Chances are, you might not have heard of the German company United Games Entertainment, but you'll almost certainly have heard of one of its sub-brands.
Strictly Limited Games, for example, is one of the many firms currently pushing special editions of modern titles, while ININ Games has forged publishing relationships with a host of esteemed Japanese firms. United Games Entertainment also partakes in digital publishing via its Games Rocket brand, while its McGame.com portal highlights deals and promotions.
Via these subsidiaries, United Games Entertainment has been involved with titles such as Darius Cozmic Revelation, Wonder Boy: Asha In Monster World, Cotton Reboot, Turrican Flashback, Rolling Gunner, Star Renegades, Space Invaders Forever and Bubble Bobble 4 Friends.
So, while the name might not be instantly familiar, there's a good chance the company's efforts have had some impact on your gaming life over the past few years. Keen to learn a little more about the firm and the people behind it, we sat down with CEO Helmut Schmitz and Head of Publishing Dennis Mendel.
Nintendo Life: Could you give us some background on your history as gamers?
Dennis Mendel: My first console was the Mattel Intellivision; this, combined with the fact that my mother ran a book store with all these interesting video game magazines readily at hand, games started slowly but surely to make their way into my life (and into our household as all these physical copies and consoles/computers really take up a lot of space).
After Commodore 64 and Amiga, the most famous home computers in Germany, I got more and more fascinated by video game consoles and the creativity of the Japanese game developers. I mean, sure I had already enjoyed a lot of Japanese games even before PC Engine and Mega Drive replaced toys as my most wanted gift for Christmas and birthday (for example, Rainbow Islands was the first game I bought for Amiga). But at that young age, I just wasn’t aware of the fact that they were of Japanese origin – this awareness came only later. So, I can say that games have always been an integral part of my life, and of course, I am not the only one in our company with this passion.
I think this affection and the respect that we all have for video games, in general, and Japanese titles, in particular, was and still is a driving force for establishing good relations within the game industry
I think this affection and the respect that we all have for video games, in general, and Japanese titles, in particular, was and still is a driving force for establishing good relations within the game industry.
What were you doing in the games industry prior to founding your network of companies?
DM: With games always being with me in one way or another, it was inevitable that I started to study media science and Japanese at university (nearly every paper I wrote there had something to do with video games). This led me to do more research about video game history and game literacy among other game-related topics, and then I had the opportunity to “switch sides” from game science to business, with the first stop being Square-Enix in London.
Can you tell us your motivations for starting your group of companies?
Helmut Schmitz: Nothing is more fun than creating products and services that people love. That's not only my motivation but the motivation of the whole team. When we have the chance to dig up a great game and revive it, that's really cool. And of course, we hope that we’re not the only guys being excited about it, but also our customers. The excitement remains until we announce the game, and when we get such positive feedback from customers and media around the world, as we did with Clockwork Aquario, it's fantastic and motivates us to keep going full steam ahead.
The fact that several successful companies have emerged from this is actually only a consequence, but not the original intention. It is all about great games and happy customers.
What's it been like working with such esteemed Japanese companies as Sega and Taito? Was there an element of earning their trust before a working relationship could begin?
DM: Being a big fan of these companies (I mean their games accompanied me from the beginning), it is of course a great honour to be working with them. We know all of their titles very well so it goes without saying that we want to make sure that their wonderful works are being treated with all the respect and care they deserve. I think that’s of crucial importance for any good partnership, as nobody wants to see the fruits of their hard labour being treated badly.
Working with franchises like Darius and Wonder Boy must be a pretty amazing experience, given how legendary they are in the games industry?
DM: Oh boy, it is. If someone would have told teenage me that one day, he would get the chance to meet and work together with a genius like Nishizawa-san, he would never have believed it. I think many people still aren’t fully aware of how important the work of Japanese video game devs really was; where would video games be today without the creativity and innovation that the “visual generation” had put into making all these wonderful games (despite all the limitations imposed by the hardware back then) after the big crash in the 1980s? They revived the market and inspired generations of developers all over the world and we can see a lot of parallels between those Japanese creative minds back then and the indie scene of today... I am often wondering if Roger Ebert would ever have changed his mind if he were still with us and could see all this creative power, but that’s a different story.
Clockwork Aquario is an example of the sterling work you're doing with 'lost' titles. How difficult is it to resurrect a 'dead' game? How does a project like that even begin?
From a publisher’s point of view, a project like Clockwork Aquario is highly unreasonable because the problem with this kind of project is, that when you start, you cannot know how the game will turn out in the end simply because nearly nobody has ever seen it in action or even played it
DM: We love games, but as a company, we also need to make sure that what we do is economically feasible. From a publisher’s point of view, a project like Clockwork Aquario is highly unreasonable because the problem with this kind of project is, that when you start, you cannot know how the game will turn out in the end simply because nearly nobody has ever seen it in action or even played it. And if it turns out to be not as exciting as expected, you would not even be able to alter the game as this would go against the intention of bringing back a believed-to-be-lost piece of gaming history in the form the creators had originally envisioned it.
