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Ian Howe doesn’t have the chops to be a game designer. While he’s had hundreds of ideas, someone always shoots them down.
But that’s not a problem for the 25-year industry veteran. As the cofounder and president of 505 Games, Howe is happy helping other creators bring their games to life. The company has been quietly redefining the traditional role of a video game publisher. In the mid-2000s, it scored a surprise hit when it released the Nintendo DS game Cooking Mama in Europe. It followed the success of the charming cooking simulator with other multi-million selling games, including Zumba Fitness, Terraria, and the popular Payday franchise.
Having a diverse lineup — it recently released Abzû, an underwater adventure from Journey art director Matt Nava — is a key part of 505’s strategy of staying alive in the competitive $99.6 billion market. Lately, 505 Games is focusing on a new endeavor: creating its own games. Through a mix of other people’s ideas and its original intellectual properties, the company hopes to highlight games that would otherwise never get the attention they deserve.
In an exclusive interview with GamesBeat, Howe talked about the company’s philosophy when it comes to working with developers, the changing landscape of publishing, and the process of creating its own games.
An alternative to self-publishing
After working at big companies like Maxis and Activision, Howe cofounded 505 Games (a subsidiary of Italian publisher and developer Digital Bros) in 2006 in his spare bedroom in the U.K. For its first five years, 505 was more of a “glorified distributor” of games that other people already made, Howe told me. It was just a “function of the supply chain process.” But in 2011, when Howe relocated to 505’s U.S. headquarters, a combination of different events made him realize that the company needed to change its approach.
At the time, physical sales at retailers were declining. PC was making a comeback as an important gaming platform. And self-publishing on digital stores (like Steam, Xbox Live, and the PlayStation Network) were becoming more and more popular among independent developers.
“And I sat down and looked at that and said, ‘What does that mean for us as a business? What does that mean for us as a publisher?’ … And the answer was it fundamentally affected our business,” said Howe. “Because if a developer could self-publish, and had the opportunity to self-publish, then why would they need a publisher?”
505 took some time to re-examine their place in the industry. It fell back on a simple philosophy: work on good games. Howe believes that without good games, a publisher can’t stay in business. And to do that, it has to support the the people behind those games as much as possible. But 505 wanted to do this while also avoiding what has traditionally been a “fractious relationship” between publishers and developers.
“Generally, the way our industry has worked has been that the developer will get a percentage of [a game’s] success once the publisher’s made all their money back and made a significant level of profit,” said Howe. “We’ve all heard stories from Hollywood where a film grosses $500 million and [the studio is] apparently still in [debt]. … That model still exists for sure within the game industry. I’m not passing comment on that model. What I saw was that it’s a barrier for certain games to get made, and it’s a barrier for certain projects to be healthy.”
One of the first steps that 505 took was to restructure its contracts so that its relationship with developers would resemble more of a collaborative partnership. Under these terms, the developer gets “a greater share” of revenue if a game is profitable and sees “the benefits of that success quicker.”
“So essentially, it was taking the work-for-hire model and saying, ‘We actually don’t believe in that very much anymore.’ We think there’s a very different way to do it, and that’s a financial partnership,” said Howe. “It’s a collaboration between two companies. And then it’s an understanding of what each company brings to the table. An example of that is — of course we have creative input on the games. There’s no question about that.
“But am I going to sit down with the lead engineer and tell him how to do something? No, because I’m totally out of my depth there. I couldn’t write a line of code if my life depended on it. So I’m not going to tell somebody how to do their job. I’m going to find a talented development team and trust them to do a good job in making a game, and we’ll help guide and support them where relevant. And then they allow us to do everything else.”
The beginning of a new era
One of the first success stories to come out of this new initiative was Starbreeze Studios’s Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, which sold over a million copies. Brothers is known for its emotional tale and innovative take on the platforming genre. When 505 Games entered the picture, development (led by Swedish filmmaker Josef Fares) was pretty far along.
Howe said that although it took longer than they expected for Brothers to come out, his team “really trusted” in Fares and his vision. The huge amount of praise Brothers received from both critics and fans is a “complete validation” of everything 505 Games is trying to accomplish.
505 loved Brothers so much that it purchased the IP from Starbreeze last year (Howe said they currently aren’t working on any Brothers-related games). The positive reception attracted the attention of other developers as well.
“It has brought so many developers to our door because so many developers have played that game and were blown away by it. … I’m very humbled by that,” said Howe. “But it’s very important that when you publish a great game like that, it can have such a far-reaching impact beyond just the commercial side of things. It can actually influence people who want to work with you.”
