Alan Wilson

Alan worked on the development of “Red Orchestra: Ostfront 41-45”, as well as focussing on raising the required funding for the company to develop the game completely independently. Further successes followed with the Killing Floor franchise, selling many millions of units on PC, PS4 and Xbox One. Red Orchestra 2 launched in 2011, followed by Rising Storm in 2013. Both became PC Gamer's "Multiplayer Game of the Year" and RS2: Vietnam, followed successfully in 2017. Tripwire has pioneered selling games digitally with great success. In 2018, Tripwire has created it's own publishing business, with the first announced titles being Road Redemption and Maneater. Additionally, Tripwire has a long history of mentoring and advising fellow startups.

 
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Alan Wilson talks about what it is like to be in the gaming industry and what has helped him through stressful days. He also shares why we need to start conversations about mental health and how we can create deeper relationships in our lives.

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Just to start off with, thank you for your support this past year. When I started creating this mental health platform, you were really one of the people who came to mind.

Cool.

 

Yeah. When we met first at Fireside, you were in the video games industry, which is fast-paced and competitive. At the same time, one of the things that I appreciated is our conversations around mental health. We've had conversations around supporting not only ourselves, but supporting the teams working for us.

 My first question is, I would love to know more about you. How did you get here?

After college, I started in IT working for big corporates, all that sort of stuff. Along the way, I had set up three companies over the years. First one was set up in the '80s and sold six months later. Second one was set up in the early 2000s, which we ended up closing down because it was a service-based business. But what I learned is I'm not very good at working for other people.

I then set up my own consultancy with the big banks. Made plenty of good money. But I always had an interest in history, military history particularly. I'm of that generation whose parents took part in World War II, whose grandparents took part in World War I.

So, I had this interest in military history and I'd done some hobby work on gaming back in the '80s. As some video games came out around the late '90s, I started to take an interest again. That interest went from playing to going, "I bet I could do better." This was in the early days of what's called modding, taking somebody else's game and modify it. And teams came together, came and went on the internet, sometimes very rapidly.

I ended up working with a bunch of guys on a mod called Red Orchestra, which we entered for Nvidia's $1 million Make Something Unreal Contest back in 2003. We went on to win lots of prizes, winning the whole thing outright. We had a lot of press attention and it led four of us to go, "What do we actually do with this? I suppose we should start a company." So we did.

We founded the company early 2005. We were one of the very first games signed up on Valve's Steam distribution service in 2005. We released our first game in 2006 and made enough money to stay in business. I was actually living in London, England, and the office was here in Roswell, Georgia. So in 2007, I moved myself and the family, my wife and daughter, across the pond. We've been here 11 and a half years now.

The four of us set up the company. Like a lot of startups, it went through its ups and downs in the early years. We became more and more successful and now we're in our third office with 85 people here. More people scattered in partner companies around the world, making plenty of money and having a good time.

 

Thank you for sharing. I'm smiling right now because it's been such an organic journey.

Yes, very much so. Yeah, it was not one of these where we had the ultimate product in mind and had been fighting to get it to market for 5-10 years.

The stress came because one of our key things was maintaining our independence, which historically was very hard to do in this industry.

Typically, you wouldn't make enough money to keep yourself afloat. You'd be reliant on publisher funding. Ten years ago, once they'd got their claws into you, you were probably going to end up working for them, which was not the way we wanted to go. That's always been a challenge, is to keep ourselves afloat and completely independent. It was not the easiest way to do it, but it worked out.

 

I would love to learn more about how the experience has been like for you as a founder. I come from the VC-backed world, but I would love to understand more about the video game industry.

One thing to keep in mind is that we're in a pretty unusual position. Unless you have a smash hit, like an 8 million unit selling game first time out, you're doing it off your own money or trying to get funding from elsewhere.

What tends to happen is that someone gets together either with someone with cash or people pitch one of the big publishers and go, "Hey, look, we're building this game. We can't finish it on our own. Do you want to help fund it?" That tends to be a very common model. It's been the model for 20 or 30 years now.

