Men From g.o.d.
Bill Wisener's right index finger is stained a ghoulish shade of orange. It gleams almost Day-Glo against the starched white of the Carlton cigarettes he chains together in one seamless series of puffs. To his right is a black-and-white monitor with the screen broken into four quadrants, his eyes on the vulnerable points in his record store.
And that it is, stocked with the real thing. Bill's Records has long aisles, seemingly as long as football fields, patched together by crude benches tacked out of 2-by-4s and plywood. They support cardboard boxes hacked to form beds for the stacks of LPs. Artist names and record categories are scrawled on floppy cardboard dividers--everything from Rolling Stones picture disks to bands with names like Agnostic Front and Christian Death. There's a record of authentic machine gun fire and artillery explosions and Jane Fonda's workout record--five of them.
This is just a tiny sample of the vinyl Wisener has collected over 21 years. "Little kids come in here sometimes and don't even know what they are," Wisener says, pointing to his rows of vinyl records. "They ask their parents, 'What is that, a big CD?'"
The story of how Wisener came to this place is so long and arduous he won't even go into it. But he lives in this Dallas record store 100 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, because it's the only way he has to make ends meet, he says. "I didn't ever aspire to do this at all," he admits. "When I was young I wanted to be an architect...But I like doing this, and I can't think that I would have enjoyed anything any more than this."
Max Payne is a good-looking New York cop with high cheekbones, a Chris Isaak eraser-head 'do and a tight-fitting suit that gives him a suave grimness. He has a cigarette, but swears it's his last one. "It's bad for the baby," he says.
Payne lives in New Jersey and works in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen. "Life was good," he says in a voice cured with hard-boiled noir. "Sun setting on a sweet summer's day. The smell of freshly mowed lawns...A beautiful wife and a baby girl."
Payne comes home to find his wife and baby slaughtered by hopped-up addicts. And then he does something digital action figures never do: He sobs.
From then on, Payne takes out his revenge on the New York underworld, going undercover with an array of gadgets including a pump-action shotgun, a slew of Molotov cocktails and an uncanny ability to decelerate the world around him to a crawl while he discharges his weapons in real time. Payne's only weakness is his intense bouts of chronic pain, for which he swallows painkillers that give him pause before resuming his fury.
Wisener and Payne have little in common. Wisener is a legendary grizzled Dallas shopkeeper; Payne is a cool, slick trigger finger starring in one of the most violent and explosively successful video games of the past year. But both characters are featured on a pioneering publishing venture, a digital video disk magazine, launched by some of Dallas' most noted computer gaming hotshots after they decided games were too shallow a life's pursuit. Both characters, too, haunt opposite poles in this digital coming-of-age drama, one littered with glitter, bitter fighting, riches and an untimely death.
Jeffrey Liles' brown hair is pressed into bed-head form; his shirt and pants hang like ruffled bags. A big-screen television to his left flashes pictures of Mexican professional wrestling. He turns down the sound. "I've always had this weird, Forrest Gump-like way of being in the right place at the right time," says the 39-year-old, almost marveling at how he has come to be in the company of high-tech hotshots such as Mike Wilson, JimBloom, Rick Stults, Jeff Smith and William Haskins, all one-time heavy hitters at GodGames, the video/computer game publishing company Wilson founded as Gathering of Developers (g.o.d.) after a contentious split from the game developer Ion Storm. G.o.d. is also the publishing company that released Max Payne, the video game that fast became an action hit after their exit from the company.
Liles seems an odd soul to be linked with a group giving birth to a revolutionary DVD video magazine called Substance TV that celebrates culture. But he linked with the men from g.o.d. a few years ago when, he says, he served as a DJ for their booth at a gaming trade show. He kept his ties to the group since then.
