Despite the narrative of digital sales becoming a bigger part of today’s games market, 80 per cent of new releases are bought in a box.
This is a sector within which publisher Sold Out has built its business, and it’s done it rather successfully, too. The current version of this company formed at the beginning of 2014, after being spun out of Mastertronic, producing a turnover of more than £4m in its first year of operation. Now in its third year, the firm is targeting a turnover of between £18m and £20m.
2016 was a sizeable year for Sold Out, too, with the publisher releasing the likes of Worms WMD and Overcooked from Team17, as well as Introversion Software’s Early Access darling Prison Architect and vehicular violence title, Carmageddon: Max Damage.
“We’re now getting traction,” the firm’s boss Garry Williams says.
“People are discovering us. In publishing, Year One is about putting your goods out there and having a good year. The second year, we kept putting releases out and gathering more partners. We’re in our third year now, and it’s been all about the consolidation.
“We have the traction and some good people have joined us. We want some more smart people from developers to actually see that gap.”
While the firm’s 2016 was rather promising, what we know of its 2017 release slate is even more impressive. The company has the latest entry in Rebellion’s Sniper Elite series hitting shelves on February 14th, while Yooka-Laylee, the Kickstarter release from former Rare developers Playtonic, launches in April.
“Our Q1 will knock everyone out the park,” Williams says. “They’ll start to take notice. The people who work with us know that we know what we are doing, so they’re happy and not going anywhere. But when you start seeing the chart stuff and see how many copies Sniper Elite 4 sells next month, people will pay attention. Yooka-Laylee will probably do very well, too. There’s a real love from the fans for that product that I just didn’t appreciate. A lot of people didn’t know that the consumers who go into retail are actually really big Nintendo fans and love that sort of game.”
He continues: “Our expectations [for Sniper Elite 4 and Yooka-Laylee] are extremely high. Both of those put us in the Top Ten publisher ranks. That’s a place we haven’t lived before. We have offered great choice and great titles, but now we have the best that we ever had. Then there’s our Q2 – I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people in the second quarter. There are three major releases coming up that are very interesting, which we’re going to announce around GDC.”
"February is a great time to release games as January sales have finished, people are thinking about buying again and quality rises to the top."
Garry Williams, Sold Out
The start of the year isn’t the worst time to release games, either, especially considering the pile-up of big releases that failed to match the sales of their predecessors at the end of 2016.
“The Top Six publishers always do the same thing,” Williams says.
“You’ve just seen the carnage at the end of last year. If you put all your games out with a top budget at the same time, people haven’t got the time to buy new games. They’re probably still playing one of the other big releases.
“Toy technology never stands still, and people always want entertainment. But there are other things to do – there are free-to-play games, internet titles - people only have so much time. It was always the case on console: Sega and Nintendo said they were selling four big titles per year. That was enough for people.
“If you put eight or twelve games out at Christmas you get lost. There’s going to be carnage. There’s too much stuff and too much noise.
“For us, February is great because January sales have finished, people are thinking about buying again and quality rises to the top. You lose all that background noise. All that discovery, all that looking at other stuff just disappears. Those games that launched at the end in Q4 are now down to £20, so your bar really needs to be higher for a £40 product.
“The majority of software and hardware used to be sold during October and January, so everyone sticks to that maxim. It’s old-fashioned publishing, and that’s what we’ve disrupted. We put Zombie Army Trilogy out in March 2015 and it flew off shelves. I think Sniper Elite 4 is going to knock it out of the ball park.”
In general, despite a rather disappointing Q4 season, Williams is confident about that the games market will increase over the course of 2017.
“The games market is going to grow this year,” he says. “It might come from more digital. We’re not against digital, we have more digital projects in the works, we’re just not talking about them yet. In Q3 and Q4 you’ll probably hear a lot more from us regarding our digital line-up.
“We’re still very much in the boxed market because those developers are still there and we need to take them to market.”
As a result, Williams and his team are bullish about Sold Out’s prospects for 2017 and beyond.
“We’ve built a war chest, we can do what we want in years three to six. We didn’t have that luxury before. We didn’t have the time or resource and everyone was flat out on doing their job.”
He concludes: “We’re going to be putting out more great games. I just want to work with the best games I can get.”
WHAT IS SOLD OUT LOOKING FOR?
Since Sold Out’s inception in 2014, the definition of an indie game has changed dramatically. Whereas before an innovative pixel art title from a bedroom coder might have been able to cut the mustard, consumers are, by and large, coming to expect more from their indie releases.
For Sold Out, the most important thing the team’s after is a studio that understands what they’re doing. It sounds simple, but it’s more difficult than you might think.
“They really need to be a lot more organised and stable than they have been so far,” MD Garry Williams explains. “We’ve had people who just pitched ideas and dreams to us. With teams like Playtonic, they understand what they’re doing. There may be glitches, but they’re not going to mess it up.”
Product manager George Morgan (above left) adds: “They have to have a more level head. You have titles like Hyper Light Drifter and Inside where the developers understand what they are doing. Developers also need to open to critique and be able to come up with a plan and stick to it. We’ve worked with developers who haven’t had a basic time scale of how long things would take to make at all – they would freewheel.”
Meanwhile, digital content manager Joshua Garrity (above right) says that what’s required of bedroom coders has changed.
“The punk rock phase of digital distribution has gone. It’s still about small teams, but if they’re working with a publisher and other business partners, they just have to take responsibility.”