left the company and Seattle to take a job in L.A. as a vice president heading up Warner's Interactive Entertainment division.
Then in February, Sony Online Entertainment expanded into Seattle by buying FireAnt Inc., a Seattle multi-player game developer founded by former Microsoft Game Studios managers. FireAnt was absorbed into the Sony Corp. unit, remaining in Seattle as Sony's Northwest foothold.
"Everything now is about storytelling and the draw for L.A. is the access to the creative, the storytellers," said Kristina Erickson, project manager of film and interactive media for the Washington Film Office. "People in the film industry always feel they need to go down to L.A., get their feet wet in Hollywood, get it on their resume."
The latest mover is John Vechey, founder and former chief executive of PopCap Games, an online casual-gaming company. In April, Vechey announced that he would be heading south to expand his fledgling movie production company, Lockspring Pictures, which he started last spring.
Vechey, who plans on moving in September, said he won't sell his house, noting that he'll be coming back to Seattle once a month for board meetings. In effect, he's leaving Seattle for L.A. with the goal to move back to Seattle once he's established himself.
"I would love for Seattle to be the best place to make movies and shoot my movies. That would be my preference," he said. But he says he's "outgrown (Seattle) from a business standpoint. Ultimately the movie business is in L.A."
With video games becoming more movie-like, there's been a stream of programmers, writers and marketing executives shuttling back and forth. Monolith and its 165 employees remained in Kirkland, Wash., after the company's purchase by the Time Warner Inc. unit made Warner Bros. the first movie studio with an in-house video game division.
Hall and others have pledged to right the widely perceived wrong that the movie industry has perpetrated against the video game world: rushed, poorly made movie-licensed games. "Unfortunately they mess it up almost every time," Vechey said. "That's the reason game companies are getting bought by movie studios."
Yet Vechey said he's met with resistance and disappointment from some in the gaming community about his decision to switch to movies and he faced this angry question at a recent developers' conference: "Why are movies better than games?"
Vechey said he was surprised that his decision would offend people. "Whoah!," he said. "I love movies and games equally."
Zombie Studios, another Seattle-based game developer, does a lot of work with L.A. studios, but Chief Executive Mark Long said he does not foresee an exodus. "Most developers are not moving to L.A. unless they have to," he said.
But developers like Zombie are increasingly looking to Hollywood production studios to help them as game production values scale up. Pre- and post-production are typically done in L.A., according to Long, "and our writers are Hollywood screenwriters." Sound design is another area where game developers feel they need to look to Hollywood, as games become capable of the theater-caliber surround-sound.
"You want to work with the best sound studios for that, and we just rely on the experience of facilities that L.A. movie productions have used for a long time," Long said. Zombie uses the same sound studios as action movies such as "The Gladiator" and "Black Hawk Down."
In a sense, Seattle can be compared to the principal production area for a film, with the game studio being the live-action shoot. Other areas of production can be done elsewhere, playing to a region's advantage: Canada has cheaper labor, L.A. better special effects studios, and Seattle a deeper pool of graphic/animation artists and engineers.
That's another reason a developer might want to stay in the Pacific Northwest: to hold onto those graphic experts. "In L.A., there's a lot more competition for those skills," he added. "You tend to suffer from the poaching of your employees down there."
In February, Microsoft hired Hollywood writer Alex Garland ("The Beach," "28 Days Later") to write the screenplay for the "Halo" movie, based on the Xbox videogame. The software giant plans to develop and write the screenplay in-house, according to published reports, and will only take it to the studios once it's finished.
All this isn't lost on the Seattle software community. Last week, the Washington Software Alliance, along with the Washington State Film Office, put on a seminar for the digital media and gaming industry, with speakers from different areas of the video game, software and film industry. The focus? Storytelling, hiring talent, "experience delivery" and business strategy.
Some in the Pacific Northwest insist they don't have to give up their lifestyle for Los Angeles.
"With rapid digital communication, it matters less and less where you are these days," said Steven Sappington, chief operations officer of Hash Inc., a Vancouver-based animation software company. Still, Sappington finds himself traveling to L.A. for trade shows like the Electronic Entertainment Expo, and to meet with customers. "L.A. will always be the center," he admitted. "You'll always have to make your trips to Hollywood."
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