To read the full interview with Debbie Fulton, click here.
Q: Why did you decide to go into law?
A: That goes all the way back to grammar school. I don’t know why. I don’t know how, but I came out of grammar school having decided that I was going to be a lawyer. I went through high school and college that way. In college I had a whole series of computer programming jobs. It was a lot better pay than flipping burgers. There came a choice point, where I had been working summers and they said, “Okay you’re going to graduate and come back here full time. Right?”
And I was like “Oh boy,” because the answer was “absolutely not. I’m going to law school.” But I did have that flickering moment of choice.
Q: How did you discover video games?
A:My father worked in the IT department at Zenith, and when I was 12 years old he used to bring home this modem with a keyboard. And I’m 45, so think back more than 30 years ago. It was one of those things that had the big rubber cups on the back, and you put the telephone handset into the rubber cups, and it had the thermal paper.
I played this game called “Adventure,” which was a text adventure game. It would say, “You are in a cave, and there is a dragon sitting on a Persian rug. What do you do?” And you type in “Kill dragon,” and it would say “How?” You would say, “With your bare hands,” and it would say “With your bare hands?” You would say “Yes,” and then it would say “Congratulations! You killed the dragon.” But if you didn’t do it with your bare hands, the dragon would breathe fire on you, and you would die.
Q: What are some of the most interesting parts of working with video games that laypeople wouldn’t know about?
A: The game designers are really amazing people. One of the things I admire most about them is a lot of the senior ones–like Sal, one of the principle designers of the NBA Jam series, and Ed Boon, the creator of “Mortal Kombat”–have been with the company for many years. They started their video game design careers as coin-operated designers, for arcades. It used to be that we would do coin-op first and then do the home version. And before then we weren’t even in the home video game business. We were just in the coin-op business.
Guys like Sal and Ed had started doing coin-op games, and now they’re doing home games on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. Can you imagine what kind of change that is? To go from this 6-foot-tall, 400-pound box, where the printed circuit board has a homegrown operating system, to programming on what is basically a super high-powered PC with an unbelievable graphics set.
It’s a huge difference in technology, and all the elements and the increased complexity. But also add that it’s a fundamentally different type of game play. Because for the coin-op game, what you were trying to do was get the person to put in the next quarter. That’s what the objective was as the game designer–to create enough excitement in one-to-two minutes of game play that the person would come back for more with that next quarter and the quarter after that. But what’s the psychology of a home game?
There’s only one purchase decision, at the store. Buy the game or not buy the game. A very different psychology, and what you’re trying to achieve as a player experience is really different. These guys have made that transition from senior designers in the coin-op field to successful designers in the home field.
Q: How did you end up at WMS/Midway?
A: I got a cold call from a head hunter saying “How’d you like to work at a video game company?” At the time I was rabidly into “Doom”–I was actually playing it at work after hours, because they had this really huge monitor for some piece of litigation. I went to work for WMS, just based on this cold call. I did an interview and two weeks later I was at WMS.
And it was wonderful. The first day, walking in, when you’re saying to yourself “What did I just do?”–because it was a bit of a whirlwind–I walked into the factory, walked down the line where pinball machines were rolling off and walked up the stairs into the legal department. I was part of a manufacturing business. It was amazing. And the very first project I worked on was helping the home video game company get the rights to do “Doom” on the consoles. I could not believe it. It was like, “Wow, what could be better?” It was immensely exciting.
It corresponded very well to my interests. That’s why I left Gardner so quickly. [Even though] I really liked it there. I thought the people were great, and I continued to work with them as a client, and it was in fact them who just won the “Psi-Ops” case for me.
Q: You’ve worked with video games for over a decade. What has changed most significantly about them in that time?
A: The complexity of the games has gotten at least an order of magnitude greater, and accordingly the legal challenges have grown with it. If I’m back in 1994, and I’m working on our NHL hockey game at that time, then I’ve got licenses from the National Hockey League for the team names and logos. I’ve got licenses from the NHL players associations for the players’ names and faces, and that may be about it. Whereas today, you’re going to have all sorts of crazy things in your sports games.
Q: What is your favorite Midway game?
A: In terms of a homegrown Midway game, I’m going to get myself in trouble–because there’s lots of designers here and it’s like if you’re an actor and you say who your favorite director is–and say “Gauntlet Dark Legacy.” It came out years ago.
Q: On your legal team, who spends the most time with licensing issues?
A: I’ve largely delegated that to my operations side. Those attorneys do a lot of licensing work, but it’s more than that. Some of our games are developed by us for third parties with whom we’ve entered into a development contract, so there’s all that contractual work. And we get elements of our games from consultants who will have lots of little consulting agreements–where people might create specific artwork for us or a specific piece of code that’s not licensed, but it’s owned by us. We’ve hired them to create it and we’ve gotten an assignment of the intellectual property as our own property. My operations people largely do that.
Q: How has the legal department changed since you took over?
A: Under me, we’ve grown a little bit. At this point, I have two attorneys on the corporate side and two on what I call the operations side, and then two paralegals and two administrative assistants.
There has been a division of labor–I have a couple folks who are more general corporate practitioners. Obviously we’re publicly traded so we have compliance and all the good stuff that goes with that. [The operations lawyers take care of] stuff I want to make sure gets done on the corporate side, and they worry about some of the things that you would find at any business. Employment issues, insurance issues, taxation–that sort of thing.
On the operations side, those are the people who are hot and heavy into knowing what we’re developing, how the games are developed, who’s putting what into each game, what are the issues that are popping up, doing packaging review and advertising review. Very specific to understanding our business and then spotting the legal issues and dealing with them.
Q: Have you met or talked with any of the celebrities who have worked on Midway games?
A: I’m afraid not. We’ve had some very interesting people in our games. Michael Jackson was in “Ready 2 Rumble Boxing: Round Two,” because, I was told, he loved the first game. He wanted to be in the sequel. We had Shaquille O’Neal and The Rock, Dwayne Johnson. Unfortunately, none of these people have I ever met in person. I’ve just dealt with their attorneys. But still, very interesting to do the agreements with these folks.
Q: What is the most challenging legal issue you’ve faced?
A:There is one very exciting but very daunting thing about the business: it’s constantly changing. That’s not a legal issue per se, but it means a constant evolution of legal issues and a constant demand that you learn new things. There have been difficult issues for every corporate lawyer, beginning with SOX, just getting all the mechanisms in place to make sure we were doing all the things we were supposed to do. That was a lot of work, but it was challenging for every corporate lawyer across America.
But the basic challenge has been to keep up, stay on top and not miss something as we go through another wave of change in the video game industry. Games are online today. That required a lot of learning about privacy issues–a huge area that was almost completely alien to me. There are all sorts of things to learn as the industry becomes more and more online. Change is really the biggest challenge but it’s also wonderful, it’s exciting.