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And innovative and resilient markets draw companies. It’s in part why Maximum Games founder and CEO Christina Seelye launched a new publishing label for indie games: Modus. It operates in a space similar to Versus Evil, Headup, and Merge, courting indies that have interesting game but need help bringing them to market, whether that’s investment, publishing services, or porting.
This is an edited transcript of our interview.
Diving into indies
GamesBeat: Why create a label?
Christina Seelye: We struggled with that, to be honest. We said, should we create a separate label, create a separate company? Maximum Games has grown a ton around publishing already-finished titles. We have lots of partners, publishers across Europe, and in Europe we have partners from publishers in the U.S. who want European representation. The company on the Maximum Games side grew in partnership with these other publishers, such as Focus Home Interactive or Big Ben or lots of different European publishers.
GamesBeat: Publishers on the smaller end of triple-A or the bigger end of double-A.
Seelye: Exactly. Maximum Games, in partnership with these guys, did a good job launching those games in specific territories. What we decided to do is we saw this underserved market of independent studios that could use not just our ability to do a good triple-A elegant level of launch, but that we could be using our infrastructure to help them get all the way there.
GB: When you say independent, are these companies bigger than studios that might use Auroch, or Merge, or Headup.
Seelye: Yeah, that’s exactly who we’re targeting, actually. There’s the little tiny guys that are going to have less than 10 people in some cases. Those guys are going to–would potentially go to a Merge or a Headup, who we like very much. Those guys have a compelling place in the market. We’re targeting more of the–Frozen Byte is a good example, who you just saw with their game Trine, which is a significant independent studio. You can call them indies or independent studios, because they range in size from 10 to 500. It depends. But these are studios who have a deep connection to their own creative content.
GamesBeat: Like an Obsidian.
Seelye: Exactly. That’s what we’re looking for. We think, with our level of respect for them and their creative content and their vision for the game — we believe we can bring the infrastructure and nuts and bolts of publishing, of launching, of all the milestone management to make sure we’re getting it out on time and as outlined, and our skill of getting the best commercial result of their creative content is what we bring to the table. What we’re not doing is defining what the game is going to look like. We’re not defining game mechanics or anything around the–we’re not a creative director. We’re not providing that.
GamesBeat: But you are providing marketing, QA, porting. Basically all the things that a Merge or a Headup would do, but on a larger scale.
Seelye: On a larger scale, yes. And we’re funding those processes, which is also significantly different from Merge or Headup.
GamesBeat: This sounds a lot like the stuff Versus Evil is doing.
Seelye: Yes, I would say in a way that is–funding it, and probably at a bit of a larger size and scale. But that’s where we feel like we live. We think there’s a huge opportunity for us to lead in this space. What you see is these big–at the large end of double-A or small end of triple-A, a lot of people are playing up there. Where we see we can add a lot of value is in the Devolver space, kind of, but with a lot more ability to launch globally, and to launch both digitally and physically.
GamesBeat: Are you talking about a Devolver space, or more of a THQ Nordic space? You sound like you’re leaning toward the THQ size.
Seelye: We have the capabilities of a THQ Nordic. We do it well and very elegantly, and in a much less bureaucratic or confusing way, is where we would live against a THQ.
GamesBeat: Because THQ has its offices in Stockholm and Austria.
Seelye: Right. And THQ has their own stuff. They own studios. They have a lot of different initiatives. I think we’re a bit more simple in our focus right now. And I would say–why I say Devolver is we look at Devolver and see that they’re doing a fantastic job digitally. They know their community. They look for games that fit in that community. We want to bring a similar kind of similar kind of service and launch, but more global in focus, and also more both digital and physical. Although we do have some digital only titles.
GB: Do you do collector edition retail, too, or just retail?
Seelye: Are you talking like direct to consumer collector’s? We haven’t done that, although that’s an interesting space for us, because we have our own warehouse with pick, pack, and ship capabilities. We could definitely go into that space.
