27 Jun 2016

Green Man Gaming carves out a $40 million niche in Steam’s shadow

Companies survive — and thrive — as they compete with Steam, the largest online store for downloadable PC video games in the world. Green Man Gaming is one of them. This shows that while one company dominates the market — in this case, Valve with its massive operation and community — others can find a niche. In this case, the U.K.-based company has carved out a space that brought in $40.37 million (£29.5 million) in 2015 (compared to $684,000 [£500,000] after its first year in 2009).

And it has carved out this niche by doing things Steam doesn’t: Rewards for community members and publishering partnerships, selling console and PC gaming, and putting products not just in front of its community but also in the hands of 2,000 affiliated streamers.
At the recent Electronic Entertainment Expo, Green Man Gaming founder and CEO Paul Sulyock talked about his company’s sixth anniversary, how it stands out from Steam, Amazon, and other competitors, game publishing, the importance of trade shows and conventions, and other issues key to the growth of the worldwide $99.6 billion gaming industry — like selling games in China. This is an edited transcript of GamesBeat’s interview.
GamesBeat: How long has Green Man been around now?
Paul Sulyock: Green Man Gaming was launched in 2010. May of 2010. We were working on it in the back end of 2009, I think. I put my credit card behind the bar to get us an office about September 2009.
GamesBeat: What regions are you in now?
Paul Sulyock: Green Man Gaming sells—there are three parts to our business. The first part is the e-commerce platform. We sell digital computer games from multiple digital rights management systems in about 180 to 190 countries every month. We sell on a global basis. About 40 percent of our business is based in the U.S., another 40 percent in Europe, of which 8 percent is in the U.K., and 20 percent in the rest of the world.
GB: Is any of that 20 percent in China?
Paul Sulyock: Yes, a significant portion is in China. China is an interesting one, because it’s not driven by games per se. It’s driven by specific products. The Chinese will want to go for a specific product. You’ll see a massive interest in that particular product, and anything else—they like Game A over there, why don’t they like Game B? I don’t know yet. I’m working on that one.
GamesBeat: Do you have any good examples of specific games they were really into?
Paul Sulyock: I have a specific example of how they react.
We had China switched on for a long time, and nothing was really happening there. It was PayPal, it was credit cards — all the payment systems were very mundane there. We then turned on China Pay and AliPay as payment systems. The U.S. is 40 percent of our top line. Within three hours of us enabling those payment systems–we didn’t tell anybody about it or do anything about it. We just switched it on to see if it would work. Within three hours we had the same traffic coming from China that we had coming from the U.S. So there is absolutely pent up demand there for western digital products. Certainly if you go to China Joy for instance, there are lots of games that are very similar. It’s folly for me to criticize because there is no such thing as a bad game in my opinion. There’s only a game that’s mispriced. There’s always a demand for any kind of game. But the challenge is that there are lots of very similar games, similar looks and feels. Getting down to the nub of what is different, what’s going to push their buttons, what’s going to gain interest over there, is an ongoing challenge we face. I’m sure other companies like us face is as well with different product ranges.
GamesBeat: One thing I’ve always heard about other consumer products in China is that it’s brand-driven. You take a look at Blizzard. Its games do well in China, and it’s a top brand in gaming. Do you see that same thing at work?
Paul Sulyock: Brands do drive it. Publishers drive it as well. But I also think that it’s about an immersive product. If you look at Blizzard products, they’re brilliant. They’re a wonderful publisher. But they tend to be very immersive, and very competitive. The gaming culture in many parts of east Asia, China partially included, it’s a social culture. People go to gaming cafes and hang out with their friends. They compete in gaming cafes. It’s less of a solitary occupation and more of—they’re living in quite often very high density towns, like Singapore for instance. Going out to hang out with your friends at a gaming café is a fun pastime. That’s why those sorts of products do very well. It’s less the brand than the product.
GamesBeat: So chances are that if you have a game that brings a lot of people together, you’ll do better.
Paul Sulyock: Correct.
GamesBeat: Have you found that to be the case with the games you sell?
Paul Sulyock: Absolutely, we have found that. There’s also the stardust appeal. Something that’s a triple-A game, a beautifully created game, Grand Theft Auto for instance. There was a lot of demand in China for Grand Theft Auto, because it was a beautifully created game.
