Publishing a game in November is risky. That’s when the biggest publishers launch some of their highest profile blockbusters, and it’s easy for something with a smaller marketing budget to get lost. For a game to thrive in this environment, publishers need to get creative.

That’s exactly what Deep Silver did with developer Tripwire Interactive’s wave-based gore shooter Killing Floor 2 for the PlayStation 4. Instead of sending the game off to die with its November 18 release date, Deep Silver (best known for the Saints Row games) made a deal to bring the physical version of Killing Floor 2 on PS4 exclusively to GameStop retail locations in the United States. This gave the biggest game-specific retailer a stranglehold on fans looking forward to that game, and that encouraged GameStop to put marketing into the release on its website, social media accounts, and in its stores.

Killing Floor 2 had debuted for PC in April through the Early Access program for unfinished games on the Steam distribution platform. The sequel is similar to the first Killing Floor: Tripwire built a game where up to six players could work together cooperatively to take on waves of the undead and other monsters. When the time came for the console ports, however, Deep Silver and Tripwire didn’t want to rely on digital sales alone — a business model that works fine for the PC but that would leave money on the table when it comes to console consumers.

In the end, Deep Silver found a way to get the game to market as a packaged disc. I wanted to talk to the company more about the thinking behind that decision. So I had a quick chat with Deep Silver chief operating officer Geoff Mulligan and senior marketing and communications manager Will Powers about Killing Floor 2, GameStop, and finding intelligent ways to publish successful video games in a rapidly changing environment.

GamesBeat: How did you get connected with GameStop?

Geoff Mulligan: If you look at the Killing Floor IP, the original Killing Floor sold almost 3.5 million units. On Killing Floor 2 with Early Access on Steam, it’s moved over a million units. We had a strong IP to work with. However, to segue into GameStop, we’re going into the busiest time of year against the mega-monsters that launch between September and the end of the holiday season. This was going to be an uphill struggle.

Looking at the market, we said, “Demographically, where does this belong? Who do we reach out to? How do we best do that in a short time with laser focus?” GameStop, the largest retailer, goes to the top of the list. We approached GameStop about an exclusive deal. “How do you feel about this? This is your sweet spot, a product that fits in your demographic group.” That’s where it came from. It’s very difficult to get any kind of major awareness during the holiday season, but if you have the largest retailer on your team, supporting you at a level that’s difficult to acquire if you’re doing channel-wide marketing—it was an easy choice.

GamesBeat: What does GameStop do for you in this situation?

Mulligan: What I mean by “channel-wide,” if we’d sold to every retailer, on late notice, it’s hard to get promotions and buy space, whether it’s on their sites or in the Walmarts and Best Buys and Targets of the world. Going back to GameStop, they stepped right up to the plate and saw the value in the exclusive. Not only on their web pages, but in-store as well, and all their social media sites.

Will Powers: This is something that, like Geoff said, was beneficial for both our team and their team. It hits some of the core values that GameStop is trying to offer now – zeroing in on key titles that they think are successful. They have their own publishing arm. It plays into the narrative that they’re selling, about backing the right titles and bringing awareness of those to consumers. This relationship was on more than just the surface level. It originated with a joint press release from both us and GameStop, moving into—I don’t know if you’re familiar, but there’s a GameStop managers show, a conference where they bring out all the managers from every store in the country to one location in Anaheim. We became kind of an anchor tenant for them, because we were an exclusive, only available at their retailers. Because of that relationship, it was something that all the managers wanted to get behind, because it was something that could help them as a company more by backing the product. With those components, then we got in-store signage across every GameStop in the country through this relationship. I believe we had stand-up floor signs as well as some signage on the counter promoting the message – not only that this is a strong game and a strong IP, but the only-available-at-GameStop message, because of that partnership, we were able to leverage all that. The cross-promotion and co-marketing dollars they brought to the table really boosted our effect and our impact in their stores.

Mulligan: They did a lot of national circulars where the product was tagged. They’d have some of our competitors’ products as well, but Killing Floor was highlighted as only available at GameStop.

