Microsoft is flying high at present, the new consoles are great, Game Pass looks to finally be the long-fabled ‘Netflix for games’, and it has made some huge acquisitions and deals of late. So who would leave the company now and why?
“It’s not an uncommon question,” admits Thunderful Games’ Agostino Simonetta with a smile. “I’m not running away from Xbox,” he assures us, “I’m running towards a new experience, a new challenge.”
Simonetta is well-known in the industry, he’s been Xbox’s chief indie whisperer in Europe for some seven years now, he’s the approachable face of ID@Xbox for countless indie developers and publishers. A presence at pretty much every developer conference and a popular figure to boot.
That’s in part because he’s lived that life himself. “It’s part of my DNA. I started at an indie developer, seven people in an italian villa, metal desks, in a basement. I came up through development.” And then he went on to stints at Sega, PlayStation and more before coming to Xbox. And his passion for the indie space remains unquestionable.
“I have this passion for the independent movement, for the content, but also for the DNA of the people working in this space. I always said, If I ever leave the platform, and I have a new role, a different role, and grow in my career, I still want to be anchored in this space.
“I don’t want to leave this space. I want to leverage and take advantage of the learning of so many years across all the disciplines to actually go out and carry on engaging, working and helping independent developers be as successful as they can be.
“Nobody can guarantee success. But you try your best to help people” he adds, something that many can certainly attest to. And now he’s taking that experience, that desire to help, over to Thunderful Games.
“When Brjann [Sigurgeirsson, CEO and founder of Thunderful] and I touched on it the first time, we were just having our regular catch up. And I said to Brian, ‘I’m at a point where I need to decide what I want to do with my career’. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that what I’ve learned over the last 20 years, really suits the needs they have. They needed someone with my professional DNA to come in and help shape an already successful business.”
WAS THAT THUNDERFUL I HEARD?
If I told you that Thunderful Games was a Swedish company that was looking to grow, you might just glaze over a little. What with the country becoming increasingly well-known for a raft of actively acquisitive investment vehicles, such as Embracer and EG7, alongside its well respected development community. Thunderful though includes aspects of both sides of the Swedish games success story.
Thunderful was born out of a merger between regional distributor Bergsala and some top indie talent. That includes Zoink, creators of the stylish Fe and upcoming EA Original Lost in Random; Image and Form, best known for the SteamWorld series; Bridge Constructor developer Headup Games, and the UK-based Coatsink, developers of Esper and Jurassic World: Aftermath and many more. At present it numbers some 280 staff across its various arms.
Coatsink has long had its own publishing segment, and the company has also absorbed Rising Star games in that area in recent years. With recent hits including home grown titles such as SteamWorld Quest, and externally developed ones, such as Lonely Mountains Downhill – a personal favourite of mine.
Simonetta is certainly not starting from scratch then. “They already have a great reputation from a creative point of view, their last ten titles have an 80 per cent average on metacritic. They signed some incredible titles, so I’m going to be able to help them grow and continue on this positive trajectory.
“If I’m leaving Xbox, I need to go to a new home, right? Not just a company. They are at the right moment in their growth for me to be able to bring my expertise and help them accelerate that growth, and actually shape that growth,” he adds.
It’s early days obviously, but we do have some idea of what shape that growth might take. Simonetta is certainly bullish on the company’s ambitions: “It’s a company that has the means to expand, we will publish more games, we want to potentially merge and acquire more companies, we want to invest in games.
“The ecosystem has changed a lot,” says Simonetta. “So what I want to build, from a very good starting point, is a company that is able to adapt to the different needs of different partners.”
He goes on to explain that there’s a huge variety of needs from modern developers, some require publishing services, some have a game that they want to extend onto other platforms or into other regions, some need capital investment, either in a specific project or in the studio as a whole. Some want to be a part of something bigger to help guide their growth.
“So my role will be to work with the development studio, share my learning, after so many years with a platform, to help the amazing creative we already have. Working with the publishing team, finding the best games, finding the best developers, to bring great content to the Thunderful label, to go out and invest in development.”
