Indie publishers should be partners, not predators

Two years into Rising Star Games’ evolution from traditional to leading indie publisher, the firm’s developer relations man Martin Mathers asks why some firms still see indie developers as cattle to be slaughtered rather than partners to be celebrated

The times, they are a-changin’ – a great song, certainly, but a sentiment that’s somewhat outdated as far as games publishing goes.

Times aren’t just changing; the advent of indie developers means they changed years ago and if you haven’t adapted by now, you’ve already fallen behind.

Granted, that probably sounds like a contradiction coming from me. But you’re Rising Star Games!”, you’re probably thinking: The Japanese import guys, the Harvest Moon guys. You don’t do indie.”

Don’t we? Look again.

In the last 18 months, we’ve partnered on seven indie releases across multiple formats and already have another seven lined up through to early next year. The difference? We simply got on with our evolution, rather than shouting about it to anyone who’d listen.

‘Evolution’ makes it sound grander than the process has turned out to be though. After all, we’re not exactly doing anything different: dedicated marketing and media work, platform access, development investment, they’re all things we’ve done for ten years and continue to do now. The only real difference is we’re having more discussions that don’t involve Japanese translators; helpful, given my own Japanese doesn’t extend much past asking for the bill or where the toilets are.

I’m not surprised that a lot of people don’t see us as an indie label then – we’ve just focused on doing what we’ve always done, just with different people. What does surprise me, however, is the number of horror stories I’m still hearing from developers, even in this brave new world of indie and digital-only publishing. I’d have thought the tales of big, bad publishers might have reduced but in reality, it all seems… well, Neanderthal. If nothing else, it shows how many firms still refuse to accept change just because it doesn’t fit their tried-and-tested business models.

Should indie developers have to sacrifice ownership of their IP to get a deal? No. Should they change things to suit market trends, rather than creating the game they want to make? Absolutely not. Should they agree to a marketing investment on the understanding that eventually, they’ll have to foot the bill? No way! Should they have to work with someone whose passion lies in metrics, not their game? Nope. And yet, despite this seeming like common sense to me, they’re all things still being demanded of indies today by companies who should know better.

It goes beyond those requests, of course – see: bundle firms offering pennies for titles that have only just come out, publishers signing games and then immediately forgetting they have a responsibility to promote them, the deliberate red tape used to disrupt what should actually be a constantly active relationship between publisher and developer. But on the whole, I just don’t get how such folk sleep at night after days of trying to hoodwink indies into unfavourable deals.

Am I nave to think that the focus in any partnership should always be the game and the developer, not the publisher? I don’t think so. It’s perfectly possible for deals to be done that are in the developer’s favour, but still work for the publisher too. You just have to be willing to put someone other than yourself first and work with developers, not exploit them.

And the best part of that? Everyone wins. The developer gets the help and success they deserve, the publisher gets a rub as one of the good guys and the players get what’s most important: a great game.

And ultimately, great games are all that should matter in our industry… right?

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