Dialogue: Mike Wilson
EmptyWhat the video games industry needs is a good shot in the arm of creativity, which often results when indie developers are allowed to control their intellectual property. Just ask the indie film makers who are revolutionizing movies, says Mike Wilson.
Wilson -- a man who straddles both the game and film industries -- knows of what he speaks. He's gone through the painful experience of funding two indie films in one year, as executive producer of "Burning Man: Beyond Black Rock" and co-producer of "Preacher With An Unknown God." And he struggled with the short-lived success of Gathering of Developers (later known as G.O.D. and then GoDGames), a video game publisher built on the business model of the developer as king. But GoDGames, which started in 1998, didn't last long and was quickly acquired two years later by Take-Two Interactive and redubbed 2K Games.
Fast forward seven years and this week Wilson is launching a new publishing company, Austin, Tex.-based Gamecock Media Group, of which he is CEO (although his business card reads "Grand Champeen"). Not cowed by the history of his former company, Wilson plans to run his new company very similarly to his first -- with one big exception. HollywoodReporter.com columnist Paul Hyman chatted with Wilson about why he expects Gamecock will have a longer lifespan, new business models and the art of not promoting your company.
The Hollywood Reporter: What made you jump to films after spending so much time in games?
Mike Wilson: Let's just say that when I first got into games in 1995, a few guys in a room -- guys who were friends of mine -- could make something as creative as "Wolfenstein 3D" and "Doom" and rock the world with them. By the time I left the industry, which was five years later, mainly because of a noncompete clause, games suddenly cost multimillion dollars and [took] years to make. At that time, the digital video revolution was happening on the film side, where a few guys in a room could now make a movie. It was like old times again. So I started experimenting with digital video, got turned on to the Burning Man [Festival], and was shocked to learn that there had never been a proper documentary done about it.
THR: And you decided to make one yourself.
Wilson: I went through the whole process of begging Burning Man to let me do it, then getting it funded and, well, it was unbelievably difficult. I'd gone from being big man on campus in the games industry to a little guy with no connections whatsoever in the film industry. Despite it all, we got to premiere at AFI in Hollywood and finally got a DVD release. The experience was really good for me, I think.
THR: Let's go back to when you were big man on campus with Gathering of Developers. When you launched it, you billed it as a publisher that was artist-friendly, developer-driven, that branded its developers above the publishing label, that allowed developers to own their own IP, and that gave them the highest royalty rates in the industry.
Wilson: All true.
THR: So what went wrong?
Wilson: Nothing went wrong for the developers -- it worked out great for the ones that made hits for us. They got rich, they still owned their IP, and we educated them for the first time on what a good deal looked like. We called it "the 10 Commandments of a good publishing deal." And nothing went wrong for Take-Two Interactive either, the company we sold G.O.D. to.
THR: But something went wrong for you?
Wilson: You know, we were never really able to secure all the funding that we needed to do what we wanted to do. And, to Take-Two's credit, they gave us our initial funding ... and then they went ahead and acquired our whole company. I don't want to take anything away from them; they bet the farm on us when nobody else would. And that was before they made so much money with "Grand Theft Auto."
THR: Was there a lesson in this for you? I mean, was the business model you'd established for GoDGames not viable?
Wilson: Honestly, when we left the industry in 2001, I felt like I'd failed in the grand crusade. Selling to a big public company wasn't what I had wanted to do. I knew that our strategy wasn't going to work within the confines of a publicly traded company.
THR: What are you saying? That an artist-friendly, developer-driven business model doesn't work?
Wilson: No, I'm saying it doesn't work at a public company because Wall Street wants a publisher to own the IP, it wants them to control everything, it wants them to have huge headcounts and their own distribution. That's what Wall Street wants these companies to look like, and I think that maybe people are just now starting to realize that that might not be the best idea. I really think there's room for more of a relationship-based model where we don't need to own the developers or their IP; we just publish their games. GoDGames didn't fail because of its business model. It just came down to money; we didn't have enough funding to get all the way through our business plan. And it was really frustrating for us because we knew we had all these great games coming out that eventually did come out and did incredibly well for Take-Two.
THR: Do you think if you'd been a different kind of company, a more typical publisher that wasn't so pro-developer, things would have worked out better for you?
Wilson: I don't know, because that was really our differentiating factor. The reason we're doing it again with Gamecock is that I've learned, in retrospect, that the most important thing a publisher does is green-light great projects and bring them to market. That was something we had done very well. In the span of just a couple of years, we had eight games -- like "Railroad Tycoon 2," "Tropico," "Serious Sam," "Max Payne," "Mafia," "Hidden & Dangerous" -- that sold over a million units, which is huge. Now we're feeling that we really need to give this another go, but we need to have the proper funding this time.