But my father always said “you’ve got to be in it to win it” – so if we really want to make a difference, we sometimes have to take the risk and just do it. Of course, we try to be reasonable most of the time just because this gives us financial stability and serves as a solid base to start projects like Ultracore or Aquario. From there, a good amount of irrationality and naivety can lead to great things!
I cannot think of any bad game that Westone has created, so chances were high that Clockwork Aquario will meet all the expectations one would have from a company that gave birth to the Wonder Boy series. So in the beginning, there were a lot of conversations going on; we talked with former members of Westone and the license holders and basically, everyone else who had contact with Clockwork Aquario in the past years (or rather decades). It was important to find out how much of the source code still existed and after we were trusted with the precious data, our team immediately started to work on it. After a few weeks, we already had some animations and graphics from the game to be enjoyed, and from that point on it was clear that we can make it.
Do you have any other, similar 'lost' projects in the works?
DM: Of course, we do not have any plans on stopping with these unreasonable endeavours – as long as we have friends to support us, we will bring back more treasures from the past. Maybe not all of them were “lost”; some just never made it to home consoles or found their way outside of Japan, but every single game has a background that we would like to tell and people we would like to introduce to the gamers out there.
When it comes to boxed games, which current format has been the most successful for you?
HS: The content of the games is key for us. And if we have the possibilities, we generally try to offer the games on as many platforms as possible. A good example of this is that we also support old platforms like Sega Mega Drive, NES and SNES where we can. There are still many fans of these old platforms who are happy to get their hands on new games. Of course, we support current platforms like Xbox, Playstation 4 and 5 and, of course, Nintendo Switch – and sometimes even PC. However, considering the content of our games, Nintendo Switch is a perfect platform for us and subsequently very strong.
Sales data shows that the market is moving towards digital, but physical games remain popular with collectors. How difficult is it to straddle the gap between physical and digital when you're running a company which is so focused on boxed products?
DM: Digital download games are convenient; if you want to play a different title you don’t need to swap media, you just quit one game and select the other. The games can easily be downloaded from the digital download stores of the platform holders at any time. This all sounds just perfect, right?
But many games just disappear in the masses of digital downloads being offered every week. Having a great product is unfortunately not enough and not everyone is reading news outlets like Nintendo Life to get all relevant information about new releases. Physical publishing still has some weight here – it is a form of curation and refinement of games, something to underline the fact that games are not simply goods to be consumed and forgotten afterwards, they are cultural works that deserve our attention and appreciation.
Let’s take Turrican Flashback for example. The game is available through ININ in retail, but what we will deliver to the fans who bought their version from SLG will be very much a different experience
And then there’s also the risk of a download store shutting down forever and it’s not guaranteed that the games will ever re-surface in a different store (this happened to some titles when PlayStation Mobile shut down). It does not even need to be a whole store; it can also be a developer or publisher that goes out of business or a license that expires which makes a game disappear.
So, with our sister company ININ, we are more than happy to offer both physical and digital versions to gamers. This helps get great titles out to as many people as possible in whichever way they prefer, but is also honouring our responsibility as a publisher to promote the value of games.
SLG isn't the only company that is operating in the market when it comes to physical releases – how does your approach differ from that of your rivals?
DM: It is very important to give a stage to all these great games and to support their preservation for the generations to come, so every rival helps to achieve this.
But we also work hard to make things different by going the extra mile just for the sake of providing the best possible result. Let’s take Turrican Flashback for example. The game is available through ININ in retail, but what we will deliver to the fans who bought their version from SLG will be very much a different experience. Due to some unexpected delays that we experienced and which unfortunately were beyond our control, we decided to use the additional time for adding new features. Again, this was definitely not unreasonable, as development time is not for free, but with the forced extra time we had we decided to further enhance the Turrican Anthology – I have never seen something like that being implemented in any other retro game collection and I am pretty confident that the new features will make every fan of Turrican very happy. I know that there are a lot of fans out there who wished to see their game being shipped sooner, but the team spent an insane amount of extra work on the development to make sure that the wait will be worth it.
Do you have plans to work with any other Japanese companies in the future?
HS: It was also a great experience to work with the developers and artists for Clockwork Aquario. Of course, we always enjoy working with our partners, no matter where they come from. But given our close connection with Japanese gaming culture and history, it should come as no surprise that we plan to intensify our activities in this area in the future.
We'd like to thank Helmut and Dennis for giving up their time to speak with us.