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UWGB alum launches video game publishing company

First-time founder Ben Kvalo starts Midwest Games with TTT backing

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September 5, 2023

GREEN BAY – A Midwest native himself, Ben Kvalo – founder and CEO of Midwest Games – said he often asked himself why there wasn’t a larger video gaming development presence in the Midwest region.

“It always bothered me,” he said. “It seems obvious to me. I’m a highly logical person, and so it was illogical there wasn’t. We have incredible schools in the region – so there’s a lot of talent coming out of the region. And there are a lot of industries that crossover well into video games here as well. And we have the third largest city in the country (in the Midwest).”

Kvalo – a University of Wisconsin-Green Bay (UWGB) graduate – decided to take it upon himself to change that narrative.

Partnering with TitletownTech (TTT), a venture capital firm anchored by the Green Bay Packers and Microsoft, Kvalo launched Midwest Games – a regionally-focused video game publisher aimed at creating opportunities for talent across the Midwest and other underrepresented regions.

“Our mission is to provide resources for these talented developers to shine,” he said.

From idea to reality
While working at Netflix in Los Angeles as lead program manager of games, Kvalo said the wheels started turning.

“During my last year on Netflix, I started to dig into this idea,” he said. “And as I dug into more, it became more interesting.”

This, Kvalo said, eventually led to a trip back to Green Bay and a conversation with TTT.

“One trip back here, I talked to TitletownTech, and I was like, ‘Hey, I have this idea, do you have like 30 minutes to go over it?’” he said. “About two hours later, we finished that meeting, and they were intrigued with it. They said ‘hey, come back with a more fleshed-out idea.’”

Three or four months later, Kvalo said that is exactly what he did.

“I came back with an initial founding team and proposed this idea of Midwest Games – I think we were calling it something else at that point, I forget what it was,” he said. “And they were interested in it. We started negotiating around it and ended up partnering on it.”

Midwest Games officially launched Aug. 22, and Kvalo said it’s already experiencing momentum.

Being that middle man
Kvalo said the Midwest isn’t lacking in developing talent – it’s the middle man supporting the publishing that has been missing in the region.

“There’s a lot of development talent – they’re creating games, but they’re not getting supported because they’re missing that middle person,” he said.

Midwest Games was created to play that role of publisher.

“There is the developer on one side and the platform on the far other side,” he said. “So, you, as a developer, either self-published to the platform – which means you have to do all the marketing yourself. And a lot of these folks are artists and engineers and designers – they may not always have those skills or haven’t developed them enough.”

From left, Chris Klimecky, Ben Kvalo and Rob Martin III of Midwest Games at last month’s 2D Con in Minnesota. The newly launched startup was a sponsor of the event. Photo Courtesy of Midwest Games 

Kvalo said most games are self-published.

“On Steam, which is the largest PC platform, 98% of games are self-published, but they only generate 25% of revenue,” he said. “So, 75% of all the revenue on Steam is generated by 2%, which are the publishers because they already have the relationships with the platforms – so, they know how to get featured. They have relationships with the press – so, they know how to get featured in press articles. We also, as a publisher, have quality assurance making sure you have the best quality experience.”

Kvalo said Midwest Games also provides production support.

“We go through that process so often we know how to look for the warning signs, how to flag things early enough so we can resolve them before they become an issue – working hand in hand with developers,” he said.

Marketing expertise, Kvalo said, is another support aspect Midwest Games can provide.

“(We are experts in) go-to-market strategies – you should do this, then you should try this – we are able to manipulate that toward whatever the game is and whatever the game needs,” he said.

All of what Midwest Games provides developers is aimed at long-term success.

“Some developers are able to succeed by self-publishing,” he said. “But Midwest Games will enable the region to have a better support mechanism so more folks have that piece that increases their chance of success.”

Kvalo said Midwest Games is meant to go across a whole portfolio of games – spreading funds throughout the region in many places.

“Which suddenly goes from developers having to self-fund themselves to 10-20 different developers that are suddenly funded in this region – they are able to build their staff and are able to grow,” he said. “And if a couple of those succeed, they can succeed in huge ways because companies that succeed… they’re suddenly worth hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions of dollars – because a lot of games are being sold on M&A market for billions.”

