Exclusive SXSWI interview: Tim Langdell

A godfather of gaming development talks about how the tools for squad-based games are shaping game development

"You have to collaborate in development." That's the simple message from Tim Langdell (appearing as a SXSW Interactive panelist at Redrum in the Rue Morgue': Collaboration in International Communities, Saturday at 3:30pm in room 6 at the Austin Convention Center). He should know. He's helped build the industry for three decades.

"I'm incredibly interested and excited by the direction the game industry is taking," said Langdell, "which is back to the vibe of the early 80s, for the independent game developer to have a voice." Co-founder in 1979 of UK-based EDGE Games (one of the world's oldest computer games firms and for many years effectively SEGA and EA's European divisions), Langdell also helped establish the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, and wrote and taught the first games entertainment curriculum for USC film school. He's now head of the videogaming department at National University in California, the first academic institution in the US to offer an MFA in videogame production. Increasingly, his interests have turned towards building collaboration into games and game development.

Working together apart is already a pivotal component of much modern gaming, with the rise of squad-based games, and MMOs adding more collaborative components. "You can still be the nerd in the bedroom, but the design of the game is to share as a group," he said. Now those techniques can be applied to building the game, which could break the near-monopoly grip of the big design studios and strengthen the indie developers.

Langdell has the historical perspective of seeing the industry evolve from a time when game makers worked from home because code-bashing was a solitary pursuit. "It still gives me quite a buzz, that part of my team is in Korea, someone's in Scotland, someone's on the East coast and the West coast."

Even though the videogame industry is a relatively new industry, it had become institutionalized. To become a game developer meant one thing: dealing with the hardware firms on their terms. "We had 16, 17 years where 80 percent of the revenue was on game consoles, and that was a walled garden," Langdell said. To become an official developer meant paying $10-20,000 per development consoles. Once they had the game, the developers had to petition console manufacturers for the right to put it on cartridges and discs. "I remembered cues around the block to negotiate production," Langdell added. But now, with downloadable content, the industry is adapting to a new paradigm.

The new model is displayed by Microsoft's XNA platform, where indie developers will be able to make their games available for comment and feedback from other developers. "People will pay a relatively small fee to be part of the developer system. Rather than having Microsoft deciding whether it will be available through XBox LIVE, it will be a community judgment by their peers." Tweaking and re-uploading the game will allow the developer to beta-test again and again and again, and while the finished game will have their name on it, "Each product will be a collaborative product," said Langdell.

But the hidden benefit might yet be felt beyond gaming. Team-building has been a business mantra for decades, and a money-pit for firms hoping to use every trick and gimmick that management consultants can dream. Without just giving everyone a Second Life account, Langdell argues, there must be some lessons that can be learned. "How much money has been poured into those schemes and those training, and World of Warcraft does an incredibly good job of it."

Tomorrow: more from Langdell on Wii, family-friendly games, and the biggest business mistake the industry is making.

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