GamesBeat: And some games that people might like physical copies of that are only digital.
Seelye: Exactly. We do have that, and that’s something we’re definitely looking at. But this year, what we’re really looking at is finding these independent studios where we’re a good match. One thing that we really like is when you find–a lot of our publishing partners on the Modus side are people who’ve had a success already. Maybe just on Steam, maybe digital only. They’ve had some good success and gotten started. At that point they say, my gosh, there’s so much more we could do if we had someone who was skilled on the publishing and launch side.
GamesBeat: Or they want and need a new publisher for a variety of reasons.
MM: Maybe they tried to self-publish, and they say–there’s so much opportunity. They can see it, because they tried to do it. But they know that trying to build out that infrastructure for a studio would be really difficult. Whereas those are–our perfect marriage is people who have a high level of desire for what we offer, and then we have a high level of respect for their creative content. That’s the perfect marriage for us.
Big and small
GamesBeat: What’s the difference between a game that Maximum would publish and a game that Modus would publish?
Seelye: Primarily, Modus is somebody who we are interested in funding from start to finish, and that we would have coordinated efforts on the marketing timeline and communication calendar from launch to the end. It’s not necessarily a game or genre. It’s more of a match with a studio, project by project. What Maximum has is top 20 leverage around the world as far as physical publishing. Modus can leverage all of that positioning within the market, so we have access to the Wal-Marts, the Targets, the Micro Mania, the Media Marts, the Game, the Amazons. We can do that globally, automatically, because we have that in spades. And then that’s what we would do.
GamesBeat: Does it also make it less confusing for game studios?
Seelye: They know exactly where to go.
GamesBeat: Not only that, but Maximum does all these big things. Maybe they’re not dealing with smaller folks. Oh, but you are.
Seelye: That’s what we’re doing with Modus. We’re trying to create a destination for these studios to say, oh, this is the team that’ll be working on this game. Then we get to leverage the best of what we have to offer here as far as brand management, QA, localization. A lot of what we do, which is also significantly different from some of the people who are positioned as digital publishers, is that we spend a ton of time on focus group testing and playtesting. Lots of user experience feedback. We work in conjunction with the studio at key moments of time in the development cycle to make sure that we’re providing an extended arm of playtesting and UX testing that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to manage.
GamesBeat: Because they’re just too small.
Seelye: They don’t have the resources. They don’t have the community built. They don’t have a big space to bring people into for testing. If you’re trying to do something, to address something in the development cycle much earlier in the process, it’s really difficult to do that digitally. What you want to do is maybe film them experiencing something, so that you can see–how difficult is this puzzle? How difficult is it to get from this level to this level. Those are things that, digitally, you have to have that happen anecdotally, whereas if you’re doing a playtest with humans here, you can film it and then see exactly what’s happening. Sometimes people’s actual experience when they’re retelling it might be different than what you can see.
GamesBeat: How many studios has Modus signed so far?
Seelye: We have games that are going all the way through 2020 right now. Even though we’ve just launched it, we’ve actually been working with studios under the Modus label for the past 12 months, signing people and getting it ready. We’re just now ready to announce it show our road map.
GamesBeat: Is Trine 4 the first game you’re going to publish under Modus?
Seelye:No, it’s not. Trine is the largest game we’re going to publish under Modus, but we just launched a game called Degrees of Separation in February. We have two games coming out between now and Trine that are smaller digital titles. One is Lost Words and one is Bear With Me. Both of those games are–
GamesBeat: Was Bear With Me at PAX?
Seelye: Yes. … It’s a very sweet, funny film noir kind of game that we really liked. That’s why we signed it under Modus. That’s also a good example of a studio who had a vision for a game and we really connected with them and thought that would be a good one to put under Modus. But they’re on the smaller size—and then in 2020 we have games that are going through a press tour right now.
GamesBeat: When it comes to the areas you’re looking at, you mentioned Europe. Are you interested in talking to developers from Latin America, say?