When he heard about their current DVD venture, Liles, who describes himself as an avid consumer of television, jumped into the risky DVD gamble with both feet, incessantly bringing the former computer gamers his ideas for content and structure. One of those pieces, the film Liles and his girlfriend Perla Doherty created about the idiosyncratic world of record merchant Bill Wisener, was distilled into a 10-minute clip--the first feature in the inaugural issue of Substance TV--from more than 35 hours of film shot over a three-year span. The clip is a tiny peek at Wisener and the eccentric urchins who cling to him and his store. "Bill has always been an engaging person," says Liles, who worked at the store as a teen-ager. "He ended up being the voice of reason in the middle of all of these people. They're all a little crazy in their own way. But once you get to know Bill, he's the rock. He's the one person in the middle who's really stable."
Liles himself stars in a short feature film called Cottonmouth, Texas included in the first issue. Shot in black and white, the film shows Liles as the spitting image of Kurt Cobain--in dreadlocks and a flannel shirt--shooting baskets in a gym, wandering around the street, slumbering in his disheveled apartment, as he disgorges his own rantings of angst in a hypnotic monotone. He's called a spoken-word artist, a term he quickly sloughs off. "That's kind of a weird term, spoken-word artist," he says. "I don't really consider what I did art. I just basically told stories about my past."
Stories of boredom, personal problems, bad drug experiences, his paucity of inspiration and his lack of motivation. Liles says he did little more than sit around his apartment, watch TV and smoke weed for longer than he cares to remember. Compounding the problem was the fact that his father was a successful vice president of Southland Corp., an exec who was instrumental in coining the slogan that began "oh, thank heaven." Liles, who barely passed the high school finish line, was a desperate disappointment to his family. He says he never threw himself into anything, because nothing ever seemed to matter
But Liles managed to turn his personal adolescent listlessness into a bankable commodity, rustling his peeves and postulates into recitations set to music.
In 1993, Liles says, he had reached the end of the line in Dallas. So he packed his few possessions and made his way to California with no idea as to what he was going to do. On the beaches of Venice he bumped into a talent scout from A&M records who suggested he go into a recording studio to see what would come out. After a series of stumbles, Liles inadvertently recorded some of his writings over instrument tracks. He says the results were compelling.
"I was a guy who didn't live anywhere, didn't really have any prospects, didn't have anything to look forward to," he says. "I'd accidentally stumbled upon this thing, this spoken-word thing, that I never really aspired to do. I'm not an actor; I'm not a public speaker or anything like that."
Through his aimlessness, Liles managed to create the fictitious town called Cottonmouth, Texas, (population 1) and released three records of his grim rambling prose with spotty success.
"Most of the people that hear a Cottonmouth, Texas, record are like, 'Why aren't you dead? Why haven't you killed yourself already?'" he says.
But now all that has changed. He spent time in rehab. His father became a Unity Church minister. Liles is a changed man. He's happy to be alive. He's not in the same frame of mind, the frame that drove him to do the Cottonmouth, Texas, recordings, and no one wants to hear a recording about how happy someone is.
Liles parlayed his recordings and his talent for sniffing out other forms of content into a position as a Substance TV producer, where his job was to find other souls who might have something bankable for the digital realm. "There are a million stories out there," he says. "Everyone has their own story. We just want to present it in a way that's engaging. That's not really too much to ask."
But perhaps it was, at least for Liles. After just six months on the job, Liles left Substance TV over creative differences. "They wanted Substance TV to be a magazine; I wanted it to be more like television," he says. "To me, the word 'magazine' cheapened what Substance TV could ultimately be. We would always be a slave to current events that wouldn't be current by the time the DVDs were manufactured. On top of that, you couldn't find it on magazine racks or at bookstores. The other guys at STV just didn't happen to see it that way."
If ever there was a time not to leave the video-game business, now is that time. While the rest of the economy is thick in the post-9-11 sludge of recession, unemployment and malaise, the video-game industry is levitating on two game platform releases--Microsoft's Xbox and Nintendo Co.'s GameCube--joining ranks with the already successful PlayStation 2 from Sony. John Taylor, a video-game analyst for Arcadia Investment research, says 2001 should break all records and rack up some $8.4 billion in video-game industry sales, trouncing the $6.6 billion in sales generated in 2000. But other analysts are saying that number could well surpass $10 billion once the 2001 numbers are in. Compare that with the projected $8.4 billion in ticket receipts for the domestic movie industry, and the muscle behind an industry fueled by dweebs on Chee-tos and soda becomes clear.
