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From God To Cock: Mike Wilson On GameCock's Publishing Party

Mike Wilson exudes flamboyance, and after the success and then acquisition of publisher Gathering Of Developers (G.O.D), he's back with Austin-based 'big indie' publisher Gamecock. But what's the idiosyncratic company's developer-centric philosophy and artistic drive all about? Gamasutra finds out within.

Game biz veteran Mike Wilson is best known, perhaps, for his work co-founding and running independent-minded 'developer conglomerate' publisher Gathering Of Developers, or G.O.D., which was formed in 1998 from founding developers including Epic, Ritual, and 3D Realms, and was eventually acquired by Take-Two. But he's been in the business since the early '90s, helping id Software with distribution and working as Ion Storm CEO in 1997.

The latest project from Wilson and his cohorts Harry Miller and Rick Stults is, of course, new Austin, Texas-based publisher Gamecock - rising like a wingless phoenix to at least ankle-height, in order to help independent developers publish their games on PC and console. But it's hard not to be skeptical when a company crows of such good intentions. Could it be a case of 'here comes the new boss, same as the old boss', or is there something new here?

Gamasutra set out to discover just that -- is the company all it's cracked up to be? I spoke with Gamecock Grand Champeen Mike Wilson about funding, getting big, buying developers, the power of independence, and took a hard look at who the company's over the top antics really serve. I'll leave the impressions up to you.

So, can you go briefly through the origins of Gamecock?

Mike Wilson: It’s kind of a response to a need we saw in the industry for kind of a Miramax-type studio, so we greenlight all original games from all independent developers, and help produce, market, whatever. We do all the stuff a developer needs a publisher to do, but none of the stuff that they don’t need a publisher to do. We don’t impose our will upon the games, and we don’t own the IP, we let the artist keep their intellectual property.

So it’s just basically what we think is a little bit more forward-thinking model for the industry than what exists. We want to have relationships with great artists, and that’s what we consider these guys to be. They’re not software factories for us to buy and control. So, that’s the idea. It’s a fun side of the business to be in, it’s indie but it’s 'big indie', with proper distribution and marketing money and all that stuff.

gamecockpic1.jpg And where did you come from, previously?

MW: My last company was called God Games, or Gathering of Developers, and it was a very similarly spirited effort…

But that shut down?

MW: Well, we sold it to Take-Two, which is not what we set out to do, but we never quite raised enough money for that one, and we got all our money from Take-Two, and that came with a lot of strings. Like we were basically stuck doing only PC games, we had to give all our console stuff to Rockstar, so it was never a great situation. But, you know, everyone made money, some of these guys made hits for us then, and they got rich, and own their property, so...

Where’s the money coming from now?

MW: Couple of billionaires.

Nice.

MW: Yeah, we really…we spent almost two years trying to find the right kind of money this time, and enough money, without all the strings.

Is it angel investors, or…?

MW: Yeah, kind of. And typically, an angel is the best kind of investor, but usually they’re not nearly enough money for what we’re doing, so you have to go, like, mega-angel. But yeah, these are just... one of them owns some other media businesses and has been watching the games industry, and he believes as we do that the model will eventually be that the talent, the artists are the value, just like any other entertainment industry, and they believe in this whole relationship-based model we have going.

So how do you make money out of it? Not you personally, but Gamecock.

MW: We publish. And, you know, we pay the developers a royalty just like any publisher. We pay them a better royalty than most, and it scales up with success, so if these guys make a hit, they get paid, because there’s plenty of money to throw around. And we don’t have a thousand people, you know, to feed off of every hit and a hundred shitty games to pay for with every one decent one.


How many people are on the publishing side?

MW: We have eight right now, and we’ll probably max out at about twenty, twenty-five. And again it’s more like a movie production studio model, you know, we’re never going to buy distribution or manufacturing or any of that stuff, we just sort of outsource it all, and manage it.

So do you outsource your marketing and your PR and that sort of thing?

MW: Well we do it, but we use outside agencies and freelancers. Just like with the developers, we really enjoy working with those independent artists as well, because we think that creativity stays fresher and if you have a big staff of people, no matter how genius they are, eventually everything starts to look the same.

