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The Strange History Of Gamecock's Mike Wilson

Gamecock co-founder Mike Wilson has 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); in a transcript of the latest Gamasutra Podcast, he talks about his storied career and intriguing plans.

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.


The original Quake, one small step for gaming, one giant leap for the color brown.

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 b

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