An Audience With...
From DWANGO to Devolver, Mike Wilson has made a career out of putting the developer first
From his formative years installing servers in populous American cities to enable people to play peer-to-peer Doom deathmatch, through to his latest venture, equity-based crowd-funding platform Gambitious Games, Mike Wilson has always served at the bleeding edge of the videogame industry. But for a man who has helped launched numerous billion-dollar-revenue videogame series, his modus operandi is peculiarly artist-centric, seeking to nurture talent and reward it with a far fairer deal than many of his nickel-and-diming contemporaries. It’s an outlook that has made Wilson’s Devolver Digital perhaps the most desirable publisher for independent games today, with a string of hit releases on its books, including Hotline Miami, OlliOlli and recent success story,
Enter The Gungeon. Devolver has fostered an image that is closer to a music label than a software company. Wilson explains the story to date.
Where did you start out?
I grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana, which, strangely enough, was also the birthplace of Id Software, where I would later work. When I was growing up, the city was like how Detroit is today – all shutdown factories and no jobs. There was an extremely high concentration of gangs. AT&T had a large factory there, as did General Motors, and when they got shut down, everything around them closed.
Did you sense opportunities were limited there?
Anyone with a brain was scheming on how to get out.
What was your plan?
I didn’t have much of a plan beyond get the fuck out as soon as I could. I ended up marrying very young, to a girl I’m still married to now, 25 years later. So that decision brought about a similar sense of urgency. My wife was super down to get out as well.
What did you want to do with your life?
My parents had moved around a bit, living in various cities in the south of the US. But they’d ended up back in the city where they’d grown up. Really, I just wanted to do absolutely anything but that. As part of that first generation that grew up with videogame consoles, I certainly had ideas about wanting to create games. I don’t think I ever thought about wanting to create videogame publishing companies [laughs], but I don’t think any kid could play this truly new medium and not think about wanting to create them. What was your first system? An Odyssey 2 was the first one I had at home. I played other people’s Ataris, but for some reason that’s the system that the Wilson household went for. The big game at the time was KC Munchkin, a Pac-Man ripoff. We also had one called Pickaxe Pete. I don’t know how they pulled it off, but my brothers had a series of gaming consoles after that. It seemed like we got a new one every year or two. Why was that? Were your parents into videogames? They were probably into my brothers shutting the hell up [laughs]. I was child number five after a series of teenagers of the late ’60s and early ’70s. My instructions as a young man were basically: “Don’t go to jail and, if you do, don’t call me.” That was roughly the extent of my parenting. This was through no fault of my parents. They had been through absolutely everything that a parent could go through and I think by that point they had essentially just retired. I’m sure the consoles were around for babysitting.
You avoided jail. So what did you do?
My wife and I slugged it out through college. She graduated and wanted to go to grad school in Dallas. It was the safest, nearest big city with things going on, so kids from many small towns in Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas would end up there. Dallas also ended up being, by random chance, where the guys I met at Id Software moved to. When there I did a load of random entrepreneurial ventures until I joined DWANGO in 1994, my first job in the game industry.
What was the setup at DWANGO?
I met these guys who became Id Software in Shreveport
when we used to play Dungeons & Dragons in our underwear. I sort of followed a friend from school, Adrian Carmack, who reluctantly became a computer game artist, and through him I followed them through their journey. At some point the Id guys told me about this company DWANGO, which, they said, had been set up by a group who had figured out a way to make Doom work between their houses across a modem. They told me that they thought it was going to be pretty big, but that they weren’t too sure about the guys running it. I think they saw some business savvy in me and trusted me enough to send me down to work with the DWANGO guys. They wanted me to be the eyes and ears, but also they wanted to turn this into a franchising operation, whereby people could buy a DWANGO server for their home area code. Adrian was buying a few of those and I was his partner in helping them grow that business. I was 24.
These were very early days in terms of the Internet. How did you make it work?
It didn’t work over the Internet at all. People were playing deathmatch via LAN at first, because a game like
Doom was so fast, it wouldn’t work over the Internet. This kid wrote a compression algorithm that made it work, if you dialled peer to peer into a server. If it was a long-distance phone call then it would get very expensive very quickly for people. People were getting $1,000 phone bills because they couldn’t stop playing deathmatch and didn’t realise the cost involved [laughs]. We were flying around from city to city and we’d go to a Home Depot whenever we landed and buy a tool shelf and then we would load modems on it, 32 or 64 of them depending on how much phone line was running to the building, and computers to act as servers. Then we’d lock the door and head off to the next city.
It must’ve been an extraordinary time.
It was a trip. It was also my first time flying around the country. It was a weird gig, running in, loading up these server rooms, then leaving as fast as we could because these guys had struck gold. Every time we installed one of those server racks, it was just like a money machine. So we went as fast as we could. About six months later, Id called. They had decided they wanted to be their own publisher because they’d grown tired of fighting with theirs. They asked me if I would come and lead that, away from DWANGO. I moved in and had a desk there. I was employee number seven.
What was your responsibility for the year that you were at id Software?