As of November 2001, Max Payne, starring a New York cop bent on violent revenge, was the top action PC game and the 10th best-selling PC game overall, selling some 235,000 copies and generating more than $10 million in sales. So why would the former g.o.d. crew want to leave a veritable game gold mine that is expected to only gain in luster through 2002 when the new game platforms get their traction?
Gathering of Developers was founded in Dallas in 1997 by former Ion Storm CEO Mike Wilson, who while at game developer id pioneered the nationwide distribution of game shareware in retail outlets. Along with Gathering co-founders JimBloom and Rick Stults, Wilson attempted to make real his vision of a cooperative game company where the partners share in both the development process and the profits. At the time, Wilson sought to address what he saw as a glaring inequity in the industry: Game developers, the artists and programmers who design the games, are typically unsung heroes, creating products that rake in billions, while publishers, the businesspeople who market and distribute their creations, secure the royalties and the limelight. "The idea was basically to take the hassle away of dealing with a bunch of guys in suits in New York or California who could give a rat's ass about games and were taking way more than their fair share of the profits for the amount of work they were doing on our behalf," Wilson says. He did this by establishing a publishing company that was a straightforward alliance, where all the business dealings were up front and on the table. The developers he gathered included 3D Realms, Pop Top Software, Terminal Reality and Apogee.
But more than that, Wilson and his cohorts wanted to put the fun back into the video-game business, which they saw degenerating into a cutthroat, deadly serious field that was ironically founded on play. The Gathering injected that fun by producing a corporate brochure in the form of a swimsuit calendar with babes. They transferred this vein of mayhem into a ritual at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the annual video/computer game and entertainment software industry trade show held each year in Los Angeles. Big companies such as Microsoft and Sony spent millions on lavish booths, gobbling up huge tracts of showroom space, leaving small companies like g.o.d., harnessed with limited budgets, with small, dark showroom corners that still commanded a hefty premium. The Gathering decided to focus its meager resources for the biggest explosion possible. They rented a parking lot across from the L.A. Convention Center's main entrance and filled it with motor homes so that attendees could test drive games in seclusion away from the trade show din. To that they wedded a stage, a band, free beer, a Jumbotron and a bevy of scantily clad girls.
"We actually made an effort to interview the girls to make sure they were fun, instead of like all of the hot girls inside, who were mostly bitches and unapproachable," says JimBloom, former vice president of marketing for g.o.d. who is now executive producer for Substance TV. "We hired them just to go talk to these gamers that may not otherwise get to talk to girls like this. We knew we could do this and make so much more noise than we ever could spending the same amount of money inside."
It worked. The parking lot was jammed, and the Gathering's annual E3 bash was one of the most anticipated events of the show, capturing best-booth awards from several gaming magazines and Web sites.
Executing the Gathering's business plan, however, did not run as smoothly as the E3 beer bash. Money was in short supply at the same time the market demanded ever greater amounts of cash to develop and nurture a game to market. "We pursued traditional venture capital, but at the time, early 1998, no one wanted to talk to you if you weren't a dot-com," says Wilson. "So we ended up funding the company through a series of distribution partnerships and international co-publishing arrangements."
Wilson concedes there was no way the company could have survived without a quick infusion of cash early on. Titles were slipping well beyond their projected launch dates and developers were burning through the cash faster than expected. But things began to change when Ryan Brant, founder and chairman of the New York-based game developer and publisher Take Two Interactive Software Inc., took a keen interest in g.o.d. "[He] saw something he liked, and basically bet his company on us," Wilson says.
With current annual sales topping $387 million, Take Two had far more resources than g.o.d.They later invested $4 million in the Gathering, purchasing 19.9 percent of the company in September 1999. Bloom says Take Two positioned itself as a great believer in g.o.d.'s underlying philosophies and even vowed to implement them at Take Two. "In reality it was nothing like that," Bloom says. "I mean, they were...screwing the developers, giving them bad deals, forcing products out the door before they were ready."