THR: And you've got that?
Wilson: This time we have very clean funding and enough to do it on a much bigger scale. My partners and I weren't going to get back into the business underfunded again. We've spent two years on the road making sure that this time the funding is there to fulfill the promise of this model.
THR: Who is funding you?
Wilson: It's all private funding. Much like the indie film guys have to come up with money, we went around to everybody and eventually found two extremely wealthy guys -- one of them runs a big media company -- and they're both used to investing in entertainment, so they're over that risk hump that venture capitalists can't get their heads around. The good news is that both of these guys are gamers, they understand the product and they care about it and know it's a good business. We won't have the artificial pressures that come with being a Wall Street-driven company.
THR: What's the deal for the developers now? Same as before?
Wilson: Yeah. They'll get the highest deals in the industry if they make hits. The deals are totally merit-based. That's unlike the other publishers that are public companies and are incentivized to own the IP and to control it. They all have their quarterly demands, which means that the game has to ship during a certain quarter no matter what. Their concern is more about making the shareholders happy than making a great game, and that often leads to some shortsighted decisions. As a result, you're always seeing franchises that were created at independent studios getting gobbled up and run into the ground. That's not so different from what was going on in Hollywood 15 years ago, when creativity sort of ground to a halt and no one could get an original film green-lit that required any kind of budget. If it didn't have a big-name actor or wasn't a sequel or some franchise, no one was green-lighting anything. And then the indie world got started and they began finding money to make the films they wanted to make. Great things are coming out of indie filmmakers now, and I think that'll start happening in our industry as well. I think we are in the best position to start that trend.
THR: What kind of games will you be publishing?
Wilson: Original ones. Concepts we're excited about. By developers who have proven they can do this. These are guys who are probably going around pitching their original games and, instead, are hearing "That's great, but can you do 'Tomb Raider 8' instead?' "
THR: What's your initial lineup?
Wilson: We're announcing five games from five different developers across multiple platforms. The first guy we signed was Alex Seropian who founded Bungie Software [developer of the "Halo" series] and now heads up Wideload Games, which will make "Hail To The Chimp" for next-gen consoles. Then we've got "Fury" for PC from Auran, "Insecticide" for handhelds and PC from Crackpot Entertainment, "Mushroom Men" for next-gen consoles and handhelds from Red Fly Studios, and "Hero" for next-gen consoles and PC from Firefly Studios. The first titles -- "Insecticide" and "Fury" -- will be out in October, and the others will be out in 2008 with some creeping into 2009.
THR: These are all guys with proven track records. I guess you're not looking at startups.
Wilson: Not true. But, generally, we prefer startups with team members who have been involved in successful projects before. Somebody on the team needs to have had experience going from A to Z on a hit game.
THR: The plan then is to come out with five or six games a year?
Wilson: Oh, we'll get up to 10 or 12 original properties a year; we see that as our sweet spot. We don't want to get bigger than that. So, unfortunately, we're going to have to say "no" to a lot of developers, probably fantastic developers. We just don't want to do 50 or 100 games a year because, if we do, we feel like we'll start stepping in the same pitfalls as the other big publishers. I'm hoping that, through our success, there will be copycats, other publishers who support indie developers. And, hopefully, there will be real resurgence in creativity and originality in an industry where everyone has been saying the same thing: "Oh my God, not another sequel" and "Not another movie license." I think we're in the right spot at the right time to lead that charge and have fun doing it.
THR: Talking about having fun -- Gamecock? That's what you named your company?
Wilson: Yeah, it's a fighting chicken. I just think that publishers in this industry need to lighten up in a lot of ways. You know, we were 12 people when we sold GoDGames and we were doing $100 million in business. And that's what we want to do again, which is more like a movie production company than a giant studio. We intend to lighten up physically in terms of head count and we intend to have a lot more fun than the guys at the big publishers are having. That's something that's sorely missing from this business; I don't know where all the fun has gone.
Part of that is not taking yourself too seriously. We don't really believe that our label matters. Our games will have the developers' brands on them so that gamers can form a relationship not with us but with their favorite artists. I mean, look around. Do any gamers have favorite publishers? Or favorite movie companies? Does anybody say, "Gee, I can't wait until the next Activision game or the next Universal picture comes out"? That's another thing that's broken in our industry; publishers brand themselves first and foremost. Instead, we intend to be sort of a Miramax for games that has proper funding this time around. After that, it's going to be all about Game X by Developer Y. When it comes to Gamecock, we'll be totally out of the spotlight.
Paul "The Game Master" Hyman was the editor-in-chief of CMP Media's GamePower. He's covered the games industry for over a dozen years. His columns for The Reporter run exclusively on the Web site.