Gun Media aims to inject creativity back into gaming

Game designer takes a hand-on approach, with a revolving door of big name developers

Entrepreneur interview by Steven Loeb
August 3, 2013
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With the proliferation of the Internet and mobile over the past few years, gaming companies have become a dime a dozen. Seriously, there are so many games out there to play now, on both mobile and desktop, that it can be almost impossible to figure out which ones are worth spending your time on.

And that makes it even harder for designers and developers to break out of the pack. For every Zynga, or King, there are a slew of other companies that just simply cannot get their foot in the door.

What that ultimately means, then, is that for a company to get noticed there has to be something special about them. Something that makes them stand out from the pack.

For game design company Gun Media that means being flexible enough to do any kind of game, on any platform, and always having the right people to make the game great.

What does Gun do?

While Gun designs games, it does not develop them. That means that the company will create what the game will look like, but not the game itself. Instead, the company brings in outside talent, including well known names in the industry, for that task.

"We create the design, the look, the feel, the sound of the game. We create what makes it a game. Then we find developer that can bring that vision to life,” Wes Keltner, founder and creative director at Gun Media, explained to me in an interview.

Now, this practice does not entirely differentiate the company from the rest of the industry, as this is typically how games are developed.

For example, a big publisher like EA might decide that they need to make a zombie game with role playing elements. What they will do is write a proposal, then developers will pitch their game in order to win a contract. EA will then check in on them to make sure milestones are being met, but will not take an active interest in the game itself

The difference, then, with Gun lies in, not only how they approach the games, but how closely they work with the developers to make those games special.

Gun is that more hands on than the big studios, Keltner said, in that they "act like producers of the content.”

"We don’t just say 'I want a racing game," he explained to me. "We create the entire design doc, down to what the wheels will look like. Then we work together, with the developer."

What it all comes down to is finding the right team he said, and then "we'd be foolish if we did not listen to them," since those developers have experience in the industry and "have credibility."

"We don’t do things the way the giants do. We are more hands on, and make it a more collaborative process."

“We’re not a company that feels like they need to own their talent”

But, even beyond that, Gun also distinguishes itself in how it deals with the people who work with them.

Rather than have them become employees of the company, Gun uses a revolving door policy, meaning that they can bring in well-known people to come in and design a game without having any other obligations to the company. And that helps foster a mentality of creativity that Keltner says is missing from the big studios. 

For example, for Gun's first game, called Breach and Clear, a mobile turn-based tactical game, Kelter wanted to "find someone to bring knowledge, experience and guidance” to the game.

"We needed to find the right development team for Breach and Clear," he said. "Gamers don’t care who I am, so we needed a known name."

And Keltner found that in Robert Bowling, the creative director for Call of Duty.

Here is how the two of them met, as Keltner relayed it to me: Bowling had just left Infinity Ward, the studio that designed Call of Duty, and, even though he had never met him, Keltner sent Bowling an e-mail saying he wanted to meet. Bowling, it turned out, was going to be in Kentucky, where Gun is headquartered.

Bowling suggested that the two meet at White Castle, since Bowling can't get them in Los Angeles (I looked it up and it is absolutely true that there is not one single White Castle in California. For shame!). And the two of them immediately hit it off.

"The more he got involved, and saw how we cooperated with developers, the more he wanted in on the project," Keltner told me. "Eventually he said he wanted to come on as exec producer for the title."

So now Bowling is contracted to help out on Breach and Clear, but Keltner is quick to point out that he does not consider Bowling to be an employee at Gun. He has no other obligation to be a part of any other games that the company may develop in the future.

This type of model, of being able to bring in the right people for the right game, will show through on the finished product, Keltner insists. And, at least for Breach and Clear, he was right.

With Bowling's name attached to it, Breach and Clear, which came out just over two weeks ago, quickly became the #2 iPad app across all categories, not just games. An Android version of the game is coming soon, within the next two months.

Being able to bring in big names, and not have them tied down, has made people very excited to work with them and Gun has received some very positive feedback from some other people in industry, though Keltner would not name them.

"When you work at mega company, creativity is stifled. People start to think of it as a job," he said. "People like being nimble and flexible."

To put it another way, as an artist, you don’t want to just have to paint trees over and over again. But tell someone that they can paint whatever they want and you will be able to see them become passionate about creating again

So it is Keltner’s hope that the big publishers start adopting this model to make their games less rigid and to spark some creativity back into the space?

Surprisingly, he said he had never thought of it that way.

"I don’t care what big publishers wind up doing," he said. "It has never been a goal of mine to change the industry."

So what's next for Gun?

Given Keltner's desire to always keep things fresh at Gun, its not surprising that the company does not have any specific genre, a specific platform or even a revenue model, that it is going to be deploying for its games. 

Breach and Clear is a premium iOS title, where users pay $1.99  to play it. But the company could do a free to play game, depending on the type of game and the platform, he said.

That is not to say that the company, which is aiming to put out one game every year, does not already know what its next game will be. In fact, the design docs are already being assembled, though no details could be shared for right now.

But, for right now, Keltner said, Gun is going to keep its focus on Breach and Clear, getting updates out and listen to what the fans want. 

A little more about Gun

The Lexington, Kentucky-based company, which was founded in Spring of 2012, has raised $750,000 in funding, from several parties in the Lexington area – including Commonwealth Seed CapitalBluegrass Angels, and the Kentucky Science and Technology Corporation. They also received funding from individuals like Drew CurtisRobert Bowling, and Christopher Young.

The company, which has 10 full time employees, is not releasing any figures for how many players Breach and Clear has at this time. 

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