The Auteur Theory of Video GamesTo Seamus Blackley, Counterstrike is high art
At Creative Artists Agency— the Los Angeles talent brokerage where phone calls usually start with “What’s new, Keanu?” or “How are the kids, Brad?”—Seamus Blackley, A90, is proud to represent the least famous artists of all. Just because they are all video game designers doesn’t mean they can’t be auteurs on the same level as Scorsese. “Where are video games reviewed in The New York Times now?” he asks. “In the Arts section. The audience doesn’t think of them as technology.” And so it seemed only natural that in June, when Tufts presented its P.T. Barnum Awards for achievement in arts and entertainment, Blackley was feted along with Steve Tisch, A71 (producer of Forrest Gump and Risky Business) and Ben Silverman, A92 (producer of the TV shows The Office and Ugly Betty).
As Blackley, 39, sees it, video games are a medium whose time has come. “There is a perception that once games get to a certain level of technology, or the characters are fixed, games will explode. Take a look at Halo 2, and tell me, what needs to be fixed?” he asks. “Counterstrike had two orders of magnitude more playing minutes than Friends ever had viewer minutes.”
Before he went Hollywood, Blackley was best known for compelling Bill Gates to invest millions in creating Microsoft’s first game console. But even before he became the father of the Xbox, Blackley was an outspoken proponent of video games and the people, like himself, who designed them.
Blackley wrote his first games as a fifth-grader in New Mexico with a few friends who shared his fascination with the school’s dishwasher-sized minicomputer. They wrote games like Kojak, where the goal was to cut the growing hair on a bald scalp while fending off attacking dandruff and lice.
Later, he studied electrical engineering at Tufts, but spent most of his time playing piano around Boston with his jazz band. By junior year he had no credits toward graduation. It took a summer job apprenticed to an expert in nuclear magnetic resonance to inspire him. He changed his major to physics and caught up fast, taking nine classes each semester. After graduation, he continued his studies at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Then his career in high-energy physics was cut short when Congress pulled the funding for the particle accelerator he would need to do his work. (Cue the wilting sound of an expired Pac-Man.)
Soon after, in 1992, a want ad on a bulletin board offered him another life: Looking Glass Technologies in Cambridge sought a physicist who could add realism to its video games—someone who could take a car crash and give it the right bounce, flip, and ricochet. Blackley was perfect. Among other things, he used his skills as a glider pilot to create an aerodynamically honest flight simulator called Flight Unlimited.
If friends from Tufts know him by a different moniker, it’s because “Seamus” is something of a stage name he earned at Looking Glass. Seamus née Jonathan explains: “Some of my friends held a contest to see what my new name would be.” (He doesn’t say why, implying that this is a typical thing for brilliant computer types to do on a lark.) “Seamus won out. The next day everything was changed—my email, the name on my door.”
In 1995, he took his new name to DreamWorks SKG, where he put his physics skills into Trespasser, a much-hyped game based on the movie Jurassic Park. Unfortunately, players didn’t like it. (Some called it so real it was boring). Swearing off games, Blackley moved to Seattle to work on graphics for Microsoft.
Game over? Not quite. Within two months, he and a few colleagues were pitching their bosses the idea for a game console that catered to game designers. With Microsoft’s technologies behind it, the Xbox would be easier to program than other game consoles, and more powerful. Blackley was its chief technology officer and its most public cheerleader. The initial run of 1.5 million sold out in a few weeks.
Blackley sees his move to Creative Artists in 2003 as a further attempt to raise the status of video games. “Our game designer clients are treated the same as the big movie directors,” he says. The agency also “understands the scale of the game business,” which totaled $32 billion in 2006, surpassing the $26 billion people spent on movie tickets.
As an agent, he helps designers cut deals with game publishers and sometimes movie studios. One of his clients, Warren Spector, who created Deus Ex, recently teamed up with the film director John Woo, with whom he hopes to develop an original story that will work just as well in a video game as it does in a movie. And not a moment too soon. “Movies made out of games and games made out of movies generally suck,” Blackley points out. The big-screen versions of Doom and Resident Evil slither to mind.
Steven Spielberg once said that video games will come of age “when somebody confesses they cried at level seventeen.” And Blackley notes that indeed people can become emotionally immersed in the experience of gaming. Take Guitar Hero, where the player earns points for fretting along with a song on a fake Gibson. “Once you’ve played a song in Guitar Hero, it’s hard to just listen to it on the radio,” he says. “Once you can go to a world and be part of it and participate in a story, it’s very hard to just be told a story.”
So he is standing by the next generation of Hitchcocks and Hustons, even if they do like skateboards and say “badass” a lot.