Kvalo said he hopes for a similar situation in the Midwest that happened in Sweden with Minecraft.

“Suddenly, (Stockholm) has now flourished into a hotbed for development talent and incredible companies that are being built there,” he said. “And it’s now like one of the centerpieces of the industry. I think we can do the same thing in the Midwest. But we need a couple of hits, and the minute that starts to go, I think there’ll be a snowball effect.”

Hitting the ground running
Kvalo said things are already off to a good start for Midwest Games – already signing its first developer.

“They are called Gylee Games out of Cincinnati, Ohio,” he said. “They were founded in 2019, so they are a fairly new studio. But they have an incredible game called RA RA BOOM, which is four female protagonists, and a beat ’em up style game. So, it’s challenging the norms of beat ’em up games, which is very male-focused.”

Kvalo said the developer and the game serve what he sees as an underserved market.

“A lot of women want to play beat ’em up, but they are given a choice of five dudes and one woman – ridiculous,” he said. “Plus, a lot of men love to play as a woman character. So, I think us flipping the script will show that a game focusing on representation in a better way, can and will do incredible things as well.”

Chris Bergman, founder of Gylee Games, said he met with many publishers during the development of RA RA BOOM and found that Midwest Games was the closest match to the company’s goals and values.

“We’re not just working hard to create successful games, we want to expand the opportunities for all developers in our hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, and the rest of the Midwest,” he said.

Kvalo said announcing its first developer in connection with the official launch of Midwest Games is significant.

“It’s exciting because, for us, we are already showing, ‘hey, look, we already have a Midwest developer,’” he said. “It has an incredible title that has broad appeal – I mean, it’s four ninja cheerleaders fighting against AI to save the world, so it’s a fascinating title and story.”

A unique aspect of RA RA BOOM, Kvalo said, is its deeper focus on the storyline.

“It’s a coming of age story – it shows how the (characters) deal with trauma and challenges, and you wouldn’t think about that beat ’em up genre,” he said. “That is Gylee’s whole mission – focusing in on the core of the story.”

Kvalo said RA RA BOOM is slated to be released early next year.

Building on that momentum, Kvalo said Midwest Games already have a number of other games in the pipeline “we are negotiating around.”

“We’ll see when we officially sign our next one, but we have a couple we’re excited about,” he said. “We’re trying to sign a number of titles over this next year and build up that portfolio of titles and the pipeline of what is here.”

Kvalo said he gets multiple pitches every day.

“It shows how much there is here,” he said. “Now that we’re officially out there live, we’re obviously getting a lot more.”

Though Midwest Games will be PC-focused, Kvalo said there are multiple platform opportunities depending on the game.

“Depending on the game, some games make sense for a console – so we can bring them to Nintendo Switch or to Xbox or Playstation,” he said. “Some might make more sense for mobile – and we can have the opportunity to work with mobile partners like Netflix Games or Apple Arcade, or Crunchyroll has mobile games as well. So, there’ll be opportunities to expand the platforms as we go along.”

A stacked team
Joining Midwest Games’ inaugural executive team with Kvalo as co-founder and head of partnerships is former XSET co-owner chief experience officer Rob Martin III.

Additional key hires include: former vice president at Crunchyroll and Discovery Communications, Jennifer Corbett, who will serve as chief marketing officer, and former ProbablyMonsters and Harebrained Schemes Production leader Chris Klimecky as chief project officer.

Advisory board members include former CTO of Striking Distance Studios and vice president of technology of 2K Mark James and Meta finance director Liz Kuehn.

Kvalo said collaborating with TitletownTech aligns perfectly with Midwest Games’ vision, as its philosophy of nurturing and inspiring the next wave of entrepreneurs resonates deeply with them.

“Together, we’re poised to redefine the games industry, delivering stellar games and cultivating a thriving regional games ecosystem,” he said.

TitletownTech Partner Cordero Barkley said TTT’s investment in Kvalo and Midwest Games is a testament to a shared belief that innovation knows no bounds.

“Together, we embark on a journey to redefine entertainment by publishing stellar games and elevating the regional games ecosystem,” he said.