They thought they were going to launch Quake pretty soon, but they were wrong. It was the beginning of the time when games started to be late, because they were all built on bespoke engines, using new technology. My job was to learn the publishing business. I did that via their publisher at the time, GT Interactive. It was a completely new business; on the CD-ROM side of things GT Interactive had Fabio Screensaver, Richard Simmons’ Deal-A-Meal, and Doom. That was their full lineup in this emerging CD-ROM market. They were just a bunch of crusty old guys from the toy business. They were just trying to figure this shit out. It was a big moment for me, realising that everybody was blagging. I was pretty intimidated. I was around 25. I flew to New York for the second time in my life, the first time for business. I went into one of these giant buildings to negotiate with these elder statesmen. Then I realised they had no fucking idea what they were doing. That moment informed the rest of my career.
The idea that everyone is faking it. If these guys are faking it and they managed to turn Doom into a billiondollar IPO in a brand-new business… they had no idea what they were doing. They had a handshake deal with Walmart but they had no long-term deal with Id and I knew Id Software wasn’t happy with them because they had been taken advantage of in terms of the royalty rate. Id was really the first one fighting that fight.
I hung out at Id for a while. I launched Hexen, the sequel to Heretic, and a new game in the Doom series called Final Doom. They called it that because they wanted to make sure there would never be another Doom. It was a collection of the best mods out there. They didn’t want to be asked or tempted to do another Doom so they called it that to close the door.
That didn’t exactly work out.
Apparently not. Final Doom – y’know, except for all the others that came later.
Were you working on marketing campaigns?
Yes. I was working with some wonderful ad agencies in Dallas. Some of those guys I’m still friends with. I was getting my feet wet in all of these areas. But I was looking around, seeing these new game developers spawning in Dallas, and that’s when I started to get ideas about how, if id were being treated this poorly by their publisher while doing so well, were these other guys being treated? I was learning the basics of publishing, the steps involved. The GT guys, for all of their not knowing, did appreciate the need to hire a good PR firm. But they were just taking almost all of the money. This one time they flew us on Concorde to London. My boss and mentor, Jay Wilbur, told them that that was the only way we’d come to
“I’D READ ENOUGH TO KNOW THAT IF YOU’RE BEING CARTED AROUND IN A LIMO, YOU’RE PROBABLY BEING FUCKED”
England. He complained that the flight was too long so we’d only do it if we came via Concorde. My wife and I flew on Concorde with Jay Wilbur, and the singer Michael Bolton was on board. We saw the end of the blue sky and the beginning of the night. It was ridiculous.
Everywhere we went was in a limo. I had read enough rock’n’roll magazines to know that if you’re being carted around in a limo, you’re probably being fucked [laughs].
Is that why you left?
The math was not hard to figure out. Once I knew how much CD-ROMs cost, and the packaging and the cost of postage… There was clearly an awful lot of money being collected by GT Interactive. That’s what pissed Id off more than the in-fighting, when we realised they could’ve made three times as much. There came a point when they asked me to renegotiate the deal for Quake.
GT wanted to publish the $50 box at retail like they did with Doom II. They flew down to negotiate this. It was a big moment for me. I was thrown into the ring. I got Id’s royalty rate up from $7 a box to $18 a box. That was the highest end of the deal we’d dreamed of. After that, I could either sit there and wait for Doom 4 or Quake
II or whatever the next game was going to be, or… You see, I was young and ambitious, and id Software was not my company. So I became the first employee ever to leave Id of my own volition. I had received an amazing education there. It was like trying to learn about the music industry while being employed as The Beatles’ manager or something. They were absolute rockstars. No one was really close at that time.
I appreciated the opportunity very much. That’s where the idea for God Games came from. What if I formed a label that treated everyone like Id was now being treated, with the talent having final say over everything right from the get-go? That business plan was formed then. I had a good PR firm, a good ad agency, and I’d met all of these young developers who were being treated very poorly by their publishers. Many of them were making million-dollar-revenue games but, like early Motown artists, were soon discovering that they owned nothing. It was a huge opportunity to do the right thing and recognise that, like in all entertainment industries, the talent would be the most important part of the equation at some point.
Where did that sensibility come from? This artist-centric view that seems common in other creative industries, but rare in videogames.
Probably because Adrian Carmack was literally a pen-and-paper artist, who had learned an art program to make pixel art. We were friends at this formative moment in my life. I consider John Carmack an artist too, who wrote incredibly elegant code. They were artists in the sense that they were narrowly focused people who wanted to be left alone to do their work, but they were being taken advantage of by people whose business it is to take advantage of people without doing any of the work. It was obvious what was going on. I could see so clearly that this wasn’t a toy business, but an entertainment business that was founded on artistry. When you saw discs being mailed out, it became even clearer.
How did you arrive at Take-Two?
Those guys had bought God Games two years into our existence before Max Payne came out. We didn’t want to be bought at the time but we needed the money because the games were delayed and there were cash-flow problems. It was a very adversarial forced transaction. It was never what we wanted to do. We wanted to create a sustainable business. We green-lit and started eight million-selling franchises in less than two years. It was plenty of business if we could just have the cash to get to the ship date for these games – but we couldn’t. After Take-Two bought us I left, to be honest, not very gracefully. So I was shocked as anyone when they called me a year later asking me to run their PC division, signing new developers. I guess all of the games we had signed at God Games had come out in the intervening time and done incredibly well.
Wilson’s early experiences at Id involved producing Heretic sequel Hexen, and FinalDoom
Mike Wilson with his partners at Gambitious Games, Paul Hanraets (left) and Harry Miller
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