PlayStack’s Rob Crossley tells us ‘what publishers really want’ after listening to 1,620 dev pitches

Rob Crossley signs games for PlayStack, a London-based publisher for all players and platforms. His talk at Develop:Brighton on July 10th will offer advice on pitching games.

Here’s a question I didn’t expect: “What game should I make?”

I must admit it felt pretty bizarre the first time a game developer put that to me. You’re asking me? I’ve been assessing games for PlayStack for two years and you’d probably be shocked by how many times it’s come up.

I’m not arrogant enough (not yet) to assume the meaning behind the question is: “Oh oracle, what game ideas will shape the future?”

I’m perfectly aware the question is in fact: “So what game will you actually fund?”

The short answer is Pilotwings. The long answer is a little more turbulent.

Today, anyone developing a PC and console game for commercial purposes has an entire galaxy of challenges to navigate. The most obvious to everyone is the sheer volume of competition: 30,000 games on Steam, 7,500 on console, more than half a million on mobile.

Adding your next project into that ocean of games still presents an opportunity, but with the pervasiveness of digital stores and their infinite shelf space, legacy titles are legitimate competitors. At the time of writing, only six of the 25 best-selling Steam games were released this year.

It’s not just their mere presence that’s the challenge, but also how brilliantly they’re managed. Catalogue games are strategically discounted, often quite significantly, especially on PC where for instance Borderlands: The Handsome Collection is currently 95 per cent off and costs around the same as an Americano.

“I’m constantly amazed that, of the 1,620 game pitches I’ve assessed, more than half can be reduced to ‘recently successful game but with my art assets’. They’re not clones. But they are cover bands.”


Discounts and deals are hardly limited to games that need traction. In February, The Witcher 3, probably one of the greatest games of all time and certainly one of the best-selling, was on offer for less than £10. Meanwhile The Witness, another true landmark of this generation, was recently given away for free during an Epic Games Store promotion. As an indie publisher selling new IP at an honest premium price, this absolutely terrifies me.

I’ve obsessed over these developments for years. The conclusion I always return to is that directly competing with a library of discounted world-class games is a strategy reliant on luck. That is unless you can truly match those standards or have a sizable following.

Which is why I’m constantly amazed that, of the 1,620 game pitches I’ve assessed at PlayStack, more than half can be reduced to “recently successful game but with my art assets.” I’d not go as far as to label them clones – they’re not. But they are cover bands.

I do look out for games that can directly compete in terms of quality in a cost-effective way, but in my two-year search I’ve found… two. Fortunately that’s not the primary objective here. The games that light my fire more frequently are those that don’t comfortably blend in with today’s libraries.

That’s always my answer when devs ask me the question: build something different. It doesn’t need to be profoundly, transformatively, seminally original – and honestly what truly ever is. But it should bring something wonderful to a market that hasn’t seen it before, or at least hasn’t experienced it for a long while.

It’s an elementary strategy that’s worked perfectly for 40 years, from Mario Bros to Crazy Taxi to Slay the Spire to Auto Chess to Archero. The audience already knows what it loves, and there’s an archive of games competing for those desires. Give people something they don’t yet know they love. So yeah, Pilotwings.

About Seth Barton

Seth Barton is the editor of MCV – which covers every aspect of the industry: development, publishing, marketing and much more. Before that Seth toiled in games retail at Electronics Boutique, studied film at university, published console and PC games for the BBC, and spent many years working in tech journalism. Living in South East London, he divides his little free time between board games, video games, beer and family. You can find him tweeting @sethbarton1.

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