But even insiders admit g.o.d.'s original vision, that of putting the developers first, was much harder in practice than in concept. Their business model assumed that developers would have the flexibility to see business transactions from a publisher's standpoint as well as a developer's. Wilson says that many of the founding developers under g.o.d.'s hand were some of the cockiest, most independent game-development minds in the business. "Just because you can make a great game doesn't mean you can run a great company," says Jeff Smith, former director of public relations for g.o.d. and vice president of PR and marketing for Substance TV.
The company caved in on itself. "We were hitting financial turbulence and our tail was about to snap off," Smith says. In the end, the Gathering's model proved unsustainable. It was set up to produce expensive, high-profile games on threadbare margins. The hits didn't come, or didn't come soon enough. "We expected delays and some misses," concedes Wilson. "But [we] certainly didn't expect for nearly all of our games to slip severely."
Their game machine was burning money while they waited for deliveries to hit the market and then for the market to turn those deliveries into hits. So in April 2000 they jumped at Take Two's offer to buy them out. Take Two purchased the remaining 80.1 percent of Gathering of Developers for more than 1 million shares of Take Two stock. That stock was selling for roughly $10 per share at the time, but Wilson says the whole transaction had a valuation of about $22 million for all of GodGames.
Some in the game press scoffed at the move a year later. "g.o.d. had sacrificed its own independence to keep itself afloat," said Computer Gaming World. "[W]hat was supposed to be the gaming industry's Boston Tea Party ended with the leaders being bought off and dispersed." Indeed, as the financial binds between Take Two and the Gathering grew tighter, the spiritual bonds between the founders and the company they birthed and nurtured grew looser. There were fractious disagreements between g.o.d. and its New York parent. "We felt like we weren't the Gathering of Developers anymore," Bloom says. "We no longer felt comfortable standing for what we once stood for...When Take Two comes in they're very interested in their [financial] quarters. They have to hit quarters, so product had to be done on a certain date. We hated it."
Product slippage wasn't tolerated, and g.o.d. found itself leaning on its developers to get product out the door, even if it meant destroying a viable game sequence. Bloom says when his developers were readying Fly 2, a sequel to GodGames' successful flight simulator, Take Two insisted that it be released, ready or not (Take Two refused to comment for this article). Bloom says development was so far behind that the game was actually inferior to the original instead of an improvement. "And I was jumping up and down as much as I could, saying, 'You're killing a franchise here. You guys are just throwing your money away.' And no one cared. All they cared about was hitting the quarter. Losing the franchise was next quarter's problem." Bloom says they released the product as is and it flopped. "I wanted to pull our logo from the box," he spits.
"I remember fights and horrible phone calls and lots of screaming and yelling and getting drunk," Smith says. "Because these guys were slowly having their company taken away from them in pieces."
Over the course of three years, g.o.d. struggled to publish some 15 games, including Railroad Tycoon II, Jazz Jackrabbit 2 and Kiss Psycho Circus, an animated blood and gore festival with two dozen twisted creatures and lava-flooded sewers. It couldn't decide if it was aiming at hard-core action gamers or heavy-metal headbangers, and the market responded with a resounding rebuff. Wilson claims g.o.d. was profitable its first year and its last while functioning under the original founders' leadership. He also says a little more than half of the games they published turned a profit.
But by the time those profits started rolling in, Wilson, Bloom, Stults, Haskins and Smith had soured on the gaming industry and formed Substance TV in two offices in Dallas and Austin.
All the while the men of g.o.d. were fighting the Wall Street bean counters and Brooks Bros. suits burrowing in their video-game dream, they were growing disillusioned with the industry and what it was turning into. It wasn't just that the industry was taking the heat for a couple of high-profile mass murders either. "None of us have any guilt about the gaming, despite the Columbines and those types of things," confesses Bloom. "We still think gaming is still a viable entertainment medium for adults."