Seelye: Yes. In fact, our big 2020 title is from a studio in Latin America.
GamesBeat: What about Asia?
Seelye: Asia is interesting for us. We just are launching our first game in April, which is Override, a mech brawler we launched in December of last year. That’s launching in Japan and Korea in April. Then we have not done China, but we’re just—every game that we’ve signed under Modus is going to be localized into Chinese, Japanese, and Korea. We have partnerships we’re launching with Modus in all of those. Right now we’re still under negotiations with a partner in China. Not all Modus games will work in China, but we see it as a super exciting opportunity for us to expand the reach in a way that an independent studio wouldn’t be able to do on their own. That’s what we can do, because we can leverage a portfolio and get the attention of a publisher and have enough size and scale for them to be interested in the partnership.
GamesBeat: Who is Maximum’s partner in China?
Seelye: We haven’t done anything in China yet. Because of the nature of those relationships with Maximum Games, usually there’s a couple cooks in that kitchen, and we haven’t been able to get those all lined up to launch in China, which is another reason the Modus label has allowed us to have access to that territory that we didn’t have before.
GB: Combining Modus with Maximum Games, how big are you now, employee-wise?
Seelye: 54 full-time W-2 employees, and then if you look at all of the studios, 1099s, things like that, you’re up in the—it depends on the time of year, anywhere from 100 to–
GamesBeat: Where are your offices?
Seelye: The UK. We have a team there that’s leading the charge across Europe.
GamesBeat: Is that your QA office as well?
Seelye: No, QA is here [Walnut Creek, California]. Porting is 1099 right now, external. We use different partners for the porting depending on the size and scope of the game. Now, that porting brings us to a conversation about a new thing this year for us, just the amount of—the quantity of partners there are now. A year and a half ago, even 12 months ago, you would have, when you’re launching—you’d have your first parties. You’d have Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo, Steam. Maybe you’d do one other special one-off for a cloud streaming service or something like that. Now we’re in a situation where all of a sudden every game launch has to be able to manage the Epic store, the Discord store, all the different streaming platforms that are supposedly coming, and all of the different porting needs that those guys are going to have. There’s two aspects of that where I think Modus is going to excel. One is on the porting side, the technical needs for all of the different places we have to go launch. But the other thing that I think that some people are kind of nervous about, and we’re more excited about, is—oh my gosh, we went from having four people we had to talk to, to 12 to 15 different accounts that we have to talk to, all with the same game. How are we going to do that? For us, we’ve been doing that forever, because we’ve had to manage the same game through Best Buy, Target, Wal-Mart, Amazon, all of their needs, all of their different—I want this pre-order. I want this DLC. I want this custom character. We’ve been managing that forever. We’re very uniquely infrastructured to support multiple retailers with the same game. For the digital guys, they’re like—their whole infrastructure is built to support four accounts. Steam, Nintendo, PlayStation, and Microsoft. Our infrastructure is built to manage a ton of different accounts all over the world. We already have account managers and product managers and sales and trade marketing. All of that infrastructure already lives. It’s just a matter of shifting what we view as a “retailer” into this digital landscape, which we’re uniquely positioned to do.
GamesBeat: What have you learned from talking with Google and Apple about their new platforms?
Seelye: I don’t have a ton of visibility on the Apple platform, so I can’t talk very much about that. On the Google platform, what we’ve learned – and this is from talking with them, as well as with what everyone was chatting about at GDC – is that it looks to me like it’s going to be a pretty significant port. It’s not going to be, we’re just taking the Steam version and moving it over there. You’re going to have to make a Stadia version, which will be the same—probably similar amounts of technical work that would have to be done to do a port to Xbox or PlayStation. Maybe not that much, but it’s not nothing.
GamesBeat: Did Maximum ever have any of its games on OnLive when it was around?
