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What I Do

Pokémon’s Former Chief Lawyer On Shutting Down Fan Games & Honeymoon Business Deals

Welcome to 'What I Do', a new interview series on Aftermath

Welcome to the first instalment of a new regular feature here on Aftermath called "What I Do", where we'll be chatting with individuals working in the games industry about just what it is they do for a living. Video games is a big, weird space, with lots of very strange jobs, and the aim of this feature is to get past the term "developer" and show folks that it takes all kinds of people doing all kinds of stuff to make a game or run a studio.

To kick things off we're chatting with Don McGowan, who has worked as a General Counsel (and then some) for both Bungie and The Pokémon Company. Which is very much not your standard video game industry job!

Luke Plunkett: Hey Don! Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Don McGowan: Sure. I'm originally from Montreal. I spent eight years as a corporate litigator in Montreal. Went to Microsoft because I was headhunted for a job in their cybersecurity legal team. Ended up as the head lawyer for what was then called Microsoft Game Studios by accident; I was trying to get a friend a job and the person to whom I was talking said "We were hoping maybe you would just be the person to take this job". So I did. When not doing work stuff, I live outside of Seattle with my wife and my two dogs, Biscuits and Gravy (photo attached):

Biscuits (L), Gravy (R)

LP: What have been some of your actual, official job titles?

DM: At Bungie I was General Counsel, at The Pokémon Company I was Chief Legal Officer And Business Affairs.

LP: What did those jobs actually involve? What did your average day/week/month look like?

DM: At Pokémon I ran a team of 20 lawyers and non-lawyer paralegals at the head office in Bellevue, as well as in London; at Bungie that was eight people in a geographically distributed team.

At Pokémon I also oversaw the Customer Service team, mostly because I was the department of Things That Can Go Wrong. I spent a lot of time on the road, because during my time at Pokémon the brand returned to international juggernaut status. Because of Pokémon GO, a lot of privacy regulators around the world wanted to talk to the company, so that meant I would go to them. I also did things like factory tours for our manufacturing facilities (making sure there was no child labor in there, etc).

I was also responsible for event security, which when you think about what a Pokémon event involves it makes it obvious why we had to worry about that: for Pokémon World Championships we would have players from around the world in one central location, and in today's America that means you have to plan for security incidents. This involved a lot of travel; I was on the road about 125 days per year. Perhaps most visibly, I also was one of the producers on Pokémon: Detective Pikachu.

At Bungie I built the relationships with Sony's Legal team to help the beginning of the partnership between Bungie and Sony. I also established and oversaw our Trust and Safety activities, and directed litigation against people who tried to harm our employees and our business. Thanks to COVID this was a lot less travel; other than trips to Sony's office in San Mateo I did no business travel for the 3.5 years I was at Bungie, which was nice after the schedule I kept at Pokémon.

LP: Wait, excuse me, did you just say you were also a producer on Detective Pikachu?

DM: I did the deal for Detective Pikachu. No fun stories around that one, unlike Pokémon GO, a deal I did on my honeymoon from an overwater bungalow in Bora Bora (my wife is a saint). But before Detective Pikachu, I did the deal to make the Halo movie way back in my Microsoft years, which introduced me to Mary Parent (now at Legendary), so she and I knew each other already. Here's a fun thing about licensed property movies: the licensor wants reviews of how the brand is presented.

That put me into the mix to do those (along with some colleagues from Japan, namely a team led by my co-producer Hide Katakami). That combined with my prior knowledge of Mary made me a logical and natural touch point for any discussions with Legendary about things like casting, script approvals, etc. And under the Producers Guild of America guidelines, those are the roles of a producer. Right place, right time. 

I can't let it go without saying that Justice Smith and Kathryn Newton are two of the nicest people in entertainment and I would work with either of them again in a heartbeat, and I remain outraged that we didn't even get a nomination for technical Oscars when you consider that the star of the movie was a special effect.

LP: What is it about the job that you love the most?

DM: Making a great game is important of course, but there's a lot of behind the scenes stuff that needs doing too (I guess that's the reason for this series). In an ideal world, this stuff gets taken care of by people who specialize in it, so that the game developers can do what they do best: make great games. If I and my team do our job right, the cool stuff gets made.

Oh yeah, and making a movie was pretty cool.

LP: What would you like to see changed or improved about your job, or its place in the industry?

DM: The job itself is a good gig, and I can't make people love lawyers. What's unfortunate is when it gets deprioritized. Many companies look at Legal as a pure cost, which is the wrong way to look at it. Both at Pokémon when I was taking out unlicensed merchandise outlets, and at Bungie when I was taking down cheat vendors, I looked at it as helping fans get the most authentic possible experience. Litigation is the continuation of PR by other means, to paraphrase Clausewitz. There's no one else organizationally situated to do what the lawyer does, so if it's a thing that needs doing then the company needs a lawyer to do it.

LP: Before we wrap up, as a games journalist who has covered the scene extensively, this is something I've always wondered and have never got the chance to ask: how does The Pokémon Company handle Cease & Desist letters with regards to fan projects? How did you find them, and where did you draw the line on what's allowed and what the company thinks needs to be shut down?

DM: Short answer: thanks to you folks. I would be sitting in my office minding my own business when someone from the company would send me a link to a news article, or I would stumble across it myself. I teach Entertainment Law at the University of Washington and say this to my students: the worst thing on earth is when your "fan" project gets press, because now I know about you.

LP: Oh. Oh no. 

DM: But that's not the end of the equation. You don't send a takedown right away. You wait to see if they get funded (for a Kickstarter or similar); if they get funded then that's when you engage. No one likes suing fans.

LP: Surely somebody does, but that's another story for another day. Thanks for your time!

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