FuturLab’s James Marsden on the pressures of self-publishing indie games

Since it started releasing games for PlayStation platforms in 2010, Brighton-based indie developer FuturLab had been publishing its own titles.

This included the Velocity series of shoot-em-ups, as well as the Surge and Coconut Dodge games.

But in February of this year, the developer announced it was turning to Activision’s indie publishing label Sierra to release its latest title, Velocity 2X, on Xbox One and PC.

So why did a company that had been content to publish its own games up until now suddenly turn to a third-party to help release its games?

My first experience of self-publishing was the PlayStation Mini game Coconut Dodge, and there were better games that came out that month than Coconut Dodge,” the studio’s director James Marsden says.

But because I had put so much effort into the PR and marketing, Coconut Dodge was the only game that anyone talked about. I learnt then that if we made a decent game we could actually go places. So that was a big learning experience – if we put all our time and resources into [follow-up game] Velocity, then we could make a successful game.

We put a lot of effort into PR, but more recently we’ve learnt there’s actually two different groups of people you are advertising to. One is the players, the people that are going to buy your game which is a huge audience – and one that is really hard to reach. Then there’s the other audience, which is the industry you are in – that’s much easier to create buzz with.”

He continues: We have put so much effort into marketing and PR for Velocity 2X, all the way from the announcement up to release. We had a big push on Twitter, PR stunts like handing out flyers in the queue at the PS4 launch, all those kinds of things. I thought we were doing a good job of getting the message out there about Velocity 2X until it was announced for PlayStation Plus’ Instant Games Collection for September.

Then the internet exploded with people talking about Velocity 2X. I thought we had had an impact before then, but really we hadn’t even scratched the surface. That’s when I noticed there was a division between our industry bubble, and then there’s the wider community that go out and buy your games.

"I thought we were doing a good job of getting
Velocity 2X out there until it was announced for
PlayStation Plus’ Instant Games Collection. Then the
internet exploded with people talking about it.
I thought we’d had an impact before then, but really
we hadn’t even scratched the surface."

James Marsden, FuturLab

Knowing we put everything we possibly could into the marketing and PR efforts for Velocity 2X, and having it not go beyond the games industry bubble, having a publisher in Sierra just makes a lot of sense.”

Marsden and FuturLab were prepared to promote its games with marketing and PR, but it was the sheer amount of time this took that was a surprise for the studio.

Before Coconut Dodge, we spent five years making games for advertising agencies, so I knew how important and how big those budgets were,” Marsden says.

I got bored of making advertising material for someone else’s product – I wanted to make my own. So I was aware of how much resource went into launching a game and promoting it online. So I was prepared but I had no idea just how much time it would take. I spent way too much actually doing the PR on Velocity when I should have been polishing the levels and making sure the gameplay experience was as fluid as possible.”

On paper, the simple solution would be to just invest more in PR and marketing in-house. Hiring other people to handle these duties would, in theory, relieve pressure on Marsden and the development team. But Marsden explains that it isn’t that simple.

Ultimately, as director, the buck still stops with me then,” he says. Because everything that PR and marketing team does has to feed back to me, and I have to approve it. If you go with an organisation like Sierra or Activision, who have the most experience and the most muscle in the industry, I don’t have to worry about it.”

He concludes: I can just switch off and just focus on the game.”

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