There are superstars in the world of Gamedom; the few, elite pro gamers who make a career motherfragging the crap out of opponents, APM’ing deep into redline, and scoring more than an inebriated Ben Roethlisberger at a sorority house. Then there are the rest of us. Normal types who really, really like video games and would love nothing more than to make a buck or two doing so. Hal Halpin can help you.
The founder and president of the non-profit Entertainment Consumers Association (ECA), Halpin is dedicated to giving the purchasers of video games a voice. In other words, us. And that’s just what he’s been up to recently. From his modest introduction to video games while working at the nation’s oldest operating carousel in Martha’s Vineyard, Hal would go on to make his mark by starting a retail trade association (Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association) and gaming-related outlets (IE Magazine, GameDaily), and re-publishing the benchmark novel on the industry, David Sheff's Game Over. Few people on Earth know as much about the business as he does.
With the madness of the holiday game season about to begin, we sat down with the gaming guru to discuss the details of an impending Supreme Court case that might change gaming forever, the game so crappy he still feels remorse about, the secret to making a great game, and the potential Red Bull/ECA collabo that could lead to the X Games of gaming (X Gaming?). Oh, and the whole making money with video games thing? Check out the career site he launched: GameJobs.com. It might not be as glamorous as starting off at a historic merry-go-round, but it’s a start nonetheless.
So what exactly is the ECA?
The Entertainment Consumers Association was born in 2006 from necessity, really. The game developers had a trade association which represented their interests, as did the publishing companies and retailers, but the most important group of all, consumers, were completely unrepresented.
What is the role of ECA?
Like AAA, which represents automotive enthusiasts, or AARP, which represents retirees, ECA is a membership association that represents the rights and interests of gamers. The organization even being in existence is something of a game-changer. If the music industry had a consumer organization to work with, the face of that business might be entirely different and may have prevented the hell that it went through. Through ECA working with coalition partners, the trade, and legislative bodies, we can help strike the balance between consumers’ rights and the artists’ wants and needs.
There's a legal case involving gaming that made its way up to the Supreme Court, can you give us an overview?
In short, the State of California would like to be able to restrict minors’ ability to purchase any computer or video game that they deem as ‘too violent’. Their defense stems from the idea that games - unlike movies, music, or books - are interactive in nature, making regulation somehow more important. According to their logic, watching The Sopranos commit murder is different than shooting a character in Grand Theft Auto because of the person’s participation in the action. What they’re up against is…well, logic! And the fact that the industry already does a great job at rating games and not selling inappropriate titles to minors - as founded by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). It’s a really important case for gamers and is something that they should be knowledgeable about because it impacts them directly.
What makes a great game are the basic tenets: easy-to-learn, fun-to-play, and tough-to-master.
It’s pretty obvious, but what’s the ECA's official stance?
We stand solidly with the gaming industry and submitted a formal friend of the court document, called an amicus brief. We also created a consumer petition that any U.S. gamer can sign, digitally. The First Amendment rights of consumers, artists and merchants all hang in the balance. Some might say, “Good. I don’t want kids playing Halo anyway!” But the reality is that nine out of ten of those kids who play the game received them from their parents, not on their own. These very parents, likely after reading the rating and description on the back, determined that it was okay for their kid to play Halo. If the trade is doing a great job already, why should games be singled out and treated any differently than movies?
To play Devil's advocate: do you think that certain ultra-violent games, say Call of Duty or the GTA series, should be accessible to an eight-year-old?
I think what media children consume is very important and there likely ought to be more research about it, broadly, as opposed to research that targets gamers and gaming in particular. As for my personal opinion, we use the ratings systems as guides in our house; TV ratings, movie, music, and games. That said, those ratings should be just what they are, guides, not hard-and-fast limits. Entertainment is subjective and each participant is unique. Here’s a real-world example: my son is 12 and was desperate to play the Halo series. At 12, he’s old enough to play many Teen-rated games, but Mature-rated? So we gave him a challenge: read the Halo books and prove that you’re mature enough to understand the context and we’ll allow you to play the games. He consumed the books with a passion and earned the privilege of playing the games.
Going back, how did you get into gaming?
I worked for our neighbors in the summertime at Martha’s Vineyard. They owned and ran the oldest carousel in the country, The Flying Horses, and were smart enough to see the arcade game boom. They invested in dozens of machines and compensated me and their own kids with an endless stream of tokens. I loaded the arm that riders on the carousel would pluck rings from and played games at every opportunity. The home consoles were also booming at the time and the Atari 2600 became just the first in a series of ‘investments’ my parents made.
