Gamasutra/Game Developer Magazine Interview:
Doug Whatley and BreakAway Games Get Serious

By Brandon Sheffield
Posted on Gamasutra
February 16, 2005

Breakaway Games has been around since January 1998 as a splinter group from the defunct ABC-owned development group OT Sports. As an early pioneer in the “serious games” industry, which comprises games with non-entertainment purposes such as training and education, BreakAway is in a unique position as one of the industry leaders. Of the five AAA budgeted serious games in development, the company claims, BreakAway is responsible for three. The most visible patron of serious games is the U.S. military, but these games have multiple applications. BreakAway’s serious game, Crate, an underwater diving simulator, is currently in use by both the Navy and the healthcare industry, for vastly different purposes.

Speaking to Gamasutra, CEO Doug Whatley expresses unbridled optimism for the future of the genre and its importance for the game industry as a whole, given his company’s status in the market.

Gamasutra: Can you tell us something about the history of BreakAway?

Doug Whatley: In January we'll be seven years old. We started in January of '98. Previous to BreakAway, I was the director of product development for OT Sports, which did Monday Night Football, and Indie Racing League. It was a company originally owned half by Microprose, and half by ABC Sports, but along the way with Microprose's problems, ABC wound up owning the whole thing. And then Disney bought ABC, so we wound up being owned by Disney. And they didn't really want us. *laughs*

At the time Disney was really just focused on its own studio with kids titles, and didn't want sports games. So Disney closed the studio, and none of us wanted to move to LA, so I took my development team, the core of it, and started BreakAway.

We started out intending to do sports games, because at the time we had a couple of award-winning sports games on the shelves, but you know how the sports game market has narrowed over the years, and it got tougher and tougher to find sports games that they wanted a third party to do. A lot of us, including myself, have a background in board games - sort of did it as a hobby over many years. And through connections with that, I knew some people that worked with the military, and they had projects where they wanted board games that the military was using, computerized.

So we had a couple of those projects to sort of pad the budget in the early years, and got to really know working with the military - there's a lot to that that you don't think about, both in terms of doing the contracts, which is very difficult and time consuming, a ton of paperwork, and also just regulations, and what it takes to work with the military. As we learned that, we also started to see how really backward they were in terms of their training software, and just how much of an advantage the games business had over the military. So we started to take advantage of that, and actually look for places to take the technology that we created for our games and look for ways to repurpose it and sell it to the military. BreakAway's done for the most part PC stuff; city builders and strategy games, so a lot of that just fit really naturally with military planning and those types of projects where they have a need.

GS: so you basically started with serious games, in a way?

DW: Right, and we didn't really think of it as serious games, just another revenue source. You know the games industry really attracts the best and brightest of programmers and artists, and all of us have other interests as well, so it was very fulfilling to work on projects that were really important and had some meaning. We just sort of build on that, and about three and a half or four years ago, the company made a concerted decision that we were going to really turn ourselves into a serious games company. We hired some business development people specifically to target the government market, we began to look at other segments, like medical simulation, and stuff where what we did would be of value as well, and began to sort of build on the reputation that we had built within the military. And that was just perfect timing for the wave that's hitting now, where serious games are a hot topic - we were just well established in the genre at the right place at the right time because of that.

GS: How are serious games as a business model? Can you be self-sufficient?

DW: Oh yeah. In general, I'd say that it's more profitable than the games business unless you have a really big seller of a game.

GS: Are budgets smaller for serious games?

DW: No that's really not true. What you'll find is that to get the big budgets, you usually have to do a smaller budgeted prototype. Because there's almost a three-tiered funding, especially to the military, but to all of the government, where the first funding is very small, but they'll pay you good money to do a design document and get a plan. If they like the plan then they'll pay you a couple hundred thousand dollars to create a prototype, and then if that gets well received, then there are many millions of dollars to create the full project. What really kills most game companies is that those three phases are not contiguous. So you'll do the design, and it may be six months before they decide that they actually want to fund the prototype. Then once you've done the prototype, it may be six months or a year before the big project gets funded.

Just one of them is not really a good model for a game company because they can't afford the downtime in between them, and with the government you just never know whether something will get funded or not. So one of the things we've had to do to really make ourselves a stronger company in terms of serious games is we've actually had to grow bigger. Because you need a whole bunch of those projects in the pipeline, and you have to get good at scheduling and overlapping them, and filling the gaps with other phases of other projects.

GS: So the budgets for these games can go into the millions?

DW: I would say that the budgets for major serious games are the equivalent of game development budgets. And we're right now - I can't say too many names - but we're right now doing three serious games that each have AAA-levels of funding.

GS: Is everything commissioned, or do you also develop concepts or demos and market them?

DW: You mean like do our own R&D, create things and then solve them? The majority of the work we have done, and I think most of the serious game stuff is commissioned; it's sort of work-for-hire where you get to keep the IP. That's the one advantage of doing a lot of the government work, is that you can keep the IP yourself.

So we've done budgets that were multi-million dollar games, and they just wanted the game - we kept ownership of all the technology, and all of the code. So that has two really important aspects, one is that if there are commercialization chances, you can go make a game out of it on your own; you don't really have to worry about anybody else owning the IP, and if you want to use it for a different governmental agency or something like that you're free to do that as well. So there's good revenue from owning that IP, but the other thing about is that since you own the IP, if they want to do a version 2, they have to come back to you. So it guarantees you downstream revenues if they like the project and want to keep adding new things to it.

GS: Do you ever use your serious games IP to make consumer titles?

DW: We have a game in the works right now that came out of IP from one of our serious games. We try to balance ourselves 50/50, where it's 50 percent consumer products that are entertainment, because we don't really want to lose that game entertainment sensibility, that's what got us where we are. That's what they're looking for, is that creativity and that exposure to the public that we have. So our revenues - we try to keep it 50/50, where 50 percent comes from the consumer market. It's been tough, since the other side is so successful, we're having to grow and take on more game contracts to try to balance it out. But we're currently working on three different commercial products right now.

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