“It doesn’t have to be a chore, you can create something truly innovative for the game, outside of the licence itself” – Vernon Vrolijk on Good Shepherd and John Wick Hex

Vernon Vrolijk, Good Shepherd

As both a publisher and an investment platform, Good Shepherd games has never been a stranger to change, or been afraid to try something new. Indeed, when the company launched its equity crowdfunding platform in 2012, it was the first of such platforms to be focused entirely on video games.

It’s no surprise, then, that Good Shepherd have gone on to take chances on indie titles that try to do something different. On top of continuing their success with Train Fever, following up with 2016’s Transport Fever and the upcoming Transport Fever 2, Good Shepherd is also responsible for publishing Dim Bulb Games’ narrative adventure Where the Water Tastes like Wine, and Bithell Games’ strategic take on John Wick with John Wick Hex.

In fact, it’s their recent success with John Wick Hex, in which Bithell Games took Keanu Reeves’ stone-cold action star and ran him through a timeline-based strategy game, that inspired what might be Good Shepherd’s next big change. That is, focusing on unique creators and delivering quality games based on established IPs. John Wick Hex was an unusual approach for a game licensed after an action film series, but it was one that immediately got Good Shepherd’s attention, according to their Marketing Manager, Vernon Vrolijk.

“We wanted to make an amazing licensed game,” says Vrolikj, “because there’s so many licensed games out there, but unfortunately most of them end up not being very good. There are exceptions to the rule, like the Spider-Man and Batman Arkham games, but overall, the industry has had a spotty record at best when it comes to delivering the vision of these IPs.”

Keanu undoubtedly won the best celebrity award of E3 2019

“It’s hard to figure out why that is,” he continues. “Why does it seem like we struggle so much as an industry to do that? And we realised that most of the time why people struggle with this, it’s because if you’re trying to meet a deadline, trying to release at the same time as a movie or TV show, the game will never capture what the IP is. It’s almost like a reskin. You take a movie in which someone shoots and you go: ‘I have a game where somebody shoots, we should change the character model and it’s the same thing’. So once we identify those problems, we said okay, how can we avoid those? How can we do something truly original?”

According to Good Shepherd, the answer to lackluster licenced titles it to allow the development team the creative freedom to take the IP in unexpected directions. Vrolijk explains the mission statement: “The idea is to deliver something truly unique. Not just unique because it fits with your IP, but unique in the game itself. So that, even without the IP, the game would be unique.”

Enter Mike Bithell, who pitched his idea to Good Shepherd – which at the time was for a more turn-based approach to John Wick.

“Mike’s idea was a really unique approach to strategy. He wanted to make a strategy game based on John Wick. No one we’d ever spoken to had suggested that. Everyone wanted to make a shooter, either first or third person, like Max Payne. That didn’t interest us because… well, Max Payne exists. Call of Duty exists. They’re amazing at what they do. So he brought this unique perspective that we hadn’t seen before.”

Working with Bithell brought another benefit to the studio. Not only did a huge IP such as John Wick bring extra attention to the game, Bithell’s large social media following allowed the team to gather feedback from fans in ways they hadn’t been able to before.

“We knew very well going in that Mike has this stature within the industry, and this huge fan base, this respect both of his peers and fans. So we always wanted to open up the project and be more community-focused, with Mike being able to talk about his experiences making the game. That’s the real problem with licenced titles: usually you never hear the story, good or bad. That proved to be super useful for us, being able to hear all these opinions on the game immediately.”

Their success with John Wick Hex, and the feedback they received along the way, was not just a good result for Good Shepherd, but it was also one that has given the company a new strategy going forward: embracing unique, licensed games. “This is something we’re really excited about. This is a new kind of project for us, and a new way forward for the company. John Wick Hex is super important to us, because it is a proving ground that this can work – not only work, but be a pleasant experience for all the creative people involved. It doesn’t have to be a chore, you can create something truly innovative for the game, outside of the licence itself.”

This strategy is something that comes back to the name ‘Good Shepherd’ itself. The company rebranded from Gambitious Digital Entertainment in 2012, in order to respect its changing ambitions and values.

“The reason we rebranded was that we were looking at the future,” Vrolijk says. “What do we want to be in two, three years? So we laid out our strategies. One is IP, the other is doing bigger, more ambitious projects. So we’re releasing less games, but doing more for the games that we use. As a result of these new ambitions, we looked at the branding that we had with this identity that we had, that was still a little bit too focused on the financing of it, and the investment part of it, which we didn’t feel fit our new vision. And to be honest, it didn’t fit us as people either, because we’re all creative, and that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

Of course, Good Shepherd isn’t just a publisher. The company still maintains its investment platform, and their knowledge of the game industry helps guide (or shepherd) investors to the most interesting projects
they can find.

John Wick Hex takes a radically different approach to a game about shooting people

“We basically act as a filter,” Vrolijk explains. “The reality is, a lot of investors don’t understand games. Investing in any entertainment, be that films, TV or games, is a very high risk. Video games are so relatively young, so you have investors that just have never played games. But they see their kids play games, the grandkids play games. They see how big it is, but they don’t understand. On top of that, we have our own culture, we speak a certain way we have our own dialogue. We have our own terms that we use. We do events very differently than everybody else. If you’re an outsider looking in, that is so overwhelming. So we go out there and find the best project we can and act as a mediator.”

“We translate everything. We go to them and say, ‘okay, this is the team, we believe they can do this. We’re going to shepherd them, we’re going to work with them. And we are we really committed to this project.’”

It’s a strategy that Vrolijk believes will benefit not just Good Shepherd, but the future of the industry itself. With the explosion of the indie scene, more projects are being made than ever before. However, this explosion in productivity has not been matched with an explosion of investment.

“Again, the cultural difference with investors is how scary it can be. We believe by acting as a mediator, we can show them that you can be financially successful by investing in these games. It’s going to make it less scary, invite more people in and bring new money into the industry – which hopefully will help a lot more indie developers in the long term. I’m excited to see where that goes.”

With its new IP strategy, Good Shepherd is hopeful for the future. Time will tell if its grand ambitions will bear fruit, but even today its work is a boon for both the future of licensed titles and the indie scene as a whole.

About Chris Wallace

Chris is a freelancer writer and was MCV/DEVELOP's staff writer from November 2019 until May 2022. He joined the team after graduating from Cardiff University with a Master's degree in Magazine Journalism. He can be found on Twitter at @wallacec42, where he mostly explores his obsession with the Life is Strange series, for which he refuses to apologise.

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