There's a greater range of hardware and operating system platforms than ever before. That means more opportunity, and more complications, for games publishers. We catch up with a handful of thoroughly modern publishers working across a range of digital and physical formats to ask them what they think of the current offering from the platform holders.
We talk to Team17's Debbie Bestwick, who publishes across PC, Mac, PlayStation, Xbox, Nintendo, Apple and Google platforms (which just goes to show the number of potential relationships and communities a publisher needs to support), Sold Out's Garry Williams, who works on all console platforms and PC, and Soedesco's Hans van Brakel, another console and PC publisher.
As a publisher of physical and digital titles, how has business been in the last year?
Bestwick: Last year saw a 30 per cent year-on-year growth so we are obviously delighted. Retail is performing well and digital continues to do well.
Williams: We are outside the ‘top eight big honker publishers' but have proved we can help deliver growth and success for our co-published releases. As ever, the boxed element is delivering well for us at Sold Out, the boxed figures for the bigger publishers are significant.
I believe that quite a few publishers from Sony's recent digital days event were surprised at just how solid boxed sales still are. Again it is good to stress that gaming as a category is only getting stronger. It really is not a case of boxed or digital – take both sets of revenue.
Van Brakel: Very good, both on the digital and retail side we are increasing our business. On the retail side we got active in territories that are traditionally hard to reach for a smaller publisher. On the digital side we see a very long tail of sales, the days of doing most of your revenue in the first month are behind us.
"Quite a few publishers ... were surprised at just how solid
boxed sales still are"
Are you optimistic about the year ahead?
Bestwick: Very optimistic, as ever it will require incredible hard work in all areas from lifecycle management through to community and development planning, but we have a great portfolio of released games that will be strongly supported along with some very exciting new product launches such as Escapists 2 and Aven Colony.
Williams: Sold Out has the majority of our 2017-to-2018 titles in place and ready to publicise. We know that the next year is going to be fantastic for us and our partners. Looking at our early figures, Sold Out's turnover could be as much as fifty per cent up during this year – that's two years of very positive growth now. We are busily working away for 2018-to-2019 and the new machines from Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft can only add to the growth of the gaming sector.
Van Brakel: Both on the retail and on the digital side we are increasing our business. The market is very strong. Last year we had three very healthy platforms, this year we have four.
"Last year we had three very healthy platforms,
this year we have four"
Are you happy with the hardware platforms available to you to publish on?
Williams: The hardware and digital options are increasing and again from ‘format holder briefings' numbers of consumers are significantly up. Digital revenues are increasing significantly and gaming choices are being promoted heavily. Indie or mainstream gamers have never had it so good.
How does doing business with the various platform holders differ?
Bestwick: Each platform holder has a slightly different approach to how they manage their publisher relationships. Some are more ‘hands-on' and others strive to give you all the tools you need to ‘self serve' in terms of product release. We work as closely as we can with each of our platform partners to ensure we are doing everything possible for our products to launch smoothly into the ecosystem.
They do tend to vary quite significantly in the different platform submissions and processes that must be adhered to in order to release on that platform – this can sometimes be frustrating, but it is why we have a very strong team that is fully set up to work with each of the systems individually.
Williams: The logistics of most platform holders are clear and understandable – they do also listen and can make revisions to policy. Currently Nintendo's model is a little ‘challenging' in terms of pricing but never write off Nintendo. It is the role of a publisher to navigate games through these format holders' channels, so it's pretty much the same as it ever was.
Van Brakel: They all have their own strengths and weaknesses. It's a matter of focussing on the strengths to get the most out of each of those platforms. But in general, it's a matter of being flexible. We are able to do good business on all platforms so we are focusing on those opportunities and that's working out well.
"Currently Nintendo's model is a little ‘challenging' in terms of
pricing but never write off Nintendo"
Do you find discoverability differs between digital platforms?
Bestwick: Generally, the standard amount of visibility you will see across the platforms tends to be similar. Then there are layers on some of the platforms that you can discuss in terms of marketing support, and then there are some opportunities for paid promotion on certain dashboards. Other platforms are a bit more rigid in their allocation of visibility and often it can depend solely on the merit or sales performance.
Williams: Discoverability is an age old gaming problem generally resolved by publishers. However, the circular nature of the games business seems to feel like the more people say it is different the more it now looks the same.
Indie publishing, the very thing that ‘freed up creativity and independence' increasingly looks like it is driving itself towards needing the help of ‘publishing services' to conquer the challenge of more competitive digital decks – publishers needed to learn the new skills that ‘disruption' threw up.
"There are layers on some of the platforms that you can discuss
in terms of marketing support"
Van Brakel: It's the biggest challenge because it's constantly changing. It's not as simple as just the storefront. You need to take into account the different territories, promotions, additional channels. You need to be able to adjust to the changes in discoverability even before they happen. And since all platforms work differently you need to do this in different ways per platform.
Do the platform holders differ in terms of what and when you can release physically?
Bestwick: Not hugely. There are some slight differences in the way that products are compiled and what you can put on the disc, but generally it's a pretty even landscape there.
Williams: I cannot reveal the content of a platform holder PLA/LPA – some are slightly more demanding than others but all are generally constructed to operate on a ‘level playing field' approach. Like any private club, if you don't like the rule, don't join. Boxed and digital should be released together, but some format holders will provide exemptions for good content. As ever the quality of the game can conquer some of the limitations of policy. After all, we are all, even the most creative, ultimately in a business.
How could the platform holders improve how they deal with publishers, both specifically and generally?
Bestwick: Most of what could be improved comes down to the systems that are in place for the various platforms. Often things can take an overly long time to be processed, whether that's a price change or a product submission. The slicker the systems become, the easier it will be for all of us to be more agile and efficient.
"Often things can take an overly long time to be processed,
whether that's a price change or a product submission"
Williams: Anyone will generally improve their dealings with platform holders if they remember that the ‘machine providers' also can be under resourced, fighting battles to drive various gaming areas forward, and present win/win outcomes. Make it as easy for each other as possible, treating them as you would wish to be treated. Organise and communicate your plans. Get feedback for plans from the experts who built the systems early. Get someone strong to fight your causes, try only to focus on the most important things and be aware that prominence is heavily dependent on the best games. Find them, curate them, guide them, create discovery for them and lead yourselves to sales success.