GB: Does piracy hurt you in China?
Paul Sulyock: We haven’t found that piracy hurts us at all, honestly. It really doesn’t bother us. It’s about the change in affluence. If you think back to Eastern Europe 10 years ago, piracy was a major issue there. As soon as a game came out, it got cracked and released. But as people became more affluent in these economic regions, to be honest with you, saving yourself—you’d spend three quid, say, on a cracked game, because you still had to buy pirated goods in those days. And you’d spend 10 pounds on an uncracked game. As people have more money, they’ve become less willing to take the risks associated with taking a cracked game and more willing to just pay a bit more and get a premium product. It is a little bit of that. It’s about pricing, and it’s about affluence. If the publishers reduce their prices and the population becomes more affluence, it will naturally stifle piracy.
GamesBeat: I’ve heard other companies tell me that they’re seeing that happen in Eastern Europe. CD Projekt, for example, is having great success there. Free-to-play companies on PC are doing well. Ubisoft does well there, too. What makes Green Man Gaming stand out right now? Everyone knows Steam as the biggest store around. GOG has its own thing. But the PC market is so big and so diverse that different companies can still carve themselves out a market. How did you do that?
Paul Sulyock: Green Man Gaming is composed of three parts. The first part is the store. We’ve already covered that. But we have a great range of products. We have 7500 different products, from about 450 publishers we work with directly. The second thing is we’ve got Playfire, which is our community. Playfire is a game tracking community where people can come in and discuss games. They’re automatically put into communities around the games they own. And what we do with Playfire is we draw down the information about the individual customer from the relevant backend. It could be Xbox, PlayStation, or Steam. If you have a Steam account and you’re part of our community, we know not only the games that you purchased from us, but we also know every other game you’ve purchased on that platform. We know how long you played it for, when you started playing it, when you finished playing it, what achievements you got. We correlate that information with the economic information we get from your purchasing profile. We get a very clear picture of exactly what you are as a gamer, across multiple platforms. That’s absolutely a differentiating factor. On top of that, we’ve also got the ability to give prizes, give rewards for people who do things in games. If you get to level 13 of a particular product, or you get a certain very difficult achievement, we can give you something. From the publisher or from us, to make it worth your while. That could be a voucher, a free product, DLC, or even some credits in your account.
GamesBeat: Does that include cosmetics, things like avatars and skins?
Paul Sulyock: Absolutely. We’ll work with publishing partners and they’ll say, right, we’ll give you X number of avatars for everyone who hits level 13 of this particular product, this particular game. That’s a unique differentiating point for Green Man Gaming. The third thing Green Man Gaming does differently is—we’re also a publisher. In late 2014 brought a guy on board the team called Gary Rudd. He’s ex-Sega, ex-Codemasters. He was working at Sega for content acquisition when they took on board Creative Assembly and Sports Interactive.
GamesBeat: So he made some of the best decisions Sega’s ever made.
Paul Sulyock: I’ll give him credit. Sometimes you get it wrong and sometimes you get it right. But he normally gets it right. We brought Gary on. Gary runs the publishing team. We now publish our own games as well. We were being approached by a lot of developers. The market is very crowded right now, especially on PC. Getting your product in front of the right people at the right time is a challenge. We were hearing from developers saying, can you help us with this? We said, fine, let’s publish games as well. So in 2015 we did a dozen smallish games, just to get our feet wet. Now we’ve got four major titles released. One’s coming up tomorrow. It’s called Lifeless. I can show you a little video clip. It’s a combination, a hybrid of something like Battlefield or Counter-Strike, with two teams, but you do this in a zombie-filled environment. These two settlements fight against each other with the zombies in the middle that you have to contend with as well.
GamesBeat: So it’s like a MOBA mechanic, the jungle, in a shooter.
Paul Sulyock: Correct. We have a number of other titles, including The Bunker, which is a point and click movie. Very similar to Telltale Games when they did Walking Dead. But it’s a movie. The lead actor is Adam Brown, who was in The Hobbit. It’s effectively a bunker that’s been—you wake up in a bunker 30 years after a nuclear holocaust. You work back through your memories – it’s a psychological horror story – to work out who you are and how you got there.
GamesBeat: It’s a departure from what Fallout has done.