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Company Town : Help Wanted: Talent's Rare, Experience Short on Interactive Frontier

March 24, 1995|AMY HARMON

Hollywood's Dream Team is looking for a few good multimedia developers--75 of them, to be exact--and Los Angeles is swarming with eager applicants who want to "get into interactive."

But finding the right combination of talent is one of the hardest jobs in an infant industry that requires a peculiar mash of the high-tech and the creative, for which there is no formal training and where old-timers typically have a whopping three years of experience.

Even mighty Microsoft, the software giant that joined DreamWorks SKG earlier this week in announcing plans to invest $30 million in a joint venture producing interactive adventure games and stories, has had a tough time getting the right mix.

That is one reason Bill Gates chose to hook up with the likes of DreamWorks founders Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. DreamWorks Interactive will be based in Los Angeles, with a smaller studio near Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond, Wash., and will no doubt be a boon to those trying to build Los Angeles into the multimedia capital of the universe.

But as denizens of the interactive business reel from the infusion of star power into their industry, they caution that the success of this ultimate marriage of content and technology will depend on whom the new venture conjures up to do the actual work.

Computer jocks who have their calloused fingertips on the pulse of pop culture, it seems, are few and far between.

"I have 50 open positions, we have recruiters all over the place and we're paying significant stock options," said Robert Kotick, chairman of Activision, a Los Angeles-based video game company. "It's incredibly difficult to find people."

Neil Young, production vice president at Virgin Interactive in Irvine, said salaries for game developers have risen about $10,000 in the last 18 months as demand has vastly outpaced supply. A key member of a game development team can command more than $100,000.

"There are a lot of companies getting into this business and there are a finite number of good programmers," Young said. "When we find them, we do what we can to hold onto them."

They're not the only ones. Even young start-ups with little extra cash to throw around have learned to treat their talent well.

Graphix Zone, another Irvine interactive firm, recently sent several of its developers and their significant others on expense-paid vacations to the Napa Valley after several intense months spent jamming out "Highway 61 Interactive," a CD-ROM based on the music of Bob Dylan. Other perks include weekly visits from a masseuse, stock options and an extremely well stocked refrigerator.

"We have a whole development team going to Paris next month," said Graphix Zone executive vice president Angela Aber. "There are so few people who have suffered the slings and arrows of data rates off of CD-ROMs and other esoteric problems that come with the territory in this business."

Raiding is a frequent practice in the incestuous industry, although few will admit it. And when talented people are laid off, fair and square, they are snapped up long before they have a chance to fax a resume. Time Warner Interactive's marketing vice president, Ralph Giuffre, wasted no time when he heard of several developers being laid off in a restructuring at La Crescenta-based Knowledge Adventure on Monday. He had three of them in his office by Thursday.

"I'm sure those people have been talked to by Disney and Sony and DreamWorks too," Giuffre said. "If you have talent you're going to be able to write your own ticket. It's a seller's market."

Industry executives concede that DreamWorks Interactive may find it easier to attract talent than the average interactive start-up, simply by virtue of its marquee names and the excitement it has generated. Indeed, the company's phones and fax machines were busy Thursday as applicants barraged the new firm with inquiries.

"No one knows if (applicants) are talented or not, but they're getting a lot of calls," a DreamWorks spokesman said.

In an industry that has more than its share of flakes and wanna-bes, the question of talent is no idle one. Because it is a business where everyone is fumbling, multimedia attracts some people who want to do it simply because it is new.

Activision's Kotick said: "Every failed talent in Hollywood, everyone that hasn't been successful in linear media, sees this as a second chance."

"We need people who can think outside of the traditional media to come up with something new that's fresh and different," Giuffre said. "When someone comes in here and says, 'Oh wow, you could take all your Warner Bros. movies and turn them into CD-ROMs!'--Bzzzzz! Next!"

How to separate the interactive wheat from the chaff? Says Aber: "When someone gets it, you know."


DreamWorks Interactive doesn't plan to release products until Christmas, but consumers won't have to wait that long to see Steven Spielberg's first interactive production. Under a previous deal, he is working on five multimedia products with Knowledge Adventure. One is based on "Casper," a movie he is also producing.

After hitting it off with founder Bill Gross, Spielberg last summer took an equity stake in the firm best known for educational CD-ROMs such as "3-D Dinosaur Adventure." In light of his new and potentially competitive venture, Spielberg said this week he would meet his commitment to do five CD-ROMs, but added: "At that point my services will have concluded with Knowledge Adventure."

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