The Strange History Of Gamecock's Mike WilsonBy Tom Kim
Gamecock co-founder Mike Wilson has had a vital business role in game history over the past 15 years - working at id, setting up the influential GodGames, and now running his upstart publisher (Dementium, Hail To The Chimp) with a refreshing ethos; here, in a new Gamasutra Podcast transcript, he talks about his storied career and intriguing plans.
Below is a faithful transcription which touches on his stints at id, GodGames, and Ion Storm, his disillusion with and desire to jump back into the industry, and just what separates Gamecock from the big boys on the publishing block. Read on, or listen here.
Maybe we can start out by a brief introduction. Talk about what your title is at Gamecock, if such things exist, and kind-of what you do day-to-day.
Mike Wilson: My official title at Gamecock Media Group is Grand Champeen. That's with two E's. We're a pretty small group. I like to think we're a pretty creative group. And my job is largely to be a creative cheerleader; keep everybody excited, and shake them when they're not necessarily waking up in a cold sweat as often as I do, worrying about our games. I'm also Social Director for the comfpany, and for many other companies in the game industry.
On a more discrete level, for instance, you're here in Chicago, meeting with one of your developers, Wideload Games; maybe you could talk a little bit about what you're doing with Wideload, and just give us an example of the kinds of people that you work with.
MW: I'm in a transition point, personally, with my own creative passions, for trying to help these games sell, that these guys have been working on for a couple of years. And we're just coming off one of our first releases, which is Dementium, coming out for the DS on Halloween. And I've literally been thinking about Dementium -- and how to help these guys, you know, make some money, and make a name for themselves -- for the last six months.
And now I've got to shift gears, and start working with Wideload, and make sure that I'm as worried as they are, you know, about their baby. Not just because we have an investment in it, but because we feel that that's really -- that's what makes us different, maybe, than working with some other people. It's that I do toss and turn at night, really, wake up thinking about: "Oh my God, what if we had done this? I wonder if we could have communicated better about this aspect of the game." And it's really annoying, Tom. It is. Because I like to think I have a life outside of this, and, uh. Yeah, I don't.
So I'm here meeting with Wideload, and get geared up as they're finishing up Hail to the Chimp, and make sure that we leave no stone unturned for trying to let the world know about their game.
So would that involve marketing decisions, and advertising and promotion decisions, distribution, and packaging? Any or all of those things?
MW: All of those things. Basically mapping out; reminding these guys all the things that have to happen -- other than making a great game -- for them to be successful. So it's mapping out a marketing plan, a PR plan. We're really big on the PR, because we work with interesting teams on interesting games, so I think our biggest challenge, because we don't do sequels and movie-licensed games, is to break through all the clutter and let people that maybe don't visit Gamasutra or GameSpot or whatever every day, let them know that these games are coming out.
Because when you're doing original stuff, you know, and you can't lean on that movie marketing, or the fact that everybody knows this game from a previous one, you just have to work harder. Other than the inherent risk, that's why a lot of publishers just sort of shy away from it. It's more work for the same reward, you know? But we really dig that sort of work. It's a creative challenge for us.
So yeah, it's everything from the box design to how we're going to reach all sorts of different audiences with the game; just to make them aware. Creating ads, and making sure the developers are aware of all the different things we need from them to make this happen, and to make sure they're all happy with it. We get our developers really involved in this stuff, so that at the end of it, if it doesn't sell well, the traditional thing is that the publisher points at the developer, the developer points at the publisher, and there's no teamwork, really. And so I want these guys to sign off on every aspect of what we're doing for 'em.
Because we really believe that the people that work a year or two, or three years on these games -- and are gamers themselves, and buy games -- are a really good resource. And we don't really think that our opinions as marketers are necessarily better than theirs. I just want everybody to feel really good about the campaign, and whatever happens. I mean, you never know what's really going to sell until it's done. I've been on the other side of the table, working with developers, and feeling like we didn't really have a lot of input into the marketing and PR -- and it's not a good thing, when it's your baby.
So let's say I'm a developer, and I'm looking at Gamecock Media Group to be my publisher of choice. What do you have to offer, in terms of ideas, and promotion, and that kind of thing?
MW: Well we're not a billion dollar public company; we actually do dedicate front-line marketing budgets to our original games. This is one of differentiating factors between us and other smaller indie labels. We don't think these original titles have a chance, whether they're good or not, if we can't spend the kind of money that the big guys do.
What really happens with the bigger publishers is: all's well and good until the quarterly meeting about, "Where's our marketing money going to go?" and they tend to get behind the big, sure things, and the rest of the stuff is just an after-thought. From all of the executive managers at Gamecock being from that side of the table, being a developer, you know that's the worst thing that can happen; that you work on a game and then due to one quarterly meeting, and some committee -- most of whom you've never met and will never play your game -- you suddenly have no marketing budget. Or certainly no mindshare.