The core theme of our discussion is the changing face of games publishing. How the retail era of one-size fits some has given way to a far more flexible era of digital pricing and with it far more flexible publishers, who have to provide a wide range of services at varying levels.
“The ecosystem has changed a lot, says Simonetta. “There are a lot of sources of money, there’s a lot of publishing opportunities, the platforms are doing partnerships, the ecosystem is so different from a monolithic structure that goes out and says: ‘How much money do you want? We’re gonna publish your game. This is the terms’.
“It doesn’t exist anymore, this is the beauty of the digital revolution. So I want to make sure that we have an offering that can adapt to the needs of our partners, the days of publishers dictating the terms of the conversation have finally gone. For the best! It’s such a competitive market, healthy competition. And these different opportunities, really help companies to be their best selves.”
And that process of change hasn’t stopped, says Simonetta, it’s now a constant evolution. One that has brought with it a brilliant uncertainty in where the next big thing might come from.
“I think I learnt in the last 12 years [working at] platforms. What’s going to be successful today, or tomorrow, can change very quickly. When I first started back in the very early days, it was slightly easier to predict success! Today, you can’t, and that’s why we want to strengthen our outreach and our ability to have conversations with the widest range of partners, the widest range of backgrounds.”
If you look at the images on this page, you can see that Image and Form’s SteamWorld titles, Zoink’s Lost in Random and some of Coatsink’s work has some elements in common, an illustrated style maybe, a feeling of craftsmanship, but depicting things that feel distinctly other, there’s little versimilitude here.
So we wonder whether Thunderful will become a vehicle for that style, whether as a publisher it will try and build an identity, something consumers will come to know it for?
“When you look at our internal studio, we were discussing with Klaus [Lyngeled, CEO at Zoink for 20 years and now head of development for Thunderful] recently, we want to keep growing those studios, we want to really service those IPs, they are so loved by the community. But also we want to build new IP.
“I don’t think I would ever say ‘These are the kind of games we do’. Maybe with my background at platform, where you look at your portfolio in a more holistic way, I think you want to have your eyes open to great experiences that land on your lap.” That said he doesn’t deny similarities amongst some of the group’s most beloved titles.
“But when you look at some of the titles that are coming in, they’re actually very, very different. So no, I like the idea of having a diverse portfolio. It’s early days, but I think in principle, my experience tells me to actually be open to different style of games, different types, categories, multiplayer, single player, different business models, you need to be open minded.”
Being open-minded is a good thing, though even ambitious publishers (surely even ambitious Swedish publishers) still have their limits when it comes to budgets, so just how big is Thunderful looking to go when it comes to investing in titles?
“I don’t know at what point that limit is,” admits Simonetta. “But it’s a very ambitious company with big, big goals. And that’s what we want developers and partners out there to know. We’re here with deep
enough pockets, we want to invest, we want to help people. And talk to us, if you fall into pretty much all those different buckets.”
And those developers could be anything from single person studios up to “double-A or triple-I” outfits. That said, Simonetta is keen to move away from the term ‘indie’, feeling that it doesn’t describe many such publishers clearly enough.
“I think ‘indie publisher’ is again a term that served a purpose for a time. Sometimes you can use ‘digital publisher’, if your focus is actually in the digital space or if the digital space is the primary driver of your considerations and decisions. You can do some retail opportunity on the side. But the digital mindset is the driver of your strategy decision.
“I think there’s still places where you want to use ‘indie’, to help the conversation, but I think it’s meaningless. ‘Independence’ is a better term when you talk about independent developers.”
After all, indie still has connotations of smallness. While independent includes a much larger swathe of game developers, many of which may have significant internal publishing functions of their own.
Self-publishing was all the rage a few years back, digital distribution and Kickstarter looked to point to a new way for developers to do business, directly with their fans: “I think that there was a moment in time where at a certain level, in terms of investment, where developers did not want to have a publisher. At that point in time, the market was different; the challenges were different; the way people discovered games was different. And I think over time, the concept of working with someone came back.”