What happens when you get big?

MW: We’re not gonna get big.

No?

MW: Nope. We’ll do ten or twelve games at a time, max, and we’re committed to stay this size. God Games was twelve people when we sold it, and we did 100 million dollars in revenue that year. And that’s kind of where we want to be, and we grew after we sold it, too, we were kind of like “okay we’re part of a big company now, we’ll hire some help.” We got up to around 30 people, and that was becoming uncomfortably big for us. We liked to stay lean and really creative and really get behind every project as a team, which means we can’t do that many games.

And that’s manageable right now, with eight people? I mean, don’t you have to do some kind of product management, and…

MW: We have one producer, and we basically work... our idea is to let the professional independent game developers do their thing, and we work with people we respect, and they have budgets and milestones and all that stuff just like any other publisher, we just don’t attach 20 producers to it, which are typically people that have never made a game, trying to tell people like Alex [Seropian], who you just met, how to make his game better.

I think that’s absurd. And again, that’s part of the reason we don’t try to own the IP. You get a publisher with too much control and they can’t help themselves, they start to think they made the game.

So you try to keep it pretty hands-off from your perspective, but you have to really choose who you’re going to work with?

MW: Yeah, and we provide... again, everything’s for hire, as long as you have money, right? You don’t have to have everybody in the same building. So if our developers need some help with something, like voice acting, or you know, cinematics or whatever, they get in a tough spot in development and say “hey we could actually use some help,” we’ll get it done.

We know how to do all this stuff. But if they don’t need it, we’re not going to force it on them, you know? And when you hire all these people then you end up feeling like you have to use them all the time, so you start imposing your will into places where it shouldn’t go.


Are you actually funding the games to completion?

MW: Yeah, again, Harry and I, my partner and I, both came from working at game developers. Like, I cut my teeth at id Software, I was their marketing guy for Doom and Quake, and then I left and started Ion Storm with John Romero and then God Games. And Harry also, and being a business guy on the development side is like being a band manager, you fight with the label, you help them manage their image and whatever, and we understand that side of it.

We understand what it’s like to work on a project for two or three years and for everyone to really care about it. I don’t think most of these Wall Street golf-course jockeys understand that. And I think that’s when you get a total lack of respect for the artist. I think they look at these game developers as contractors that they hire to get something done. And we look at them as entertainment artists that we want to... we just want to be the path of least resistance. So we fund the games, we do the big marketing budgets, we do the whole thing just like Activision or anybody else, it’s just a different mindset. Basically we just check our ego as a publisher.

We believe the artists are the value and we’re basically trained monkeys. [laughs] I mean seriously, we do marketing and PR. I mean, compared to creating a mind-blowing experience with your two hands.

chimp.jpg

Wideload Games' 'political party game' Hail to the Chimp, to be published by Gamecock

Still, you have to choose which people are going to be able to make mind-blowing experiences.

MW: Yeah, and that’s really why we’re back. Even though we sort of didn’t get to the finish line last time, we had to sell to the sort of same evil bastards we struck out against, I went back to work to Take-Two, I took a break and they hired me back, and I was like “Really, why? I kind left like ‘f*ck you’”, and I found out why when I went back... nearly everything we did made money. And a lot of the games made a lot of money. Like we had eight million-unit-sellers on the PC.

And we were only around for two and a half years before we sold. So that’s why they were hiring me back but they wanted me to go “Look, it’s Mike!” and I was bringing in all these great developers and then they were like “Oh look, it’s big ugly lawyer time!” and so whatever I told the artists didn’t really make a sh*t, so it didn’t really work out, but it gave me that... you know, we left, we kind of felt like we failed, and again, we made money, the developers made money all that, it wasn’t what we set out to do.

And it really wasn’t until I was an insider at the company that bought us until I realized just how well we did, and it turned into “Wow, we really need to do this one more time”.

A lot of these companies, Take-Two is certainly one because they’re in trouble right now, hide a lot of things from a lot of people. A lot of stuff happens behind closed doors. You don’t know how much money people are making, you don’t know how many units have sold, stuff like that. Is that something that you think is going to change, from your perspective?

