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Adult Swim Brings "Marketing Muscle" to Great Indie Games

Volgarr the Viking is Adult Swim Games' latest game on Steam. How did a TV company become a game publisher?

If I say Adult Swim, you'll probably think of some cartoons. Shows like Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Metalocalypse, The Boondocks, Robot Chicken, and Venture Bros. If you do think of anything else, it's probably quick, browser-based games like Robot Unicorn Attack or Amateur Surgeon. I mean, it's part of a television company, right? It's not like they're going to take games seriously.

That changed when Adult Swim hired Steve Gee two years ago to run their Games division. Gee left his native California to come to Georgia and become a product manager at Adult Swim, handling their developer relations and trying to find great indies. Gee's an enthusiastic guy when he's talking about games - he's been in the industry for nine years - and he talks quickly when I ask him about what he's building inside of Adult Swim.

"Before I came to Adult Swim, they had some games on the website, some show-based stuff," he says. "Then they wanted to have some original content that fit the theme and brand of Adult Swim: bizarre and absurd humor. They had Robot Unicorn Attack and Amateur Surgeon, and then they started doing games on iPhone. People at Adult Swim were like, 'Holy crap, we can make money off this!' So they decided to grow a game publishing company within a TV company."

"In hiring me, they said, 'Hey, we want to blow it up. We made a few million, now we want to make more.' Coming over, one of the things I wanted to do was move from just doing games for casual gamers and - I hate to say it like this - stoners who are up late at night playing games on the website. My job is finding great indie games to bring out to the world. There's a great wealth of indie talent out there these days. Let's find that and let's take them to more core platforms."

One of the things I wanted to do was move from just doing games for casual gamers and - I hate to say it like this - stoners who are up late at night playing games on the website.

Yeah, it's pretty hard, but it doesn't cost you any quarters.

And so Gee grew his operation to the point where Adult Swim Games is now a legitimate publisher; the division has seven games that have launched or will be launching on Steam in 2013. Super House of Dead Ninjas, Fist Puncher, and Super Puzzle Platformer Deluxe launched earlier this year, while Volgarr the Viking launches on Steam today. Soundodger+, Super Combo Man, and JazzPunk are still on the schedule for the latter part of the year.

You'll notice none of the games are based on Adult Swim shows. Even games based on shows from Adult Swim's parent company Cartoon Network, like Adventure Time and Regular Show, are released by D3 Publisher. Instead, Gee has tried to make Adult Swim Games simply about great games. They don't have to be funny; Volgarr is just a straight-up old school side-scroller, for example.

"[Volgarr] harkens back to the day of old-school, tough, side-scrolling action platformers. If you love Super Ghouls N Ghosts or the original Castlevania, this is your game," explains Gee. "One of the things I told Crazy Viking Studios is that a lot of interviewers will ask you why you made this game. They told me, 'Because there was no Super Ghouls N Ghosts 2. I made a game I wanted to play.'"

"While Adult Swim is known for bizarre and absurd humor, our titles on Steam don't have to be funny to be an Adult Swim game," he adds. "An Adult Swim game to me is just great gameplay and a great art style that different from what's out there on the market."

Gee admits that he struggled a bit in the beginning because the company was only doing mobile and Flash titles. He calls that singular route "limited," pointing out that a number of indie developers start on PC. Super House of Dead Ninjas was the publisher's first experiment with Steam; the game was already a success on the Adult Swim website, it just needed an overhaul for a Steam release.

"I thought, 'This is the game I want to bring to Steam.' I didn't want to do a lazy port of a mobile game," explains Gee. "After educating some people in our company - begging basically - we threw it up on Steam. It's doing moderately well. So we went to find more games."

Fist Puncher and Super Combo Man were two titles that Gee was interested in two years ago when he first started, but neither game fit with the mobile focus Adult Swim had at that point. Once Adult Swim Games' Steam experiment worked, he swung back around to talk to those developers again. As the company got better at working with indies and Steam, Gee reached out to more developers.

"Over the past year or so, I've been finding great indie talent and great games like Soundodger+, Volgarr the Viking, and Jazz Punk," he says. "It's all very personal because I did hand-choose a lot of these games. We weren't even supposed to be on Steam. We're here now, it's our first year and I have seven damn good games I'm extremely proud of. We're talking Sony, we're looking at Nintendo, we're looking to branch out."

SounDodger+ on the other hand is something completely different.