But what gaming was fast becoming was an unviable way for the g.o.d. founders to make a living. They were growing bored and disgusted with the frivolity of electronic gaming; tired of constant pressure to bang out hits; frustrated with the lack of loyalty among the hordes they were struggling to dazzle. "You can never have long-term fan support from gamers," Smith says. "It just doesn't happen."
"We wanted to do something worthwhile with ourselves," Wilson says, "something that would allow us to meet really cool people from all walks of life and learn."
In spirit, at least, g.o.d. was dead. But strangely, it wasn't the death of g.o.d. that drove these men to completely upend their careers and take a risk on a new, untested venture. Last May 3, Douglas Myres, one of the five original founders of g.o.d., was working on a promotional video for a game called Duke Nukem in the company's Austin office. The video was for E3, the show that was to be the final hurrah for the Promised Lot, the parking-lot trade show booth with the babes, the beer and motor homes.
In the midst of his work, Myres suffered a severe asthma attack. He died in the back of a car on the way to the hospital. He was 36.
It isn't strange that Substance TV is dedicated to his memory. The men of g.o.d. speak of him in hushed tones of reverence as a boundless idea generator and a tireless workhorse. It was Myres who came up with the concept of designing a digital medium for exploring culture and ideas. The idea emerged out of the marketing CDs he created and produced called Gathering of Goodness, disks containing demos, movies, screenshots and behind-the-scenes video from the swimsuit calendar that served as a corporate brochure.
It was Myres' idea to evolve the CD-ROM format from an adolescent dose of digital titillation to something more profound, something that actually involved thoughts and reflection.
"The crystallizing moment came the minute Doug Myres died," Smith says. "The minute he died, everyone's life changed. The minute he died, that was the fucking cake topper cherry whipped cream icing all over the top of our little cake of hate that had been building between us and Take Two."
The original g.o.d. founders approached Take Two Interactive with an exit strategy. They weren't surprised when the company was accommodating--maybe a little too accommodating. Take Two suggested they exit immediately instead of gradually unleashing the fetters over several months.
In their wake the men of g.o.d. left a bona fide hit. Not only that, Max Payne is in the script stages for a new action movie by Dimension Films. Film rights were reportedly locked up before the game even went on sale.
But the men of g.o.d. have put this all behind them. They've taken their money, their lust for lives with pith and their fledgling DVD know-how to produce a digital magazine, one that draws from a wide swath of culture. They figured they had the basic skill set. Bloom and Wilson both studied journalism in college, and they all figured they had the technical expertise to learn DVD recording and production on the fly.
They even have their demographic group nailed: Gen Xers who are now adults in their late 20s and early 30s. In short, people just like them. "It's the first true video generation, and one that really is seldom addressed as adults," Wilson says. "Our people are comfortable with technology, but not easily impressed by it. They spent their 20s in the shameful experiment in the worst of American culture that was the 1990s--wrestling, Jerry Springer, America's craziest car crashes, MTV jackass, you name it. How low could we go? I think that many, many people in that generation are now looking for a little more substance in their entertainment, in their informational media."
Specifically, Substance TV is mostly shooting for males in the 18-34 age bracket, and it will be targeting them with a wide range of documentaries, short films, idiosyncratic music videos (one from an Argentinean band in the first issue), performance art, movie trailers, assorted outtakes from the world of moving images and whatever else piques their interest and can be digitized. "If Julia Roberts signed a $20 million deal, we don't care," Bloom says. "That's not substance. If we find out she's giving $10 million of that to feed kids in Mexico, that's a story we'd be interested in."
And Substance TV has another thing: advertising. The first issue has a narrow assortment of cuts, mostly showcasing computer games. There are ads for JVC consumer electronic equipment; a lengthy trailer for a movie called Gen Y Cops; an ad for Gamestop, a distributor for Substance; there's even a lengthy Max Payne promo for the version designed for Microsoft's Xbox. Bloom says the ads in the first issue weren't paid but were free in an effort to seed relationships for future issues and possible partnerships. The first issue's price tag of $500,000 was paid out of the pockets of the company's founders.
