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An Interview With Jason Hall, CEO of Monolith

Monolith has recently made the wild journey from developer of technology, to developer of games, to publisher.

September 23, 1998

When Monolith first released Blood across the internet, the Demo was one of the hottest downloads of the year. With that game, the little house in Seattle went from a developer most gamers had never heard of to one of the frontrunners in the action race.

The company recently moved into the precarious world of self-publishing, launching its own title "Get Medieval." Early word on the game says it's doing quite well, and it seems as though the company may have made the transition cleanly. This is a particularly impressive feat in a marketplace where PC publishers have been vanishing right and left and the name of the game is "Be a Top 5 Publisher or DIE!"

We spoke to Jason Hall, the CEO of Monolith, about the past and future of the company and the trials and tribulations of self publishing.

When was Monolith founded, and by whom?

Monolith was founded in 1994 by Jason Hall, Bryan Bouwman, Brian Goble, Garrett Price, Toby Gladwell, and Paul Renault. We had been working together at Edmark Corporation, producing edutainment titles, but in our free time we were making cool gaming technology demos. Our first published game was Blood, which was quite the calling card. Blood 2 : The Chosen is currently in the works, and it, along with Shogo: Mobile Armor Division, showcases our Lith Tech engine. This engine began life as the Direct Engine, a project we were working on for Microsoft before we took it in-house.

Why was Monolith founded?

We wanted to form a group that was highly motivated to produce fantastic entertainment. We have a vision--produce quality content, no matter what it takes. The belief is that if we stick to this vision, people will notice. Bringing this vision to reality is an extreme challenge!

Monolith is involved in development, publishing, and technological development. Was this always a part of the plan for the company, or did you start out as a development house and branch out into technology and publishing later? Actually, we started with technology, branched into game development, and now we are publishing. Monolith initially started out as a "demo crew." A few years back there were very high profile programming/creative (demo) competitions that were held in Europe on a routine basis. Basically, the "demos" that were being judged at these events would be incredible displays of programming prowess showing just how far you could push a VGA card graphically on the current computers of the time (which were 486's). Demo groups such as The Future Crew and Renaissance really raised the bar on what was perceived to be "kick ass graphics programming..." We wanted to compete in those contests and show everybody how "cool" we were too!

At the time, everyone was creating their demos to run in DOS. We thought that it would be cool to show that if you were tricky enough, you could do the same stuff in Windows 3.1! At the time, Windows 3.1 was notorious for being too slow for fast graphics. To make a long story short, we made some incredible stuff that ran under Windows 3.1 and before we had a chance to enter the competition (which was called Assembly '94) we were contacted by Microsoft. They had somehow seen the stuff we were working on and were impressed with what we achieved using Windows 3.1.

The rest is history!

So in the very beginning there was no real plan, just cool technology. As our responsibilities grew with Monolith so did our need to have a clear plan. So we put one together based on our desire to have a family oriented company atmosphere that is conducive to creating fun games!

Does Monolith see itself as a developer first? A licenser of technology? A publisher? What part of your business is the most successful?

Monolith sees itself as a hungry new company that wants to be successful. We try to approach our work with a thoughtful eye toward a profitable business.

When did Monolith decide to move into publishing?

When we finally all agreed that the "developer-only" business model would not support our efforts to attain the goals that we have set for ourselves and the company. This was probably back around November/December of last year. It was a decision that we evolved into, not any kind of snap-judgement...

What were the biggest roadblocks to self-publishing?

Well, the obvious one is money. Publishing is not cheap. Assuming that you have the means to attempt a publishing effort, the next thing you run into is a need for expertise. You need good, strong people involved in your sales efforts, you need relationships that you can depend on, along with good anticipated product. We believe we've put the right people in place to make our publishing efforts as strong as our development endeavors.

Self-publishing is not for the timid. You have to be prepared. Developers often complain about big publishers, but I can tell you first hand that they offer a lot, and do much more than the average developer realizes. I can see firsthand how publishers have become what they are, the good and the bad. Generally though, they have achieved a lot for the industry, so Monolith always gives fellow developers and publishers the respect they deserve.

What was the biggest advantage?

You make more money. You have much more control over your own destiny. If your company in successful, your company's overall value skyrockets. As far as I know, there are no game development companies worth $100,000,000 that do not also publish.

There is just a much bigger end-game in publishing. There is however, a lot more risk, stress, frustrations, etc... I wouldn't necessarily say that being a publisher is better, I just think it depends on who you are and what your goals are. That's all.

We hear all the time how impossible it is to work with the Distributor's in the industry. What was your experience with Get Medieval?

It's fairly early to comment, but we work with a solid team of distributors and so far, so good. We have good relationships with all our distributors, and we have the full intention of keeping it that way.

How is the game selling for you?