So that's really what we offer: We only do enough games so that we can really get emotionally behind every one. Richard Iggo, our VP of marketing, he and I right now, because of the size we are, we kinda alternate; we pick our games that speak to us, and like I said, I just moved on from Dementium to Hail to the Chimp, and he just moved from Fury to Insecticide. It's a little bit of a competition: we're like, trying to make the most of what we can. So, we're spending that same, again major league budgets, we want to get twice that value out of it.
And we kinda take a little bit of pride in not just doing the formulaic, "OK, X amount of print ads, X amount of online ads, nice box, and we're done." There's a lot of pride in the creativity, and again, just trying to break through the clutter, so that if I spend the million bucks, I want to get three million bucks worth of value. That's just in me, and in our group as entrepreneurs. We're street hustlers, you know? I mean, it sounds funny, but I think, as much as Alex and these guys at Wideload might've hated listening to PR strategy for five hours today, at the end of it, I don't think there's any question in their minds that the guys at Gamecock back in Austin are fully focused on making this thing work.
And it's not some eight-steps-down-the-line middle manager worrying about their game; it's like, it's me. And our guys from Sandbox, we use, and then we hire another special freelancer, just to worry about their game for six months. Just to think about nothing but that. It's not that I don't think you get that, I know for a fact you don't get that with most -- it's not just game companies, it's, you know: if you're a musician, or a writer, or a film maker, it's just the reality is that you usually get very little mindshare. The more products the company's putting out, the less mindshare you get, unless you happen to be the Rockstar of the month. Everything we do, really, philosophically, comes from being on the other side of the table.
That's Mike Wilson on the left, next to his partner-in-crime and Gamecock president, Harry Miller.
Where do you see game marketing heading? Is it more about working with the press more? Is it about communicating stuff directly to the fans more? Having a more direct interface between yourself and the developers and people you intend to buy your game?
MW: Well, you know, it's all of that stuff. It's like I said: Leaving no stone unturned, and dealing with the small-time blogger, who's going to be the Kotaku of two years from now. And forming those relationships, and just being real, you know? Being a gamer, and being in the culture. I think that so much of what you see comes from people who don't play games anymore, and they come from packaged goods marketing backgrounds, and everything's very formulaic, tried and true methods. And those methods all, they're dying -- which is great. It's a great leveler.
So it's nice, 'cause a lot of times you feel like: no matter how much you hustle, it's just whoever can write the biggest check that's going to win. And I think the internet really coming of age, and the new gamer culture that's had the internet all their lives now, it's really leveled the playing field; that the cream really can rise to the top. If you're in it, and you're honest about your messaging. You can't fool people anymore. You know? Which is wonderful, and it's challenging, and it's way more work than people are used to.
Formulas are nice, because once you get 'em down, that's why they're called formulas; you learn it, and then you never have to learn anything again. Which I would absolutely stab my eyes out, if that was the case. I couldn't hang out in this business for this long if that was the deal. I guess maybe when I got out of the business a few years ago, it was starting to feel a little bit like that; starting to feel as if we were losing the war against The Golfers. The Wall Street guys. And every now and then -- I'm not going to lie -- it still feels a lot like that, but what do you do?
It's like, as an American, if you don't agree with your current administration's politics, do you move to Europe, or do you stay here and fight, and get involved, and make your place -- your industry -- what you want it to be? So, we decided to come back and fight. Because it's an industry full of young, smart -- and old smart, whatever! You know, middle-aged smart people. So there's absolutely no reason to just put our heads down and succumb to the fact that it has to bee a big Wall Street-driven industry, by guys that could care less. Let's not give up.
This probably isn't new to you: To a lot of people who've been in the business -- as young as this business is -- for a number of years, they're used to doing things a certain way. But you started in this business very young, and even from the beginning have been doing things which people in this business thought were crazy. So, in a way this is just a continuation of the way you've always done things. And yet, you've met with a pretty fair amount of success throughout your career.
So, let's switch gears and go back a bit about when you started in the business. You actually started out at DWANGO, and then moved on to id. So maybe talk a bit about those days, and what inspired you to get in the business, and, as young as you were, what made you think that you could be a VP of Marketing at DWANGO, and then move on to id and do promotions for them, and some of the ground-breaking things you did at id.
MW: I got into this business, like anybody does, because I had a buddy that was a pen and paper artist that ended up being one of the guys that did the artwork for Doom. And I hung out with those guys from id when they were still playing Dungeons & Dragons in their underwear in a lake house in Shreveport. I was maybe 20 when I met these guys, and I already had a wife and a kid, and was trying to do that "provider" thing. And eventually, while I'm watching these guys move from Shreveport to Dallas, and then they make Wolfenstein, and then all the sudden they're making money, and, like: "What is this? Computer games? Really, you're making money?" And because it's your buddy, you're like: "Wow, he bought a car."
I remember when Adrian Carmack -- he didn't send me an email, because there was no email -- he actually called me on a real phone, and said: "Dude, I just got a raise to twenty-three thousand dollars a year!" And I was like: "No wayyy! Really? Making games?" Yeah. Yeah, Apogee moved them to Dallas; gave them ten thousand dollars to make Wolfenstein.