MW: For us, I mean... again, I just want to be a dream to work with for Alex [Seropian], and all the Alexes out there. So our deal is totally transparent, accounting and everything, they see the same sales numbers we see, we send them the same reports we get from everybody. I’m just like “here they are”. They see the whole marketing budget, where every dollar goes, and they sign off on it. Because I’ve been on the artists’ side of things too, I made a couple of films while I was taking time off from the industry, and I know what it’s like to be waiting for that royalty statement, and then know that it’s a complete lie.

That they just hide every dollar that they can. It really comes down to: if you make a great game, it makes money. And if you don’t, it doesn’t, and I really don’t think that hiding five bucks here or there is gonna make or break our company. I understand why they do it, these big, bloated companies. They have so much overhead they have to wring out every nickel, because they ship 20 turds for every decent game.

But with our model, man, one hit will carry our company for five years, easy. And everybody’s laughing, the artist is rich if we do well, and we stay small and have fun. And the whole name thing, and the site... why do we have to be so f*cking serious? We’re making games.


I was wondering what if you decide, if you find a family-oriented title that’s really good... will you still put it out under Gamecock?

MW: The point of it is, because we’re going to put the artist’s name on the front of the box, and everyone’s gonna see it’s “so and so game by this artist”, just like a film or a book. I think it’s absurd that publishers put themselves out front. Like, nobody has a relationship with a publishing label. No one goes “Goddamn, I love Universal Studios”, you know? “They make the best shit.”

People say that now, like with Activision and stuff...

MW: But how can that be true? How can...

I think the thing is... I don’t think it is true. I think that people just don’t know that Infinity Ward made that game.

MW: And that’s why I was lucky to start off at id, they were one of the early pioneers at fighting to put their name out there, and to own the IP, and control it, and I don’t think it costs us anything to do that, I think it makes sense. For a gamer to be able to form a relationship, to know whose games they like. The deal anyway, just to finish the thread, the point of our name is that our name doesn’t matter. We’re gonna be in the fine print on the back. It’s a constant reminder...

Are you going to have your logo on the box?

MW: Yeah in the little row of logos on the back, but on the front of the box it’s going to say “By Wideload” or whomever. And so that... a name like Gamecock is a constant reminder never to take ourselves too seriously, and to just push the artist.

There have been some interesting attempts to do stuff like that in Japan, actually. Like there’s a company called ESP, and they’re basically developers pooling their resources, too. So there have been a few that art like that, but this is a different angle on it.

MW: Yeah, a lot of people thought... I mean, with Gathering of Developers, we actually were owned partly by the six developers that founded it, so it was sort of like that, but we didn’t own any part of them.

They stayed independent, and we just gave them a piece of the company to start it. So that they all had a vested interest in the publisher succeeding and they all, to be honest, that’s how we greenlit so many great games, is we let the developers greenlight them. That’s our “secret sauce”, is to let the pros who make the games greenlight stuff. It’s not that Harry and I are geniuses.

 

dementiumthewardss.jpg
Renegade Kid's Dementium for the DS is one of Gamecock's more interesting titles

So in this case, how do you do it?

MW: We have sort of an expert witness system...

You just run it by your friends? Or, not friends, but you know…

MW: No, it’s a lockdown under strict NDA, professional opinion from a successful game developer, on a pitch or on a team, technology, whatever. And you know, we’ve done a lot of games, so our crew knows some stuff, but I still think the magic is deferring to the guys who actually make the games for a living.

It’s not too hard to see what game is going to be good or interesting, as long as it gets in front of you.

MW: Yeah, so that’s my main job: to be noisy and obnoxious and make sure that... because all these games are original, we have to scream from the rooftops throughout development, so that by the time it’s on the shelf, people have heard of it as much as the sequels and the licenses.


It’s interesting because on the one hand you’re not on the back of the box, but on the other hand you sort of have to do some developer advocacy it sounds like? Are you trying to put these guys forward as artists? And how do you do that without being like “Hey we’re Gamecock and this is a game that we’re helping with, and here are these guys”? I mean, what do you do there?

