Wilson and the Glory of G.O.D.
By Jason "loonyboi" Bergman
ike Wilson is definitely one of those really strange people in the video game industry. He started out at the now defunct DWANGO, better known as one of the first attempts at a pay-for-play gaming service (only one other early one springs to mind, that being Sierra's failed attempt at one, ImagiNation) and quickly hopped ship to id Software, the massive, if notoriously private developer. Along with John Romero and Tom Hall, he became one of the founding fathers of ION Storm, and shortly left to start his current venture, the publishing company known as the Gathering of Developers. Or simply, G.O.D. if you will. Featuring an office located in a church and a business model that (gasp!) actually promotes the developers as well...the people who make the games (as opposed to the standard practice of publishers to promote themselves over the creators) G.O.D. is if nothing else, a completely unique presence. Continuing the loonygames look at small publishers, we tracked down Wilson to ask him a few questions about where he's been and where he's going.
In the beginning...
You were part of DWANGO in its early days...how did you wind up there?
I knew of DWANGO before most people because of my close friendship with Adrian Carmack and my more casual friendship/acquaintance with the other idsters. Adrian showed it to me because he knew I was an entrepreneur with an interest in the computer gaming industry, which had really just been defined with the launch of Doom and Doom II. I checked it out as an investor... Adrian and I formed a partnership to buy the first 3 server licenses, Dallas, SF, and NY. It became evident that DWANGO (which as like 2 guys and a computer at the time) needed some help growing the service quickly, so I went to work with DWANGO Bob full time. We got the network up to 24 servers in 22 different cities in 5 months.
DWANGO seemed to have a close relationship with id back then...was this your doing, or was it initiated by them?
It was because DWANGO kept beating id's door down until they finally checked the rough version of their software out. Romero and the other idsters got excited about it, and Romero actually helped Kee Kimbrell to refine the front end and get it finished. id thought it was a very cool thing (at the time there was no deathmatch other than on a
LAN) and agreed to include the software on Heretic (which was just getting ready to launch) and future revs/patches of the Doom products. Shortly after id asked me to go help DWANGO get started on the right track in terms of expansion, I set up DWANGO franchise sales in a small office right below id's.
What's your take on the last days of DWANGO? Was it inevitable, or could things have gone differently?
It could have gone differently, but hey... look at the 'big boys' (TEN, MPath) who raised 4 or 5 times the money to market and support their gaming services... none of them are profitable. So, DWANGO could have been 'bigger' and maybe stayed around longer if they knew how to raise money more effectively, but in the end it was just too early for a commercial multiplayer gaming service. It was a cash machine for awhile, but once we grew it, we found the end point and ran out of hardcore gamers who were willing to pay to play. The audience is much larger now, but now that it's all internet-based, no one is willing to pay.
How did your jump from DWANGO to id take place?
id called me home. ;) Seriously, I was having a blast with DWANGO, and would have been very happy to keep pushing it ahead, but 6 months after they sent me to Houston, id offered me a job started up their new self-publishing arm, id Distribution.
When you first arrived at id, were they self-publishing? What was the transition to negotiating with an outside publisher like for the small company?
Well, that's what they hired me for. id had always had a significant direct sales/shareware business, but in mid 1995 they had decided they were ready to take their own products to retail as well. They were fed up with dealing with the monster they created in GT, and it was obvious to them that they could outsource all the things that GT was outsourcing at the time. (GT when they got Doom II was about six guys and a phone and their other two products were Richard Simmons Deal-A-Meal CD-ROM and [the] Fabio Screensaver...no kidding). Quake was to be the first product I launched... no pressure, right?
Anyhow, Quake took a lot longer than expected, so I got a full year to learn with Ultimate Doom, Hexen, Heretic:Shadows of the Serpent Riders, Final Doom, etc.) to learn all the ins-and-outs of just what critical functions GT was performing and how much each of them really costs. Quake shareware was the first and only product that went through id Distribution. It was successful enough to A) allow us to renegotiate for a much better royalty with GT on the full retail version, and B) force id to make a decision on whether they really wanted to be in the publishing business. We knew we could do it and do it well, but we would have to hire a few more people and it would inevitably have changed who id was. That was something that the owners were split on, and in the end the two that were for it weren't about to drag the two that were against into it kicking and screaming. ANYHOW, the great thing about that was that the g.o.d. business plan evolved from the id Distribution plan and its proof-of-concept.
Am I crazy, or do I recall hearing a radio advertisement for Hexen (1) on the Howard Stern show? :)
Yeah, that was really cool. It was a bitch trying to manage to get Howard to do a good job on the spot (took him several tries)... tricky things like pronouncing the work MAGI, but in the end he did a great, typically long spot. Who knows if it worked, but it was fun.
Amongst your accomplishments while at id, was the now-infamous 7-11 Quake shareware CD. How did you manage that one?
Well, like I said, our only product was Quake shareware (GT had the rights to the full version from an earlier contract), so my mission was to exploit it by every means available. I went to Southland Corp and pitched them on taking Quake in as their first-ever software product, and do to the mountain of press that we (and TSI) had generated for Quake, they went for it. They ended up selling about 20,000 of the $10 CDs, which made them our third largest retailer (not bad). Unfortunately, the guy there who made that deal left shortly thereafter, so they've never had a software product since. Too bad... they have 5,200 stores... more than five times all the other software chains combined.
Did id ever consider being bought by a larger publisher? (Similar to Raven Software's recent deal with Activision.)
They got offers, constantly, as you could imagine. They turned them all down. id is the ultimate independent. Small, focused, extremely talented, financially stable. They won't ever sell, and if they do, you'll know it's because they are ready to move on to other things and 'cash out' with the amazing franchises that they created and own.
Credits: Illustration © 1999 Michael Krahulik. This interview is © 1999 Jason Bergman & Mike Wilson. All other content is © 1999 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't try it...or we'll damn you.