Anyway, I was sorta doing my entrepreneurial hustler thing, and then these guys said: "Hey, these guys in Houston have come up with a way for people to be able to play Doom, from home, against each other over a modem. And this was before there was any internet, and before anybody thought that was even possible, because of bandwidth, and modems, and packet sizes, and all the same things we talk about now -- but these guys had figured it out, and they were like: "We think it's going to be pretty big. Maybe you should go help 'em." So I was just, like, the trusted buddy, and that's when I was like: "OK, I guess I'd better figure out this 'game' thing."
And I went down to Houston, and flew around the country installing little modem racks; we'd buy a bookshelf at Home Depot, and load it up with 14.4 modems and a 486 server, and leave them running in a closet all over the country! So that people could play Doom against each other from home!
At DWANGO, I also met my then-and-current business partner, Harry Miller. He also started off at DWANGO, and he stayed there when I went to id. And he was still there when we crushed DWANGO with free Quake. And eventually he forgave me! You know, wasn't my fault. We had grown DWANGO from two guys and a server in Houston, to serving most of the country. We had covered just about every major area code; it was all about area code, so you could make a local phone call. About six months into that, id said: "You know, we're going to start publishing our own stuff, because our publisher sucks. And they're making all the money. Would you like to come do that?" Yes I would.
So then I got to go to id Software, and be their VP of Marketing and Distribution, at age 24. Which was cool, you know, it's like managing The Beatles at age 24. They were kings of the world at the time. And then shortly after, John Carmack made Quake freely playable over the internet, and therefore crushed DWANGO forever. I felt really bad for my old friends at DWANGO.
Yeah, well, these guys, they were already groundbreaking when I got there. They made the coolest game in the world. They had learned from their publisher, Apogee (which is now 3DRealms), about shareware, and they were some of the early shareware marketers, and I just expounded upon that a little bit. Again, we were kings of the world, and could do whatever we wanted. So, that was my job, as a 24 year old entrepreneur! It was a fun time, and totally the Wild West.
And the reason that I did things that were sort of off-the-wall is, there was really nobody to learn from, and the people that I interfaced with at GT Interactive clearly were not gamers, and were not interested in learning that culture. They were just old guys that were in the toy business, and then they were in the Disney-knock-off-video business with Wal-Mart, then they heard about these CD-ROM things, and they had Richard Simmons Deal-A-Meal CD-ROM, and Fabio screen saver, and then they had Doom. And when I met these guys, really, the inspiration was: "Wow. Not that bright, these guys. I think I can do this. I'm not saying I'm the smartest guy in the world, but I think I can do better than this."
So, you know, we tried things like encrypted shareware for the first time, and put Quake in the 7-Eleven stores with encrypted shareware -- and of course it was all immediately hacked, but it certainly improved the shareware conversion ratio. And those guys all made lots more money, and that enabled us to renegotiate our deal with brick-and-mortar store publisher, GT Interactive.
You know, honestly? I was just really, really lucky to be there at that time, when everything was just breaking, and it was the Wild West. At the time, video games did not seem like a big opportunity -- but, you know, you see concrete evidence of the thing that was growing, and everybody you meet on the development side of the business, especially back then, were really, really smart people. Way ahead of their time. I was with these guys that were already savvy enough to be fighting for their intellectual property rights; to already be fighting to put their name on the front of the box. You know, for creative control over their marketing and their PR -- and obviously I still believe all that stuff that I learned and fought for, there, with our publisher. All these really valuable lessons.
Again, it was like early Hollywood, and you're woking with Errol Flynn or something. It was just, like, kings of the world for a little while, and a great place to start off.
So you're talking about the heady days of being at id. You made a transition -- perhaps for better or for worse -- going on to Ion Storm. You had some interesting experiences there.
MW: I mean it was only a year for me. I wasn't in as long as the rest of those guys! But I mean, yeah, I left id, I think I was the first person ever -- and maybe the last ever -- to leave id of my own choice. Because why would you? We shipped Quake 1, got it out the door, did a better deal for retail distribution, all that stuff... But now what are we looking at? Quake 2.
That's going to take a couple years. It wasn't hard to see what would come after that. It wasn't my company; I wasn't going to own any part of it, and I was basically going to be sitting there waiting for a couple of years, to hype a very similar game to the one I just spent the year hyping.
I left when John left. You know, he was -- John Romero is a very passionate guy, and all the wacky things that I wanted to do at id, he was always behind. And he just had a lot more open mind, and a risky nature to his personality. So we were a good match together. And, you know, it was like: "OK, stay here and do the same thing, and draw a fat check, and learn nothing. Or, let's go where I'm actually going to be one of the founders and principals of this business -- and it's far from a slam dunk, but it's bold and experimental, and we're going to have fun." And I gotta tell you, that first six months of that year were some of the most fun times I've ever had in the business.
We believed in what we were doing, and my job was to make sure that, you know: with John leaving id, everybody was waiting for John's next game. They believed in John, like I did. We were the "it" story for that year; which was fun. Even though John had left id, you know, that everybody still realized that he was one of the main guys behind Doom, and all that stuff.
