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.

How so?

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


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

Some of Gath­er­ing Of De­vel­op­ers’ defin­ing suc­cesses in­cluded the Se­ri­ousSam and Hid­den&Dan­ger­ous series of shoot­ers

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