By John Walker on January 30th, 2014 at 3:00 pm.
Phoenix Online Studios was, until very recently, a group of dedicated hobbyists scattered around the world, working on their fan tribute to the King’s Quest games. The Silver Lining was developed over many years, and faced much turmoil, before eventually seeing four of its chapters released in 2010 and 2011. Now, in just three years, they’re a major player in the resurgence of adventure gaming, developing games with industry hero Jane Jensen. It’s an impressive story, and one that’s looking like it’s still got places to go. Phoenix have just announced the appointment of Techsavvy and Game Theory’s Scott Steinberg as their general manager. We’ve chatted with him to find out why he’s joining, and more about the tale of Phoenix Online.
We first came across Scott Steinberg back when I was having a bit of a spat with Fox News. Fox had put up the most extraordinary story about how games like Bulletstorm were responsible for rape. No, they did. Scott was one of the experts they spoke to, but when his answers couldn’t be bent to fit their mad will, they just ignored them entirely. He then came to more fame via the Game Theory (which sadly is now rather defunct). Scott, a motivational speech in human form, it seemed, was a goodie.
So news that he was joining the team working on Cognition and Moebius caught our eye. It seems an odd move for a man more associated with showing up on US news shows to explain why games aren’t necessarily going to murder your children. Scott’s a man with lots to say, and says it in a way that really should be accompanied by an increasingly rousing orchestral score, until by the end of each soliloquy you feel like you should be standing on your feet, your hand on your heart, staring proudly into the sky.
RPS: Can you begin by explaining a bit about who you are, and what you’ve done in the games industry? Techsavvy is well known in the industry, but perhaps not so much to the players.
Scott Steinberg: Certainly, although it might be easier to ask what haven’t we done by this point. I started in the games business 20 years ago in QA testing (Alone in the Dark III) and public relations (Corsairs, Empire of the Ants, etc.). Went on to become a senior publishing executive for firms like Microids, Atari and DreamCatcher, helping sign and/or bring titles like Shogo: Mobile Armor Division and Sacred 2 to market worldwide. Moved from there to self-publishing PC games, authoring several bestselling books (Videogame Marketing and PR, Modern Parent’s Guide series, etc.), building online pressrooms for leading publishers via GamesPress.com and serving as an industry insider for 600+ media outlets from CNN to Rolling Stone.
RPS: Oh, is that all?
Scott Steinberg: Most recently, I founded TechSavvy Global, a consulting and market research firm. Essentially, we advise game executives at major corporations and independent developers alike on how to build successful business strategies and must-play games. Most players never see the work we do, which includes helping game makers decide which games to publish, providing product testing services (you’d be amazed how much can change before release), determining how to best connect with fans [and so on].
RPS: Phoenix Online, just a few years ago, was a group of fans scattered around the world, trying to make a King’s Quest fan-project. Now they’re one of the bigger names in adventure development, working alongside Jane Jensen. How did all that come about?
Scott Steinberg: Persistence. Passion. Optimism. Enthusiasm. Serendipity. Also: A great deal of stubbornness, and unwillingness to quit. All credit must be given to studio founders and the many contributors worldwide who poured their heart and soul into projects like The Silver Lining, investing years of nights and weekends to build games despite the odds stacked against them. And, of course, a determination to bring gamers the types of high-quality story-driven games they’ve demanded for years… the same games our developers adore, being diehard fans themselves. This is a studio by gamers, for gamers, and one that pulled itself up by its bootstraps thanks to the generosity and support of the gaming community, who refuses to see story-driven games go by the wayside.
When you work to put yourself in the path of opportunity, more opportunities happen. Precisely how Phoenix Online Studios went from being a ragtag group of fans to earning the goodwill of fans and gaming legends, and their invaluable support. Against all odds, Phoenix’s team refused to settle or quit, and showed what it was capable of in the face of overwhelming adversity. This built tremendous goodwill with the gaming community and, inspired by it, the studio used this support and motivation to build a legacy of award-winning story-driven games.
RPS: And presumably The Silver Lining was a pretty brutal way of learning lots of those lessons.
Scott Steinberg: As colleagues often point out, if you believe in something long enough and work even harder than you believe in it, great things will happen. Phoenix Online Studios essentially willed itself into being: A group of fans with a shared interest in classic adventure games teamed up to make a game, despite having never made games before, and had to learn how to do so through trial-and-error as nobody was there to guide them. The business continually pushed forward, learned as it went, and reinvented itself to match changing tastes and times, despite facing challenges from every quarter. And so The Silver Lining became a training ground in all aspects of operating a modern development studio, and global business.
The team not only emerged stronger, more resilient, and better-equipped to deal with the realities of the modern gaming business – it had learned how to achieve self-sufficiency, and develop, promote and distribute successful games. Phoenix basically put itself out there, held itself accountable, and improved as it went, and both fans and partners responded with an outpouring of kindness and generosity as a result. That’s a debt the studio doesn’t take lightly.
