A publisher takes a cut to fund and market games. This sounds straightforward, but the outcome has often been anything but, especially for smaller developers. Modern Wolf is a new indie publisher, funded by ex-Splash Damage CEO Paul Wedgwood and his Supernova Capital fund, which hopes to succeed because it’s more ethical in its approach, rather than despite it.
Modern Wolf is run by CEO Fernando Rizo, who worked at Splash Damage with Wedgwood, and he has more than 20 years of experience across the industry. Speaking to MCV, Rizo tells us: “Consumers are starting to care about how their games are made and they’re starting to care about the conditions under which developers work.” Rizo then goes on to explain why he’s the one to lead a new approach:
“I was a biz dev and marketing consultant for lots of different industry groups. I helped those guys negotiate a ton of publishing deals and every time I did that I found myself thinking ‘a lot of these publishing deals are pretty predatory.’ I thought, could an empathetic person, who’s done this process a million times, who’s been an indie dev themselves, set up a publisher that was designed to be more developer-centric, more transparent?” Rizo hopes to achieve that by putting “a premium on the stability of the businesses we work with. Indie devs are fragile and they have to jump through some pretty awful hoops just to get a game out of the door for a publisher, so let’s make a publisher that doesn’t act like that, let’s make a publisher that helps make indies a sustainable business, coaches them if necessary and provides continuity funding after the game ships.”
“Could an empathetic person, who’s done this process a million times, set up a publisher that was designed to be more developer-centric, more transparent?”
And such funding can make the difference between a dev surviving and not, claims Rizo, irrespective of whether the game was a success: “I worked with a couple of different indies that were on the verge of going out of business after the game shipped, because the first royalty cheques took two, three, even four months to show up. We want to create a scenario where nobody has to get laid off, where you can keep your talent in-house to work on the next thing, we’ll cover you.”
More flexibility sounds great, but games still need to ship to make a profit for developer and publisher both. Modern Wolf will then have to tread a careful line between kindness and pragmatism.
“We can help the developer create a milestone plan at the beginning, which is sensible, we’re not going to impose arbitrary milestones from above, we’re going to work with them, the plan will flex, the plan will change, but yes, the game does need to ship, roughly on time,” Rizo concurrs.
The key is to start off on the right foot, with Modern Wolf needing to be even more cautious in identifying the right projects from the off: “by telling a developer you have ultimate creative say over this project, that’s an extraordinary amount of power and responsibility, so we’re signing very carefully and very diligently.”
“We’re going to sign maybe one more game in 2019, we’re not going to bite off more than we can chew, we’re making sure that with every game we sign we’ve done a due diligence visit, taken the team out to lunch, had calls, stepped through the entire game design document and roadmap, we know that it sensible, achievable and nobody is going to lose any brain cells over the process.”
Which brings us around nicely to Modern Wolf’s aim to care for the mental health of its developers, as much as it can at least: “We’re not doctors, but having been in those developers shoes, we know what the common causes of stress are, cashflow, random shifting requests from publishers, we can limit those by saying you’ve got final creative control of your product, we’re never going to tell you: ‘it’s two months out, you should have multiplayer.’”
With that said, though, we wonder whether making life easier for developers will, in turn, make things harder for those on the publishing team. Do consumers care about publishers’ mental health? “Probably not,” he laughs, “but we’re happy to eat that stress if it makes our developer’s lives easier.”
“One of the things we have with Supernova backing us is that we have guys like Mark Morris and Paul Wedgwood, guys who done every conceivable permutation of games development, we can help our developers become sturdier businesses, we offer leadership coaching, we offer financial workshops: planning expansion, hiring intelligently,” he continues.
Beyond that, the publisher is also keen to find and reach out to developers and games from under-represented regions, such as one of its five launch titles, Indonesian studio Toge productions’ Necronator, hitting early access in Q1 2020. “It’s maybe not the most ‘hard-nosed’ business decision, but I would love to find folk from less represented regions, we have the power to expose them to a bigger audience, and it would do the universe of game development a lot of good if there were more diverse voices represented,” says Rizo.
Though he admits that even far-flung developers need to be able to speak English in order to navigate the games industry and that will be no different with Modern Wolf: “Speaking English is good, though some of that work is done for us because English is the lingua franca of gaming. You’re right though that could be a choke point.”
Putting aside the industry’s anglocentricity, though, Modern Wolf has an outspokeningly fresh outlook on what is often viewed as a steely-eyed part of the industry. We just hope that this more thoughtful, developer-friendly approach can deliver financial results.