I'd like to see what's on the other side of the board in David DeMartini's office. And I'm sure you would, too.
DeMartini works at EA, where he oversees a team of about 60 people in the EA Partners program. Fueled by an undisclosed budget, EAP secures deals with top non-EA game developers from around the world. Among the people signed to the program are "Resident Evil" creator Shinji Mikami, the "Half-Life"/"Portal" development house Valve, "Doom" creators id software, MTV's "Rock Band" team and more.
On DeMartini's board -- on the side he won't put in front of a camera -- are the names of all the other developers and studios EAP has its sights on. (Click the image above for a bigger but still obscured look.)
During a recent phone interview I asked him about the other side of the board. "We're going to give away secrets here," DeMartini told me, getting my hopes up.
"On that board are deals that we've contemplated, deals that we would like to make in the future, deals that we have in progress. It's one big, kind of covered-in-cloth status board. We just keep track of what's going on in various places in the world. Who's signed with who. When such-and-such company might be available or free from an encumbrance that they might have with another publisher."
"EA looks at the top 20 developers in the world and we try to sign anything those guys are working on."
When I asked where Hideo Kojima's name might be on the board, DeMartini noted that he's been charged by EA public relations to try to not to spill too much in any interviews he gives. He did share this: "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to guess who might be on the board or who might not be on the board with regards to great organizations that are out there that don't currently have relationships with EA… EA looks at the top 20 developers in the world and we try to sign anything those guys are working on."
A couple of weeks ago at the company's Redwood Shores offices, EA revealed the latest signings to the Partners program: Mikami in a joint deal with Grasshopper Manufacture developer Suda 51 ("Killer 7," "No More Heroes") and Q Entertainment and Epic in an arrangement involving the development company's Polish People Can Fly studio ("Painkiller"). No game titles, details or release timeframes have been announced for either project. What the developers actually get is also not highly publicized, though it can range from marketing support and publishing to help with the development of the games.
The deal with the Japanese developers was the big surprise. It's a deal, DeMartini told me, that began when Mikami and Suda approached EA. The developers joined with principals from Q to meet with EA at an Italian restaurant near the site of last year's Tokyo Game Show. There, over pasta, the Japanese creators pitched the American publisher their concept.
"What they intended to gain was hopefully insight and sensitivity toward what a North American or European audience is looking for with regards to story and some other elements," DeMartini told me. "Obviously, with 'Resident Evil,' Mikami had already bridged the gap to selling multi-million-selling games. Suda, on the other hand, certainly has a reputation for creating incredibly creative product, but sometimes the product is very much appreciated by the game critics but not as appreciated by millions and millions of people. He was looking for a breakout hit into the multiple millions of units kind of thing."
"Hopefully this will serve as a springboard to a successful formula that we can apply to some of the other great Japanese designers."
For EA, the benefit of working with these Japanese developers would be a quality game and a story they hoped to replicate even if it would be a bit awkward at first. "If Suda or Mikami were to be publishing with Sony or Nintendo, it would be another one of the great Japanese designers who are working with a Japanese company," DeMartini said. "It's not as much of a unique story. However if EA was to work with some of the best designers in Japan in a limited way, with a limited number of these partners, we would be creating a unique situation where some of the best developers in Japan are actually partnering with one of the largest publishers that are not Japanese. That would represent something that is slightly uncomfortable for both parties, but also represents something that is very unique and very special."
DeMartini made it clear that EA isn't done talking to developers in Japan. "Hopefully this will serve as a springboard to a successful formula that we can apply to some of the other great Japanese designers," he said.
The worldwide hunt for partners, DeMartini said, apologizing for the metaphor, is like building a sports team. "You're betting on some people that are kind of in the high minor leagues that you hope are going to break into the major leagues. You're signing a couple of superstars that have already arrived. And you're very much trying to build a franchise with a portfolio approach."
The gamers sitting in the bleachers watching DeMartini and the rest of EAP assemble its team can be certain that the signings aren't done. And they can rest assured that the star players will have an international pedigree and maybe, in future seasons, more than just this first selection of star Japanese players.