Q&A: Gamecock's 'Unfinished Business'? Changing The Biz!
For those needing a short history lesson, Gathering of Developers was an ambitious coalition of game developers, including Ritual Entertainment, Epic Games, 3D Realms, PopTop Software, Edge of Reality, and Terminal Reality, that united together in January 1998 to publish titles without the influence of large video game corporations.
The organization's life as an independent voice was extremely vibrant but relatively short-lived, with the company becoming a subsidiary of major publisher Take Two in 2000, eventually being re-branded as 2K Games.
This week, Gathering of Developers' former CEO Mike Wilson and ex-president Harry Miller announced the formation of a new independent game publisher named Gamecock Media Group, with seemingly similar goals - promoting the rights and interests of game developers making original IP.
Already with five original titles announced for release over the next two years, Gamasutra was fortunate to speak with both Wilson and Miller, as well as fellow Gamecock founding member Rick Stults, to understand the Austin-based firm's uniquely refreshing attitude to the game biz.
From G.O.D. To Gamecock?
The purchase and re-branding of Gathering Of Developers left most of the group finding other work after August 2001, following the publishing of Remedy's PC action classic Max Payne
Wilson commented to Gamasutra: “Since then, we’ve all done other projects outside of games, but have all also had stints in gaming... Harry founded En-Tranz in Hong Kong to work on MMO’s for Asia, Rick was a founder and business manager of a developer in Austin called Skylab, and I worked for a little while back at Take Two in 2002-2003 doing artist relations for them.”
He continued: “This is when I got to see how well all the Gathering games did for Take Two... in the end, from the games we signed over that period, we had eight one million unit sellers on the PC and nearly every game we did ended up making at least a little profit... not a bad track record, and enough of an impetus for us to get the band back together and do this again.”
Of course, with the 'band' having gone through this sort of effort once before, the group obviously had certain ideas about where to take Gamecock, as Miller commented that the pair share the same underlying philosophy.
“Unfortunately, we were not able to fulfill all of our goals at Gathering, and now plan on starting where we left off,” he noted, adding, “The idea of promoting original IP and independent developers is just as relevant today as it was when we formed the Gathering of Developers.”
An Antidote To Game Biz Bloating?
Besides promoting original IP and independent game development development endeavors, one of the most refreshing, and decidedly different philosophies laid out by Gamecock is its foundation as a “relationship-driven”, “artist-driven” company.
While this sort of mission statement might be relatively rare, fellow founder Stults sums it up eloquently: “We feel our success will be tied to working with creative, talented development teams and it starts by establishing a relationship beyond just a business deal. By putting the developers, or “artists” first, along with giving them more control of their project we can comfortably say we are about the relationships we forge with the artists.”
Miller continued by defining why the mainstream game publishing biz, which the collective has described rather matter-of-factly as “bloated and originality-starved", is exactly that way: “The large publishers are all publicly traded, which requires them to grow their revenues and profits at a certain rate year over year, and are also rewarded for increasing company assets in the form of non-tangibles (intellectual property),” he explained.
“The market also values companies by headcount, which gives these companies incentives to grow. With this infrastructure, games must hit really high sell through in order to give the company the margins it requires to grow said revenues and profitability. Because of this, doing sequels and licenses are much safer as they are more predictable.”
Miller continued: “When we speak of new IP, traditionally the best stuff has come from independent developers, but it’s incredibly difficult for an independent developer to convince a publisher to sign their new IP, since the commercial success of the game is unpredictable. The risk that the game will do well enough to meet the required margins of the publisher is really high.”
“Those developers, who do get to the negotiating table, find that the agreement includes strings which require that the developer hand over their rights to the IP, and/or agree to sell the IP or the company for a predetermined price. These added assets help the publisher offset their risk with value (real or perceived) of the acquired IP,” he added.
But Is It Really Different?
The trio seemed unabashed in their determination during our interview in maintaining Gamecock's vision, and emphatically not becoming yet another “Goliath” publisher.
“We don’t have the same artificial incentives that the public companies do,” commented Wilson. “No one is demanding that we keep growing, increase headcount, etc, etc. year after year. So we can just run a smart, profitable operation, and grow at the pace we choose.”
Wilson openly admitted that excessive growth is something that Gamecock will have to guard against: “It will be hard to say no to a lot of great teams out there, but we really don’t want to get too big too fast. Hopefully with our success there will be more “clean” money coming into this business and some similarly structured competitors for us,” he noted.
Helping this vision along is what the group describes as Gamecock's “lean production studio approach,” a concept that Wilson explained as providing a developer with what they need, while with none of those things that they do not.
“We don’t have to subsidize 100 crappy games a year and ridiculous headcount/overhead with our hits, so everyone makes more money,” he offered. “When we sold Gathering we were 12 people, and we did over $100 million in revenue that next year. This time we’ll probably grow to 25 or so people, and we hope to keep that ratio of people to revenue generated up there.”
Who Keeps The IP?
Regarding IP ownership, Stults explained that Gamecock not owning the game IP or concept was not an obstacle for the company at all: “We don’t believe letting the developer keep ownership of their IP creates additional challenges when working to publish a game that is going to sell and make money,” he responded. “We do negotiate for sequel rights with each game we sign, so for us it mitigates the risk. If we choose not to do the sequel, the developer can go elsewhere, and that’s the way it should be.”
He continued: “We don’t believe in the idea of publishers owning IP and just using whomever they can come up with to do the sequels as soon as the team becomes “difficult” to work with, meaning they stand up for their creative vision and/or can’t promise a certain quarter for a release.”
One of the more interesting facets of the Gamecock unveiling was that rather than sticking with PC-centric offerings the company revealed that it had signed developers for projects across all platforms, including not only the PC, but next-gen consoles and handhelds as well.
In addition, the company also revealed plans to investigate the potential offered by online distribution channels, as Stults stated, “We plan to explore and stay in tune with these new distribution models...our approach is that if we believe we can make money doing something we’re going to try.”
Miller, echoed this sentiment, commenting that microtransactions and digital distribution remain as one of the most original and innovative recent contributions to video gamings, adding that these technologies “open doors to new and old revenue streams.” Other new technologies noted as particularly exciting by the executive included the Wii “[because it] reminds us that its all about gameplay” and Xbox Live “because it gets demos to console users, social networking, [and] revitalizes the garage based developer.”
Conclusion - Kudos To Lowenstein!
Wilson ended the interview in typically raucous style, summing up Gamecock's attitude by referencing ESA president Doug Lowenstein's exit speech
at the recent DICE event. “I would like to thank Doug Lowenstein for everything he did for the industry and especially for leaving it in a glorious tirade,” Wilson commented. “No one exits like that anymore, and I appreciate a great entrance and exit. Nice style points, Doug!”
He ended: “But I do completely disagree with his tirade and the idea that this industry needs to “grow up.” This industry needs to lighten up. We make games. Games are covered under free speech, as every court case brought against us has shown. End of story.” And lightening up is genuinely what the Gamecock guys are trying with their new venture - good luck to them.