Unfortunately, there were a lot of other complications to that deal, which included partners that I did not know. At all. Some of which turned out to be not such good guys to be partnered with. The second six months was when the rat started to stink, and we had brought all these young people in, from all over the country -- and internationally, as well. Really talented people, that could not wait to work with John Romero. And, you know, the whole, what we were building; the sort-of "Developer Utopia," "Design is Law."
You know, it was the same thing: we controlled our IP, we were going to be branded. It was all the right ideas, but maybe not so much with the right partners. But, you know, I learned more in that year than -- like, I will never forget a single month of 1997. And how many years of your life can you really say that about, you know? I remember all of it. And even the really horrible parts, like when I was fighting to try to save the company, and for all those people that had come to work there, and I ended up losing that fight. And Ion Storm, in a larger sense, ended up losing that fight when I did, because it was like, once there was no one there left to fight, the sort of bad side of the company took control, and it was an inevitable downward spiral that everybody there felt, but felt powerless to stop.
Anyway, I learned a lot about human nature that year. I think everybody that was there did, you know? And unfortunately a lot of people were stuck there for a couple of years -- sort of bad morale situation. But they all learned valuable stuff, and they all landed in good places, and did great work in a great work environment -- if you take the press side out of it -- for as long as it lasted. And, you know, there, one of the last things that we did before I left was bring Warren Spector into the fold, right from Looking Glass. And he was in danger of losing his team, because we brung him in -- we BRUNG 'IM. 'Cuz we brung 'im in t'Eye-On Sto'erm, he wuz able t'keep'is team'gether, an' make a li'l game call Deus Ex.
Deus Ex. That all worked out pretty well. So. No regrets, and you know, and if things didn't suck so bad there, I probably would've hung out a little too long, and not started GodGames when I did. It was always in the plan when we went to Ion Storm. That was what I went for: was to start up our own publishing company. But it was clear that that was not the place to do it. So, I'm glad it sucked! Because it was really good timing, in the industry, to start a first sorta independent-minded publisher.
In essence, the tenets on which you founded GodGames, and on which you founded Gamecock, were there, when you went to Ion Storm. And I'm sure a lot of that was stuff that you learned, and formulated, and thought about while you were at Ion Storm. So, in a sense, people see Gamecock as a reboot from GodGames, but there's a continuity to those days; and all the way to the things you were thinking about, and the kind of publishing group you wanted to form, going into that situation.
MW: Just for the record: I was ousted from Ion Storm. But it was because I refused to let go of the idea of starting our own publisher and to play nice with Eidos, and pretend to make games for a couple more years. I refused to do that, and thusly, it was like: "Well, you can either do this, or you can go." And so I went. It was still a little early. Like, we weren't quite done with our plan of putting our partners together for GodGames. We had a limited amount of time, because we weren't wealthy guys, but we really felt like the time was right to get this thing together that we had been planning for a year. But it was like: "OK, it's now or never." So we actually started the company with a press release in January of 1998. So that's what started the company. J.C. Herz -- Joystick Nation. It was obvious from the immediate reaction in the press that we were doing the right thing at the right time.
The proper name was Gathering of Developers. That's what we were; six founding developers owned over half the company. To keep us honest, because even then I didn't trust myself! I was like, if I'm going to become a publisher, we'd better have some checks and balances, because I don't want to become one of those guys. You know, it was such a rewarding thing -- even though we didn't have any money yet, or an office -- to have the New York Times writing about us, and then after that, everybody else. And we really only had a few months to raise a lot of money -- and unfortunately it was during the dot-com boom, so it was very hard to raise money if you were not a "dot-com."
We're like: "But we have a real business, with games! And we're going to ship them to stores, and people will buy them!" They're like: "Whatever, man. Sell me some futures." So it was a rough go. And fortunately, this devil... crook... bastard... genius, named Ryan Brant, who started Take 2, believed in us. He saw the press, he knew the story, he knew that it was all right. And he had a small and insignificant enough publishing company to be able to wrap them around our philosophy -- or at least ostensibly so -- and bet their whole company -- which wasn't even listed on NASDAQ yet -- on our idea.
And he wrote us a check, you know, for five million bucks, that got us started. They had no games and no money. I mean, the five million dollar check that Brant wrote us was bigger than their IPO. He bet the farm, you know, and he believed. And it ended up making them a hell of a lot of money. And it got them some inertia, and they started Rockstar as an internal label, modeled after us -- you know, a boutique label that only does, hopefully, good stuff. They were guys from the music scene, and they wanted to make game culture cool. Which is still a fine goal to have.
We ended up -- Take 2, because they didn't have any money at the time, they were pre-GTA -- we were always a little under-funded with GodGames. Actually a lot under-funded. But that just reinforced the sort of, "Let's work harder, and get more out of less," mentality. And that's when we really went all-out, with, you know, the wackiness. And people really like it when we have fun.