After trying most of Adult Swim's titles, I note that the games all seem to be on the harder side. Volgarr in particular reminds me of unforgiving - but fun - games from the NES and arcade era: Wizards & Warriors, Astyanax, and Legendary Axe. It's hard, but straightforward. You'll know why you died and it's up to you to improve, something most gamers and developers attribute to Dark Souls these days. Gee says the difficulty of Adult Swim's games is not intentional as some sort of overall mission for the company, that's "more a vision of the developers."

"If anything it might be a commentary," he tells me. "Most of the mainstream AAA stuff is easy. It leads you by the hand, it's for the masses. The developers here are gamers, they're hardcore players, some of them have been playing for a decade or more. These are games they've made for themselves."

Most of the mainstream AAA stuff is easy. It leads you by the hand, it's for the masses. The developers here are gamers, they're hardcore players. These are games they've made for themselves.

Steam isn't easy to get onto without going through the Greenlight program, but Gee and his team lucked out: Valve and Adult Swim had partnered together to offer Robot Chicken hats in Team Fortress 2 and premier the 'Meet the Pyro' trailer on exclusively on TV. Gee wasn't involved in that deal and says the entire thing was "a TV-based deal", but it gave the publishing team contacts within Valve. He says the name does help when it comes time to talk to developers and platform holders.

"The name helps," he chuckles. "There's a lot of indie devs and platforms out there; if I pull out an Adult Swim business card it definitely helps."

I ask him what Adult Swim brings to the tables for indies that's not already available through self-publishing on Steam, PlayStation Network, or the Nintendo eShop. Gee says that while Adult Swim Games is small, it's still a part of a larger media corporation.

"We do have some marketing muscle behind us," he says. "We have a television company behind us. We can offer commercials during Adult Swim programming for instance. Fist Puncher, Super Puzzle Platformer Deluxe, and Super House of Dead Ninjas have had some commercials; you'll definitely see some Volgarr commercials."

But Gee says that while it's a part of the larger Adult Swim brand, Adult Swim Games is still a small publisher. That changes how they approach certain things, like streaming promotion.

"Adult Swim Games is a very small division of this giant corporation," he tells me. "We are very scrappy. Where some companies frown upon people broadcasting their game on Twitch, I'm all for it. I want gamers to talk about our games. Please do. If you're a Twitch broadcaster out there and you want to show my game, reach out."

Gee says he's always out looking for games on indie game sites, developer forums, and Kickstarter. If something catches his eye, he'll reach out to a developer and request a demo or build of the game. Once Gee has the game in hand, his team looks over it and sees if it'll fit within the Adult Swim banner. The talks are different for each developer, but generally publishing deals are signed by platform, so developers aren't locked into Adult Swim if they don't want to be.

"Each game and developer are different," says Gee. "We sign deals on a per platform basis. I want to publish them on as many platforms as possible, but these are their IPs. If they say, 'We want you to publish this on Steam, but we want to try something else on another platform', we're totally flexible."

I tried to find a screenshot, but nothing quite captured JazzPunk.

"We don't have a heavy hand with the developers," he adds. "If I found your game, I like it the way it is. We have producers, QA tester, and project managers who will help you along, but they mostly advise on bug fixes and usability issues. As far as content? 99.8 percent of that is still in the game. The vision of the game when they're done is the vision of the developer.

There's a ton of great indie talent out there that, no matter how much Sony or people like myself look out for them, will remain undiscovered.

Sony and Nintendo are both making great strides in reaching out to indies, and Microsoft recently outlined its ID@Xbox program for indies. Even Valve is committed to improving Steam Greenlight. I ask Gee if there's a place for Adult Swim in this indie love-in.

"The beauty of it is, with self-publishing and all the great things Sony has done, there's no lack of talent out there," he says. "There's a ton of great indie talent out there that, no matter how much Sony or people like myself look out for them, will remain undiscovered. I'm confident in Adult Swim and what we offer."

Finally, I ask who Adult Swim is aiming for with its new games. Is it just core gamers, with his stated desire of moving beyond casual gamers?

"We're not giving up mobile, we'll still have games on our site," he says. "Gamers are gamers. A good game is a good game. Think about the industry now; my mom name drops games that I didn't even think she knew about. We had a kid yesterday who was no more than six years old playing Volgarr the Viking. It's just getting those games out there."

If you're up to trying out something from Adult Swim Games, Volgarr the Viking is out today for $9.99. The rest of Adult Swim's games can be had on Steam from $6.99 to $9.99.

Tags: assassins-creed-iv-black-flag Interview

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