Seelye: No. But I think that it’s—none of the ports are—what we always say is they’re not difficult. They’re specific. It’s not like it’s technically impossible to do this. It’s just specific work that needs to be done. But I would say right now, everyone’s development schedules and timelines are built on this previous set of expectations of how much time each of these ports is going to take. Now all of a sudden we’re entering another 4-6 ports, which even if they’re not difficult, they’re still going to take a week here, 10 days there. When you look at the overall development schedule, that’s one of the things we’re doing with our studio partners. Okay, what does the release date look like? Are we going to sim-ship on everything? All of these business decisions that have to do with getting the best commercial result for your game, that’s where we come in and provide our consultation and advice.
GamesBeat: How much time does it add for a port to Epic and Discord over Steam?
Seelye: Right now, what we’ve seen in the past is that everyone’s normal development cycle is built all around Steam. It depends on that game, how much they’re relying on Steam’s structure. Are they using Steam for all their leaderboards and achievements and everything, or Steam Workshop? That defines how much time it’s going to extricate that and let them do a different store. That’s how you say, okay, where do we want to launch and what do we want to sim-ship? Do we want to sim-ship on everything? And if you are, you have to look earlier in the process to say, okay, let’s not rely on this set of tools from Steam. Let’s use this. Then that makes this a lot faster over here. A lot of it is just coordination with the studio to say, let’s use this instead. Right now, I think it has to do with stuff that’s already in the pipeline where maybe this wasn’t part of the dev schedule. Those are the ones where we’re going back in and reworking the schedules to see where we’re going to be able to launch.
GamesBeat When it comes to multiplayer for these games, where you’re using matchmaking on Steam primarily, now you have to throw in Epic and Discord. Does that make things harder?
Seelye: Again, it’s specific, not harder. It’s really more, can we use something else? Is this easily transferable? Are you using your own servers? There’s a lot of questions to ask. We are absolutely working with studios to be able to use as much—to be as broad as possible in our launches. We’re trying to prioritize how important—for independent studios cross-play is really important, because you want as many players for ease of matchmaking as possible. You want to open up to as many platforms as possible. You want to grab that Xbox player. From a technical standpoint, and Derek would be able to talk more about that—I think that’s going to be totally fine in 2020, and going to be somewhat challenging in 2019. Just because everyone’s dev work has already been done, and maybe hasn’t taken into consideration that all of these were going to be so prolific and so out there for everybody this year. 2020, no problem. Everyone will fix it by then.
GamesBeat: Unless it turns out that–
Seelye: It doesn’t work?
GamesBeat: Or Stadia’s requirements are different.
Seelye: Right. And I don’t know that yet. Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. Maybe somebody knows because they’re really on the inside. Right now we’re looking at how many people we can address at the same time in a way that still lets us get the best commercial outcome. I will say, it’s to be determined what the best commercial outcome is going to be, because we don’t know—if all of a sudden we’re on Epic, is that 20 percent more sales than we’d have when we weren’t on Epic? Is it five percent? We’re in the very early stages of cost-benefit analysis.
GamesBeat: And even if you don’t make 20 percent more sales on Epic, if you get more money from each sale–
Seelye: Maybe that’s enough to justify it, right. But we’re still—that’s the other reason that I think working with a publisher that’s spending their time thinking about the best commercial outcome for the content is important, to allow the studio to go get the best creative content that they can do. That’s where we’re spending our time, figuring out, okay, how difficult is it going to be for us to sim-ship on all of these platforms? What’s the increase in sales we’ll get from that? We have guys that are just doing that analysis all day long to try to figure out what’s happening. We don’t know yet.
GamesBeat: Say I’m an indie with eight people and I contract another five or six. I’ve never dealt with Discord or Epic. I might have dealt with Microsoft. I know Steam. I don’t know Switch. I have a game I want to take to all of them. Not only do I have to deal with the porting jobs and visibility, but now I also have to sit down and do a much deeper financial analysis. I may not have anyone who can do that.