That lesson was really learned out of that; out of not really having any money, and having no choice but to be loud and obnoxious. You know, a PR office, and we didn't have any money for marketing! Again, as long as you're honest about it, as long as it's not an image you're projecting -- you know, a photo session, or whatever -- it's really who you are and the way that you're running your company. And it's true, that it resonates, you know? And we still do that. So that's another lesson learned from being an under-funded independent publisher!
And at the time, you gotta realize, Take 2 gave us money for the rights to distribution to our games, but they didn't have any distribution! They used our games to get their distribution. So, again, more lessons. We learned though all that; going through all of those meetings, to learn what it took to get established with all the retailers. To learn the ins and outs of distribution, and collections, and all that dirty stuff that nobody wants to think about, we learned from Take 2. 'Cause they didn't have any money, either; they were scrapping, too!
And also busting some myths, because the conception is that those distribution channels are closed, and controlled by the bigger publishers, but what you learned there is that they're not.
MW: They're actually wide open, and for sale. They're "closed" like real-estate, Tom.
But not to everybody! The big retail chains are willing to open their arms to you, but you have to have something that maybe some of the other, bigger publishers that they deal with don't have.
MW: Well, you have to at least have a lineup that's worth caring about. And again: As much as these retailers are jaded, and don't necessarily -- a lot of them aren't gamers. They could still feel passion. Like when you come in, and you're pitching, and you care about it? It still feels very different from the guys that come in, nine times out of ten, with a list of fifty titles. "And these are the three that you should pay attention to! Nevermind the other forty-seven; if you could take a hundred of each, that'd be great."
So, we learned that, yeah, you come in with some kind of passion, and some games you care about, and you still have to have the money to buy the shelf space, just like all the other guys.
Interestingly, though: One of the retailers gave you free endcaps. That seems trivial, but to people who don't understand what that means, maybe you could explain what that means.
MW: It was our first game, it was a small game: Jazz Jackrabbit 2. Which we basically took on as a condition to Epic signing on with GodGames. It was a side scroller; we knew it wasn't going to shake up the world, but it was finished, and we could ship it. CompUSA, who was a big player at the time, they literally -- you know, after all the other publishers said we'd never get shelf space -- these guys gave us endcaps. Which, at the time, were, you know, fifty thousand dollars. Now they're a lot more than that. But that was huge! And, you know, it was just so great to just fly in the face of everybody. All the big publishers want people to believe that they control the channels, but it's just not true. The retailers control the channels, and they want as many competing publishers as possible -- as long as you have some financial wherewithal to be able to compete and do marketing.
So it was awesome, to ship a side scroller, and have it in every channel that existed, in a big way. We didn't even have to say anything. It completely debunked, immediately, anything that the other guys had said about us, trying to shut us down. And then we were able to follow that up, two months later, with Railroad Tycoon 2, which was a bona fide hit. And to demonstrate that not only can we get in, but when we have a hit, guess what, we can do a big push just like anybody else.
And so, immediately, all the whole, these sort of myths, the man behind the curtain that all these publishers wanted to hide, were revealed. It was like: "Oh God. They really can do this." Unfortunately, it was a long wait after Railroad Tycoon 2. We went through the whole next year -- because they were high-end PC games, everything slipped -- because they were all cutting-edge technology, engines would slip, and therefore all the games would slip. So, you know, we learned stuff from that, too! We don't do all big games now, all on PC. As we learned toward the end of GodGames, we started doing smaller games that we knew were going to ship in six months -- you know, just a little ballast while we wait for the, uh, "When It's Done" release date.
You didn't demand that those games ship, even when they weren't done. You were willing to wait, even though it cost you greatly.
MW: Yeah, well, you know, it didn't cost us so much, because we were -- again, we were a tiny crew, just like we are now. So we didn't have a lot of overhead, and we weren't spending marketing money.
It cost you in terms of having to close GodGames in its incarnation, though.
MW: That's true. It cost us time and momentum. And eventually, because we continued to fund these games, and fund other games -- because while these others weren't coming out, because of our success with Railroad Tycoon, and the sort of cachet we had developed -- we were getting fantastic submissions all the time, so we continued to fund other stuff. And yet, at some point, when everything slipped, and we did, we ran out of money.
And our deal with Take 2 was such that it was really nearly impossible to raise money elsewhere. So yeah, we ended up having to sell the company before we should have -- and we didn't want to at all. You know? And Take 2 knew that; they knew what we had in the pipeline. And, you know, in fairness, they could've just shut us down. But they had a lot invested, too, and Ryan Brant still ran the company; still believed in what we had coming down the pike.
And, you know, they gave us a fair deal. It wasn't nearly as good as we could've gotten if we were financially stable, but in the end of the day, you know, all these games came out and did well, and then Rockstar had GTA, and it did fantastic, so... Everybody involved in the whole thing, down to the smallest participant -- managers, or developers -- even the ones that didn't make a hit for us made some money from the whole experiment. Any entrepreneurial effort that ends like that is a happy day. It didn't feel happy at the time, at all.
That's quite interesting, because there's some parallels with GodGames, that are happening again with Gamecock; namely, portfolio management. At the time, a lot of the titles that you took under your governance at GodGames, people weren't sure about that. People weren't sure about your portfolio management. But, over time, that bore itself out. Correct me if I'm wrong, I think every game released under GodGames made its money back, and then some.