MW: Well in the beginning it’s been all about Gamecock and what we’re trying to do, and people find that interesting, [such as an] interview like this, but as we start shipping games I think that fades into the background, because everybody in the industry knows what we’re about already, and then it’s just “hey this is a game by Wideload, this is a game by Redfly,” whatever, and that’s the goal: to put us in the background. And like, all this, we’re the only publisher here with our developers here.

Yeah, I know. It’s making my job very difficult.

MW: Yeah, I’d like to think that the games journalist would like to talk to the guys who actually make the games, so that’s the goal, is just to... and I want all these guys to be famous, and if they create a turd, I want everyone to know who created that turd. [laughs]

It seems like if you guys are doing that whole advocacy thing, you’ve gotta talk about yourselves, too. Even in the future. Like if someone comes out of left field, some indie company that just started up, you’ve got to be like “We, Gamecock, who you know, think these guys, who you don’t know, are great”. How do you go about that?

mushroommentitle.jpg MW: Well if we greenlight their game, it means... if we’re funding their game, we must think they’re pretty good.

No, I know, but I mean in terms of the perception of the outside world. Like people understanding that this game is coming out, this game is going to be good, these are the guys making it.

MW: Yeah, we just promote the game and the artist. Again, I just don’t see any consumer, gamer connection with... nobody gives a shit who the label is, or the distributor. When you buy a record... you just don’t care. I think it’s just that our industry has happened so fast, that this is like version 1.0 of the publishing business and it’s just... f*cked up.

But at the same time you’ve got your… like, Sony Pictures Classics. So you know that Sony is whatever, but if you see that Sony Pictures Classics logo you might think “oh, this is going to be interesting”, because you know they don’t pick up crap. I know they don’t pick up bullshit, generally, they pick up interesting independent or foreign films.

MW: Yeah, and Miramax had that same vibe going, you know? So I guess inevitably we have a brand eventually...

It seems like a tough balance because you have to have a brand on a certain level, to tell people to care about a game that they might not understand. It seems like a difficult line there…

MW: Well we do really heavy PR, like over-the-top PR, but we really try to steer it all to the teams, but I think if you read about the teams enough, then by the time the game comes out, you know. I think people are more interested, too, if they get a vibe for who’s actually making the game.

I mean the fact is that the initial PR drive has been like “Gamecock is crazy, we’re crazy, look at this stuff!” I mean, you were just pulled over for wearing a mask, driving down the street.

MW: Just again, for us to get back into the industry, we find it really boring a lot of the time, like all this stuff that’s going on, and I just don’t understand why. Like, there’s no reason for it to be boring.


Will you ever be at the stage where you want to acquire a developer or anything like that?

 

MW: The only way I can see doing that is if we want to acquire some technology to share, to offer to independent developers, so that if an up-and-comer says “We have this idea, maybe it’s a little crazy”, whatever, we can say “Well here’s some tech and tools, come back to us and make it go, show us what you’re talking about”.

So you’d be more interested in acquiring like, a tools company rather than a developer?

MW: I think developers that have their own tech are better than just tech companies. So that’s the only way I would really see acquiring anybody. Unless a... I don’t think rock stars want to be owned. I don’t think artists want to be owned. But, you know, never say never. If a great developer that we want to work with says “we don’t want to be independent and worry about paying the bills after the game ships”, we would talk to them. We don’t rule anything out.

Would that change you as a company?

MW: Probably, yeah. It would add people, which sucks. [laughs] We were talking about how there’s this threshold where when you get past about twenty or twenty-five people that you stop knowing everybody.

It’s like you’re really straddling the line on a few different areas, and the temptation could eventually win over you and you could say “Ooh, we could just do this here, or we could just take this thing!”

MW: Yeah, but we’re not this empirical company trying to stack things up and be big. I have no ambition to be big. Like, at all. And like I said, we’re doing eight games right now, we’ll get up to about twelve, and if one or two of those take off, there’s no reason for us to ever get big, we’ll just keep rolling.

But it’s up to you guys to keep that mentality, because it’s easy to lose it and it’s easy to get caught up in bureaucracy and all that.

MW: I guess, but it’s just whatever your goals are. And our investors, they’re not looking for us to become an empire, you know? They’re like “make us some money, baby”. So that’s what we’re going to do, and I think we actually have a better shot at doing that by staying small.

legendary.jpg

Legendary: The Box is one of the more graphically intensive games in the current Gamecock roster.

