Sold Out has long been a fixture of the UK games industry. In various guises it has specialised in finding undervalued areas of the market and making a good business out of them.
Historically that was budget PC titles, more recently it’s become the biggest champion of the physical copy in a digitally-obsessed world. Bringing a wide range of games to retail around the world, including titles from the very best of British developers and publishers.
Late last year the company was acquired by the EG7 group (at the time known as Toadman Interactive). That investment has kickstarted a new phase for the company, so we visited CEO Garry Williams at Sold Out’s City of London office to discuss the company’s future.
The Enad Global 7 (then Toadman) takeover came as something of a surprise, we’d met the company in person before, back when Sold Out was publishing Toadman Interactive’s own Dark-Souls styled Immortal: Unchained. And when did the developer ever buy the publisher?
The reasons are numerous, and compelling, but Williams first response is that it gives Sold Out access to funds and wider expertise, so it can cut bigger deals and be more competitive.
Williams recount a massive recent hit which Sold Out lost out on, as they didn’t have the access to cash to match a competitor’s advance, something that may be less of an issue in future. That said, Williams isn’t about to change a lifelong approach and start making huge bets: “I’m quite conservative, so my willingness to use that credit, because it comes with interest, is somewhat limited,” he notes.
That relative caution seems to be matched by the new owners, who are looking to be more measured in their growth than their compatriots at Embracer (previously THQ Nordic), which now has some 26 studios under its wing and rapidly approaching 100 games in development, with new announcements seemingly coming every month.
Enad Global 7 (EG7) has a more focused approach to its current handful of titles in its pipeline, each of which will benefit from the various parts of the group. “We’re then called in, as Sold Out to publish those games,” Williams notes. In addition, as Sold Out, the company has its own internal slate of digital indie games that it’s signing and bringing to market.
And expertise is shared both ways. As a part of EG7, Sold Out now access to the groups development arm, which retains the Toadman moniker, so it can support its signed developers if they need assistance with a particular area, such netcode, or conversions to other platforms.
GOING TO MARKET
The companies will work together then, but Williams is keen to impress that Sold Out still has a lot of autonomy. “They are the board and they are the owners, but they let each piece sort of run individually.”
And so of course, the company continues to work with its current key partners. Team17 has numerous titles in the pipeline, including the upcoming Moving Out; Rebellion, which recently launched Zombie Army 4; and then there’s Frontier Developments, which had a cracking year with Planet Zoo – and who themselves are sponsoring the upcoming MCV/DEVELOP Awards.
And speaking of UK development talent, EG7’s most notable development acquisition is Antimatter Games, based in Falmouth, Cornwall. The Rising Storm developer is working on a new multiplayer shooter, simply titled ‘83, which is set during the cold war. That brings up the possibility of a console, or even boxed launch, for the previously PC-only developer, though nothing is confirmed.
With publishing and development in place on certain titles, the last ingredient is the group’s creative agency: Petrol Advertising in LA. “We’ll use them for the titles with larger marketing budgets, they’ll come in and look at the planning for the game and provide their expertise and creative lens on those titles.”
And while a big marketing campaign won’t suit every game, Williams wants to apply Petrol’s marketing expertise to many titles, “to find the right audience and the hooks for that audience” alongside the publishing and development skills: “We want a more robust way of dealing with digital, in the same way that we know boxed already.”
And that is no easy task, as even Sold Out, with its huge experience and excellent contacts, bemoans the lack of available sales data in the digital market. Without data, the whole industry is struggling with accurate digital forecasting as ”there’s not much to codify or guide your decisions,” admits Williams.
Great content usually shines through, though. And today Sold Out announces three new indie titles with a lot of potential, making a total of five titles on show at its PAX stand this week, it’s biggest to date.
KeyWe, Disjunction, and Gestalt: Steam & Cinder, are the three new titles, which join No Straight Roads and Radical Rabbit Stew on the current release slate. “Our growing line-up of exciting new indie titles is set to satisfy a broad range of players’ tastes, covering a wide variety of genres from some exceptionally talented developers,” says Williams.
We have the opportunity to play all three new titles during our visit. Disjunction is a 2D top-down cyberpunk title, which takes the strong storyline, RPG-lite elements, and branching narrative options from Deus Ex and blends them with stealth mechanics reminiscent of the original Metal Gear games. The combination, plus great execution, makes it the closest thing we’ve seen in a while to a safe bet.
Gestalt: Steam & Cinder treads similar ground, being a side-scrolling 2D platform shooter with RPG elements in a steampunk setting. Character designs and pixel art are spot on here, and it’s promising a deep narrative, rather than the Souls-styled environmental story-telling of games such as Hollow Knight.
The wildcard of the bunch is the adorable KeyWe. This sees multiple players controlling a pair of industrious Kiwis (the bird, not the people from New Zealand) as the mobhandedly (though actually without hands) run a period post office, dealing with post, parcels and telegrams in what is one of the most unusual, yet compelling titles we’ve played since Overcooked, to which it will be compared. The concept isn’t as instantly graspable, but its highly original and its characters could fly far (despite being wingless).
Many acquisitions simply take a company and inject large sums of money in order to supersize it. With Sold Out, it looks as though EG7 has planned well, bringing together publishing, development and marketing capabilities in a single group. It should produce a very capable publisher with plenty of room for further growth as opportunities arise.
Plus for Williams, being part of a larger, off-shore group means that Sold Out can feel confident in an uncertain time. “We are now able to minimise the risk of the negative impact from any potential outcome of the upcoming Brexit Trade Agreement negotiations by gaining access to operations in both UK and European markets,” he concludes.