Why UK dev Icon Games is moving to self-publishing

Becoming a self-publishing Icon

UK-based indie dev Icon Games is no longer UK-based indie dev Icon Games.

The group has morphed into an indie publisher, self-funding and self-publishing its work primarily – perhaps exclusively – through digital channels such as PSN.

Last week the group announced it is set to self-publish five digital titles for the likes of PSP, DS, iPhone and consoles before the end of they year.

Develop caught up with the outfit’s head of development, Richard Hill-Whittall, to discover why the company has made its bold transition in an increasingly big-player industry and, no less, in the midst of a global economic recession.

You’ve announced plans to self publish future games – was this a sudden strategy change for you?
It was something we had planned to do in the long term but positive changes in the industry made it more realistic and the failings of the established publisher-funding route made it easy to make the jump a little earlier than planned.

Can you give any examples of the kind of problems you were encountering with other publishers?
Really slow decision-making and contract negotiation, even on relatively small projects, are the most obvious. Far more problematic were the slow/late payments and in one or two cases immoral business practices such as not paying royalties owed.

Does this mean all your products will be digital-only? Are you ditching any hopes of seeing a game on a shop shelf?
We will be self-publishing digital only projects, but we still have great relationships with several publishers and will most likely continue to look for licensing deals for retail versions of some products.

This is becoming increasingly common amongst studios – why is this happening during a recession when you’d expect such moves to be a real risk?
To be honest it is far more risky to take the traditional publishing route right now; and let’s face it – more often than not you pretty much have to complete a game anyway before you sign a deal, especially if you are doing your own product and wish to retain the IP. I have always believed it is essential to hold onto all IP, without it – what do you really have?

Would such moves have not been possible if Sony, Apple, Nintendo had not introduced digital download channels?
While digital distribution was happening on PCs, the introduction of digital download channels on consoles made the job easier.

On PC you need to worry about hosting files, payment processors and hardware compatibility and more. These complications don’t exist on the console/iPhone so developers can focus on developing the products and building awareness.

Do you plan to produce any titles for XBLA?
We haven’t ruled out XBLA or any other platforms, but it is not something we are pursuing immediately – we’ve also found Microsoft very unresponsive to talk to about Live Arcade approval.

At the moment we intend to focus on Wiiware, PSP & iPhone with DSi on the not too distant horizon. In the future we may self-publish on XBLA/PSN or license our titles to other publishers, but certainly this is a bigger step.

XBLA and services such as the App Store are becoming increasingly competitive channels with publishers and larger companies pumping content into them. Does that pose a problem for Icon?
I think it is a problem and one we have to address by being able to make money with smaller projects and release on a number of different platforms.

Indie developer/publishers are smaller and leaner than the big guys so we can make money on lower sales. Our plan is to build up a portfolio of games and take those games, in one form or another, to as many platforms as we can.

We have worked hard over the years to ensure that we retain ownership of all of our titles & game engines which means that we already have a catalogue of games to release, which is a nice head-start.

What features in each of your games will make them stand out on their respective platforms?
We are trying to create good solid games, with a decent set of features that provide good value for money and a lot of fun.

What’s your strategy for handling the things publishers are proven do well, such as covering costs for marketing, rating, and QA?
We now have internal QA and a few contractor QA guys on our books – so QA is covered quite well. This was a biggie as without decent internal QA it is a big struggle to get a solid product into LOT checks, etc… 

We budget the rating fees for each project into the development costs, and we’ve just completed our first batch of age ratings – so we’re familiar with it all now.
With marketing, initially our focus is to build up relationships with the online press sites and use services like Twitter and Facebook to get the word out there.

We have also launched a brand new website and are hoping to get people involved in the site and our games – we aim to be very open and honest, and allow our customers/potential customers to really get to know us as a company, and individuals. 

We are looking into open Beta testing of our future games and direct feedback in that way too.

Do you think more developers will follow this route?
Yes I do – right now there are more opportunities for independent developers than there have ever been to get their games directly to market. 

For me this is without doubt the most exciting time I have known since I started in 1991; so many possibilities – it’s great to be an indie now.

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