When did it turn serious?
Out of college, I worked briefly in my family’s business in the maritime industry training to be an underwriter, when, in an effort to diversify, they built a wholesale game distribution company and a small retail chain, sort of like GameStop, but on a much smaller scale. That built a foundation and we went on to launch a small publishing company, and later, the trade association which represented game retailers, the Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association (IEMA).
Was gaming considered a viable career back then?
Fifteen years ago, the industry was a much smaller business to crack into – which was both good and bad. Gaming was divided into two sectors: computer and home console systems. That rift was cultural for developers as well. Studios and publishers weren’t united in their passion for interactive entertainment as they are now, and there weren’t trade schools or colleges to learn about the business. Even now, in a recession, there are jobs and opportunities to be had for those willing to put in the time and energy.
What was the first game you ever bought?
Hmm... with my own money? Probably Mortal Kombat. I really enjoyed the arcade version and I really wanted to play it whenever I wanted… at home!
Gamers respond to brands that care about their issues and are supportive of their wants and needs.
Favorite game of all-time?
Mario Kart 64! Back when I ran the publishing company, we used to spend every lunch and countless hours after work playing. In many ways, it was a predecessor to what gaming would become: mature while being fun; social, yet compelling; and immersive, without getting lost in the experience.
Worst game of all time?
Hmm... Okay, Superman 64. I feel a little bit guilty because the development company which distributed and sold the game took out an advertisement which wrapped the magazine I published at the time. That ad was one of the reasons retailers bought so much of it, before anyone knew whether it was good or not. It was a terrific and successful marketing piece, but the game? Not so much.
Is there a recipe for a great game?
I sometimes think that the industry over-analyzes that question, actually. What makes a great game are the basic tenets: easy-to-learn, fun-to-play, and tough-to-master. You can have the most amazing graphics ever, but still have a game that people won’t play. Successfully striking the balance isn’t easy for developers, but occasionally you’ll see one that hits on all three marks and becomes a phenomenon. A recent example is Plants vs Zombies for the iPhone and iPad. I’ve lost many hours of sleep playing that game!
Who are some of the better developers?
Well, that could be measured in a number of ways. Some of the most commercially-successful developers include Valve, Harmonix, id, Bungie, and Epic. Independent studios, in my opinion, are the lifeblood of the industry. It’s an unfortunate reality that they’re usually absorbed into a much larger third-party publishing company. But with the emergence of the next upstart, the cycle begins again, blowing us away like Media Molecule did with Little Big Planet.
Must-have 2010 holiday games?
There’s a lot to choose from with Medal of Honor, Tron: Evolution, Rock Band 3, Donkey Kong Country Return and Gran Turismo 5.
The most under-appreciated game of 2010?
I keep hearing great things about the last Tomb Raider game, the Guardian of Light, but haven’t had a chance to check it out. I guess I’m reinforcing the problem there, though.
What do you think of non-endemic companies such as Red Bull getting involved with gaming?
It’s really exciting. Gaming has matured along with gamers and seeing brands take such an active interest in the community is yet another sign that it has become as culturally relevant as music or movies. What distinguishes Red Bull in particular, in my opinion, is the approach: honest and sincere. Gamers respond to brands that care about their issues and are supportive of their wants and needs, and not just in-your-face advertising. I think we’ve all moved beyond that. Partnering with the ECA is probably as pure and noble an approach as you can get.
What’s your opinion on Walshy and the Red Bull LAN?
The field of eSports is fascinating. How anyone can watch someone play with the talent and expertise that Dave does and not be as excited as watching any other professional athlete excel in their sport is beyond me. And Dave is a truly great guy as well. It’s not often you see a celebrity that’s so naturally gifted also be so humble and kind. I overheard a few of his fans talking at a MLG event while waiting for his autograph, and they were chalking his disposition up to his Midwestern background. But it goes beyond that. He cares about gaming and goes all-in, all the time, even devoting a fair amount of it to a very worthwhile charity, Gamers Outreach.
If you could pitch a Red Bull-sponsored gaming event, what would it be?
Hmm, probably a collegiate-level league – an idea that we discussed with Dell and Intel back in 2007. It seems like there’s a really great opportunity to leverage the 50-plus ECA chapters that we have across the U.S. and Canada, along with the Red Bull University program, to build out something similar to other non-professional sports associations. The culmination of the season could end with an X Games-style event and festival, celebrating gamers and gaming.