The catch with that was always that once the publisher gets their claws into you on the funding, it becomes, “We'll put the money up. You guys will build the game. We'll own the IP." At this point we'd go, "Whoa, wait a minute. Hang on. If you fund it and you will own the IP, what do we have?" And the answer is, "Well, we might let you make the sequel." And we're going, “Jeez, even if we succeed, the best we can hope for is that someone will let us make a sequel to our own game. That sucks.”

But you realize that there weren't any other ways to get funding. There were no other ways to get your game to market except through the big publishers. What Valve did with Steam was to provide a route to the market for companies like us. We were on the absolute forefront of that wave. We were the third non-Valve title released on Steam. And we made money doing it.

We kind of bucked the model just because there was no way we were going to put all this effort in and get into the situation where we didn't own our own future. That got quite stressful. To put it in perspective, apart from developing and designing games that I actually enjoyed doing, I did all the finance, all the “exciting” stuff. We used to joke that my title was Vice President. What does that mean? It means you're the person who does all the shit that nobody else wants.

We finally got to the point two or three years ago, where I actually had a full-time chief accountant who is now Chief Financial Officer. Up until that point, I'd looked at our sales, our forecasts, and our headcounts every single day for ten years.

I felt I couldn't take my eye off that stuff. Sure, on the good days you're going, "Hey look, we've got money in the bank. Good." On bad days you're going, "Oh, we've got 36 days left. Nope, it's 35 days left, 34 days left." And you don't realize just how much that stuff grinds on you. You lose hair and go gray fairly rapidly through those patches.

 

There's definitely high risk, high reward.

When you are building commercial technology, you've got a very distinct product in mind and you can write out all the requirements.

With games, because it's entertainment, the product that you start to make is not well-known. You're kind of making it up as you go along, so it's a bizarre combination of a very, very creative environment that is very free-thinking yet trying to build technology. The clash of creativity while delivering a product that has to be finished, tested, and debugged.

Sometimes, it is like: We're building a first person game. Congratulations, you need to build this house that we painted. Now you need to build all the furniture in that house, and no, you can’t go and build frogs. You're building chairs this month. It's an interesting juxtaposition.

 

Yeah, it's so fascinating just even hearing you describe it. There's really this feeling of grittiness. It's not as pretty or as clean cut as people imagine. When it comes to stressful times, what has helped you continue to push forward?

That's a hard one. It's a combination of things. It's different things on different days. There's genuinely been days for me personally you're going, “Look, I shut down my business around the banking center in London and moved my family across the Atlantic. If this thing fails, what the hell am I going to do? How am I going to feed my family? How am I even going to take them home? Where do we go and what the hell am I going to do?”

It's almost that desperation of, “Oh dear God, this has to work. There is no alternative.” There are times there's that thought – and it's an ugly one. I can certainly see how if you spiral down into that one, it digs a deep, dark hole very quickly.

Flip side is this example. In 2011, we were getting a game out the door and we were up against the stops in terms of cash. Our forecast showed how long we had to go before we ran out of money. And we knew that we had a good game on our hands. It had been previewed. There was strong interest, all the rest of it. We just had to get it done.

We know we can get this done. We are going to run out of time, so we've got to use every hour just to get it done. The drive was more about knowing that this is going to work. It kept us you driving.

There are also those general "fuck you" moments, when most of the industry has forecast our impending death. “Well, fuck you, pal. We're not going down. We're going to show you that it can be done differently.” That obstinate bloody minded streak.

 

In those moments where it's really stressful and things can get really intense, sometimes tough conversations are needed. What has helped you in terms of taking care of your emotional wellbeing?

The ability to share the problem does help. We're somewhat blessed with having each other [four co-founders] to fall back on, having a supportive team. With four of us, John takes the president role and is ultimately driven. Bill, who is kind of creative director, he's ultimately optimistic. And you've got two of us who are much more middle of the road.

I can be bloody stubborn at times and part of it is that we'll talk through the issues. We'll go through it and realize what we're facing. You've got enough variant personalities in that group that someone will lift the rest again. At the point where your heads are going down, you're going, "God, I can't do this anymore," one of the others will lift you up.

I mean, if all four heads go down, I suppose if that had ever happened, we probably would have crashed and burned. But it's an advantage of having more people involved, is just that there's always someone who can see the way forward, who can see the light at the end of the tunnel, whatever expression you want to use. I mean, I haven't been in a solo funded company actually ever, now I think about it. I've always worked with at least one other.

