Why do we need games publishers?
In today’s digital market, the game makers and their fans are running the show. Community managers on Twitter and Facebook are doing the jobs of PRs, video bloggers via YouTube are doing a better job of marketing games than any carefully constructed TV ad, while developers are directly liaising with the likes of Steam, Sony, Xbox and Nintendo to make their games available to buy.
Take current PC sensation Day Z. The zombie game was released unfinished on Steam in order to get fan feedback. The developer – Bohemia Interactive – has not marketed it, instead talking directly with gamers over Twitter and Facebook. Meanwhile, the fans themselves have been promoting the hell out of the product by posting thousands of videos on YouTube.
The result? More than $1m generated in a month.
So I’ll the ask the question again, do we even need games publishers?
“We don’t need publishers in the traditional sense. It used to be that publishers would fund, market and distribute games,” says Jeff Hattem, founder of developer Tuque Games.
“But today, the funding barrier is lower than ever, effective marketing is done through dev-to-player channels and we live in the age of digital distribution. Publishers have valuable connections at retail and can distribute physical goods on a global scale. However, does that value much matter now?”
Mastertronic MD Andy Payne adds: “No developer needs a publisher. But some may choose to work with one.
“Plenty of devs have gone solo and have absolutely blitzed it. That is the best thing that has happened in the games industry for years.”
The UK games industry has an abundance of publisher options. There are digital experts (Team 17, Mastertronic), those that specialise in a specific genre or area (Rising Star Games), and indeed there are companies that can offer the complete package, everything from marketing to retail distribution (Koch Media).
“Our partner publishing proposition is an evolution of where Koch Media started 20 years ago,” explains sales and marketing director Paul Nicholls.
“We primarily target mid-sized to large publishers and developers who may require assistance in a particular market. Furthermore, we represent smaller indie studios and publishers in many territories, and not just companies that have physical product. We also represent companies with digital offerings. We handle logistical sales, but we are also the social and marketing function for these companies and their products.”
It’s digital that’s obviously the difference here. The next generation of publishing needs to understand the digital marketplace – when to put out a game, when to discount it, and where and how to market these products.
“There needs to be a revolution in publishing to suit digital distribution,” says Debbie Bestwick, the MD of Team17, which re-entered third party publishing last year.
“There is still a long way to go. Too many publishers have tried to jump on the bandwagon and have underperformed by thinking ‘let’s put this game on that digital store and that’s enough’. We are seeing seriously clever retailing on digital stores and super smart social marketing to engage consumers. Digital portals are the new shop windows and we all need to be as close to the shop front as possible to gain the best traction.”
Of course, developers could cut out a third-party publishing partner from its plan altogether, but there aren’t many studios that want to handle the murky world of marketing. And a good publisher can offer more than just a route to market.
“The game and developer should be at the centre and respect must be shown,” adds Payne. “No one gets into development because they want to spend time in QA, PR, localisation or legal. A publisher must be on hand to do the heavy lifting and earn their corn.”
Nicholls adds: “Developers can go it alone, but they will still need a publishing function. If they have a full marketing, PR, sales and operations team, then they can sell the product. If not, that’s where we can come in.”
The development scene has undergone a drastic change in recent years. Bedroom coders are making millions releasing games on the likes of Steam. And Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft are even encouraging self-publishing on their platforms, too.
This has made competition fierce – not every game can break through in the way Rust or DayZ have. So many of these developers have turned to the experts.
“Two years ago, there was a trend among indie developers that they were going to try self-publishing and ‘go it alone’,” said 505 Games senior VP of brand Tim Woodley.
“Now more indie developers are coming to 505 Games acknowledging the fact that we bring something substantial to the table.”
Doug Kennedy, vice president of business development at indie publisher Midnight City adds: “With the explosive growth of indie games in the past few years, discoverability and oversaturation have become big issues. It takes a very savvy developer to understand that it often makes sense to bring in help for the betterment of the project. In many discussions the development teams are dedicated to remaining independent, handling everything on their own, but sometimes it can hurt the game’s release and reception.”
A spate of new publishers have emerged in recent weeks dedicated to the indie development community, and the majority are experts in digital distribution.
“No indie needs a traditional publisher. They could potentially cause more damage than good if they don’t understand just what is happening right now across all platforms,” continues Bestwick.
“What indies need are business partners to collaborate with, not just to help launch a product but manage the whole lifecycle. This isn’t about day one, the first month or a year. Digital games have a much longer lifecycle if managed correctly.”
Even the publishing giants are engaging in initiatives to help indie studios. Square Enix has just launched Collective, a service which indie studios can use for free for advice and promotion, and they don’t even need to sign with the publisher afterwards. It’s entirely up to the developer.
“We’ve set the project up so that developers retain their original IP and have control of their own destiny; we’ve also made sure that it’s the developer who benefits the most from the commercial success,” says project lead Phil Elliot, who adds that these studios can even use some of Eidos’ back-catalogue IP.
James Cope, producer at Ruffian games which has signed with Collective, adds: “What developers need is the ability to connect with gamers. Publishers play an important part in developing, promoting and maintaining that relationship.
“I don’t see that modern self-publishing methods are any different to, for example, the early days of the industry when games were delivered direct to a gamer from the developer’s bedroom. The mechanics of the market will always change but the philosophy remains the same.”
What’s clear is that the conversation has changed. Whereas third party publishers were the dominant force in this industry, they are no longer a complete necessity. Power has returned to the creators.
“There has been a real power shift over the last three to five years,” concludes Kennedy.
“All of the power resided with the publishers. They provided funding, a list of support services to bring a title to market, and they had access to the retail channel, which was the holy grail to get your games to the consumers.
“With the introduction of digital platforms, development costs and the barrier to entry came way down. “In a few short years all of the power the publishers were clinging on to had shifted to the developers.
“This doesn’t mean publishers are no longer needed, it just means that the developers had more options on taking games directly to the market.”
Bestwick concludes: “The digital age has seen the keys to the kingdom handed out to everyone. The ability to self-publish has been afforded to the masses and traditional publishers are now learning from indies, who now have the power to forge lasting partnerships with service providers who understand this brave new world. Honesty, transparency and knowledge are all important. Adapt or die.”