GamesBeat: When I talked to GameStop maybe a month back, it definitely talked up its associates, having people come in and how that experience is unique considering how many people do their purchasing online now. When someone goes to a store, they go for specific reasons. Was that part of the conversation, a customer going to a store and having someone to talk to who’s knowledgeable about Killing Floor?

Mulligan: That’s part of what took place at the GameStop managers meeting. They bring in thousands of managers. We took the opportunity to present directly to those managers, I think it was 300 at a time, specifically, “Here’s Killing Floor. Here’s the unique selling proposition. Here’s why it’s great for you. Here’s how to sell it.” If somebody walks into a store, they’ve heard directly from the publisher what the product’s about and they know how to sell it. It’s not just that they got a mailer that showed up from the warehouse and they have to figure out what it is. We got to present, with GameStop’s assistance, directly to them as far as how to go about this. It was hugely successful. We’re looking at numbers this week from Black Friday and it’s been a great promotion.

Powers: One of the interesting things about GameStop specifically is that they’re not really strong as a digital or online seller. What they specialize in, and what’s great about them, especially with a title releasing this time of year, is their associates, their education and what they bring to the table. One of the stats the GameStop team always shares with us is that 70 percent of their in-store customers have visited their website before they come in. So they’re doing some of their research online. They’re looking at things and then coming in to the store to make their final purchase. Not only are they trying to educate themselves beforehand, but they get a chance to have those associates make an impact. By not only leveraging the space on their website and the exclusive only-at-GameStop section – we’re hitting them once there – and then again in the store we have in-store signage and the associates making the final third push. Especially moms coming into GameStop not knowing what to get for their kids. You look at a product that’s highly rated at a mid-tier price point, launching at $39.99, something they can play with their friends—if the store associates know those details, which we made sure to communicate to them at the GameStop managers show, it’s an easy sell for a good game.

GamesBeat: You’ve talked about a lot of the pros. Are there any negatives to going with a retail-exclusive detail?

Mulligan: The balance is, how well will you do with the number one retailer exclusively? How much support do they give you? We’ve outlined that it was a lot. But you have to balance that against going with GameStop and everyone else. There’s certainly a risk-reward by putting it channel-wide. But I think at this price point—we weighed all of those. Looking at the price point and the support that we were going to put behind it, the support GameStop would put behind it, the time of year, all these factors have to be taken into account. It was the right decision to make at the time and it’s proving to be so when we look at the sales figures. Would we have done this in, pick a number, May or February? It would have been an entirely different evaluation process.

GamesBeat: This seems like a creative solution to a publishing problem that might be occurring more frequently in terms of discoverability for games that don’t have the biggest marketing budget. Is it an example of something we’re going to see more of from Deep Silver? Or do you have other ideas?

Mulligan: Being a boutique publisher, we like to start outside the box from the get-go. You go all the way back to Dead Island and some of the programs there, the things we’ve done with Saints Row, with Homefront, we start outside the box to be different. We need to be different. We aren’t a quadruple-A publisher. But we try to think creatively. We can always do what everybody else does. But being the size of publisher we are, not having triple-A releases every two months, we can afford to think outside the box and try unique solutions to challenges. We’ll continue to do that. This wasn’t a one-off idea, to be exclusive, nor does it mean we’re not going to try something on our upcoming releases that nobody’s thought of or taken advantage of like we may.

Powers: One of the cool things about Deep Silver is we’re one of the very few publishers in the space that still picks up third-party, outside developer projects. We have our stable of large IPs. We have Saints Row, Dead Island, Metro, and Homefront, which we launched earlier this year. Those are core IP, first-party within our publisher. But we also have our third-party publishing arm that picks up projects like Killing Floor, like the Codemasters titles. We released Dirt Rally and F1 earlier this year. With a lot of those smaller ones that aren’t necessarily checking the triple-A box, that’s where we can experiment with marketing opportunities like this GameStop deal and figure out what works, what’s effective for those individual cases, and then leverage our learnings on our bigger releases. I wouldn’t see us just mimicking the same approach for future titles, but I would see us taking those learnings and applying them on a larger scale for bigger releases.

GamesBeat: Could you give an example of that, something that you might do for the next big game coming down the line? What have you learned here that you might apply in a different way?