MW: That's certainly true by now. Not every game made its money in the first year, or even in two years, but by the time I went -- you know, I took my leave, and I went back to Take 2 for a little while -- I found out that, yeah, even the games that we thought didn't do so well, because of our model of running lean and doing quality stuff, eventually even if it doesn't sell well as a fifty dollar game, if it's a quality game for ten dollars, it's certainly going to sell well.
So, yeah, it all worked out, and it's certainly worth doing again. And with Gamecock, yeah, there are a lot of these things that are really experimental; some of the teams are not established entities, or whatever, and they won't all make money in the first six months. But, I don't think we're going to lose money on anything. And that's what we sold our investors on, is our track record.
It's not just that we eke out a few pennies with GodGames; we ended up with eight million-unit sellers on the PC in less than three years. Railroad Tycoon 2 was the first, Tropico, two Stronghold games that sold over a million, Oni ended up -- dunno if it sold over a million, but it made a lot of money because of the deal that we had with Bungie -- and then this group, Illusions, out of Czechoslovakia, delivered Mafia, and Hidden and Dangerous, and Vietcong. Those all did over a million units.
And then of course, Max Payne, which was our big -- our first game we announced, and the last one we shipped as GodGames. Which was very satisfying, to be able to hang on that long, and get that thing out the door. And to know that because we waited, even though it meant that we lost our independence, if we'd shipped it a year sooner, it wouldn't have been a great game.
You had the PC rights to all the stuff you distributed, but you didn't have the console rights -- and there's some... probably some lessons that you're learning there, that you're not going to make the same mistakes with Gamecock?
MW: Don't get me wrong: We didn't want to give away our console rights. But in 1998, '99, PC developers crossing over to console was not a big business, you know? And the front-line PC stuff would still sell as much or more than the watered-down console versions. But we could certainly see that it was going in that direction; that things were moving toward a console world.
And it's not like we just offered up those rights, you know. Ryan Brant -- very smart guy -- bet his whole company, and said: "And by the way, I'm going to need the console rights to these games." Like I said: no hard feelings, and it's definitely a console world now. We still do PC stuff, but lessons learned.
And PC, if you have a hit, it's gravy. On consoles it's not gravy; it's gravy with some lumps sticking out. So maybe you could talk about that.
MW: It's niche enthusiast market, versus mass market. You know? And that enthusiast market is much smaller, but they're dedicated; if you make quality stuff, they tend to buy it. Which is rewarding, because that's not always the case in the console world. A lot of times, console sales are dominated by licensed properties and just, you know... You want in the mainstream, but do you really? You know? Because that suddenly means that you're dealing with a consumer that doesn't always care about quality as much as they do about a name.
But yeah, the fact that most of these big console franchises still originated from small, independent teams somewhere, gives us hope. We can help create those franchises. You know, we let our developers own our IP, and we're not going to sign up for every sequel to every game that does well; and it's fine to us, if we don't sign on to a sequel, and that developer sells to whomever. They can move on, because there's always new stuff coming, you know?
And for every developer that sells to a big company, a year or two later, there's going to be a new developer spawned from there, with that same experience. And that's who we want. We want the guys that are coming out -- like the Bungie guys, that just are fighting their way out from the Microsoft clause. Or Wideload -- those guys left much earlier, they didn't hang out for as much money as the Halo guys. But they wanted their freedom, and to move back to Chicago, and to work on stuff they wanted to do. As long as there's a constant flow of those guys? It's fine. There are plenty of big megamachines to deal with cranking out the thirty-million-dollar-sequel to whatever, and we don't need to be those people.
And to take their IP and hand it to another team.
OK, post GodGames: You left for a while...
MW: Well, I left with my middle finger in the air, ten feet high, because we really felt like our company was sort of torn from us; you know, we were kind of powerless to stop it, and we knew we had all these great games coming down the pike. So it was very painful, you know; we were very emotionally involved in the whole thing. We felt like our grand crusade had failed.
At the same time, we could see the writing on the wall, that we were now inside of what was becoming a very big public company, after GTA, and it's just, like, it was no place for us. All the things that we're good at were being snuffed out, you know, it was being turned into a bureaucracy, which renders guys like us basically useless. Or we want to stab our eyes out every day. So, we left. We negotiated a separation which was very fair. It was a fine separation -- as much as it could've been. And we all did fine.
Unfortunately, we lost one of our key guys right at that same time, so we were a little devastated... A lot devastated. Like, shaken to our core, the whole group of us. So we just left the industry. I had no passion for it -- in fact I had a genuine disdain for it. And went off to do other things -- independent film making... Largely because right at the time, I felt this whole, all the creativity being sucked out of games, and being turned into big, monstrous -- to me -- monstrous-sized teams. Dev schedules, and all this; going out of the fun "garage band" days.