It is still too early to tell as the product has only officially been released for [two weeks]! I do know however that if it wasn't passing retailers basic run-rate formula I'd be hearing about it by now! I have personally been to several stores where it has already sold out, and we have already received reorders. You can't ask for much more for a first effort in the publishing field.

How much more money do you end up having to put into a self-published title over a title like, say, Blood?

A lot more. You have to pay for a lot of stuff up front. Boxes, ads, CD cases, blah blah blah... Let's just say that if you spend 1 Million on development of a game title, expect to spend anywhere from 500,000 to 2,000,000 on the rest, dependent on so many factors. It's not cheap, and you could lose it all.... and it's your money!

Has your relationship with the big publishers changed now that you're entering into their world?

Not really. It might change if we sell a million units of something (think Shogo), but we still have every intention of working with them on projects too. Monolith always looks for good partners, and the fact is that we are still a small company with a lot of future - and options - ahead of us If anything, it's given us a little more respect. When a big publisher type walks into a store and sees a Monolith product on the shelf, which we put there ourselves, the reality hits them that we really can do it!

Which have you enjoyed most-the building of Monolith, being a development house, or moving into the world of publishing? I just enjoy working with all these great people. It really doesn't matter what we are doing at the time, they are just great people to spend my time with. I feel blessed that they allow me to be their "Commando CEO" and I try hard not to disappoint them. I will never take credit for all the hard work that everyone puts into our games, it is a total team effort. If Monolith becomes very successful, it will not be because they have some nifty CEO, it will be because everyone at Monolith worked hard and gave it their best efforts.

You are a very visible CEO -- what with a .plan file, and your Quake challenges. How do you see your relationship with the consumer?

Generally, I don't feel all that visible. It's kind of weird in that respect. I guess it is because I feel like I am the consumer in a way. We're a gamers company and that comes across. It is my belief that at the end of the day, what really matters is that when a gamer buys your product, they need to feel that they got their money's worth. I think that gamers buy games to have fun. Not just for special effects, or anything else... I feel that a game needs to first and foremost be fun to play. I really wish game reviewers included that topic in their analysis of game products. They seem to have a tendency to dwell on lighting effects, or mip mapping blah blah blah...After I read a review, I always want to say, "Yeah, but with all of that aside, is the game fun to play? I mean, did you have fun?" So anyway, I have my .plan and my e-mail, and I talk to a lot of gamers out there and I try to check my perception of fun against theirs and it seems to match up most of the time!

What's your favorite thing about being in the gaming industry?

All the people are generally very nice, as well as intelligent. It's generally laid-back all the time, and that helps to make the stress levels feel lower (but they are still high). What other industry can say that?

What's do you loath most about this industry?

The high risk element. You can lose a lot of money very quickly in a hit-driven-business! Hey, ask the people in Hollywood! They know all about it... heh heh heh!

Is Monolith going to stay a publisher, or will it just be selected titles, when you feel it is warranted?

Monolith is going to stay a publisher. We are not trying to be EA or anything like that...we are just trying to be a good strong business. We will continue to work with other publishers on some titles, and also continue to publish our own. It seems to be a win-win situation for everyone. At least for the time being. [Winks]

With so many small publishers having died in the past two or three years, are you worried?

Of course! Like I said it is a risky business and I'm not going to stand in front of you and say "Dude, it's no problem. We're infallible."

That is far from the truth!

The bottom line is that Monolith is taking a calculated and well thought out risk. We have some excellent products to publish for this fall season and we stack up against our competition nicely. Shogo is going "gold" and it is looking kick ass. We've just shipped Get Medieval, and it has been received extremely well. In the near future we are publishing an RPG (Rage of Mages), which is our first acquired product, from a group of Russian developers.

Then, in early '99 we have an addictive puzzle-strategy game called Gruntz, which has a real 'South Park'-style streak of humor to it Things look good, but as you know there are always risks. Stuff can happen tomorrow that could change everything, but it is my job to keep the faith, share the vision, and create opportunity for Monolith - and that is what I'm going to do!

If you could have published any game in the history of video games, which would it be? Why?

Well, there are 2 ways to look at this. One way is from a monetary viewpoint, another way is from an ego viewpoint. I'll assume that when you say "published" you also mean developed too... so here goes: (by the way this is just my opinion, I'm sure there are others at Monolith who'd pick differently!) From a monetary viewpoint - Myst. No question. Look at the numbers. My god... It is still like number 7 or something on the sales charts today! Incredible... From an ego viewpoint - Doom / Doom 2. People can say what they want to about id software, but the fact is that they had damn good ideas at the right time. They have my total respect. They always stick to the basics. They didn't necessarily create a genre, but they definitely made it more high profile and profitable, and brought new ideas and - importantly - standards to the game community. They are now a permanent part of gaming history. It is very impressive. Not to mention that those products made a substantial amount of money and created a legacy. Monolith will do the same. Mark my words.

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