Betting the Farm
Gamecock helps indie video-game developers play with the big boys
"Honestly, I'm at my stand-up desk at the tiki bar, staring into a computer like everyone else," says Mike Wilson with all earnestness. As CEO of local loose-cannon video-game publisher Gamecock Media Group, Wilson's idea of Joe Briefcase is a bit askew. Subtract a tiki bar and a few unusually large computer monitors, though, and you're left with a typical 11-person office. But, in an industry whose growing pains threaten to suck all originality from the art form, Gamecock is a rare bird.
One of a handful of independent game publishers in existence, Gamecock bets on originality and drive. "It's hard doing original stuff in a market filled with Halo 3 and Pokémon 17," says Wilson. "So you really have to yell the names of these companies and games from the rooftops." Regular doses of what Wilson refers to as "jackassery" (see their website, www.gamecocksucks.com, or the accompanying photo for examples) help their promotion – and self-promotion – stand out from the average press release. Most recently the rooftop-shouting has been about Austin game designer Renegade Kid's Dementium.
A creepy jaunt through blood-soaked halls, Dementium hit the usually family-friendly Nintendo DS handheld system this past Halloween. Comprising three people working out of their homes, Renegade Kid approached Gamecock with a playable demo, only to find contracts in front of them in quick order. Working much like a record label, Gamecock ensured that Dementium reached its audience, doing PR, designing art, and making sure Renegade Kid had the tools it needed to follow through on the promised end product. Additionally, the Gamecock crew, no strangers to branding and viral video, produced relatively standard trailers (although Simon & Garfunkel's "El Condor Pasa" never sounded so haunting) and accompanied them with off-the-wall diary entries from the artist behind the spots. Director X, as he was called, managed to create a bit of confusion along with a generous portion of buzz.
Unique roads to success could be Wilson's calling card. Hitting it out of the park early in his career, he worked in Mesquite, Texas, as id Software's PR man for Doom and other historic titles. Wilson remembers them as "just some buddies of mine who were accidentally the Beatles." Doom, the first first-person shooter, would go on to become the Sgt. Pepper's of video gaming.
Success may get you everywhere in this industry, but failure has its merits, too. Wilson and Gamecock's president and head of development, Harry Miller, were scheduled to keynote the Independent Game Conference here in Austin last month with a speech titled "All the Reasons You Will Fail, or Don't Even Think About It." (The duo had scheduling conflicts last minute and had a Gamecock compatriot deliver the presentation.) "Between now and then," Miller said a week before the conference, "we're really going to have to figure out what we're going to talk about." Luckily, they've got some experience to draw on in the failure department.
Capitalizing on the momentum of Doom, Wilson, John Romero (Doom's creator and the most recognizable game developer at the time), and other id Software cohorts founded Ion Storm in 1996, which would go on to become one of the most infamous blunders in gaming history. Boasting an office in the glass-domed penthouse of the JP Morgan Chase Tower in Dallas and a marble floor with their logo in the entryway, Ion Storm became a victim of its own hype and excess. Missteps like printing a full-page ad in 1997 reading, "John Romero's about to make you his bitch," bit them in the ass, as it would take another three years before the highly anticipated Daikatana was released – and to scathing reviews. Like so many dot-coms that rolled in investment money without a product of merit to back it up, the Dallas office soon shut its doors.
Wilson regrouped by teaming up in 1998 with Miller and Gamecock Chief Financial Officer Rick Stults to form the Gathering of Developers, or GOD Games. Humility never was their strong suit; pushing for artists' rights was. In the spirit of Image Comics and United Artists, they gathered six independent game studios, pooled the rights to the games, and split the profits down the middle. Perhaps the balance wasn't quite right, or maybe GOD Games just wasn't made for those times, but it only lasted two years before they sold out to Take 2 Games – the equivalent of the man. "We really shook things up in the industry and started experimenting with a lot of the things we're doing now," says Wilson, calling the experience "one of those rare learning experiences where everyone made some money."
After a hiatus from the gaming world, Wilson found himself back at Take 2 only to make some startling realizations. "All these original games and independent studios we took a chance on, almost every one of them ended up making money," recounts Wilson. With the light from that bulb above his head, Wilson, Miller, and Stults reworked the math from their GOD Games experience and started shopping a new business plan to investors. Finding someone to back such a risky endeavor proved difficult but ultimately fruitful. "I call it luck," says Wilson. "Harry says, 'Mike, if you go two years looking for it, it's not luck.'"
Now, with their launch at the beginning of this year, Gamecock finds the tables turned. Pitches from game developers looking for financial and moral support come fast and furious. "On average, two a day, every day – even Easter," says Miller. The quality that makes a good Gamecock partner? Drive – not something easily retained in an industry of chronic rejection. "These guys start off fiercely believing in themselves," reveals Wilson. "They get kicked in the nuts enough, and eventually they say, 'I'd just like a job.'" And that defeatist attitude does not fly in these offices.
The games that make the cut run the gamut from smaller games like Dementium and the upcoming Pirates vs. Ninjas Dodgeball, which cost a few hundred grand, and larger games that take two to three years to produce and run a tab of roughly $12 million for development alone. "If you start to look at this business like an entertainment business, then your worth is the talent signed to your label," assures Wilson.
At the end of the interviews I'm put in the care of Lynair Borsch, office manager and unofficial Gamecock mom, to show me out. She insists I take a promotional cock sock (a normal sock without its pair) and wishes me safe travels. Grabbing my belongings off the massive billiards/conference table with a Gamecock logo on the red felt, I worry. It's no marble entryway, but Borsch has her work cut out for her keeping these experienced and sometimes even professional kids in line.