As a first founder, Kvalo said there’s been “about a billion” things he’s had to learn as he’s gone along.

Ben Kvalo

“Luckily, my base of like knowledge and experience is cross-functional, so I understand the holistic part of the publishing business,” he said. “But working with venture capital and working in the investment area is new to me, so TTT has been able to provide so much guidance. Then some of the other companies here, they’ve been through it, and maybe recently, so they’ve been able to help connect some of those dots for me, and also be a strong advocate.”

Since this region doesn’t have much of a video game industry presence, Kvalo said having TitletownTech advocate for what Midwest Games is doing and why it is doing it is powerful.

“There isn’t much education about games and why the industry is so powerful – it is a giant industry, a giant opportunity,” he said.

Kvalo said the video game industry is bigger than movies, television and music combined.

“And it doesn’t have some of the barriers of entry that things like the movie industry does with large productions and things like that,” he said. 

Having the backing of TTT helping with that education piece – “someone saying we know what we’re talking about” – Kvalo said, is critical.

“You can invest in a small game and that small game can still hit tens, hundreds of millions of dollars, and that can happen overnight – and that’s an oddity,” he said. “Now, there’s a lot of development that happens before it gets to that point, but in some ways, it doesn’t seem logical to people. And I get it because like I said, I’m a very logical person. And until you’re in it and understand the industry and understand entertainment, if a fan base or an audience attaches to something – no matter if it’s from a developer that has one person or 300 people – if they’re interested in it, it can grow into something huge.”

Spreading the word
Midwest Games made its public debut as an official sponsor of 2D Con, Minnesota’s largest games and esports event, held at the end of last month.

As a sponsor, Midwest Games participated in a panel introducing the startup, a RA RA BOOM cosplayer and an RA RA BOOM Gameplay Contest, where four contestants competed on stage for the highest kill count.

“They (had) between 3,000-4,000 people attend, which is super exciting – we love to support regional events like that,” he said.

Kvalo said Midwest Games plans to participate in other events going forward.

“M+Deve is Wisconsin’s bigger game event – that is in November and I am one of the keynote speakers for that,” he said. “That’ll be great – a lot of developers in the state come to that event.”

Rob Martin III, left, and Ben Kvalo, right, of Midwest Games pose with Akakioga Cosplay dressed as “Vee” from RA RA BOOM. Photo Courtesy of Midwest Games

Kvalo said Midwest Games is also partnering with the Green Bay Chamber of Commerce and Startup Week Wisconsin. 

“I think we are going to call it Game-on Green Bay,” he said. “It will be a game jam and indie showcase at (Northeast Wisconsin Technical College) NWTC where folks from around the state can both come to NWTC, and we’ll work with teams remotely, to build games. Basically, you’ll have, I think it’s going to be about 72 hours or so, to start making a game.”

Though the event is for fun, Kvalo said it is also an opportunity for would-be developers to get experience and meet new people in the industry.

“For some, this might be the first time they’ve worked on developing a game,” he said. “So, we’re helping to support that as are a number of other companies.”

Kvalo said he expects more game jams in the future.

“We will probably host some of our own as well over time,” he said.

A bit surreal
Officially announcing the launch of Midwest Games, Kvalo said “was a bit surreal.”

“It’s hard to take a step back in these moments because I’ve been working on this for well more than a year,” he said. “The first time employees started, I was very much like, ‘wow, it’s real, real. I am responsible for other humans and all of that.’”

Now that it’s “out in the world,” Kvalo said it’s a “sense of relief, but it’s also just the beginning.”

The response Midwest Games has already received, Kvalo said, has been humbling.

“It is rewarding to see the excitement for Midwest Games – especially from the Midwest community,” he said. “It’s exciting we can be a voice and advocate for ultimately improving the industry and getting more diverse voices. I say this a lot, but we need the industry to be more representative of the world around us – and right now it’s not.”

Kvalo said that is both in the people making the games and where they are making the games.

“I think we can change where people are making the games and which will also change who is making the games, and that will take a step toward, I think, having a more representative industry.”

Kvalo said that is one of many things that need to grow and progress, but “if we can change where games come from, I think there’s a lot of other things that can organically change with that.”

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