When Monolith first released Blood across the internet, the Demo was one of the hottest downloads of the year. With that game, the little house in Seattle went from a developer most gamers had never heard of to one of the frontrunners in the action race.
The company recently moved into the precarious world of self-publishing, launching its own title "Get Medieval." Early word on the game says it's doing quite well, and it seems as though the company may have made the transition cleanly. This is a particularly impressive feat in a marketplace where PC publishers have been vanishing right and left and the name of the game is "Be a Top 5 Publisher or DIE!"
We spoke to Jason Hall, the CEO of Monolith, about the past and future of the company and the trials and tribulations of self publishing.
When was Monolith founded, and by whom?
Monolith was founded in 1994 by Jason Hall, Bryan Bouwman, Brian Goble,
Garrett Price, Toby Gladwell, and Paul Renault. We had been working
together at Edmark Corporation,
producing edutainment titles, but in our free time we were making cool
gaming technology demos. Our first published
game was Blood, which was quite the calling card. Blood 2 : The Chosen is
currently in the works, and it, along with Shogo: Mobile Armor Division,
showcases our Lith Tech engine. This engine began life as the Direct
Engine, a project we were working on for Microsoft before we took it
Why was Monolith founded?
We wanted to form a group that was highly motivated to produce fantastic
entertainment. We have a vision--produce quality content, no matter what
it takes. The belief is that
if we stick to this vision, people will notice. Bringing this vision to
reality is an extreme challenge!
Monolith is involved in development, publishing, and technological
development. Was this always a part of the plan for the company, or did
start out as a development house and branch out into technology and
Actually, we started with technology, branched into game development, and
now we are publishing.
Monolith initially started out as a "demo crew."
A few years back there were very high profile programming/creative (demo)
competitions that were held in Europe on a routine basis. Basically, the
"demos" that were being judged at these events would be incredible displays
of programming prowess showing just how far you could push a VGA card
graphically on the current computers of the time (which were 486's). Demo
groups such as The Future Crew and Renaissance really raised the bar on
was perceived to be "kick ass graphics programming..."
We wanted to compete in those contests and show everybody how "cool" we
At the time, everyone was creating their demos to run in DOS. We thought
that it would be cool to show that if you were tricky enough, you could do
the same stuff in Windows 3.1! At the time, Windows 3.1 was notorious for
being too slow for fast graphics.
To make a long story short, we made some incredible stuff that ran under
Windows 3.1 and before we had a chance to enter the competition (which was
called Assembly '94) we were contacted by Microsoft. They had somehow seen
the stuff we were working on and were impressed with what we achieved using
The rest is history!
So in the very beginning there was no real plan, just cool technology. As
our responsibilities grew with Monolith so did our need to have a clear
plan. So we put one together based on our desire to have a family oriented
company atmosphere that is conducive to creating fun games!
Does Monolith see itself as a developer first? A licenser of technology?
publisher? What part of your business is the most successful?
Monolith sees itself as a hungry new company that wants to be successful.
try to approach our work with a thoughtful eye toward a profitable
When did Monolith decide to move into publishing?
When we finally all agreed that the "developer-only" business model would
not support our efforts to attain the goals that we have set for ourselves
and the company. This was probably back around November/December of last
year. It was a decision that we evolved into, not any kind of
What were the biggest roadblocks to self-publishing?
Well, the obvious one is money. Publishing is not cheap. Assuming that you
have the means to attempt a publishing effort, the next thing you run
into is a need for expertise. You need good, strong people involved in your
you need relationships that you can depend on, along with good anticipated
believe we've put the right people in place to make our publishing efforts
as our development endeavors.
Self-publishing is not for the timid. You have to be prepared.
Developers often complain about big publishers, but I can tell you first
hand that they offer a lot, and do much more than the average developer
realizes. I can see firsthand how publishers have become what they are, the
good and the bad. Generally though, they have achieved a lot for the
industry, so Monolith always gives fellow developers and publishers the
respect they deserve.
What was the biggest advantage?
You make more money. You have much more control over your own destiny. If
your company in successful, your company's overall value skyrockets. As far
as I know, there are no game development companies worth $100,000,000 that do
not also publish.
There is just a much bigger end-game in publishing. There is however, a lot
more risk, stress, frustrations, etc...
I wouldn't necessarily say that being a publisher is better, I just think
depends on who you are and what your goals are. That's all.
We hear all the time how impossible it is to work with the Distributor's in
the industry. What was your experience with Get Medieval?
It's fairly early to comment, but we work with a solid team of distributors
and so far, so good.
We have good relationships with all our distributors, and we have the full
intention of keeping it that way.
How is the game selling for you?
It is still too early to tell as the product has only officially been
released for [two weeks]! I do know however that if it wasn't passing retailers
basic run-rate formula I'd be hearing about it by now!