Developers seldom get to hear this, but they should. The gaming business is challenging for indies, even in the best of times. But when you’re in it for the long run, you quickly learn: If you’re practical, persistent, positive, flexible and open to new perspectives, partners and ideas, anything is possible. Set audacious goals. Doggedly work towards them, but don’t be afraid to adapt or course-correct. Pick yourself back up when you stumble. And don’t stop trying. You’d be amazed how resourceful and resilient you’ll become when you start from zero, aim for 100, and never stop pushing forward. You won’t always succeed with every effort, but you’ll learn from it – and that learning can make all the difference.
RPS: And accepting new partners seems appropriate here. How did you come to be a part of it? It seems quite a big change of direction.
Scott Steinberg: Many factors – not the least of them being a burning desire to show that the industry can deliver titles every bit as intelligent, sophisticated and artfully nuanced as movies, books, comic books and other forms of media. Two decades ago, gaming was a vibrant world, alight with unique universes, play experiences, characters and settings. Today, this spirit has returned, after two decades of deviating towards less original and inventive titles. There’s never been more opportunity to raise the bar, reach a broader audience, or make more of an impact. It’s clear that we can make a difference.
Gaming began with storytelling: Titles by Infocom, Sierra, and Adventure International were among the industry’s earliest progenitors. Suddenly, as graphics and high-tech features become more standardized, we’re once again seeing storytelling become the killer app. Gaming is quickly return to its roots, delivering titles for all players in every genre which put unique settings, original plotlines, and rich atmosphere and characterization first. In other words, things are quickly coming to resemble the golden age of games, back when this was a cottage industry – the industry as many of us (myself included) grew up knowing it.
From a directional standpoint, it’s all a matter of perspective, one supposes. While it may seem like a 180-degree turn to many, it’s actually a move that sees me come full circle, back to where it all began – making and bringing great games to market. True story: Many moons ago, when I was in school and adventure games such as King’s Quest, Police Quest and The Secret of Monkey Island were the Call of Duty’s of their day, I made a promise to classmates – one day, I’d be bringing these types of games to market. Having always been an advocate for developers, who’s spent years trying to give great games a chance at life, the move was already a foregone conclusion.
So when Phoenix called, looking to expand studio operations? As a player, it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to work with gaming’s greatest storytellers and introduce audiences to modern takes on classic themes – and the kinds of games I grew up with. As an entrepreneur, it presented an irresistible challenge: Bring one of gaming’s most beloved and historical arts to an entirely new generation of fans in new and novel ways. And as a lifelong advocate for the video game business, it’s a unique opportunity to learn from fans themselves, and truly make a difference. In other words, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
RPS: What is it about Phoenix that makes it so special to you. Have adventure games always been a passion of yours?
Scott Steinberg: On the one hand, as a player, Sierra, LucasArts, Infocom, MicroProse, Interplay and SSI games were formative experiences growing up. (Say the words Electronic Arts, and Seven Cities of Gold and Escape from Hell are the first things that still come to mind.) On the other, as a fan. Because by all rights, Phoenix Online Studios shouldn’t exist. But not only does the company exist – it continues to bring players the kind of standout, story-driven tales they’ve demanded for decades.
Phoenix began as a group of dedicated fans with zero experience, zero backing, and zero connections, working in genres that the industry had labelled “dead.” Somehow, despite these odds, it’s forged ahead to become a successful developer working with many of gaming’s most storied names and franchises. That tells me the studio is smart, stubborn, resourceful, resilient, and not afraid to take a stand. This kind of spirit is rare, and as a success story even rarer. It’s not merely a studio. It’s a movement. I’m truly humbled and honored to be able to contribute in some small way to it, and work alongside such dedicated and talented colleagues and fans.
RPS: How does Phoenix operate now? Are staff still all around the world, or is it more centralised?
Scott Steinberg: We’ve expanded to become a truly international operation, with studios in the US and India, and a network of satellite operations stretching from the west coast to Europe and beyond.
RPS: What will you be doing at the studio? What does a General Manager do with his day?
Scott Steinberg: At the risk of sounding glib: Manage in general, given that priorities and project needs are constantly changing. Which is to say, I do what it takes to keep the ball moving forward on a daily basis. A general manager is a strange combination of team leader, project planner and air traffic controller. Duties often revolve around business development (finding or working with new partners), operations (juggling shifting needs and objectives), and strategic planning (determining how we get from point A to Z). An average day’s rounds can include meeting with publishers looking to retain our game development services, planning promotions with retail partners, and working to find new ways to get our games in players’ hands. Ever wanted to wake up at 4:30am to negotiate contracts, then roll into 12-16 hours of exploring new business opportunities, managing projects, and putting out random fires? This is the job for you. I have a sneaking suspicion our design teams are having more fun.
RPS: You’ve hinted that there are big announcements to come. Can you give us any sneak peaks?
Scott Steinberg: Phoenix Online Studios is in the business of making smart, story-driven games for all audiences, platforms and genres. As many game makers have proven, today, those kinds of experiences can come in all kinds of shapes and sizes.
RPS: I’m filing that under “no”. But Scott Steinberg, thanks for your time.