The industry legend discusses how he got into the business and the likelihood of an indiepocalypse.
We recently caught up with industry veteran Mike Rose at Develop Brighton to have a chat about how he got into the business, his thoughts on the indie scene and where he sees the publishing game going in the future. Mike has a long history in the indie game scene working as a journalist for the likes of Gamasutra, Kotaku, PocketGamer and many more. He then went into publishing gaining notoriety for the excellent games he signed over at tinyBuild and is known the world over as a public speaker and notable voice in the industry. He now runs his own publishing label, No More Robots and continues to share his industry knowledge through talks at places such as Develop. Here we discuss the future of the industry, surviving the indiepocalypse and everything else in between.
TIGW: So, how did you get into the games industry?
It was completely by accident. I used to like video games when I was younger obviously, a bit too much. I played a ton of Counter Strike and I used to use the voice chat to just shout Briticisms at people and one day a Dutch game news site said to me ‘hey you’re kind of funny and you seem to be able to use words so would you be interested in being paid to write about video games?’ And I was like what?
So once they started doing that I started exploring ‘well wait a minute can I make a job out of this?’ and that’s a roundabout when I discovered all of these smaller games people didn’t seem to be covering, because this is like 2008 when no one even knew what indie games were yet, but like Braid and World of Goo were happening. I all of a sudden discovered this world I hadn’t seen before and I was like holy shit no one’s covering this I should make this my thing.
I was one of the first people at that time covering these kinds of games. It made people become familiar with me and I got picked up more as the indie specialist. From there I ended up writing for most of the bigger sites and then eventually many years later tinyBUILD picked me up because a lot of the dev-centric stuff I’d been doing, which was scary because I had no clue if I was going to be able to do it or not but it turned out I was pretty decent at.
TIGW: What was it that interested you in indie games?
I started to see games on Steam to be perfectly honest. I remember seeing World of Goo on Steam and being like holy shit this looks amazing. Rock Paper Shotgun as well at the time were doing a ton of indie coverage, but I just started playing some of these games and they were just so different. Up to that point I’d just been playing triple-A stuff, things I see the adverts for and the things that were in Game [A UK based video game store], but I started playing these smaller games.
I was like holy shit I’m having as much fun with these games and they’re like a quarter of the price of all of these full price games. They were just doing things that a lot of the bigger games couldn’t, taking a lot of risks. I just started scouring for as many games as I could, I must have played hundreds of thousands of games in the first few years I was doing it, every day just finding more and more anyway I could really.
TIGW: What made you make the transition from game critic to game publisher?
So it was completely by accident. I’d started doing a lot of talks, I was in a position when I was at Gamasutra where I was doing a lot of research stuff, putting out a lot of articles and it seemed like if I did talks on some of these things people would be interested, so I started doing that and it turned out people were interested. I got invited to talk at DevGAMM in Minsk and I was at one of the after parties for it and Alex Nichiporchik from tinyBuild said ‘we’ve been looking for someone to help us [with publishing] you seem to know how games are selling right now and what the things that are causing them to sell is so could we grab you?’.
It was hard for me because I was really enjoying writing about games and I loved my job at Gamasutra, I felt really sad when I left there but I’d been doing it for a while and I knew there was a ceiling to what I could do with it.
TIGW: What do you think made you so successful at tinyBuild?
Sometimes when I work with developers I can tell they’re in this stale mood where they want to work out how to get a bit further but they need someone to come along and just be enthusiastic as fuck and be happy to do all of the grind work and when I rolled into tinyBuild that’s kind of what I did. I came in and I had something to prove, you know I had to make some games sell because if I joined a publisher and our games didn’t sell I’d look a right twat because I’d been talking for years about how I knew how to make games sell. So, I just started putting my absolute everything into it.
I think the first massive success we had was Party Hard in the Summer of 2015, that for me was like fuck yes, this is what I’d come in to try and do. We signed a few really cool things whilst I was there as well. At the start of 2016 we had Punch Club, which was just out of this world, I think we ended up doing a quarter of a million sales in the first couple months or something like that. It was absolutely massive.