Right at that same time, the whole revolution was happening in the indie film scene. They were a little ahead of us, they were already breaking away from the big studio system, and getting funding from elsewhere, and all this creativity was happening, so I was like: "I'm going to hop over here." But it was like, kind of an education, going from "big man on campus in games, with all the connections in the world," to "little guy with a DVD and no connections" in that world.
But it, that's a wonderful experience, and I think this industry would be a very different place if other gaming executives went through that. You know, went and actually created something, and had to hand it off to somebody, and hope that they market it, and do all that stuff, like.... You can't pay for that. You don't get that from a seminar, or a book, 'til you go through it. Until every bad review breaks your heart, or every handshake turns into bullshit, you know? Creating kinda -- puts you back on the side of the artist, you know.
And even though Harry and Rick and I all came from managing those guys making games, we weren't really the guys making 'em. Sure, I got to throw in an idea here and there, when I was at id, and some of 'em made it into the game -- but it wasn't, I wasn't doing the coding, or the art, or whatever. I was doing the shilling. When you're looking in somebody's eyes, and you're negotiating, the way of the world is that you take everything that you can get -- but if you can really empathize with that other side, I think you go: "You know, what I think I want, what I really, really want to get is a partnership, and for these guys to look forward to meeting with me." And when Alex is worried about: "OK, I'm making a weird game." You know? But... "I know in Austin, Mike is just as worried about it." That. That's me; it's what I want more than I want your royalty points, or I want creative control, or...
So that time I did a couple of documentaries, and a lot of short film stuff, and really used that "hiding behind the lens" to explore a lot of different things -- because I had really only been exposed to games -- the best thing that that led me to is realizing how cool the games world really was. You know, the grass is always greener until you cross over. And hiding behind that lens and the microphone, you get a lot of insight from a lot of people, about what their lives are really like.
Like, you know, the game thing. A lot of it sucks, but a lot of it's really cool. And again, you get back to the notion of, "Do I leave it because it's being taken over by country club guys, or do I go back in there and try to make a fight for the indie side?" And there's room, you know, it's fine. It seems to be the way of the world, that these guys are going to control a big bunch of business. That's fine. But there's definitely a lot of room for a company like ours, in between the little indie guys and the behemoth Wall Street companies, there's this giant gap that I'm so glad to be in.
It isn't exactly like you elbowed your way back into the country club -- they invited you back into the foursome. The three guys are like: "Hey! That guy scores pretty well! He hits pretty good drives!"
MW: It was right after this other venture, called Substance TV, that was a video magazine, that was, really, that was a tool for exploration of other ways of being. I was just winding that down; unable to make a commercially viable DVD magazine; maybe a little bit ahead of its time in 2002.
But with a lot of your GodGames partners as well.
MW: Yeah, and that was a lot of it: Was just keeping the tribe together, and you know, and everybody not being out of work just because I was bummed out on games. And right as we were winding that down, you know, the phone rang, and it was Take 2, and I was like: "What? Really? Am I being sued?" They actually wanted me to come to New York and run the whole PC division of their company. Which by that time, you know, is a half a billion dollar business. "OK. Really? You want me to come back?" It's like: "NO. NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO."
And then finally we talked into some middle-ground, where I was going to run my shop out of Austin, and do what I do. And it was a bit of a façade -- you can't be Captain Indie inside the machine. It's not honest. But what it did was really afford me that retrospect, and the insider information on how well our stuff did. Which was a big kick in the pants, you know? When you think you went out, not the way you wanted to, and then you're like: "Everything you did made money. We'd really like you back. And we'll pay you whatever it takes to get you."
So that was fantastic that that happened. I'm a lucky guy. A lot of this was about being in the right place at the right time, and the fact that those guys called me back, even though I called them every name in the book, and burned the Take 2 cross at E3... That was big of them, you know; to their credit, they were like: "He might hate us, and we might hate him, but what he did worked, and we'll see if it'll work again."
It didn't. But, again... Retrospect. Getting older is not always so bad.
But it got you back in.
MW: It got us back in. Not immediately. First of all, it was an executive job, that they paid me at the end of the day to not work, for most of two years. Because it wasn't working out, so they just kind of paid me to stay on the sidelines for a while.
So at some point, you decided that it'd be a good thing to get back into your original vision, which was to form a publishing company. Something you were trying to do with GodGames, which, with all the lessons you had talked about, maybe you were better equipped to handle this time.
MW: Like I said, at Take 2, that position just afforded me the retrospective, to be inspired to do it again. And I talked to Harry and Rick about what I learned, and the real numbers, and maybe, but I still wasn't fully committed. I mean, it's just, it's such a commitment to start one of these things; and we all know ourselves well enough to know that we can't get in sort of halfway. It's like: If we're in, we're in. You know? Because that's really, that's really what we bring to the table. If I'm publishing your game, I'm going to try to do as good a job as you are of trying to develop it. So it was a big deal, to go: "Are we ready to really do this again?" And to possibly put ourselves out there for disappointment again, or, you know, whatever. Heartbreak.
For your families, too.
