In a derelict building across the street from E3, something is happening. Good Shepherd, an indie publishing label born out of Devolver Digital’s incubator, has found its feet, and it’s showing off a batch of games on the top two floors.
While physically it’s just a case of crossing the street from the LA Convention Center, things are moving at a very different pace here.
A large part of this could be the presence of Mike Wilson (pictured top), a Devolver Digital co-founder who made the leap to Good Shepherd full-time as chief creative officer after Gambitious rebranded as Good Shepherd Entertainment in August 2017.
Wilson has had stints at Id Software, Ion Storm, Gathering of Developers – which published well regarded titles like Serious Sam, Mafia and Tropico – and many others before finally ending up at Devolver Digital.
“I think Good Shepherd at this point is what I would call a fully functional battle station. We’ve got our team built, we’ve shipped some games, we’re ready to go,” Wilson says.
He talks about a preparation phase for Good Shepherd: “We’ve raised some money, we’ve started signing some bigger titles and I think the one year ramp-up is complete. We had some things we were really hoping to announce for E3, but it ended up being too much of a rush and we want to do this right, rather than fast. Still, by Gamescom, people will be hearing about bigger things than they’re used to us announcing.”
Several of the titles being shown off at E3 have something to them, already. Black Future ‘88 is a 2D action roguelike, a shooter that see players blasting their way up a procedurally generated tower to kill the owner occupying the top floors. All of this before the player’s heart explodes. Phantom Doctrine is a spy-themed XCOM, a brutal turn-based title where players skulk and shoot their way to the bottom of a global conspiracy.
Both of these games have a sense of quality, and the E3 setting for showing them – the building is due to be torn down in just a couple of weeks – gives them a ‘cool’ factor that could see Good Shepherd benefit from the same counter-culture vibe that propelled Devolver to subversive stardom.
Wilson claims that it isn’t just the edgy chic of Devolver that Good Shepherd shares with the company, but also one of its core values: kindness.
“Something I really wanted to come over from Devolver, or the thing that I think has been key to our success, is just kindness. This means doing really artist-friendly deals, giving artists the final say on everything and just treating people well, you know? That’s the thing I wanted to make sure stayed in common and it’s easy for me to say that to you during an interview, but it actually takes some practice to really get used to deferring to often first-time video game makers on literally everything when it comes to their game.”
While trying not to compare the two constantly, it’s inevitable given they’ve grown in tandem, with many Devolver staff moonlighting at Good Shepherd as they built their own team.Brutal turn-based strategy title Phantom Doctrine
“The main differences is that we’ve built a network of private investors that will invest in each one of our games, whereas Devolver self-funds” says Wilson. “So on the business side, that’s the main difference and it will continue to expand, which means we want to see how far we can push this model, while Devolver will always be about the same size.”
Wilson wants the core message to stay the same, but otherwise growing out the publisher is a great opportunity to say yes to a lot more indies, all of whom need funding and support.
“Devolver turns down 25 games a week that are totally viable. So the original impetus was just to stop saying no to so many people and to also see how this model can scale without breaking the magic that is making this all work. Shepherd has been sort of figuring out what its pillars are.”
IT'S NOT ENOUGH TO BE NICE
“We really want to continue to shed attention on developer wellness too,” Wilson continues. “It’s a problem because both labels are having issues with developers actually looking after themselves and so we feel we should help. We need to help, however we can.”
Wilson says that a lot of Good Shepherd’s focus is on signing projects and working on projects that “the team thinks can bring more good or hope into the world. And looking at things that can get our artists creating, while keeping them healthy, and our people healthy, and making sure everyone is happy. We’re focusing on that in a more aggressive way, saying: ‘Okay, it’s not enough just to be nice to everyone. Let’s actually also put some money and time into figuring out how this problem can stop happening, and what we can do to make sure we’re doing our part’.”
Wilson is open about the fact that Good Shepherd is looking to take what the firm’s been doing so far and grow it out, becoming as big a publisher as the model will allow for, as long as everyone involved gets to keep a clear conscious and do business on their terms. For Wilson, it’s about doing the right things to make sure everyone is making great games and having a good time doing it. And the model seems to be working out. There are a few licensed titles in the works, with Wilson himself working on titles like Kiss Psycho Circus and the Blair Witch games. The firm also managed to pull off a coup, getting the musician Sting to do voice work on indie title Where The Water Tastes Like Wine.
“I don’t know if it helped the game sell in the end,” Wilson admits. “It certainly helped it get a lot more attention though, and it wasn’t even anything that costs a lot of money! We had a conversation, Sting thought what we were doing was interesting, and he said yes. Then it was done and it didn’t even cost us any more than getting a regular voice actor to do it.”
Wilson laughs: “I mean, I had to have a couple of glasses of Rosé with him, and I’m not sure it would have happened that way if we’d gone through a talent agency, but these routes are out there and if we can help our artists make these connections, we should be doing it. Everyone here just wants to make the best possible games. If it makes us money at the same time? Great.”