Seelye: Right. We have all of that. We can probably, in most cases, depending on how they built the game, take off almost all of the porting responsibilities from you. It’s never zero, because you’re the ones who create the game, so there’s always—we always like to say that. But we can lift a lot of that burden, plus help prioritize. What’s the most important to you? What’s going to be the most financially feasible for the game? So they can focus on what’s–the best commercial result from game comes from a predictable and manageable communication calendar and launch. That’s what is going to define a really good commercial outcome. If we can work with a studio to allow them a framework so they can focus on sticking with a calendar, sticking with how to get the best game out in this timeline so we can communicate it, have the marketing assets, have the trailers, have the communication calendar to allow that—we feel confident we can get a good commercial result. Taking off a lot of the stuff that other people have expertise in, so we can move that burden over there—we have a much better shot at letting that studio hit those milestones to get a good result.
GamesBeat: With the clients you’ve spoken with so far, are they excited or nervous about Google and Apple?
Seelye: I would say overall everybody’s excited. I think the nervous comes from–how hard is it going to be, we haven’t done it yet? There’s always going to be that. But the promise of what Stadia looks like it could be able to do, where you could jump from a YouTube video and play and have all that seamless interaction, is super exciting for gamers. Therefore super exciting for studios, because if they can do something that’s exciting for gamers, that’s what everyone is here to do. But what nobody knows yet is, what’s the monetary model behind it? How is all that going to work? There’s some nervous tension around, is this going to look like Spotify, the way music works? Is it going to be Netflix? We don’t know that yet.
GamesBeat: Do you feel, as someone who’s been game publishing for some time now, that Google and Apple might be in for a wake-up call when it comes to going from mobile games to dealing with PC and console games, triple-A games?
Seelye: That I don’t know. There are smart people at both of those companies. They can look and see what a triple-A game’s size and complexity is. I would hope they’ve gone through that analysis on their end. Those are big companies with lots of resources. I think what I would say is, there’s the technical promise of what could be, which is what Google and Apple are supposed to be bringing us. They have the money and the resources to be thinking about what could be all the time. It’s to be determined when that “could be” is. This year? Next year? Five years from now? We don’t know that, and that’s what will be interesting to see. The other thing that I would say is that on the revenue model and revenue share model, games are expensive to make. It’s fundamentally different than how expensive music would be to make. When you’re looking at that, trying to take a monetary model that might work in those other verticals in the entertainment industry, I don’t think it’s going to work in the video game industry. It’s just fundamentally too expensive to build a game. That’s where it’ll be interesting to see what games can create a revenue model that works with those kinds of platforms, still making enough money to actually build games. We’re in a different situation. We’re a self-funded company. When we’re investing in a project, our expectation is that we’ll recoup and make money on that project. We’re working with independent studios who have the same goal. That’s why they’re independent. [laughs] They’re looking to make good content that people are interested in so they can recoup and make money. Our whole model is more about, how are we going to provide content effectively in a way that people are going to pay for it so we can make money?
Private vs. public
GamesBeat: Are private publishers a better fit than those that are publicly owned for an indie? Because they don’t have to deal with any of the expectations that come with being a public company.
Seelye: Yes. There’s not very many private publishers. If you look in the top 20 on the physical side of publishing, I think we’re the only one that’s privately held. The top 20 video game publishers are mostly gigantic. They’re all public. They have a much different model than what we have. What we can do is be super flexible. We don’t have a firm structure that we enforce and mandate down to our partners. The decision about whether or not we’re going to greenlight a project comes from three people in a room who can make a decision and invest in that project.
GamesBeat: You don’t have a fiscal calendar.
Seelye: We don’t have a fiscal calendar. We’re always working in the best interests of the game. Always. We are not ever working on, we have to hit this number in March. It doesn’t enter our consideration set, because we don’t care. If we’re going to get a better result in June than in March, we’ll launch in June.
GamesBeat: How many games do you expect Modus to publish in 2019?
Seelye: 2019 is going to be four. We hope to do six in 2020.
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