October 2, 2006

The Man in the High Castle: An interview with Electric Sheep's Sibley Hathor, part 2

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(This is part 2 of my interview with Sibley Hathor, CEO of "interactive creation" agency The Electric Sheep Company. Click here for part 1.)

ITG: So let's talk a little about your personnel. You're rapidly growing these days, right? You recently took in your 25th employee.

SH: Yes, that's about right.

ITG: How do you as the CEO decide who you want to be a part of the flock? Do you have RL experience putting together creative teams?

SH: Before ESC I was a co-founder of StreamSage, a company that built audio and video search technology and became a part of Comcast. I led the recruiting across the business, and also led the research team. I truly love recruiting. I love the challenge of finding really great people who are not only talented, but fit together as a team, work professionally, can have fun and inspire each other. Then try to have an environment where they get what they need to be successful and really enjoy what they do.

ITG: And what's been your philosophy behind hiring, especially in such cutting-edge industries like you've found yourself? I've noticed, for example, that many of your recent hires have been people who already did very well as one-person boutiques first.

SH: Right -- in Second Life in particular many of the most professional folks have started entrepreneurial ventures, so that fits. That also means it's clear that people are willing to do what it takes to help get a business of the ground, which is very challenging. Most of all we look for people who can learn, work together, are fun and positive, and don't have a big ego driving what they do. Ideally we want to create a company that is extremely fun and rewarding to be a part of. People will have lots of opportunity for SL creative jobs, so if we're going to keep top talent, we have to accomplish that.

The instruction hall of Lego Mindstorms headquarters. Photo courtesy The Electric Sheep Company.

ITG: Are these entrepreneurs mostly anxious to work on the bigger projects that ESC has, obviously for bigger pay? Or is it a harder sell than expected to get certain "delicate geniuses" on board?

SH: Well, what everyone is looking for is different. Some people want to be doing their own thing, and that's fine. But a lot of people get into being contractors and realize that what they love is building, scripting, creating -- not selling, trying to run a business, making sure they get paid, advertising themselves, etc. Plus it's stressful dealing with the ups and downs of how much work you get -- sometimes a ton, other times gaps in work. So depending on what someone is looking for, it can make sense to join a company that still gives you a lot of flexibility and respect but also does the parts you don't enjoy.

ITG: And since I have you here, let's talk a bit about the other platforms ESC is working in. I noticed, for example, that you're doing work at Multiverse. Are you one of those secret beta development teams they keep talking about?

SH: Well, I guess not secret anymore, but yes, we've been beta-testing it. We're looking forward to seeing how it turns out as it comes out next year. As you know, SL isn't a platform for desiging games with a lot of action, so that's one strength Multiverse has in comparison.

ITG: And if I understand it, it's basically a company that's developed the engine behind a persistent virtual reality, and then is inviting teams like yours to come in and build the actual universes. Is that right? With the goal of eventually opening it up for public development teams.

SH: Sure. It's an open-source platform for game or virtual-world development. It has the potential to really change the economics of the MMO industry.

The events center of the New Media Consortium. Photo courtesy The Electric Sheep Company.

ITG: So what is ESC doing? Or do I get to ask?

SH: Frankly, we're just playing around at this point. We have to wait for it to get a bit further before we plunge in with a larger project. So we'll see.

ITG: If you're allowed to talk about it, what do you think of the place? Short summary; will it be worth the public's time or not, you think? There's a lot of curiosity among a lot of people, I know.

SH: I do think it has a lot of potential, for anyone who really wants to create their own separate or custom virtual world. I think that especially applies to MMO-style games.

ITG: And what about There.com? I'm not familiar with them.

SH: There.com is an open-ended virtual world that opened at a similar time as, perhaps before, SL. It is PG-13 and has a different content model. As you may know, that Virtual Laguna Beach is built on the There.com technology. So that showcases pretty well what it can do.

