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Green Man Gaming is a 14-year overnight success | Paul Sulyok interview

Green Man Gaming got started 14 years ago as an e-commerce site based in the United Kingdom. It worked with companies like Steam and others to sell in-game keys at retail and discounted prices which could be redeemed by customers on gaming platforms.

Now Green Man Gaming is available in 195 countries and it works directly with 2,500 game publishers around the world. It accepts payments in 28 currencies and has 140 payment systems. The company expanded in 2012 with the purchase of Playfile, a community that does a lot of support. And starting in 2015, Green Man Gaming became a publisher of indie titles as well. Now it’s not necessarily in the shadow of the biggest ecommerce companies anymore.

I caught up with Sulyok at the Game Developers Conference for an interview.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

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Paul Sulyok is CEO of Green Man Gaming.

GamesBeat: Can you give us a primer on Green Man Gaming?

Paul Sulyok: Green Man Gaming does two things. We are an e-commerce store, so we sell digital games from 19 different platforms to customers in 195 countries around the world. We accept 28 currencies, 140 payment systems. We work with about 2,500 publishers directly. That’s part of our business. As always with a U.K. company, it’s been a 14-year overnight success. We have a great team. We started out with about 26 different publishers. Very kind and very trusting publishers for a new site. Then we built it up over time.

We extended it out in 2012. We purchased a company called Playfile, a community that does a lot of support. In 2015 and 2016 we extended what we did up the video games vertical to becoming a publisher of indie titles as well. We’ve modularized that approach. We offer publishing. We have a small fund for those games. We also have the ability to distribute on behalf of partners. We offer marketing services. There’s a professional services layer as well as the straight publishing, and then there’s the store.

The interesting thing about Green Man Gaming as opposed to many other players in the market is that many others often start out as studios. Then they become publishers, then they become retailers. We started out as an e-commerce platform in the retail section and worked our way up the food chain. It’s allowed us to use the information, the data we have, what customers show and tell us, and allow that to inform our decisions about the games we publish.

We’ve had some great successes with the distribution side of things. Partners of ours include Victura, from Six Days in Fallujah. Ten Chambers, GTFO. We’re working with Ready or Not, the team there. We distribute their games as well. It’s a very live and dynamic part of what we do. And then for some of the larger publishers we offer marketing services as well.

GamesBeat: Things might not be as gloomy as they seem from the news.

Sulyok: The video games industry has had many ups and many downs. Clearly there are a lot of people who are being affected by some of the economic changes that are taking place, the restructuring that’s taking place. I’m deeply saddened when friends and colleagues of mine are impacted by this. You have to always bear in mind that there’s a human element to these changes that are taking place. There are professionals and their families impacted by it.

What I would say is that the way the video games industry is structured right now, it’s almost as if you imagine the storm hits the forest. When the storm hits the forest historically in the games industry, the acorns are shaken down from the big tree. A couple of years later the forest floor is covered with saplings. Given the nature and the structure and the creativity in the video games industry, the changes that are taking place, rather than stifle inspiration, will actually encourage inspiration. People that were in larger publishing houses or mid-tier publishing houses will move to set up their own studios. They’ll have a piece of IP they believe in alongside a number of friends and colleagues. They’ll be the next generation of small, medium-sized, and potentially large studios coming through the ecosystem.

That’s the positive way of looking at it. Because of the creative nature of what we do in video games, it allows people to have their imagination flow. You don’t need to have a huge team to create a physics engine, to launch a game. The tools that are available to make games now, freely available, can be applied for the next generation of creative thoughts around video games.

Green Man Gaming is in 195 countries.

GamesBeat: Structurally, what things are different now for games? We see a lot of gaming VCs out there now. The co-development companies are pretty big. AI is coming along to help make people more efficient.

Sulyok: Absolutely. The AI play is interesting. It will enable creators of video games and studios to do more, to make their games more engaging. I don’t think it’s ever going to replace the original creative elements of games. Video games are a combination of two fantastic factors. It’s dreamers and poets with great creativity combined with hardcore technology, market-leading technology, in order to create the engines. The merging of those two is never going to change. What I think AI will do is allow video game creation to be faster, to be more realistic, potentially more non-linear than the games of 10 or 15 years ago. It will allow the creative elements of studios to be flexed more rather than less.

