By Kelly J. Andrews
One of the top resources at Pandemic Studios is not a team player. His immigration status is questionable. He uses humor to annihilate his adversaries. He has innate mental powers, but his communication style involves “manipulating humans into submission.” He possesses advanced technical skills, but his preferred hardware is atomic-powered armaments rather than software development platforms.
So why does the management of Pandemic consider Crypto one of their most valuable assets? Because he’s the fictional protagonist of the videogame developer’s newest blockbuster, Destroy All Humans. And company president Josh Resnick, WG’93, can’t blame Cryptosporidium 137 for his antisocial actions — the alien warrior clone is programmed to infiltrate humanity and harvest the DNA from their brain stems in order to save his home planet — even if that means destroying Earth in the process.
From Wharton to Entrepreneurship
Resnick is as affable and approachable as Crypto is surly and impetuous. He is now the president and co-founder of Los Angeles-based Pandemic Studios, one of the largest, most successful independent companies within the $30 billion game market.
The entrepreneur spent most of his life within walking distance of the Pacific. He grew up in Malibu, attended Pomona College, and situated Pandemic Studios only blocks from the Santa Monica beach. But his two years at Wharton were the urban East Coast detour that made his unorthodox career possible.
An entrepreneur since childhood, Resnick had no business training until he came to Wharton in Philadelphia. “Although my entrepreneurial instincts were great, eventually I needed to back it up with business skills. I had never gone deep into marketing, economics, or negotiations. Business school gave me the structure I needed.”
Until he graduated with an entrepreneurial studies major, he wasn’t even sure what he needed the structure for. “I’d always been a lifelong avid video game player, but I never thought about who made the games. It was only after dabbling in a few more entrepreneurial ideas that I woke up and said, ‘Hey, I love playing games so much, so maybe I should make it into a career.’”
While most of his friends pursued traditional paths in investment banking and consulting, Resnick flooded game companies with his resume. Los Angeles-based Activision was the only company that contacted him.
“It was the right time at the right place,” he says. “ Activision was hiring architects, attorneys, other MBAs — they were looking for people with a background or experience level who would make better managers within the company.”
His business school education benefited him immediately. Instead of starting at the bottom as a tester, he skipped a few levels to begin in the mid-level as an associate producer.
He moved up quickly, but Resnick eventually found Activision’s corporate structure to be big and unwieldy. Fortunately, the company was prescient enough to notice that a new phenomenon was underway. In the late 1990s technology was booming, and employees at other companies had begun to strike out on their own to explore their own frontiers. Says Resnick, “We realized that this would happen to us at Activision — some of our key talent would leave to start their own companies. We decided to embrace it. Our best talent was worth betting on, even if they left the company. We would structure deals so they would work with Activision instead of becoming competitors.”
Soon Andrew Goldman, one of the most creative game directors in his group, wanted to strike out on his own, and Resnick was tasked with negotiating a deal with him. During their first meeting over coffee, Goldman turned the conversation around and asked Resnick to join him as a partner in a new company.
“I knew what Activision was willing to offer because I was going to negotiate the deal,” he says. “It felt like a good deal — it felt fair.”
Controlled Growth and Rave Reviews
In 1998, Activision gave the partners a long-term deal to develop fivetitles, including second releases of two of Activision’s signature games — Battlezone and Dark Reign. In exchange for a 5 percent stake in the young company, Activision would finance everything with a $10 million investment.
The partners were especially excited to set up their own culture and corporate structure. Says Resnick, “We knew we could be scrappier and do things more efficiently from a cost standpoint. We were able to attract better talent on average. We were able to transition people to doing projects a lot faster. We were able to set up a more dynamic culture where people were motivated to work harder.”
Dark Reign II and Battlezone II were hits. Pandemic had only 13 employees in Los Angeles, and it was growing slowly and profitably. Then five years ago, Resnick and his partner realized their small size itself was far riskier than growth. They were working with one publisher, on one platform (PC), and on one type of game. Activision could have put them out of business by canceling one contract.
Resnick and Goldman decided to grow the company by diversifying their portfolio of publishers, platforms, and games.
They set up an Australian studio, grew to include 200 top employees, and won two major contracts. The first snagged them a big brand name for their portfolio — Lucas Arts selected Pandemic to develop the Star Wars Battlefront game. The second contract, with the U.S. Army, proved to be an even bigger turning point for their business model.
In 2001, military trainers approached Pandemic Studios to create a simulation game to prepare soldiers for urban warfare. At the time, no one imagined 9/11 would happen or that the Iraq War was about to transform the military. Not only did the Army give Pandemic leeway to take creative risks in developing the most realistic and effective experience, but they also gave the developer commercial rights. Pandemic emerged with a fully developed prototype that they offered to publishers within a competitive bidding environment. The commercial product became known as Full Spectrum Warrior.
Now Resnick aims to create more products with a similar development cycle. Instead of producing games under contract to publishers, he wants Pandemic to develop its own independent properties, create bidding wars, and retain the intellectual property rights to the games that emerge. To enable this model, Resnick and Goldman are pursuing outside funding for the first time since their founding.
Despite the off-kilter, fun-loving sensibility that comes across in games like Destroy All Humans, Pandemic is still a business, and Resnick is still an executive. But Resnick recounts an incident that reminds him how lucky he is to be pursuing his passion. A father of three, he was invited to speak at career week in front of his children’s kindergarten and second-grade classes.
“I told the kids about Star Wars and how you make games,” he says. “The other parents were not happy following me. Videogames are such an integral part of popular culture right now, and the kids ate it up.”