I have personally been to several stores where it has already sold out, and
have already received reorders. You can't ask for much more for a first
effort in the
How much more money do you end up having to put into a self-published title
over a title like, say, Blood?
A lot more. You have to pay for a lot of stuff up front. Boxes, ads, CD
cases, blah blah blah... Let's just say that if you spend 1 Million on
development of a game title, expect to spend anywhere from 500,000 to 2,000,000 on
the rest, dependent on so many factors. It's not cheap, and you could lose
and it's your money!
Has your relationship with the big publishers changed now that you're
entering into their world?
Not really. It might change if we sell a million units of something (think
Shogo), but we still have every intention of working with them on projects
too. Monolith always looks for good partners, and the fact is that we are
still a small company with a lot of future - and options - ahead of us
If anything, it's given us a little more respect. When a big publisher type
walks into a store and sees a Monolith product on the shelf, which we put
the reality hits them that we really can do it!
Which have you enjoyed most-the building of Monolith, being a development
house, or moving into the world of publishing?
I just enjoy working with all these great people. It really doesn't matter
what we are doing at the time, they are just great people to spend my time
with. I feel blessed that they allow me to be their "Commando CEO" and I
hard not to disappoint them. I will never take credit for all the hard work
that everyone puts into our games, it is a total team effort. If Monolith
becomes very successful, it will not be because they have some nifty CEO,
will be because everyone at Monolith worked hard and gave it their best
You are a very visible CEO -- what with a .plan file, and your Quake
challenges. How do you see your relationship with the consumer?
Generally, I don't feel all that visible. It's
kind of weird in that respect. I guess it is because I feel like I am the
consumer in a way. We're a gamers company and that comes across.
It is my belief that at the end of the day, what really matters
is that when a gamer buys your product, they need to feel that they got
their money's worth. I think that gamers buy games to have fun. Not just
special effects, or anything else... I feel that a game needs to first and
foremost be fun to play. I really wish game reviewers included that topic
their analysis of game products. They seem to have a tendency to dwell on
lighting effects, or mip mapping blah blah blah...After I read a review, I
always want to say, "Yeah, but with all of that aside, is the game fun to
play? I mean, did you have fun?"
So anyway, I have my .plan and my e-mail, and I talk to a lot of gamers out
there and I try to check my perception of fun against theirs and it seems
match up most of the time!
What's your favorite thing about being in the gaming industry?
All the people are generally very nice, as well as intelligent. It's
generally laid-back all the time, and that helps to make the stress levels
feel lower (but they are still high). What other industry can say that?
What's do you loath most about this industry?
The high risk element. You can lose a lot of money very quickly in a
hit-driven-business! Hey, ask the people in Hollywood! They know all about
it... heh heh heh!
Is Monolith going to stay a publisher, or will it just be selected titles,
when you feel it is warranted?
Monolith is going to stay a publisher. We are not trying to be EA or
anything like that...we are just trying to be a good strong business. We
will continue to work with other publishers on some titles, and also
continue to publish our own. It seems to be a win-win situation for
everyone. At least for the time being. [Winks]
With so many small publishers having died in the past two or three years,
are you worried?
Of course! Like I said it is a risky business and I'm not going to stand in
front of you and say "Dude, it's no problem. We're infallible."
That is far from the truth!
The bottom line is that Monolith is taking a calculated and well thought
risk. We have some excellent products to publish for this fall season and
stack up against our competition nicely. Shogo is going "gold"
it is looking kick ass.
We've just shipped Get Medieval, and it has been received extremely well.
In the near future we are publishing an RPG (Rage of Mages), which is our
product, from a group of Russian developers.
Then, in early '99 we have an
puzzle-strategy game called Gruntz, which has a real 'South Park'-style
streak of humor to it
Things look good, but as you know there are always risks. Stuff can happen
tomorrow that could change
everything, but it is my job to keep the faith, share the vision, and
opportunity for Monolith - and that is what I'm going to do!
If you could have published any game in the history of video games, which
would it be? Why?
Well, there are 2 ways to look at this. One way is from a monetary
viewpoint, another way is from an ego viewpoint.
I'll assume that when you say "published" you also mean developed too... so
(by the way this is just my opinion, I'm sure there are others at Monolith
who'd pick differently!)
From a monetary viewpoint -
Myst. No question. Look at the numbers. My god... It is still like number 7
or something on the sales charts today! Incredible...
From an ego viewpoint -
Doom / Doom 2. People can say what they want to about id software, but the
fact is that they had damn good ideas at the right time. They have my total
respect. They always stick to the basics. They didn't necessarily create a
genre, but they definitely made it more high profile and profitable, and
brought new ideas and - importantly - standards to the game community.
They are now a
permanent part of gaming history. It is very impressive. Not to mention
those products made a substantial amount of money and created a legacy.
Monolith will do the same. Mark my words.