ITG: And what are the bigger differences between that environment and SL? Content creation, you mentioned?

SH: Yes, Second Life is a streaming technology, fundamentally. That's how it can be so user generated -- it's very efficient at streaming all the content to you, so no matter how anyone has changed the virtual world, you see that pretty promptly. There.com is more like traditional game engines in that you have most of the content downloaded in the client, and then can get smaller bits of additional content streamed. The upside of the game-engine model is that the content comes into view much quicker; you don't have the "streaming-in" effect as with SL. Which is probably important for an MTV-style audience like that using Virtual Laguna Beach. MTV is built around the idea that if you aren't entertained for ten seconds, you might switch the channel [laughter].

The floating headquarters of the Text100 PR agency. Photo courtesy The Electric Sheep Company.

ITG: Is there any personal preference for you? Will SL always remain your "first love?"

SH: Hmm. Were you at the Second Life Community Convention [SLCC]?

ITG: No.

SH: If you listen to the audio, there is a really funny point where Philip Linden somehow accidentally seems to have voiced what was going on in his head, when someone via SL asked him what his favorite pie is. He paused, stumped. Rather than picking one -- whether he has one or not -- he said something like, "I can't figure out what most people would like to hear; any answer has bad connotations for someone." You can see the relevance [laughter]. But yeah, I have lots of personal opinions. Seriously, I think that for users who are content creators or inventors, which includes myself, SL is super-appealing. But from a business standpoint, we're extremely dedicated to helping clients find a direction that makes sense for them.

ITG: So finally, let's touch on this subject, because I find it one of the more interesting things about ESC; that despite all the press and big-name RL clients, you all still very much embrace the fantastical here. This gets into the culture war that's starting to appear in the grid; between the first wave of residents, mostly gamers who are here for fantastical reasons, and the second wave from RL, here to mesh their SL into it. You seem to be a company deliberately treading a line between the two camps. Is that deliberate? Is it part of the corporate ethos here, to embrace great-looking outfits and sci-fi dwellings?

SH: Not as a concerted strategy, but I suppose that is one way to look at our company culture, yes. Honestly, though, I think another part of our culture is that we don't think of any of this as a culture war. One of the truly awesome things about Second LIfe is that it can all co-exist. Having traditional-style buildings or products does nothing to push out the others. And in fact, SL is a great leveler in some ways. If American Apparel is going to sell virtual clothing, then they have to make things that are more desirable than all the incredibly talented and creative designers in SL. So I say don't fight about it -- outcompete the slow-moving big companies! In Second Life more than any other medium ever invented, creativity has the majority of the value of a product -- so let all creative things exist, and let the most creative be the most popular! [Or] at least to the extent that creativity ties in with what most people desire, which is itself debatable, but you see my point. There is an unlimited amount of land here for communities of different types.

The media center of the Electric Sheep headquarters, Sheep Tower looming behind it. Photo courtesy The Electric Sheep Company.

ITG: So you don't see a desire among corporate clients, then, for a nicely scrubbed-down, reality-like SL, before they're ready to get majorly involved?

SH: Oh, sure I do. Some corporations don't want to be in SL because they're worried about all the non-PG-13 content, for example. Others come in with ideas [that are] the equivalent of selling Honda Civics in SL. But, A, they can't get rid of anything in SL, so they can just choose to participate or not. And, B, no one wants a Honda Civic as their ultimate fantasy car -- unless it's really souped up in an SL way. So, there you go. Again, yeah, corporations are always worried about what will get associated with their brand, and we're sensitive to that and very honest about it. But there's plenty of room in SL for button-down people and organizations, as well as every other kind.

ITG: And last but not least.... ESC is now sort of infamously known as well for some of your hijinks at the last SLCC, including a night where you all dressed up as your avatars. Anything fun being planned yet for next year's convention?

SH: Wow, next year's convention. That seems like ten years away in SL time. No idea. But we'll be there!

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