Since the release of Brothers in 2013, a number of notable people joined forces with 505 Games. One of them was Adr1ft creator Three One Zero, an indie studio from former Microsoft developer Adam Orth. Howe first saw a 10-week-old prototype of the space-survival game at the DICE Summit in Las Vegas, where he “fell in love with the concept.” In addition to publishing Adr1ft, 505 helped Orth and his colleagues establish an office in Santa Monica, Calif.
“They built the team, and we helped them establish a studio — I hope those guys go on to great things,” said Howe. “If we can play a part in that, then fantastic! I think that’s a contribution to our industry.”
For 505’s president, the most rewarding part of his job is going out and talking to developers about their games. When teams pitch the company on their ideas, they receive instant feedback. Sometimes, Howe gets a little too excited during these meetings.
“This has happened to me a couple of times in the last few years, where I sat down on the pitch and my first instinct is to lock the door and not let the developer leave until they sign a contract [Laughs],” he said. “I think one of our strengths is we show developers that — we show them that passion and that commitment. If you get it, if you understand their vision, I think that speaks to developers.”
That’s one of the reasons why Nava’s Giant Squid studio worked with 505 Games for Abzû. In an interview with GamesBeat in 2015, Nava said that out of all the companies he spoke to, 505 was “one of the publishers that understood the game the most.”
But the company doesn’t always get what it wants. It didn’t get to publish Unravel, a charming platformer about a sentient doll made of red yarn. Howe told me it was a game that 505 was “very passionate about” and something they “desperately wanted to work on.” In the end, Electronic Arts secured a deal with Unravel creator Coldwood Interactive.
The success of Unravel even prompted the mega publisher to launch EA Originals, a program devoted to releasing indie games. (My visit to 505 Games took place a few weeks before the EA Originals announcement.)
For Howe, EA’s experiment with Unravel was another “interesting vindication” of their philosophy.
“But it’s very hard for the big guys to do what we do, just as it’s incredibly hard or impossible for us to do what they do,” he added. “And that’s where we sit in the industry. We feel very comfortable with that space. The middle ground is a dangerous place to be. So we don’t necessarily have ambitions to be the next Activision or EA.”
Learning to make its own games
With Adr1ft and Abzû, 505 jumped on board with its respective creators early in the development process. The same is true with its current slate of projects. And for most of those games, the company has been there since their inception.
One of them is Portal Knights (out now for PC on Steam’s Early Access program). It’s a free-form fantasy role-playing game built around crafting items and shaping the Minecraft-like world around you. The premise actually came from within 505 Games: Creative manager David Welch pitched the idea to Howe and other employees as part of an internal greenlighting process.
It’s open to anyone within the company. The team members get together and bounce around different ideas in what they call their think-tank room. Portal Knights is the first game to come from those discussions — Howe remembered being “blown away” when he read the first draft of Welch’s pitch. The next step was to find a studio who’d be “as equally passionate” about the game as 505 and shared similar philosophies. The publisher found that in German developer Keen Games.
“It’s good for those guys: They’re able to work on a project for a long period of time. It’s good for us: We work with a partner that we know and trust, and we know what to expect from each other,” Howe said about Keen Games. “And that’s really what we’re trying to do with this long-term partnership with great developers.”
The free-to-play role-playing poker game Prominence Poker (out now on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC) is also a new IP from 505. Though the idea didn’t originate within the company (it came from Pipeworks Studio in Oregon), Prominence Poker is another example of 505’s close collaboration with developers. Pipeworks previously worked on games based on the popular World Series of Poker tournaments.
“There’s been some enormous successes in the poker space on mobile free-to-play [games]. And we felt that PC and console were probably a little underserved in that space,” said Howe. “That was really looking at the market from a genre and opportunity perspective and then figuring out if there was room for a different [angle] in a poker game.”
Between Brothers, Portal Knights, Prominence Poker, and other unannounced projects, 505 Games is steadily assembling a broad collection of its own games. But that doesn’t mean acquiring new IP is a vital part of its contracts. If the creators want to retain the rights to their games, the publisher is okay with that as well. It just depends on the type of deal the developer is looking for.
But whether or not 505 owns the IP, Howe likes to think that its 10-year track record speaks for itself — that it treats all its games and developers with the utmost respect.
“We want to make sure [developers] have everything possible they need to make a great game, and we try and support them with everything they need,” said Howe. “It can be financial, it can be emotional, it can be practical. It can be any number of things. But that’s really what we’re here to do.”
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