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Thinking big, staying small: The rise of ‘Payday 2’ publisher 505 Games

payday 2 lead takes money runs start new studio bank heist
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505 Games logoName three releases published by 505 Games. Hell, name one. Most of you probably can’t without the Internet’s help. That’s the idea. Where mega-publishers like Activision, Electronic Arts, and Ubisoft imbue many of their releases with an overarching brand identity, 505 pulls back and let’s the product – and it’s creators – do all the talking. It’s a refreshingly hands-off approach, and it springs from a foundational philosophy at the company that boils down to a simple idea: no bullshit.

Ian Howe co-founded 505 Games in 2006 as the digital publishing arm of Digital Bros., Italy’s largest distributor of video games. A veteran of the games industry publishing scene, Howe brought along more than 20 years of experience. Near the dawn of the current hardware generation, Digital Bros. noted the growth of digital distribution models on console and PC, and 505 was established to create additional opportunities in this then-young marketplace.

“I created a road map for them,” Howe tells Digital Trends. “[Digital Bros.] realized, I think, the way the market was headed, and wanted to diversify themselves out of physical, brick-and-mortar products. They realized that the lifespan for that [delivery mechanism] was somewhat finite, and they wanted to get a step closer to IP. That’s where the publishing company was born.”

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Howe, a former sales executive at Activision and Maxis, was originally brought in as a consultant at the beginnings of 505’s existence, hence his founder status. Now, seven-and-a-half years later, he’s still with the company and serving as its president, though that’s a title he immediately shies away from. “It’s a little pompous as a title, I personally think,” he says, chuckling. “‘Coffee maker’ is probably something more appropriate to what I do. It’s not something that sits comfortably with me. I’m not a big higher-up-y guy.”

“I’ve got just a real passion for games, and didn’t necessarily see that passion for game-making and games themselves within Activision.”

Howe immediately comes off as grounded, though “coffee maker” isn’t quite right either. In his time with 505, he’s embraced a “no bullshit” philosophy that extends to every aspect of the small publisher’s business, from the way it handles its developer relationships to the way it carries messaging across to consumers. Howe admits that his particular perspective is a product of having worked for so long within a space occupied by mega-publishers.

“I came out of Activision a little bit burned out by the corporate side of it,” Howe says. “It was a wonderful company to work for, and the time I was there was a time of huge growth for them. I worked for some fantastic people. But I came out of Activision a little bit burned [by the] long days and fairly high pressure environment. I came out of it, really, with a desire to look at a different way to do things.”

“Activision does the business of making games better than anybody. They’re phenomenally good at it. But I grew up as a gamer, I’ve been a gamer since I was nine years old,” Howe continues, rattling off a diverse list of his past gaming platforms, covering everything from Atari 2600 and Commodore 64 to today’s main competitors. “I’ve got just a real passion for games, and didn’t necessarily see that passion for game-making and games themselves within Activision.”

Success wasn’t exactly instantaneous. It’s not that 505 struggled to stay in business early on, but the newfound publisher didn’t have the credibility in place to fully sell the vision that Howe laid out in his road map. Even with Digital Bros. determined to establish 505 as a presence in the digital delivery space, marketplaces like Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Store still hadn’t fully matured in 2006. It was rough going at the start, Howe admits.

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“Starting any small business, particularly in the games industry, through a time of rapid change was very, very challenging,” he tells us. “But we managed to carve out a niche for ourselves within the DS market. We were very successful almost from the get-go on the Nintendo DS, and it provided a big market opportunity, big install base, very, very diverse consumer range in terms of the types of products they wanted, and we were able to deliver there. No moreso than with Cooking Mama, which was our first early success.”

Cooking Mama box artCooking Mama‘s U.S. and Europe release was the product of a deal 505 struck with Japanese developer Office Create (now known as Cooking Mama Limited). Japan was a fertile landscape for the new publisher to plow in those early days, and Cooking Mama was its most successful harvest. Howe proudly touts his team’s success in helping to propel the game to around 3.5 million sales in Europe. No small amount of credit goes to the game, and to the talented programmers behind it, but Howe’s in-house team – largely made up of similarly burned-out Activision dropouts – deserves some recognition as well.

“It was really a strategy of hiring people who wanted to come out of the big corporate environment into a smaller and more dynamic environment,” Howe explains. “Cooking Mama came out of that and its success was a really early building block in creating what 505 has become, but we’ve gone through a fairly significant evolution over the past few years to get to where we are today. I tend to call the first few years ‘glorified distribution,’ and it wasn’t until two or three years ago that we really started becoming a full publisher in terms of commissioning our own content and… working with top-tier developers.”

“Not just top-tier developers,” he adds, “but interesting and creative companies and individuals who can make games that really have a place in the market and aren’t necessarily competing side-by-side with products that, as a small publisher, we could never really compete with and don’t really try to. It’s really about carving a niche out for ourselves with interesting content that we believe deserves to have a place in the market.”

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It’s not just one niche. So far in 2013, 505 published three games that each had an undeniably powerful, yet wholly unique impact on gamer culture: the console/mobile version of Terraria, the XBLA Game of the Year contender Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, and the endlessly replayable co-op heister, Payday 2. There’s also Serellan LLC’s Kickstarter success, Takedown: Red Sabre, a tactical shooter created and overseen by Rainbow Six vet Christian Allen, due for release on September 20.

“I think our philosophy came from a position of humility almost, in saying, ‘Well, what value do we bring to the process of making good games?'”