GamesBeat: People are wondering about different things coming in 2024. Do we see some evidence of an upturn and when that might be more obvious?

Sulyok: Clearly there will be an up cycle. The phrase I’ve heard a lot at GDC is “survive to ‘25.” A lot of people are thinking that now. Studios are cutting down their slates. Studios are tightening up on their overheads, their costs. Will there be some casualties? I think there already are, and there will be potentially some more. But to answer half of the question, I don’t think we’re at the bottom yet. I think we have a way to go.

GamesBeat: There’s an interesting notion that if you survive to 2025, you’re just in time to get killed by Grand Theft Auto VI.

Sulyok: As a lifelong fan of the Grand Theft Auto franchise, and as a retailer–whatever happens in the industry, when GTA comes out it’s always a good year for the entire industry. It doesn’t matter whether you’re directly involved with it as we are – we partner with Take-Two – or whether you’re just a part of the industry full stop. It provides that shot in the arm.

But there’s a bigger picture here. Certainly on our side of the water in the U.K., the stabilizing of the economy–there’s political instability right now, which feeds through to the entire economy, the banking system, the finance houses, the venture capitalists, the investors, and the private equity houses. On the U.S. side I’m less informed, but I think this is a historic year, with more elections taking place than anywhere else. When we get through that phase and there’s a road map to stability overall, coupled with a bit of GTA, I think it will be very good indeed.

GamesBeat: The Digital Markets Act is here. Does that create opportunity for Green Man in particular? I don’t know if that’s too much on the edge of what you do.

Sulyok: It is kind of on the edge. It’s not something that we really consider in detail.

GamesBeat: I do think that the more open the markets get, the more opportunity there will be for broader growth. I look forward to seeing more of that happen, as opposed to more industry revenues falling into the hands of the middle players, the big platforms. You want to see developers be able to reinvest in better things.

Sulyok: It’s healthy for the industry. I’m a firm believer in–if you cast your mind back to when you had AOL, and then you had Google, and everyone looked to Google and said, “I don’t really understand what they’re doing or how they’re doing it.” AOL was a closed platform and Google was an open platform. From my perspective, it’s my lifelong conviction that open is better. Open is better for all participants, all customers, and the market as a whole. It leads to a healthier, more vibrant, more competitive market. For me, that’s where video games need to go and where we need to be. That vibrancy delivers creativity, and creativity is the lifeblood of video games.

GamesBeat: Do you expect a different kind of year for publishing this year? I saw someone circulating some statistics on social media, saying that 30 publishers went out of business last year. It sounds like it’s not an easy business to be in.

Sulyok: No, it’s not an easy business. We all know that publishing video game is a high risk business. If you miss once then you’re in trouble. If you miss twice you’re in deep trouble. Chances are you won’t get a third chance. We’re very lucky in that we don’t just have the publishing side of the business. We have the e-commerce side of the business underpinning it. That allows us to provide the professional services side of things as well.

We have a layer cake approach to our business. That, in turn, allows us to give some longevity of support for the studios we work with from a publishing perspective. We’ve been around for 14 years, almost 15. We’ll continue to be there. We’re funding our publishing business with our own cash. That cross-dependency of revenue streams, and our general understanding of what’s appealing to customers and how to represent that–the stat that I heard recently was that in 2022 there were more than 16,000 games released on Steam. Last year were 30,000 or 35,000 games released on Steam. It’s important for a studio to be able to break through that, to be able to capture the imagine of customers in the segment that are interested in their particular genre. You can have the best sim game in the world, but if no one knows about it, you won’t make enough money to cover your costs.

GamesBeat: Do you think there are some particular categories on the rise?

Green Man Gaming was founded 14 years ago.

Sulyok: In general, we see a fragmentation of interests by gamers. If you wind the clock back 10 years, there were some very big hits that everybody wanted to engage with. Now there’s a whole slew of genres, types of games, community-based games, single-player games. A gamer now has such a choice that realistically, they zero in on one particular genre or one type of game and that’s what they want to see. The creativity that’s out there allows gamers to pick and choose. Given the digital platforms that are out there, you don’t need to sell an awful lot of games at Wal-Mart or the outlets in the U.K. where you’re fighting for shelf space. People can dive into a platform like Green Man Gaming and see exactly what they want to see. It’s highlighted for them out of thousands of games.

