Interviews

Interviews
Gamecock: Exclusive Interview with CEO Mike Wilson

Dana Massey | 15 Aug 2007 19:57
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Gamecock is a new, upstart independent video game publisher who prides themselves on the freedom they give their developers. They are perhaps equally known for their eccentricity, right down to the company name "Gamecock" all the way to lavish parties at industry events. Most recently, they crashed E3 with their own "convention", EIEIO.

Gamecock CEO Mike Wilson (the self styled Grand Champeen) took the time to talk to us about his company, which plans to bring the PvP MMORPG Fury to market this fall. Read on for his unique views on this industry.



WarCry Q&A: Gamecock
Answers by Mike Wilson (Grand Champeen and CEO)
Questions by Joe Blancato

WarCry: Who are we talking to? What's your role at Gamecock? What's a normal day for you like?

Mike Wilson: Mike Wilson, Grand Champeen and CEO. Normal days rarely exist for a startup with 9 people and nine games in production.  Things really get weird now that we have a couple about to ship in Oct (Fury and Dementium: The Ward).

I oversee our pr/marketing efforts mostly in addition to general creative direction and management. Harry Miller and Rick Stults, my partners at GodGames and again now, oversee development and finance, respectively.

But again, with a small crew (the way we like it) everyone gets to learn everyone's job at some point, which is great I think when you're trying to work as a team rather than some forced bureaucracy or hierarchy.

WarCry: Gamecock is born from the ashes of GOD games. What do you think the team has learned from their GOD experience?

Mike Wilson: To be clear, our 'ashes' weren't quite as tragic as people seem to recall... we built a worldwide brand in 2 years that resulted in 8 games that sold over 1M units on the PC... the only tragic part really was that it was mostly for TTWO's benefit, not ours, and that we weren't able to stay independent as we had set out to. This was due to the fact that we never really got fully funded and that all of our money to operated came from TTWO through various deals with a ridiculous amount of strings attached, preventing us from raising additional capital elsewhere. Still, we built a company that took 25M in and spit 400M out 3 years later, and everyone involved made money, including all the developers who made hit games for us and got to own their IP.

So we basically learned two things:

  1. Our business model works, and our system of greenlighting projects resulted in a much higher 'hit ratio' than any other publisher in our business.
  2. We needed a lot more capital to execute this business plan and be able to keep our principles intact.
So that's where we are now... same principles, much better funding without the strings of being funded by a competitor or a wall street driven company.

WarCry: GOD was criticized a lot for pushing the sexual envelope. Obviously, given Gamecock's name, some of their penchant for innuendo seems to have carried over to the new company. Does the new company draw the line differently than the old one?

Mike Wilson: I honestly don't recall a lot of criticism for pushing any sexual envelope... except maybe the last year of the Promised Lot when we had the pole dancers( who did not strip btw)... But that was really all about our 'farewell e3', once we knew we were leaving the industry for awhile and were just pulling out all the stops to show ourselves and our industry friends one last good time.

Both companies were/are about having a good time and not taking ourselves too seriously while being very serious about the developers we work with and the games they are making.

WarCry: Gamecock is publishing a bunch of different games. For example, Fury is an MMOG, whereas Hail to the Chimp is a console party game. Is there some strategy here, or do you guys just go after games and teams you like?

Mike Wilson: The only real strategy is to work with great independent teams on original projects, and the only unifying thread other than that is that we only want teams working on the projects that they *really* want to do... not what they think we want them to do or what seems to makes the most sense given last year's sales charts. Artistic innovation isn't driven by focus groups, committee's, or apparent industry trends... decisions made using those metrics just result in self fulfilling prophecies and the constant churn of homogenized "big-ness." Top 40 radio, Big Hollywood, etc etc.

WarCry: In that vein, what if you came across a developer who was making a great game, but the team didn't want the "Gamecock treatment," the costumes and the parties and all. Would you be willing to bend in order to help get a good game made?

Mike Wilson: We have yet to encounter this issue... our developers get treated with true respect and partnership in making and marketing their games, which goes a hell of a lot further than putting on a suit and smiling for them. Do you really imagine that independent developers would rather hang with their publisher in a board (bored) room for a PowerPoint presentation and a jazz brunch? Maybe those guys exist, but I haven't met them yet, and frankly don't care to. They would likely be happier doing work for hire for a public company who would own their work.

WarCry: Of the games you're publishing, which do you personally find the most exciting?

Mike Wilson: I think Fury is really pushing people to think outside of the normal MMOG realm and that's exactly what we're looking for - outside the "norms." The idea of fusing FPS game types with RPG customization and key gameplay makes it a really interesting and exciting project. With all the MMORPG's flying around right now, it's nice to see something different. Rather than spending countless hours level grinding, you get to jump in and play almost instantly, yet you still have the ability to customize your fighter with over 400 different abilities. I've never been one to want to spend 100 hours on a game just to get my character ready for action, so this one really appeals to me more than any other MMORPG ever has.

Dementium is the other one I'm playing the most right now... but this isn't really fair to talk about since I probably am most into these games right now because they are in beta and fun to play. 

WarCry: Gamecock describes itself as a developer-friendly publisher. What is "developer-friendly"? Compare a developer-friendly publisher to one that isn't.

