It's often said that success can be bittersweet--just ask GodGames founder Mike Wilson. On one hand, the recently released Max Payne has quickly become GodGames' most successful and critically acclaimed game to date. But on the other hand, earlier today, Wilson confirmed the rumors that GodGames will close its Texas-based offices at the end of the month and hand its operations over to Take-Two Interactive's New York office. While Take-Two is expected to still publish games such as Myth III and Duke Nukem Forever under the GodGames label, the closing of GOD's Texas headquarters signals the official end of Wilson's crusade to unite independent studios and prove that game publishers are unnecessarily greedy and coercive in their dealings with developers.
While rumors have been swirling for weeks about the future of GodGames, today's news doesn't come as a surprise to anyone familiar with this troubled independent publisher--including those inside the company. After all, this year's Promised Lot, GodGames' carnival-like showcase of debauchery across the street from E3, carried a telling subtitle on press passes and T-shirts: "The Farewell Tour."
In fact, while the pole dancers gyrated and the transvestites checked IDs at the Promised Lot, Mike Wilson was cooped up inside GodGames' VIP RV trailer planning the company's final chapter. "Kelly [Sumner, CEO of Take-Two] came to me the first day of E3 and asked very bluntly what it I was I wanted to do [with GodGames]," Wilson said. "So I told him that [co-founder] Harry Miller and I wanted to leave very quietly, and we wanted to get a new company started and bring all the GodGames staff on board." Wilson said the decision was partially based on the fact that he no longer considers himself a gamer. "I'm not a gamer now and I haven't been for a long time," he admitted, suggesting that he's not sure what caused his change of heart. "I always told myself if I ever hit that point I would get out."
Founded in 1998, GodGames was supposed to be an indie publisher fueled by some of the best and brightest developers, pumping out triple-A hit after triple-A hit. But the reality was something quite different, in part because of a lack of financing and a strange brew of games that never really delivered on the promise of making GodGames the Rolls-Royce of publishing labels. While there were certified hits such as Railroad Tycoon 2, other games like KISS: Psycho Circus and the Blair Witch Trilogy seemed to be a far cry from the blockbuster and seminal games once promised to be GodGames' mainstay.
In reality, the concept behind the Gathering of Developers was a pie-in-the-sky ideal that never got the funding it needed. GodGames initially wanted $25 million in venture capital, but it ended up settling for what eventually amounted to an estimated $22.5 million in advances from Take-Two as part of a 20-product deal in exchange for 19.9 percent equity in GodGames. That might have been enough money if all the games arrived on time and were hits, but when the titles started falling behind schedule, the money quickly dried up. "We ran out of money three times," Wilson said, explaining that the sale of GodGames to Take-Two in June 2000 was the only way to stay afloat. "GOD was always hanging by a thread, but when it had to sell to Take-Two, that's when the whole downward spiral really began," said 3D Realms' Scott Miller, one of the founding developers.
Next Page: Wilson Looks for Substance
Despite the obvious irony that a so-called independent publisher found the only way it could survive was to sell out to the very publishing establishment it originally attacked, the press release announcing the sale of GodGames to Take-Two proclaimed that the company would "act autonomously as a wholly owned subsidiary" and maintain its independence. But when games like KISS: Psycho Circus and Heavy Metal: F.A.K.K. 2 shipped in mid-2000 and failed to sell at retail, Wilson said, most of the decision-making power was taken away from his team in Texas. "The failure of both of those games to earn out basically sealed our fate for Take-Two deciding that all development decisions would be taken over by them," he explained. While Wilson credits Take-Two with believing in the concept from day one, he said that even his friends knew that "I wasn't going to last long in the rather stifling position of heading up a wholly owned subsidiary publisher."
Some of the founding developers fully admit that the Gathering had a hard time hitting its stride, in part because of growing tension between the developers and GodGames management. "There was a lot of distrust between the developers and Gathering because of the inconsistent way Gathering followed its own core beliefs," explained Ritual Entertainment co-founder Jim Dose, commenting on the fact that what was once billed as an independent publisher soon became a marketing label for an established public company. The tension between developers and GodGames got to a point where Ritual was nicknamed "Bitchual" by GodGames employees, in reference to the developer's constant complaints about the way in which the company was being run. Some developers, locked into a five-year exclusive first-look deal with the Gathering, felt bitter that GOD never lived up to its potential. Opinions differ as to whether the company's troubles were the result of a lack of financing, poor management, developers not delivering hit products on time, or some combination of all these factors.
Then again, even those inside of GOD fully realize that, whatever the reasons may have been, the company lost sight of what it was supposed to stand for. "Earlier this year we officially changed our name to GodGames and stopped using Gathering of Developers as a subtle tip-off to developers and gamers out there that we were not the same company, that we were not in control, and that we were not at all a Gathering of Developers," Wilson said. Also removed were the "10 Commandments of a Good Deal." It seemed that whatever hope there was for GodGames to live up to its billing as one of Entertainment Weekly's 10 hottest e-companies for the new millennium was quickly fading.
Fully aware that the essence behind the GodGames concept had dissipated, Wilson set out to start a new company appropriately titled SubstanceTV, partially funded by the estimated $5 million he made on the sale of the company to Take-Two. (GodGames co-founders Harry Miller, Jim Bloom, and Rick Stults are also involved in funding the project). The concept is to create a DVD-based video magazine for adults exploring things and people of substance through video documentaries, short films, digital exhibits, music videos, and newsmagazine-style features.
Wilson developed the idea with GodGames co-founder Doug Myers (http://fresh.godgames.com), whose untimely death in May caused Wilson to realize that there was no time to waste putting their idea into action. "I really wanted to create another home for independent artists," said Wilson, who feels this concept has a better chance of succeeding because "the barriers to entry for creating something original and compelling on digital video are much lower than they are for a game developer who has to spend millions of dollars just to get noticed." The introductory issue of SubstanceTV will ship in November, but until then the company's prelaunch Web site http://www.substance.tv has been launched with basic information and subscription terms. Wilson, who recently moved to Austin, Texas, said that nearly all the GodGames staff in Texas will come on board for the new project.
In the meantime, Wilson has had time to reflect on what the GOD concept was supposed to be versus what it ended up being. He fully admits that GOD didn't have the long-term impact on the game industry he hoped for, although he does feel that Max Payne is a fitting swan song for the company: "It's fantastic that we are ending this with Max Payne--even though we aren't independent as of now, Max Payne is the type of game that GodGames always wanted to publish. It's a testament to what can be done by truly independent developers like 3D Realms and Remedy who can afford to fund the extra development time needed to make a good game great." The moral of the story is simple: Independence is a lot easier if you can afford to hold the purse strings.