GamesBeat: I like how I can play Call of Duty year-round. That’s my thing. The separation into interest groups–I used to try to play everything, but that never worked very well.

Sulyok: I try to play one game at a time, where I like playing it a lot. I really want to get immersed in it. My last game was Starfield. I’m not quite finished with it yet. But I do like the whole sci-fi exploring worlds type of thing. And then the other one for me has always been Rust. That’s my go-back-to game.

GamesBeat: What do you think about the things we see on the edges right now – VR, blockchain, metaverse? Markets that are expansionary.

Sulyok: Coming at it from a commercial perspective, clearly you need to have a large enough installed base to be able to maintain the development community that’s contributing. Otherwise you’re in a loss-making situation. All the core platforms realize that they have to fund content in order to make the platform successful. Which, to some extent, they’re doing right now, but certainly with VR I don’t think there’s quite as much. With AR, Pokemon Go has been a tremendous success and a classic example of that sort of technology combined with a good idea. From the VR perspective, we’re not quite there yet. It will have its moment. There will be that game that everyone wants. If you think back to a long time ago when Half-Life came out, everybody downloaded Steam because they wanted to play Half-Life 2.

We went down the streaming route with Stadia, and of course that’s not there now. People invested quite a lot in the streaming side of things. I’m not necessarily sure that the technology is there yet, but somebody will break through. There’s a way ahead for that particular sector. To your point from earlier on, how you consume is immaterial. Whether it’s on your phone, your tablet, your PC, your console, it’s the creativity behind it. The IP sits in the middle, and then you have all the different ways you can consume it, including collectibles, comics, TV series. I believe there are a couple of big announcements around games moving to TV in the near future. It’s interesting that it always comes back down to the story and the experience.

GamesBeat: Games are still demonstrating that they can come out on top of that entertainment pile. Monopoly Go, at $2 billion in revenue, is bigger than the year’s biggest movies.

Sulyok: Video games are significantly larger than Hollywood. I’m not sure about the stats now, but I think it’s about two times, two and a half times. It’s six times the size of digital music. Unfortunately for the video games industry, we’re not considered quite as cool as our brethren over there. But yes, the association between IP and the way you consume it–whether you want to buy Barbie: The Video Game now, or whether it’s a video game that’s transposed across into a TV series, like the Last of Us, it all circles around the IP. How you consume it is the different thing.

GamesBeat: Despite whatever headwinds exist, it still seems like we see inexorable growth in video games. Around 80% of people play them. Kids three and under are a category of gamers now.

Green Man Gaming

Sulyok: And there’s the senior side of things. It’s been proven multiple times that as someone gets older, if they’re challenging their brains with puzzle-solving–clearly there’s a physical element of getting older, but there’s the mental element as well. You have to keep your brain working. Video games are a very good way of doing that.

GamesBeat: Cycles are still here with us. They’ve not going away. Despite all the forward progress and growth in gaming, we can still face tough years.

Sulyok: We need to look at the tough years and the backdrop of why those tough years happen. There’s a macroeconomic impact that we feel in our industry. Fortunately we’re not the steel industry or the cement industry. The flexibility and adaptability of most participants in the video games industry will serve us true, and I think our industry will bounce back a lot faster than some of the more heavy-duty engineering or industrial sectors out there.

GamesBeat: How do you feel about different regions of the world, as far as future growth?

Sulyok: I was lucky enough to go to IGDC in Hyderabad, India. It was a very interesting environment, a really dynamic environment there. They are clearly a 5G nation. They’re actually looking at 6G right now. As an Englishman, where we’re lucky if we have 4G, it’s a whole different ballgame there. They’ve made the jump. Traditionally their PC and console markets were very limited. What I’m seeing there in the scene, and I think it’s been recognized by Epic and some of the other big players in the market as well, is that developers and studios that work there initially started off doing mobile. Then they started doing work for hire with some of the big publishing houses. The guys that were doing work for hire are now setting up their own studios.

Again, it comes back to that analogy of the storm coming through the forest. There are an awful lot of saplings on the forest floor of India coming up with fantastic IP and fantastic concepts. But the direction they’re going in is down the PC route. The costs of launching a PC game are significantly less than a mobile game. The cost of acquisition versus the ARPPU on a mobile game is tiny. You need to have a lot of firepower behind you to get it out there in the market. Whereas on a PC game it’s less, and the margins are sweeter.

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