MW: Yeah! It was like: "Honey, are you ready? For me to fly all over the world again? And to wake up in the middle of the night, and be thinking about games? I dunno if I'm ready; how do you feel about it?" She was like: "If it's yours, and you care about it, and it's something to focus on..."
Because we're not meant to not work, Tom. I don't know if you know this, but us westerners are programmed to go crazy if we stop producing. I was dangerously flirting with that. 'Cause I'm a guy that's used to doing 90 different things, and if I try to do just one... And we talked about it, and laughed about it, and, honestly? The whole Gamecock thing? the idea of doing it only if we can do it on our terms again? And be goofy about it? And have fun? 'Cause, this is one of the things that I learned from the whole Burning Man documentary experience, and getting into that culture, was just: the importance of not taking yourself so seriously, and of remembering to be a kid. And it's something this industry could really stand an injection of.
And so, that was what I felt like could be different this time, in the inspiration, because at the end of GodGames, I found myself a 30 year old CEO of a company, doing a hundred million dollars revenue. And when you're in that position, whether you take yourself seriously or not? Other people do. And they come to you, and they, most of the people that are talking to you are asking your advice. Or asking permission, or asking for approval, or whatever, and it changes your frame of reference. Like, I'm just a dork guy, you know? A goof from Louisiana! I don't even have a proper education. When suddenly everybody you know is putting you in that cast, inevitably you start to take yourself more seriously -- which is the road to disaster.
And I'm like, "You know, I'm not going back to being a serious executive guy." Like, "I never aspired to that; none of my heroes are great businessmen. I'll do it if we can do it on our own terms; have fun, do original stuff, with people that will inspire us." You know? The developers that will give us something back. Creative juice. So it's just not an exercise that, you may as well be selling widgets.
So when I came up with the name "Gamecock" and we had a big laugh, and we were drunk, and I was like: "That's it!" That was really the first thing that made me excited about this idea. Not the first thing, but the thing that really cinched it. Like, "Oh my God, if we can really have a major league company, that could do big business like GodGames? And it's called Gamecock? And everybody has to take it seriously? If I could wake up and be worried about games, and then have a chuckle about talking to a Wal-Mart buyer about Gamecock, that'll help."
What a switch, though; going from "GodGames" to "Gamecock." I think that's telling.
MW: A little bit. It's the same idea, though. I mean, "God" was always just to have fun with that, too. You know, Catholic schoolgirls, and boxing nuns, and all of that stuff; it was all, like, "Come on, let's not take ourselves so seriously."
Still, once we had the inspiration to really go after it, we were still almost two years away. Because we weren't going to do this underfunded again. So it was like, we're going to find the right partners -- and that takes a lot of doing. You know? A lot of people saying "yes" -- a hundred of them, roughly -- before you actually get a check. And we didn't want the five million dollar check this time, to get started, "and then we'll raise the rest," because what if you don't? But then you end up in the same situation, so, we waited until we found the right suckers. The right kind of money to be able to compete.
The game industry is not in a way that we get that money. Culturally, that we get that money. We might get money because it's a write-off. Or, in our instance, we made money last time -- we made a lot of money. We were looking for guys that were interested in making money, but were OK with the risk profile of being an entertainment company, and that it's an all-or-nothing proposition. But with us, we were able to paint a picture, through history, that even with our flops, eventually it's going to make a little bit of money. And we're going to hit some singles and doubles, and every now and then it's going to sail right out of the park. It's all about having a track record -- and who knows, you know?
It's a different industry now. Who knows if we'll have that many hits. But we don't need to. Our business plan doesn't call for any million-unit sellers. Not one. So if we have one or two? Instead of eight? We're happy. Because we don't plunge ten, twenty, thirty million dollars into things that -- that's just not our model. That's not even an option.
One of your partners that you keep mentioning: Alex Seropian. He has said that now is the best time to be in game development that he has ever been aware of. That it's a more experimental time, a more open time than it's ever been. Perhaps all your earlier ventures -- your efforts at Ion Storm, your efforts at GodGames -- maybe now the timing is right, finally, for this.
MW: Maybe so. I just, I sure hope so. Whatever; we're going to have fun; there's no way our investors are going to lose their shirts. And as long as we can continue to do it on our own terms, you know?
And if we never have that million-unit seller, but we continue for a few years, or you know, however long it's fun -- to keep doing this, and crank out some original games. If it is more like an indie film audience; you know, a niche audience, where every now and then one breaks out, but most of it is just for the people that really appreciate the fact that you're taking a chance on something original?
Or maybe even eventually a sort of fair trade mentality breaks out into game consumers, where they care about how you treat the artist, and if there's, I hate to use the term "slave labor." Not like real slaves, but certainly some horrific working conditions for a lot of the talent in the industry, as far as the hours they work, the credit they get, and the real job security they have. We're in a rare position to be able to try to make some money, but also have fun, and be good to people. Again, I'm a lucky guy, you know? It's been a lucky run, and I've never had to be the bastard in this industry. The fact that that's our niche? Is to not be the bastard? It is sad, but hey, I'll take it. If nobody else is doing it...!
Return to the full version of this article
Copyright © UBM Tech, All rights reserved