Mike Wilson: To me, it all comes down to one basic truth. Game developers are entertainment artists. They are not contractors, toy makers, work for hire grunts or middlemen. Or at least the great ones aren't. The publishers in this industry have put themselves first very consciously, both in branding and in overall importance in the business equation; and all just because they provide the funding. I think this is a load of crap.

We provide the funding and big marketing budgets just like the Wall Street guys, but we consider ourselves service providers to both gamers and game developers, not to stock brokers and analysts. We exist to provide what developers need to get their creations done and reach a worldwide audience, and nothing else. For gamers, we want them to know who actually created the game they loved or hated, and to greenlight games that probably wouldn't make it through a 10 step process driven by committee's of golfers, not gamers. This is why we think gamers should care about independent developers and their games... they are just going to be better than the mainstream crapola slung at them from all direction, and the guys who made the game will reap the rewards. This is a GOOD thing.

WarCry: The Gamecock crew obviously likes to have a lot of fun, ranging from rooster costumes to big parties to EIEIO, your own personal convention. Is there room for both fun and business in the industry? You hear stories about dotcoms imploding because they goofed off too much. Is this something you're concerned about, long-term?

Mike Wilson: Absolutely, the games industry wasn't always so stuffy and restrained, back in the golden age of games people were having fun all the time! The problem comes when fun gets pushed out of the mix, then people don't want to work anymore. How would you like it if some executive who knows virtually nothing about games was standing over your shoulder telling you what to do with your game - not a whole lot of fun there. When we work, we really work because we love it and when we play we go over the top because we deserve it and in an industry like this, we need it.

The idea that this industry needs to "grow up" comes from a bunch of old farts who hang out at country clubs and unfortunately run most of this business. It's not coming from gamers, and it's not coming from game creators. So let the suits be suits, but it has nothing to do with making quality games and I will not yawn my way through life to make them feel more comfortable.

WarCry: How do you go about promoting yourselves? Who comes up with the zany stuff you guys do to build the brand?

Mike Wilson: We really just have fun and remember that if we and our developers aren't having fun, then nothing we create will likely be fun. And since the reason for Gamecock's name and our overall silliness is that we genuinely believe that a publisher brand doesn't matter to gamers if we promote the games and their creators first and foremost in our advertising, packaging, etc, it really frees us up to be as goofy as we can imagine with our own brand. We are just fine print on the back of the box, so who cares?

WarCry: Are you concerned about Gamecock becoming bigger than the developers?

Mike Wilson: We might be more infamous for industry people, but our job is to make the developers famous in their own rights with their actual audiences, the gamers. You can see this in the video trailers we release for the games... the developers are always up front and big, and Gamecock is mentioned as a publisher at the very end, if at all. All of our ads and packaging have the developers first and up front, and when both names are listed together, we're very careful to have "created by" and "published by" designators so that gamers are never confused about who they are fans of. So far, since we have *just* started advertising and getting ready to ship games, most of the focus has been on Gamecock as a new publisher on the block, but that focus will rapidly be changing now that some of the games are playable and will be shipping soon.

WarCry: Imagine you had EA's money. How would Gamecock's operations change? Would your goals change at all? Who would you work with if money were no object?

Mike Wilson: We actually have all the money we need to run the type of operation we want to run. I am not at all interested in funding 200 person teams with ridiculous budgets and the inevitable bureaucracy that comes with that. We want to make "The Matrix", not "Die Hard 5." We always want to be more nimble than the big boys, with our creative ears genuinely closer to the ground, working with the up and comers out there who always manage to do so much more with so much less than the big boys. If anything, we'd sign more games, (its really hard saying no to so many great teams/projects that come our way), but even then I'm not sure, as its a function of not wanting to get too big. We're quite happy where we're at for now.

WarCry: For that matter, how big do you guys want to get? Can an EA-sized publisher afford to put extensive time and resources into each individual developer?

Mike Wilson: We're planning on keeping a tight ship here, enough people to take care of our games while still keeping things on a personal level. Like we were talking about before, those huge publishers become so big that they begin to drain themselves financially and that's where the real problem comes in. Once your overhead is the size of a branch of government, you just have to sell so many copies of a game before you see a profit that you end up completely unable to justify taking any chances. And you would think with so many people on the payroll they'd have no choice but to give each developer some personal attention, but sadly most of the people on the roll wouldn't even know how to talk to a developer on a technical/meaningful level anyway. Way I see it, they could definitely afford it, but when push comes to shove the bureaucracy is going to just eat itself alive anyway so it's sort of a moot point.

Let me also say that I don't for a second imagine that our public company competitors don't want to be creative and fun and nimble, or that they are dumb. It's just a simple function of the way Wall Street works. No matter how big you are, or how successful you've been (Such as UbiSoft, who I think has done an amazing job at being creative and big over the past few years), Wall Street demands that you keep growing, even if it doesn't make sense for the company. It's part of the deal for those guys because they keep accepting new investors when they don't need them... you have to now grow and make even more money for those guys. It's just not sustainable long-term for a public company to remain creative and focused on the art versus the finance, at least not in the current "Game Publisher V 1.0" paradigm. Hopefully that will change someday for the good of the business.



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