Matt Wilson likes to blow things up. On the Fourth of July, he set off over 500 pounds of fireworks at his 54-acre property outside Duvall. And as executive producer of Sony Online Entertainment’s Seattle studio, he’s readying a shoot ’em up spy-versus-spy videogame called The Agency for market. Gamer, amateur pyrotechnician—you’d expect the lanky, easygoing Wilson to have the sports car and bachelor pad to match. But he and Sony defy many videogaming stereotypes: He’s married with two children, and he’s working to bring stability and family time to a historically manic industry.
Sixteen years ago, Wilson jumped from college to Microsoft, where he eventually landed on the Xbox team—paradise for a kid who’d pedaled to the arcade to play pioneer ’70s video-games. While there he discovered MMOs, massively multiplayer online games, which recall interactive TV; players jump in and out of stories while other characters (some generated by the game, many by other gamers) carry on. But Microsoft had little faith in Xbox MMOs; in 2004 it abruptly cancelled Wilson’s unreleased Mythica—and missed the train. Wilson moved on. Meanwhile, another publisher debuted World of Warcraft , a fantasy-laden MMO that went on to attract over 10 million subscribers.
Warcraft ’s near-instant success didn’t surprise Wilson. MMOs are “the future of gaming,” he declares. “Online, community-based entertainment is where it’s heading.” Think MySpace with story lines. MMOs have longevity—evolving over time, they continue drawing subscription fees, and infusions from designers, writers, and engineers, long after launch. Industry analysts expect MMO revenues in the U. S. (now about $27 million a year) to double every two years and perhaps overtake the single-player games that still dominate the market.
Microsoft cancelled Wilson’s project—and missed the MMO train.
That potential induced Wilson to form an MMO company, FireAnt, with four ex—Microsoft colleagues. Desperate for office space, he turned to an old friened, Chris Taylor, who had started his own game company, Gas Powered Games. Taylor let FireAnt incubate rent-free in vacant space he owned—an unusually cooperative gesture in a highly competitive industry. But fostering friendships comes naturally to Wilson: “It makes sense to help each other out,” he explains.
And game creators need all the help they can get. Designing and launching games—especially MMOs—can take years and millions of dollars and exhaust even the most optimistic, energetic creators. Customers demand new versions in ever-shorter launch cycles, but game designers have always worked grueling schedules. “The early days saw a lot of divorces,” recalls Wilson’s ex-landlord Taylor. Though he’s known for his endurance, Wilson realized that game companies weren’t built for longevity. “It’s been a young person’s business for some time, but now we’re all getting older,” says the 39-year-old Wilson—and seeking more stability. “Our culture has to change to get that stability.”
Wilson nurtured The Agency concept for years; finally he shopped around for a studio to publish it. When he approached John Smedley, the president of San Diego-based Sony Online Entertainment, whom he’d known since his Xbox days, Smedley invited him and his FireAnt team to open a Sony office in Seattle. Wilson saw a chance to build not just his dream game but the studio he’d always wanted. And pay his back rent to Chris Taylor.
The Agency melds the action of Halo and the plot-driven, character-rich MMO experience of Warcraft in a James Bond world of spies, mercenaries, and, naturally, explosives. But Sony Seattle’s employees aren’t expected to burn midnight oil crafting it; The Agency will launch when it’s ready—sometime in 2009, Wilson says cagily. He’ll meanwhile reserve time to play Rock Band with his kids on weekends (no TV or videogames allowed during the week) and blow things up at next summer’s Mercer Island Days fireworks show.