Bloom also says their list of potential advertisers includes movie studios, game companies, DVD manufacturers and spirits producers. Bloom even admits he'll go after tobacco companies, an industry that has precious few venues in which to hawk its wares. "The DVD format allows us to do some really cool things with advertisers," he says. "We hope that advertisers will come around to where they see us as an opportunity to kind of flex their creative muscle and do some things that they might not otherwise do."
But some industry watchers are skeptical. "My question is whether they're going to find that the same thing is true that happened with banner advertising on Web sites is going to happen with them," says new media consultant Walt Boyes, referring to the ability of DVD players to skip past scenes and leapfrog whole chapters of content. "If you give the recipient of the advertising the ability to click past it, they will."
Yet even with potential advertiser suspicion looming in the background, Substance TV has a few things rolling in its favor. While magazine launches are notoriously risky and expensive, the DVD medium has the advantage of much lower production costs than the conventional printed-paper medium. For the first issue, Substance burned some 42,000 DVDs. Wilson claims 22,000 of those were distributed through GameStop and other retailers on sale for $7.99 a copy, while the remaining 20,000 were distributed via subscription at 10 issues for $19.95. For the second issue, they plan to burn 100,000.
Plus, DVD players have dropped dramatically in price. Debuting at more than $600, prices for the players have plunged to below $100 in just over four years. The Consumer Electronics Association, a manufacturers' trade group, reports that DVD-player penetration in U.S. households now stands at 23 percent--up from a mere 8 percent just a year ago. Even Dallas-based Blockbuster is bending to these consumer electronics winds, announcing in September that it would scrap 25 percent of its video inventory to make room for more DVDs.
Yet Boyes still sees some major hurdles. "The problem with doing a magazine on DVD is that you have to sit in front of a TV, or in front of a computer, or have a fairly expensive DVD player that you can carry around with you to have the same flexibility that you would have with a paper magazine," he says. "It's not the same thing as flipping through a magazine. People take magazines to places they can't take a DVD player." Such as the pool, a plane or the head. And unlike magazines, which have a table of contents, Substance TV is difficult and cumbersome to navigate with content listings buried under counterintuitive DVD menu headings.
Mark Chambers, author of CD and DVD Recording for Dummies, says that the idea of distributing content on a regularly released disk has been done before, and it doesn't have a resounding track record. Blender, a multimedia pop-culture "magazine" first released in 1996 on CD-ROM, went bust after chewing through $3 million. It was relaunched early last year as an ink-on-slick-paper magazine devoted to all forms of popular music. "They've kind of made the trip backwards," Chambers says. Another attempt was Launch magazine, a music and entertainment bimonthly CD-ROM that hit around the same time as Blender. Launch is now a part of Yahoo!
Yet Chambers is optimistic about the survival of Substance TV. "I believe it's got a better shot than earlier attempts," he says. "DVD stores so much in so little space. You're going to be looking at full-screen, high-resolution clips."
Both Chambers and Boyes are also bullish on the fact that Substance DVDs are intimately threaded with the company's Web site, www.substance.tv, offering deeper levels of content and opportunities for feedback and viewer contributions.
And if the first issue can be called a fascinating potpourri of slicked-together cultural strands, issue two, due to hit the first of February, may be even more of a gripping medley. It features a Japanese punk/speed metal band, an in-depth look at the first independent feature film in which all the roles were auctioned off on the Web and a glimpse of "consumer defense corporate poet" Richard Macklin, a gadfly who antagonizes corporations by flooding them with letters asking them preposterous questions about their products and promotional campaigns. (He once tried to special order a coffin from Tupperware.)
Record-store owner Bill Wisener is wistfully amused by the whole Substance thing. He's also a little circumspect about being the first feature on the first stab at a pioneering form of publishing. "The first time I watched it I was mesmerized by it," he says, his voice cracking. "I'm tired of watching it now."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.