The PQube Quest: 2017's publishing odyssey

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Distributor turned publisher PQube has had a big year, hunting out niche titles such as Cat Quest and releasing them across multiple platforms. Seth Barton visits the team to talk to head of marketing Geraint Evans and global sales director Kevin Hutchinson to find out how it’s all gone and what’s coming up in 2018 

What market changes made you decide to grow your publishing portfolio?

Kevin Hutchinson: PQube became successful as a distributor, but what set us apart was the level of PR, marketing and social support we gave to the titles we worked on. We were never satisfied with just being a ‘box shifter’. We always wanted to pay more attention to the games we were working on – genuinely caring about them and looking to add value to clients who came to us.

So you could say we were doing ‘publishing’ work on some games we were distributing – contributing hugely to the success of our distribution titles by investing in our marketing efforts.

 In this sense, transitioning to a publishing model was easy for us. Our marketing, PR, social media and community management was making a demonstrably big impact on our client’s sales. Our operational capability has always been solid and efficient. That infrastructure for success was already in place The next step was finding products. It’s here that PQube has always been a little… leftfield. Our staff play a lot of games. Our product knowledge is second to none – we also have great interest in unusual games and genres and a strong desire to look at what’s going on in niche or emerging markets.

 Big budget first-person shooters are out. Unique titles that show invention, or have perhaps a more unusual hook, are most definitely in.

How do you find the right kind of games for you? Is there even a PQube-style game?

Geraint Evans: It depends on which audience you ask.

To some, PQube has always been synonymous with racing simulations – having rejuvenated the MotoGP brand and established new IP like Ride and MXGP. To others, we’ve been a long-standing part of the fighting game community in Europe – with the likes of BlazBlue and Guilty Gear. To many, we’re the company who helped prove visual novels were a viable genre in the West, with the incredible success of Steins;Gate. Elsewhere, PQube is the company brave enough to take risqué titles like Senran Kagura and Gal*Gun and demonstrate that, yes, these titles can not only work, but also find a significant audience with the right approach.

While these games are all different, one thing unites them in that they all cater for very specific audiences. Audiences who aren’t necessarily interested in what the mainstream has to offer, often feel marginalised or that they’re not particularly catered for and that their passions are misunderstood.

Gaming is so diverse now that you can’t broadly label ‘racing games’ or ‘Japanese games’. Even something as niche as visual novels have levels of sub-genre. Key to making those games successful is understanding those differences, understanding the passions of our development partners, and how you find the audiences that can lead you to success.

 A ‘PQube-style game’ is really a ‘game that PQube likes and has a passion for’. All of our marketing team loves games. We only hire people who have a real passion for games and have a firm understanding of what is going to work and what isn’t.  

So whether that’s helping a developer to tune their experience, or taking a finished product and understanding the best way to market it, we have the expertise to make an impact. Internally, anyone can source, sign and champion a potential product, which means everyone is emotionally invested in the product – and that makes a difference in the energy that goes into its promotion

 "Big budget first-person shooters are out. Unique titles that show invention, or have perhaps a more unusual hook, are most definitely in."

The business has a lot of strings to its bow, does this attract possible partners?

Kevin Hutchinson: Yes, absolutely. For many of our partners we’re a safe pair of hands, in that we have a global capability. The bread and butter of getting a game to market is well taken care of. But then on top of that, PQube has this incredible community and social network which helps give our titles an immediate boost in visibility. This is something we’ve taken great pride in nurturing and is one of our greatest assets. This comes from years of putting in the groundwork – whether it’s through our consistently active online communities or just putting in the hours at consumer events across Europe, US and Asia.

We also have a huge amount of experience in creating fantastic artwork and merchandise to support our partners’ brands – PQube’s overall expertise in a number of areas means we’re well equipped to deliver, but also have the wealth of experience necessary to quickly adapt to challenges and changes. In that sense we’re a very flexible and nimble company when required.

Is the physical market getting tougher,in terms of finding stockists? Do you know how many of your physical games are sold online as opposed to on the high street?

Kevin Hutchinson: There’s an obvious shift to digital, it’s something we’re all seeing. It’s arrived a little later than expected for us, but we’re really starting to see that migration accelerate now. That said, PQube’s titles sit a little outside the norm – particularly for Japanese games. Anime-style games in particular have always struggled to find stockists with an enthusiasm for them but, interestingly, fans of these titles are extremely passionate about physical product. Wherever possible we will still continue to support as many platforms as we can. Likewise, high value Special Editions will also continue to be an important part of our business.

But yes, that shift is happening. The landscape is very different now than it was even just a couple of years ago, but it’s something we’ve understood – and have been ready for – for a number of years now.

The digital market is certainly getting more crowded, how do get the message out?

Geraint Evans: Good old-fashioned hard work and a sprinkling of creative genius. I think our release of Fight of Gods is a good example of our approach. Firstly in terms of how we select product and how the team can take a game which had absolutely zero expectation from the public and press, barely any budget and then elevated it to a position where everyone knew what it was and what it achieved.

 The same goes for our most recent success Cat Quest, which went to No.5 in the charts on Switch on release. It was a small, unassuming little RPG from an extremely talented developer. The team just got it right away, and immediately knew how to approach it, and how to treat it.

 We are quite often met with a certain level of apathy from the press. After all, games journalists can’t write about everything they see. We understand that, and I think quite often you have to just accept that you can’t get blanket coverage from the media and then ask, ‘Okay, so where now?’ How does that change your approach? Who do you speak to? How will you get your voice heard?

 Find evangelists in your own community, reach out to like-minded YouTubers. And if you don’t have your own community? Then put the time in to make and nurture one.

 We’ve consistently taken products to the top of the charts without taking large sums of money out of the pot. That means we are more innovative, more creative and we’re not squandering what is, ultimately, the developer’s money, on a ton of ad spend.

What trends in the games business will dominate 2018?

Kevin Hutchinson: Steam has been dominant for so long now, one of the biggest changes we’re going to see is the emergence of new digital marketplaces. Visibility on Steam is a real challenge since Steam Direct. 

While Greenlight was an annoyance to many, it slowed the rate of releases. Now there’s a tsunami of Steam content – and we’re seeing the same thing happen to Switch. For example, in the last couple of weeks thirty-six games have released on Switch; only four have charted (Cat Quest among them) and so recognised decent sales.

Discoverability is now a big, big issue for developers. This is why we’re seeing a rapid move away from self-publishing and developers actively seeing out PQube to understand how we can help them.

What’s your biggest challenge to further growth?

Kevin Hutchinson: Finding new product is always the main challenge. Without the right games we don’t have a business. It’s no longer about who can offer the biggest minimum guarantee – it’s about who can deliver the biggest lifetime revenue back to the developer. That means not just launching a product but working it throughout its life, and we have invested heavily in building a team that does this for every product we sign. We have to play smarter, and part of that process is looking at what we can offer as a publisher in the first instance to make sure we deliver. We offer good value and we are a reliable and fair partner. We give a product focus where, often, a larger publisher can’t.

 Second to that, is where and how we source our games – and that comes down to the quality and passion of our staff. Identifying the right developers
and the right product, and then understanding that product to bring it to market properly, with the right creative energy.

We are also increasingly interested in emerging markets for games. Gamescom, GDC – all great hunting grounds for sure, but I think looking to these shows alone, it’s easy to become blinkered. You can almost train yourself to become numb to looking in unlikely places. Taking a chance on unlikely product, seeing the good in a product where others may not – it’s here that PQube has always been strong. Staying true to that philosophy is very important to us.

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