According to Howe, the internal shift that led to 505 pursuing these types of games amounts to a change in business philosophy rather than creative philosophy. “We sat down about two years ago and [asked ourselves] how do we survive in this marketplace? If a developer, a successful, creative, and efficient developer can self-publish, then why would they need a publishing partner? If they did need a publishing partner, what would that publishing partner do for them?” In answering those questions, Howe and his team discovered  that the vision of what 505 could be suddenly became more clear.

“I think our philosophy came from a position of humility almost, in saying, ‘Well, what value do we bring to the process of making good games?’ It was almost an understanding that, in most instances, it’s very little from the publisher. Sometimes it’s not at all,” Howe says. “So I think for us, it was understanding that and having that lack of ego to say, ‘We don’t bring a lot to the party here, guys. But where do, we bring value, and let’s be very good at that.'”

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The value proposition here isn’t functionally different from what mega-publishers offer. 505 helps its developers deal with what Howe refers to as “their unsexy stuff.” Responsibilities like obtaining regional content ratings, dealing with platform-holder submission processes, even something as simple as getting a concept approved for release on one platform or another. The goal, again in Howe’s own words, is to create “an environment where [our developers] can focus on making a great game.” What stands apart is the attitude, an emphasis on building a complementary working relationship rather than a controlling one. The proof is in the content, and in the way it’s all presented to the public.

“We’re relying on the fact that that the developer knows how to make a great game, and then we give them the best chance possible of making a great game,” Howe says. “Normally that means being flexible, being a good partner, and trying to take out that traditional friction that’s existed between the developer and the publisher. That, honestly, has led us to games like Terraria, Brothers, and Payday. All of those games came from that philosophy. We don’t push 505 for what the brand there is; it’s all about Terraria, it’s all about the game. The consumer’s going to buy the product because it’s Terraria, not because it’s published by 505.”

Takedown Red Sabre
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One of the company’s biggest advantages is its all-gamer staff. Everyone on the small team, from the most junior people all the way up to Howe and the two CEOs, are active video game consumers. There’s an internal “think tank” at the company that all staffers are invited to, which basically boils down to a “throw stuff at a whiteboard” session. They’re looking at Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight. They’re watching social media channels and tastemaking hiveminds like Reddit. Howe is quick to point out how that background strengthens 505’s position when dealing with the dev community.

“We see our lack of size as a real strength at the moment.”

“There’s one game at the moment that’s been extremely successful on one platform,” he says. “We were talking to those guys before that game even launched. We picked up on the radar some good early buzz about it. They were hellbent on self-publishing, but we knew that they had limitations in terms of the platforms that they could take it to. We were the first people to talk to them about taking that product, potentially, to other platforms. Almost committing to that before they’d had any success. Now they’ve had a level of success in self-publishing, and there’s a lot of offers coming in to them from left, right, and center, and I think they have a lot of respect for the fact that we recognize that before anybody else.”
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Howe refuses to identify the developer in question since talks are still ongoing, but he paints an elegant picture here. The game development community is a relatively small space, especially once you start looking at the indie scene. Word spreads quickly, whether it’s positive or negative. The same folks that feel they’ve been burned, or just don’t want to give up their beloved IP to Mega-Publisher X, hear about 505 and want to talk. It’s why Andrew Spinks, the staunchly independent creator of Terraria, ended up partnering with the small publisher for a console release of his game.

Brothers-screenshot-17The team’s size is among 505’s biggest advantages, as Howe sees it. At big publishing houses, the importance placed on process tends to jam things up. It’s by necessity, really. When you’re talking about a multi-billion dollar company with dozens of releases and any number of key, business-driving franchises, there’s a need to have checks and balances in place to ensure that money isn’t spent in the wrong directions. The process is much more streamlined at 505 in the sense that there really isn’t a standard process for deal-making. 

“We’re more flexible than some of the bigger guys, and we’re more flexible than publishers have traditionally been in the past,” Howe says. “Every deal we’ve done over the last 18 months has been completely different. We don’t start with this template of what it’s got to be. As a small publisher, rather than those developers dealing with the biz-dev guys who can’t make any decisions, ultimately [the developers] end up dealing with me. As a result, those decisions can be made much more quickly and there’s a much higher degree of flexibility in terms of what we’re prepared to do and what we’re able to do. We see our lack of size as a real strength at the moment.”

Sniper Elite V2
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It’s important to note that last bit: at the moment. The current generation of consoles still has a few years of life left in it, but much of the attention is about to shift with the launch of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One later this year. Both consoles have policies in place that allow for a greater degree of self-publishing that would, in essence, turn the first-party gatekeepers at Microsoft and Sony into the handlers of the “unsexy stuff” that Howe and his 505 team have built a business out of handling. Howe, for his part, doesn’t fear the competition.

“I have nothing but respect for… the Sony third-party team and the way that they’re pushing forward indie developers who have really created unusual content. The fact that they’re prepared to take risks I think is a similar philosophy to what we have at the moment,” Howe says. “I think it’s interesting that Microsoft are making moves toward that as well. Naturally that’s going to make things more challenging for us as a third-party if the two first-parties are being very aggressive in that area, but I think it’s a vindication of our policy and our philosophy. We welcome [the competition].”

Adam Rosenberg
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Previously, Adam worked in the games press as a freelance writer and critic for a range of outlets, including Digital Trends…
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