I think a massive part of all the success of all the games we did whilst I was there was persistence in getting the word out, just going and going. Not just here’s a game we’ve put out a press release, here’s a trailer, please enjoy. I remember for the whole week of Punch Club and beyond I just never stopped basically. I was up at 8 o’ clock in the morning on the Saturday doing an interview with someone over Twitch, I’d seen then streaming it and they’d asked me if I’d jump on Discord to chat with them. Then I was just tweeting and tweeting, just consistently always sending out Steam codes to people who could possibly influence it, just going and going. You need some of that, I think a lot of developers don’t want to do it themselves, well not that they don’t want to but they just can’t, I think a lot of people find it quite cringe but I had no shame, but that seemed to work out really well.
TIGW: Is the future of indie game publishing data driven?
I think at this point I’ve worked out that I just have some kind of eye for knowing the ones that are just going to sell, that’s not to say that I could just pick them up and they’d sell automatically, they’ve still got to put the graft in, but every title that I sign I’ve just known there’s something about it and even when people have been saying to me ‘are you sure though it’s a bit iffy this one?’ I’ll always be like do you know what I’ve seen something in this. But, on the other side of it, the data stuff, it’s all mainly about being realistic. When I say data-driven, I’ve pulled a shit load of numbers, put it this way, when Descenders came out I pretty much to within 100 units managed to estimate perfectly how much the game was going to sell in the first month and first week.
It’s useful as well because I think when people are working with publishers they are like ‘what percentage does a publisher take? What’s the deal meant to be like?’ and I can literally just go to them and say look I’ve worked out your game is going to make this amount of money because of that I’ve worked out that I think that this would be a fair percentage for No More Robots to be taking and literally just work it out like that instead of just doing a random I’ve got to take 30% because everyone takes 30% I can actually work out the exact amount that I should be taking. That place, I’ve been before when you do that bit, when you do the negotiation it’s fucking horrible, the back and forth, that’s the bit that makes me cringe. There’s loads of stuff once you have actual data to work out how much you think the two parties are going to make it becomes a lot easier than just guessing.
TIGW: What kind of a part do you think publishers will play in indie games future?
I always say that smaller publishers like myself are like basically having curators. You see No More Robots pop up, maybe you like Descenders and think maybe I’ll see what their next game is, maybe you like the next game. If by game number three you’ve decided this guy who runs this thing seems to have an eye for games that I enjoy then I then become a curator for you. And you have a bunch of others, maybe you like all the things that tinyBuild are signing, it’s worked for Devolver, right? A lot of people now are die-hard Devolver and will buy anything that they put out without reading reviews or anything because they trust them.
TIGW: What do you think is the current state of the indie industry?
It’ll be interesting to see where we are by the end of this year because everything is just fucking accelerating right now. The numbers that I checked at the end of last year, start of this year and the numbers now are getting ever so slightly worse all the time and it’s for a whole range of different factors which we’re never going to be able to fix because it’s just happening now, but I don’t know what that means. I honestly can’t say where that means we’re going to end up by the end of this year, but for anybody that wants to keep in business, it’s about keeping an eye on it and making sure that you are in the best position possible when shit really does start hitting the fan.
There’s plenty of ways to combat it as well like for example one of the ways we are doing it right now is heavily promoting our games in China. With Steam being available over there right now, we have thousands of players over in China and they’re less willing to pay a lot of money for games which means you need to get larger numbers of Chinese players. Steam in China is kind of like Steam was three years ago, so you’ve got to try and keep your eye on the places where money is being made as business-y as that sounds it’s just a thing you’ve got to do because you can’ just keep doing the same thing and looking at the numbers and going I’ll beat then just won’t work, because you probably won’t.
Jon loves the experimental nature of indie games, and has written about them for the likes of Eurogamer, PCGamer and GameReactor. As editor of The Indie Game Website, Jon is responsible for the overall content direction of the website, and enjoys moving things around in our Google Calendar.