After a bold debut 12 months ago, new publisher Gamecock – founded by former Gathering of Developer bosses and boasting better deals for developers – has powered up its strategy, expanding into the UK and Europe and hunting for new IPs to publish. We spoke to CEO Mike Wilson…
Gamecock has been in business for a year now – looking back, how well do you think things have gone, and how has that lead to the founding of the European base?
We’ve spent the last year putting together the machinery of the operation, picking the right people. We’ve also got our first game out – Dementia for the DS – which was on time and came following the start of a successful relationship with Nintendo.
We actually weren’t planning to set up a UK office this soon – we never even got that far with Gathering – but a lot of it had to do with Sarah [Seaby] and Graeme [Struthers] (see ‘The Euro Roost’) becoming available. Having them on board meant we can very quickly become a publisher in the UK, get our titles out, and really push out the message of what Gamecock is all about to the community here.
And what is the Gamecock ethos?
We’re based on the idea that the industry will evolve to recognise the talent in the industry, that it is an entertainment industry. And that those entertainers should get the attention, own their properties and put up front as the main brand so that consumers can form a relationship with their favourite artists. I don’t think it’s realistic to expect a gamer to form a relationship with a publishing brand. With some very rare exceptions, it just doesn’t happen. I never think ‘Oh, I love Universal Pictures or Random House’. Because developers, especially those who make a particular kind of game, they can have a real relationship with their audience. I was lucky enough to start my career at id and they were one of the first teams to really try that; so when the developer moves from one publisher to another there is no real difference in the experience to consumers.
I think our relationship with Firefly is a really strong demonstration of that approach at work and a good illustration of the philosophy in action.
Firefly did a lot of work creating Stronghold when working with Gathering, and because of the way we worked they owned the IP and were the main brand. It’s worked – it’s a million selling franchise, and at Gathering we never sought to control them, and here they are, back working with us again. It’s proof positive.
That’s very contradictory to a lot of developer-publisher relationships, especially from the point of view of a publisher. Was that intentional?
Most of our competitors think that we are fools not to own these properties. But it’s the relationship what counts, not the ownership. Long-term I think that’s how the industry will evolve. The powers that be in publishing right now will of course fight that change kicking and screaming, but it’s going to happen because as viable channels for new IP appear – such as Gamecock, but not just us – eventually the big boys will have no choice because the talent will migrate to the path of least resistance.
Some of them have accepted it before, but only once or twice – I’m thinking about Valve and EA for instance – and it’s something only the big studios can fight for…
Well our philosophy has been to give a chance to those smaller teams as well. Harry [Miller, co-founder of Gamecock] and I both come from development and it makes sense to have this responsibility to the industry and give that good deal to anyone we want to work with. We give that same deal to anyone we want to work with and not have the contract fight – we’ll believe in them enough to give them the same deal that all our developers get.
IP ownership aside, in what other ways are the deals you offer to studios better than those offered by other publishers?
We offer better royalty rates and we also allow them to sign off on all the marketing.
That’s actually a key part because we don’t want to get into a situation where a developer feels a game wasn’t marketed enough and also we feel that if a developer has made the game, they’re going to know the audience well and know how the game needs to be sold or presented – or at least that their opinion is as relevant as ours. So they get last sign off on everything. The strange thing is, when you give that gift, they trust your input more and will ask for the publisher’s marketing expertise.
Ultimately, it’s about checking our egos at the door and knowing that the developers are smart enough to actually know something too.
Gamecock is currently known in the industry for a few antics or stunts – chicken suits, calling out other publishers as predictable – will you be following that disruptive approach when it comes to actually promoting games?
Well, everything we’ve got is original IP and independently produced. One of the key things that’s different about us compared to other independent publishers is that we’re only getting into something when we have the wherewithal to do it. And we’re prepared to spend money on all the things other big publishers do, be that giant billboards or broadcast campaigns. But it’s original – we already have an advantage in that sense. So we’ll do whatever we can do to get the name of the games out there over and over again.
And Gamecock’s done a lot of talking about itself – that seems to vie with the suggestion you’ll be promoting the developers…
The first year has been an awful lot of noise about Gamecock, but that’s because we didn’t have a game to put out! So there will be a natural transition point to where we’re only talking about the games and the developers – before we were just explaining to the world what Gamecock was about, what our philosophy was, and that we wanted to have fun.
I think that noise has helped teach a lot of people what we are about. And now we’ll move on from that – we’ll soon be making sure it’s the developers stood here talking about their companies and their games, none of this ‘producer putting on a dull rehearsed or autopilot demo’ stuff that goes on. And in future I’ll be doing less and less interviews to let them take centre stage. Don’t get me wrong – we’re still gonna have a good time because we have to remind ourselves and each other that this is a fun industry to work in as well.
So as well as getting distribution in place in the UK are you also looking to sign new studios?
Yes, but we don’t have to do much looking as people are often approaching us – the word is out there that we’re doing good deals for developers. That said, we’re not looking to publish 50 titles a year; 2008’s portfolio is pretty much full. There’s just one more game I want to sign which could be out later this year and that would take us to around 10 games signed for 2008. And we’ve already got some key titles, some cornerstone titles for us, signed for 2009. But we’re still open to approaches.
And you’ve got the money to support your ambitions?
Yes. Making that clear is something Harry and I are keen to reiterate – we didn’t enjoy the experience at Gathering where sometimes we had to claw together money to make sure people got paid. Because at the end of the day, we can offer the developer a great contract but they’ve got to actually get paid as well. Most developers have learnt the hard way that whatever the smiling men in suits say it is what is in the contract that counts at the end of the day.
You’re trying to crack a lot of the bigger UK studios, but many of them are reliant on the work for hire model. If you’re courting developers for new ideas how will you balance that with the way many studios here expect to do business?
Well my thinking is that there is enough of that business out there – if a studio wants to work on a safe sequel or licence, that’s fine. Firefly for instance is doing both, working on an original title that they wanted to make [Dungeon Hero] but also a sequel to a franchise they own.
Strangely, a lot of developers have come to us thinking that we might have some licence that we want turned into a game – but we really don’t. We’d like to tell the development community that is not the case, and that’s no way to go about dealing with a publisher.