Wild River: A publisher with a Hollywood backer and global ambitions
Marc Wardenga explains why he believes his mid-sized games firm can grow beyond its home market of Germany
The video games industry isn't exactly lacking when it comes to publishers. The past decade has seen a myriad of indie and boutique games labels emerge from almost nowhere, while experienced developers have also taken on publishing duties on behalf of other studios.
And yet this increasingly crowded market hasn't deterred more companies from beyond the world of games from wanting a slice of the highly sought pie. One of the most recent new entrants is EuroVideo Medien, a German-based film distributor, and its newly launched games label Wild River, which was announced earlier this year.
Actually, 'new' might not be the most appropriate word in this case. EuroVideo itself first opened doors in 1976 and has for the past eight years handled retail distribution for video games in German-speaking territories: Austria, Switzerland and (of course) Germany.
But Wild River's head of games Marc Wardenga tells GamesIndustry.biz the firm's renewed push into video games is very much like starting afresh.
"EuroVideo decided last year that they wanted to invest in the games business because games are a growing market," he says. "It's a challenge, but it's a growing market.
"We want to push the reset button. We're growing from the ground up."
Wild River does have a potentially crucial advantage. The publisher is (technically) owned by German-born director Marc Forster - known for The Kite Runner, Monster's Ball and James Bond outing Quantum of Solace - and Will Smith. Yes, the Fresh Prince.
Back in June, the duo acquired German distribution firm Telepool, which itself took over EuroVideo in March 2017. As Deadline reports, Smith and Forster's investment is primarily driven by the need for a partner that can handle funding, development and distribution of their products - but Wardenga believes the games business is likely to benefit as well.
"It's a dream for me to be involved very, very early when they have the first ideas [for films] to see whether it makes sense to make a game or not"
He tells us he actually presented the company's video game activities to the investors that handled the acquisition a few weeks ago, and reports they were "very impressed" and "see the growing potential" of Wild River.
"Also, it's not confirmed but I see the chance for us to be involved in Hollywood projects when they have an idea for a movie, or when they have a script that we can have a look at," he says. "We can see if we can do a game for that. That would be very unique, because normally when the movie is produced, the marketing guys say, 'hey, can we have a mobile app?' - I think that's the wrong way.
"It's a dream for me to be involved very, very early when they have the first ideas to see whether it makes sense to make a game or not... You must understand the idea of the movie when they first have. Then you can say, 'okay, it makes sense to also tell the story on a game platform'. For some movies there is no opportunity to do that, or it would make no sense to do a game. It depends on the movie."
Wardenga adds that that the investors have also picked up a games brand, although this isn't expected to be detailed until later this year.
"There is a lot of interest [in games]," he says. "In the past, they've been looking for a partner to publish or produce a game and now they have the resources in the company to develop one - not within our own teams, but we have a great network of development teams worldwide. We can do that for them and they've already decided, they said to me personally, 'Marc, when we have a games idea for one of the brands in our portfolio, you will do [it]'."
As it stands the games department consists of five people, but over the next year it will publish eight new titles, as well as continue to handle the local distribution for 20 to 30 third-party titles per year.
Most notably, the coming twelve months will see Wild River begin publishing in key titles around the world. Wardenga tells us the firm is in discussions with potential partners in the UK, Italy, Spain and the US, with hopes to release its first titles in those regions during Q3, with Japan and China targeted for Q4.
"We want to be in between those indie publishers and ones like EA. That's what's missed in the market right now."
These add to the partnerships Wild River and EuroVideo have already established with distributors such as Pan Vision for Scandinavia, Just For Games in France and Mindscape for the Benelux territories.
"It's a lot of work," Wardenga admits, "but when you have a good network, it makes it much easier. The games business is like a family, or a tiny village. Everyone knows everyone."
Wardenga himself is no stranger to the local games industry. While he only joined EuroVideo in October 2017, he's been in the business for close to more than 30 years - most of which was spent at Software 2000, a German developer and publisher he founded with his brothers in 1987.
"So I'm a dinosaur," he laughs.
Software 2000 went bankrupt in 2002 - in part because one of its biggest successes, football title Bundesliga Manager, suffered when Electronic Arts took the rights to the German premier league for FIFA. Despite this, and the plethora of other challenges facing new publishers, Wardenga is keen to contend in the same market as the bigger publishers (although, obviously, not directly).
"I see the big five publishers, like Ubisoft, EA and so on... What I see there is they just do sequels. Every year, sequels," he says. "From the business part I understand - it's lower risk, it's established brands and it's easier. But the risk is when you do it too much with a well-known brand... it becomes very difficult to have USPs. The amount of sequels bores me a little bit. What I miss are fresh ideas."
"The amount of sequels bores me a little bit. What I miss are fresh ideas"
He's also keen for Wild River to deliver those fresh ideas on a global scale. As mentioned, the publisher is targeting as many of the key markets as possible - if only because German-speaking territories have become "very fragmented."
"The costs of development are also growing," Wardenga adds. "When you do both digital and retail, there are a lot of costs for goods - like cartridges for Nintendo - which is a big investment. So you need the global market to make money.
"In the past, I said when you have just one market like Germany-Austria-Switzerland, you get the money back for development but the profit you make it other markets. You need the global market, and it only makes sense [to go for it] when you have the right games."
Wild River believes it now has the right games. With eight games in the works across 70 SKUs (the company considers each platform and each language to be a separate SKU), the publisher already has a decent sized portfolio with which to drive its worldwide push.
Titles include quirky puzzle adventure Gelly Break, Norse mythology-inspired action game Fimbul, family friends mini-game collection Pilot Sports, and equestrian escapade Ostwind. There are even mobile titles such as German-targeted city builder Pretzel Land and virtual reality physics puzzler Crazy Machines VR.
"When the game is good enough and has the potential, we want to publish it. We don't want to focus on a special genre"
While the firm has no internal development teams, Wild River has sourced this line-up by investing in promising studios - both with the support of parent EuroVideo and access to public funds available in Germany.
"We are not the company that will invest millions in one game," Wardenga explains. "It's more on the lower end of investment, because we have a hit-driven business and we split the risk on several games. From the eight or ten games, maybe two or three will be very successful and we'll be happy with the rest of the games."
This explains the variety in Wild River's line-up. Many new publishers choose to specialise, to target a niche audience to whom they can devote all their resources, or in a way that will better establish their brand and an understanding of the type of games they deliver. But Wild River is determined to cast a broader net.
"When the game is good enough and has the potential, we want to publish it," Wardenga says. "We don't want to focus on a special genre. We have titles for kids and for younger girls, like our horse riding game. We're distributing Fox N Forests, a retro platformer for older gamers. We also have Gelly Break, for mid-aged gamers on Nintendo Switch. We have a broad range of games, and that's part of our strategy. We want to have games for everyone."
This doesn't mean Wild River won't be selective in its process of adding to its portfolio. Wardenga tells us that the publisher currently has no intentions of working with new, indie or unproven studios while it continues to establish its own brand.
"We only work with teams who have enough experience in developing games," he says. "We are not able to deal with a brand new team who never made a console title before - I believe the risk is too high. We have several developers who have a good track record, who have five to ten games developed in the past few years. That's part of our strategy and one of the lessons I learned over my career."
He continues: "We have a lot of requests from brand new developers, a lot of pitch documents. But we are not a huge publisher. We want to be a mid-sized publisher, not one who only handles indie games. We want to be in between those indie publishers and ones like EA. That's what's missed in the market right now. We have enough money to invest in some projects to make them successful games."