Gaming Goes Indie: Meet Gamecock, A Tiny Publisher With Giant Plans

Backed by anonymous millions, company promises to usher in new era of gaming creativity.

Alex Seropian, who helped create "Halo" and has been trying to start a line of comedy games, sounded relieved last week. So did Simon Bradbury, who once sang in a punk band called the Flesh Puppets, and now runs a games studio called Firefly.

They were on the phone with MTV News to enthuse about a new game company called Gamecock. They were trying to explain what a good idea it was, which was helpful. A couple of days before, Mike Wilson and Harry Miller — the co-founders of Texas' Gamecock Media Group — showed up at the MTV offices to make that pitch themselves. At one point Miller made a confession: "When we first tried this idea years ago people said, 'These guys are idiots.' "

So what's Gamecock all about?

Most big video games are published by large corporations, game publishers like Nintendo, Electronic Arts and Activision, whose shares are traded on the stock market and whose fortunes are determined by the attitude of their investors. The games from those publishers are made in-house or by outside teams contracted to work on concepts they'll never own.

Gamecock, on the other hand, is planned to be a six-man game publisher backed with millions from anonymous backers and allied with developers who will get to make their own work. And that, said Wilson and Miller, is going to bring a burst of creativity to the video game industry.

"I truly believe that when you have artists working on what they really want to work on and they know it's for their benefit too — they're going to own it — I just think you get a different level of creativity and passion," said Wilson. "You get rock stars instead of studio musicians."

This week Gamecock announced its existence to the world, along with five original games slated for release in late 2007 and 2008. Later this year will bring Crackpot Entertainment's "film noir" adventure game set in a world run by bugs. Australian developer Auran is working on a massively multiplayer computer game called "Fury." 2008 will see the release of "Hail to the Chimp," an action/party game for consoles from Seropian's Wideload Studios that Wilson describes like this: "The king of the animals have been ousted from office and all the animals are competing in the election to become the new king." Firefly is creating a dungeon-based action game called "Hero," designed to change the conventions of similar titles in that genre. Red Fly Studios is creating a console and handheld game called "Mushroom Men" about a civil war between fungi.

If the names of those developers don't yet resonate with gamers, Wilson and Miller promise to change that. Typically a game publisher splashes its own logo biggest and brightest on a game box. Firefly's Bradbury said that's long been an issue with development while working for the big publishers. "We've always designed the box. Then eventually they'll ask for a final kind of layout and our logo will disappear. We've had to push it back on again." Sometimes his studio's name hasn't even made it onto the box. Was that annoying? "It's more than annoying. It probably was an oversight on the part of the publisher. But it's kind of a symbol of how little they care about it. 'The bloody developer, they're just annoying. Why couldn't they deliver it early?' "

Wilson and Miller's pitch is an enticing one. And the two are expert attention-getters known from previous publicity stunts at gaming events. To announce Gamecock, they posed for photos in chicken costumes and filmed video of themselves traipsing around in costume at the Sundance Film Festival and a Las Vegas porn convention. Skeptics, however, may point to Wilson and Miller's previous joint effort a decade ago, a company called Gathering of Developers that promised the same feats as Gamecock, which shipped a few hits like Firefly's "Stronghold" games and "Gears of War" developer Epic's "Jazz Jackrabbit" before running out of money. Wilson said this time is different because Gamecock's financing doesn't have strings attached. Last time, he said, they got all their money from one company and were hemmed in by limits like only being able to focus on PC games.

So if the Gamecock dream is viable, are the problems it's meant to solve really that bad? Is the standard gaming industry full of shackles that, once broken free, will truly usher great new things? Are big companies really that conservative? More importantly, do they really meddle?

Seropian remembered pitching his company's last game, "Stubbs the Zombie." "The whole hook of that game is you're playing the zombie," Seropian said. "We pitched a large publisher that game and their response was, 'Hey, this is pretty cool. You're onto something with this zombie thing. Zombies are really popular. We have an idea. You should make it so that instead of being a zombie you can be a dude trying to kill zombies.' We're like, 'Whoa, you missed the point.' "

Bradbury related his own stories about the big guys just not getting it. " 'Stronghold' is a game about castles and that's what it's always been about really. And we've had publishers who wanted us to set it in the Wild West, for example." He said that as he pitched "Hero" to big publishers, he saw more interference coming. "You get people sticking their oar in and going, 'Well, but surely it works better like this.' As a developer you can withstand that but you've got to be strong."

Gamecock is designed to let developers do what they want to do. It's a nice idea, but surely people at big companies claim their outfits encourage the same spirit of innovation. "We're not a big public company and these guys are," Wilson said. "I don't for a minute think they don't have smart people on staff that want to do this, but eventually the machine gets so big that you can't greenlight something unless 50 people can sign off that it's going to sell a couple of million units. That's pretty hard to do."

The Miller and Wilson plan is now getting its second shot. Is gaming ready for a big independent publisher this time around? They think so.