 

Do you think that you can become as successful as the top level?

MW: Absolutely, and I think you’ll see a lot more companies like this. I’m not saying we have it perfectly figured out, but I think this is a lot better than version 1.0, which is “big big big big” and then, no matter how good these companies are, and they’re full of smart people, I don’t think they’re dumb, I just think that Wall Street wanted them to swell up and be huge, like a toy company or something.

Well, they’re smart in acquiring and keeping money, but not as smart in terms of building artistry.

MW: But very few of them are actually making money. [laughs]

Right, lots of them are actually losing money.

MW: Even like Ubisoft. They’ve done a great job in the last couple years, they’re a big company, but now, they’re a billion dollar company and you know what? Because they’re a public company, next year they have to be a billion point two-five. Just, no matter how well you’re doing, you’ve gotta get bigger.


I spoke again with Mike Wilson after Gamecock funeral procession, who had just come back from the ER, and walked all the way from Santa Monica to Venice, Calif. in a hospital gown. Two days after the initial interview, we discussed EA's remarks about Gamecock's sustainability, and the relationship with retailers.

Where'd you steal this hospital gown?

MW: I didn't steal it, in fact I'm pretty sure I paid for it.

And you went to the ER last night?

MW: Yeah, the ER at St. John's medical center. I think I got some E3 on me and I've been very sick for the last couple of days. I had to be rushed to the hospital last night after shaking in my bed for hours for the second day in a row.

That's terrible.

MW: Yeah, it's terrible, but they fixed me. I would never have thought not to wear pants, had they not given me a hospital gown.

Do you really think E3 is over [after this year]?

MW: Oh yeah. I mean... are you going [again]? (laughs)

 

bsfuneral.jpg

Game Developer/Gamasutra's Brandon Sheffield at the funeral procession for E3.

I talked to Frank Gibeau at EA about your model, and he said he didn't think you could sustain a game publishing business with 8 people, unless you released just 1-2 games per year.

MW: Well, I don't intend to stay 8 people.

How big will you go?

MW: As I mentioned the other day, 20 to 25. We released 25 games with GodGames with 12 people. Those were PC games though.

But I assume you guys were stressed.

MW: Yeah, but I keep trying to think of reasons to hire new people [now], and I can't think of any. We seem to be managing just fine.

You've got 10 development studios you're working with, right?

MW: Yeah, 10 developers, 10 games. 16 or so if you count all the platforms. But those are over the next three years.

EA was particularly mentioning your ability to talk to retailers.

MW: Well, they're all here! We're actually already direct with GameStop, and they're 40% of the market.

I'm not surprised by that, but I think the larger publishers are, a bit.

MW: Well they want to put out this vibe that the channels are closed, and they control them. It's just not true. There are 6 retailers out there that control 90% of the business, and they want more publishers! They don't want EA and Activision to be so powerful.

They said the same thing about God Games, that we were a bunch of developers, and nobody would give us distribution -- and we had people give us free endcaps for our first game, they were so excited to meet people that were actually passionate, and they rolled out the red carpet for us, and they've done that again for us now. GameStop called us before we had our money.

There's a dozen distributors you can go through, you just have to have the money to buy the shelfspace, just like the big guys. That's where most of the indie publishers fall short. They might be able to sign a game or two, but they don't have the money to do the big marketing.

But this time you have the funds.

MW: Yeah, well last time we were under-funded. We knew we shouldn't do it again unless we could really do it. Before all of our money came from Take-Two, and this was before they were listed on the NASDAQ, and they were always late paying us, and so we were always latepaying out people, and it made it impossible to sustain. Our only funding source was so cash-poor. Luckily after they bought us they released Grand Theft Auto III, so our meaningless Take-Two stock was actually worth quite a bit!

Did you sell it?

MW: Oh hell, yeah.

Is that how you survived from God Games to Gamecock?

MW: Yeah, we've actually made a lot of money day-trading these game publishers because there are pretty predictable patterns. In fact, your good buddy at EA has made me some pretty good coin this year by going to their all-time low.

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