We do joke about the fact that it's been 14 years now and we haven't killed each other yet. All four of us are still in conversation and dialoguing, having each other's backs. We've had our ups and downs.

 

Most definitely. I love your share because it relates so much to this movement we are creating with For Founders by Founders. When I talk with founders, a lot of them go, “I know that there's something I need to say, but I've been avoiding it. Or there's a conversation that I should be having with a co-founder or an investor or an advisor or client, but I'm scared to do it.”

With four co-founders who have stayed together for 14 years, how do you do it? How do you go about having brave conversations with each other? I feel like if leaders had this capacity, it would go a long way for mental health as well.

It's because we came in with shared goals and we've always been very open with each other. We had that element right from the get go. It may help that at the moment it's three Americans and a Brit. Brits can be quite blunt. I'll just say things. We're proud of the business. But it's ours, it's shared.

With mental health, there are societal blocks against talk about that stuff. There are societal blocks about talking to some friend, random stranger, or whatever about, "Oh God, I think my business is about to shit the bucket."

For me, part of it is an age thing. My generation, you didn't talk about stuff like this. You just said “Oh, get on with it. Pull yourself together.” But these blocks, they are something I want us to start to overcome in this industry.

You talk about founders. For me, it applies across the board in my industry, for everybody in this business. You're thinking about, “How do you get people start to the conversation? How do you allow people to recognize these things as actual issues that can and should be addressed?”

A recognition that look, that mental health is an issue for every single one of us in some shape or form. And opening up about that, I don't know. It is something that we've been talking about internally now in the business. How do we do that for health, for ourselves, and as well as that for all the employees?

We're actually running the first-ever session entitled Ethical Behavior and Communication Plan Training, which is a long winded way of saying, "How do we actually behave with each other? What are acceptable behaviors? How do we handle the exceptions to that? Like when I can see that the guy at the next desk is having a shitty time at the moment. What can we do about it?”

 

I appreciate your honesty. As a society, we're heading into this newer world where the lines between the personal and the professional are blurry. The questions that you asked is why I started this movement. I know for me, my work was affected by the loss of my brother. How can we create a workplace that can handle emotions?

The last question that I have, I am excited to ask because of the many experiences you have had. When you reflect back on just your journey, what is one lesson or message you wish to impart?

Talk to people. This is where events like Fireside may be worth more than you even realize. There is an opportunity, because sometimes it's easier to talk to people you don't know.

Going to peer events can be a big help. This is where things like mentorship can come in. It is especially true for founders, people who are setting up and running their own businesses. Almost no one going into it understands just what they're taking on, and there's a bazillion pitfalls and pain points and all the rest of it.

There's this guy I've been doing some mentoring for. He's in Boston, I'm in Atlanta. We may meet sometime. It's just the fact that there's someone he can talk to about certain issues and realize that no, he's not alone. A, other people have had those issues, and B, they've not only had those issues but they've also, some people have also struggled horrendously with those issues. C, some of those people have come through the other side. Not all of them, but it's okay, this really is hard. There's nothing wrong with me for finding this hard. Other people have found it at least as hard as I do. How did they cope?

There was someone we met at Fireside, who seems tough as nails on the outside. After that chat we had, you realize that no, she isn't. Underneath it all, there's still the same human damn problems going on, and suddenly the penny drops.

It's finding those people you do not need to put that face on for, and then persuading yourself to take that face off and just talk.

 

Yeah, even though the journey is hard, it is a reminder to find those people who can be authentic friends or just genuine supporters of what we're doing without having to put on a mask. Being free to be ourselves.

It is important to find networks where people aren’t using it as a bloody sales vehicle. There are plenty of people who have gone through the journey. They've enjoyed it like I do now and want to talk about it.

I can talk about the shit I did wrong twenty years ago, people are still doing wrong today. So I wasn't the moron in the room. Everyone does it. In that respect, it's a bit validating.

 

Thank you for sharing all of that, for being such a supporter of mental health in your industry. I hope this movement can bring us together and start the dialogue.

My pleasure. I come from that sort of background where there is an imperative to give back. Thank you for pushing mental health and for what you're doing with For Founders by Founders. I'll be very interested to see how that rolls out!

 
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