The dream of full independence certainly proved harder than imagined for many, and so publishers have come back into vogue (if they ever really went away), but that doesn’t mean they haven’t adapted.
“It’s really in a Darwinian way,” points out Simonetta. “That’s my theory, that we look at the gaming business from an ecosystem point of view. And you look at the last few years, and there have been these evolutions where companies had to adapt and respond to survive. Companies are being flexible, able to respond and able to read the market. I think that’s something I like to think I can bring to Thunderful. This learning and experience of looking at how the market is evolving and how the pieces fit together. And bring a bit of perspective.
Most immediately that’s about being flexible to developers’ needs. “We want to offer a buffet of options in how people work with us, developers may say, ‘I need money, but I don’t need your marketing team’. Or, ‘I need a bit of your money, I need a bit of your marketing, and a bit of your testing, but we do community management ourselves’. Or ‘I only want to do one platform at a time, can you help me with the other console?’”
And while many publishers are now offering that flexibility, having one that is backed up by a considerable amount of develop talent and understanding is still the exception rather than the rule. But even putting that to one side, such diversification in service, has allowed publishers to have points of differentiation, to create a market that’s about more than simply different cuts, milestones and recoup terms.
Another reason that publishers are changing is to reflect the first accelerating changes in the consumer market. The most notable of course being Game Pass, hailing from Simonetta’s former home. It’s a subject he’s keen to talk on, but as a multi-platform publisher he’s also keen to point out both sides of the fence.
“I can answer that question going broader than just Xbox,” he begins. “While at PlayStation I was part of the team that launched PS Plus, in finding third-party content for it.
“And actually I was there when we acquired [streaming service] GaiKai and we were working with our partners on getting content for what is today PS Now. Obviously at Xbox I played a part in bringing content to Game Pass.
“I’m a great believer in the model. I’m a massive fan of Game Pass, but also PlayStation Now and PlayStation Plus, the Humble Choice monthly bundle as well as the Ubisoft services. I really think that there is great value in those offerings.
“I am a great believer that companies need to look at the ecosystem and the new platform, the new distribution models, business models, and actually see how they work for that content and do the right thing for that content.”
A case by case approach then, something that can get lost in the great surge of excitement to be a part of ‘the latest thing’. Although that excitement has also created something of a vocal backlash in some sections of the gaming community.
“We had premium single player, and then people started panicking because multiplayer was coming in, killing single player experiences! And then people were panicking because free to play was coming, killing everything else! And then subscriptions are coming – this is going to kill everything! And now cloud streaming…”
He smiles. “I’m a great believer in the coexistence of business models. All those models have a place in an industry that keeps growing year over year. I think new models, whatever they are, are additive.” The question he posits is how those new models shape the market.
“As a professional, in my role, I’m never going to be scared of new models, I’m not going to panic that the new models will kill the business for everyone. Ultimately, there’s never been a better time to be a creator of content, a publisher of content, a distributor of content. There has never been a better selection of a wide buffet of games, there has never been a bigger market than there is today.”
So does that mean Thunderful is ready to create a storm beyond its current homeland of single-player premium content?
“As a company of our size, I don’t think you can ignore any of them. I think you need to engage with them at the right time with the right product. I haven’t fully formulated this strategy yet. But I know that you can’t ignore any of them.” And he notes that it’s smaller, digitally-minded publishers that will always be amongst the first to tackle new opportunities.
“I am never scared of change, change tends to be for the best. As a company, you need to be able to understand what best works for you on a title by title basis or a studio for studio basis. To know how you evolve your strategy
“Some people like to be early adopters of new initiatives… Something I always said at Xbox, is that independent developers and digital publishers tend to be the first ones to jump in.
“When we launched game preview at Xbox, the early access model. The early adopters were smaller publishers, smaller developers rather than the bigger guys.
“I believe in embracing change. You need to both embrace change, and work with the changing ecosystem.”