Bigmode's journey, from YouTubers to publishers
Co-founder Leah Gastrow on what the publishing label brings to the table, its natural progression from content creation, and the problem with placing others in rigid boxes
In September 2022, content creators Jason Gastrow (better known as Videogamedunkey or just Dunkey) and Leah 'Leahbee' Gastrow announced the formation of their indie publishing label, Bigmode.
Earlier this year, the publisher revealed its first title, Shared Memory's Metroidvania-style game Animal Well.
"What we've been able to accomplish so far has really exceeded our expectations," Leah tells GamesIndustry.biz.
"We've gotten to connect with so many extremely talented people across different fields, we've already made our first game announcement, and we're getting ready to show it at PAX East this March. We have some very exciting things going on behind the scenes too. It's of course lots of work and learning new things, but we have nothing against that. This is a real passion project and a breath of fresh air for us, after working pretty much in solitude for so long."
"This is a real passion project and a breath of fresh air for us"
Jason and Leah have been content creators for over a decade – they both started their YouTube channels in 2010, with Jason in particular gaining tremendous popularity on the platform over the years, now boasting over seven million subscribers and billions of views.
Launching a publishing company was just a "natural progression and evolution" from what they've been doing for years and what they "care about and want to do," Leah says.
"One thing I'd like to mention is our desire to help incredible projects stand out," she continues. "Something pretty common across all forms of entertainment and 'content,' is that because of the way people consume media and the insatiable demand for more, some great things can get lost in the churn. There's so much of everything all the time, so we feel having a way to stand out is more important than ever.
"We also hoped to inspire people to go after what they believe in and care about, to feel like they can do something and be part of changes that they want to see."
Discoverability has undoubtedly been an issue for years for smaller developers. But indie publishing is also getting crowded.
Looking at the past six months only, Paradox launched a new publishing label focusing on small teams, Brace Yourself Games launched an indie publishing division, Starbreeze announced its return to third-party publishing, Scottish developer 4J Studios unveiled its move to become publisher, and Deep Rock Galactic developer launched Ghost Ship Publishing. That's not mentioning the dozens of indie labels that have launched before that.
We ask Leah what Bigmode brings to the table that other publishers aren't.
"Bigmode is the only publisher with Biggy the frog," she jokes, alluding to the firm's mascot. "We also have Jason, and since lots of people know his taste, it gives us a great starting point. We've got our own platforms and ability to put a big spotlight on things that we believe in."
The duo's background as content creators appears to be both a blessing and a curse in this publishing endeavour. Boasting a platform of millions of potential players isn't something most publishers have from the get go, but many have also expressed criticism and legitimacy concerns since Bigmode's creation.
"An unfortunate reality of our position is that besides lots of amazing support and kindness, we're also used to people being extremely cruel to us online," Leah says. "So we do have a thick skin for these things, though it's of course always disappointing to see classic gatekeeping or people being excessively negative without reason. Something we'd like people to understand is that, like anyone else, we're looking for good fits that make sense for us and the developers. We're not forcing anyone to work with us, and we wouldn't expect (or be able) to work with absolutely everybody.
"People kind of like to place others in rigid boxes, and in Jason's case there's a tendency to view him as a flat cartoon character instead of a person"
"People kind of like to place others in rigid boxes, and in Jason’s case there's a tendency to view him as a flat cartoon character instead of a person. So if they see him as the funny YouTube gamer guy, and especially if they're not very familiar with his work and what he cares about, I guess it's a bit mind-bending for them to see him branching out like this. For his audience that's been around for years though, the reception was overwhelmingly positive and understanding of what a natural progression Bigmode is, and we're really grateful for that."
In the initial announcement, Bigmode introduced itself as a developer-friendly publisher, with Dunkey at the time saying that the label "will be all about building up the games and the developers," adding that they've put "a lot of effort into making the most developer-friendly contracts possible."
"We're also creators, and we know how it feels to be taken advantage of, screwed over, given bad deals, etc," Leah says. "Our goal is to always give much more than we take. Every project is unique and there's really no one-size-fits-all, so everything is considered on a case-by-case basis for exactly what it needs and what makes sense."
Thinking about what a Bigmode game is, she adds that the "biggest thing is to find games that are fun and exciting to us," adding that they go "by Jason's taste first and foremost."
This is also something Dunkey had alluded to in the original announcement, explaining that after a decade as a video game content creator, he understood "what kind of ideas always work, what ideas never work, what kind of ideas are fresh or need to come back, and what is extremely played out."
Leah adds: "We highly value originality and substance. But something you might not think of that's also super important is finding people that we get along with, since these are years-long working relationships."
"We're also creators, and we know how it feels to be taken advantage of"
With that in mind, Animal Well from Shared Memory – a one-man studio created by developer Billy Basso – was "a perfect fit all around," Leah says.
In development since 2017 and running on a custom engine, Basso's pixel art Metroidvania title sees players explore an atmospheric labyrinth populated by strange creatures and secrets. It's due to release on PS5 and Steam, with the launch date to be announced.
"It's a special game with an extremely talented developer, and one that had already caught Jason's eye at Day of the Devs last summer," Leah says. "We both love it, our favourite thing about it is probably the unique ways you get to interact with the animals in the game, there are some really surprising things in there. Everything is very thoughtfully designed."
Looking ahead, Leah says that Bigmode's "ultimate goal" would be to "put together a catalogue of unique, high-quality games that can be enjoyed for many years."
"We'd love it if people could pick up any Bigmode game and expect a good time. We're not focused on any quantity goals, we'll just be doing what makes sense and what works for us, for the developers we work with, and players."