Mulligan: With our new titles coming up—this is a cutthroat marketplace. We do have some creative ideas. I’d just caution Will about not tipping our hand too soon. There are a lot of smart people out there who’d say, “Hey, I like that idea!” and could have the opportunity to beat us to market.

Powers: I’ll talk about one thing we’ve done in the past with Dead Island specifically. Instead of doing, say, a retail exclusive, we create retail incentives. We’ll do a channel-wide offer with the base game, the day one edition, but when we’re trying to garner more support from GameStop or Amazon, whoever we identify as having the most crossover with the demographic for that particular title—if it’s a JRPG, something with more of an eastern appeal studio, Amazon way overindexes on those titles. If it’s more western appeal, like this one, especially since Call of Duty had zombie mode in their game launching this year, we see huge crossover between the demographics of Call of Duty fans and people who had purchase intent for Killing Floor. That Call of Duty fan is more likely to shop at GameStop. Taking all those factors into account, we identify the core demographic for the title, and then decide to partner more heavily with that retailer. In the past we’ve created bespoke games—for Dead Island we actually created what was called Dead Island Retro Revenge. It was a 16-bit mini-game that we offered exclusive to retail partners for their marketing of the title. In exchange for added support on their end to help co-market the title within their own retailer, we would give them a specific—create a new game and give it to them exclusively as a bonus incentive for buying the product at their store. That’s pretty outside the box, creating a whole new game to market the anchor game itself. That’s been really effective. It’s not necessarily the cheapest cost option, but it definitely moves the needle when you’re talking about large products, doing something bigger and better, getting the attention of not only consumers but media. Media and consumers in general have been much more reticent to pre-order games. You can’t just give them one skin or something and expect them to jump on the bandwagon. You need to create a motivation to back the title from day one.

GamesBeat: What is the benefit of talking to someone like me about this? I’m going to write about it, tell everyone that you had this exclusive deal with GameStop. I’m going to explain what you just said. What’s the benefit to coming out and saying, “Here are some creative things we’re doing?” As Geoff said, it’s a cutthroat market, and someone’s probably going to come up right behind you to do the same thing.

Mulligan: One answer is that GameStop, using the example we’ve done already—GameStop is a great retail partner, and they’re loyal. They took a chance on us. We took a chance on them. It’s worked. You build relationships with all of your retail partners. Working together on—I won’t necessarily call it an experiment, but working on a project like this and being successful, you remain, if not a favored son, certainly you’ve improved your relationship with them in trying new things going forward. Someone else might come along and say, “Hey, we want to do an exclusive with you.” They’ve had the experience. They know how it works. But I think we would have a much more well-defined entry to go back and say, “Hey, now we’re thinking about this, our next creative idea. Let’s try this.” They know we’re a good partner. We know they’re a good partner. It’s proven. So let’s try something new. That’s one of the benefits of doing this.

Powers: In addition to that, when people aren’t reading Dean Takahashi, they’re reading your stuff, so we’re getting in front of people out there. We’re in a bit of a lull with releases. We put out Killing Floor 2. We’re not talking about games. We’re talking about a bit more of a corporate communications strategy right now. I feel like this is a nice success story for Deep Silver in doing stuff outside the box. It tells a strong narrative from our positioning, a success story we were able to achieve. But it’s also relevant and pertinent going into the holiday season, talking about marketing and talking about the marketplace in general. It’s an interesting story, something we thought would be cool to tell.

GamesBeat: Do you have anything in your minds that we didn’t touch on so far that you’d like to speak about?

Mulligan: Just to follow on a bit about what Will just said—I’ve been working, sadly or greatly, for video game publisher for more than 30 years now. That’s a really long time. Put it this way: I know what a joystick is. I’ve watched the industry evolve. Not many people go to the movies because it’s from Columbia or Lion’s Gate. Not many people buy a game just because it’s from Ubisoft or—EA might be the anomaly there. But we as Deep Silver—I said earlier in the conversation, we’re a boutique and kind of a guerrilla publisher. We’re certainly not the biggest. We aren’t thousands of people. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try and continue to be really smart about what we do. A timely piece like you’re writing right now about Deep Silver and who we are, letting people know that we’re out there and we’re different, I think is good for this time of the season, good for you at Venture and good for us.