The last couple of years have seen the rise and rise of the indie publisher.
Barely a month goes by without the announcement of a new publisher that promises to help you get your brand new game off the ground and market it to a discerning audience.
It can be critical, of course, to get support for your game’s release, or find the right company to help fund development of your innovative and exciting new idea. But in a market increasingly full of publishers like Devolver Digital, 505 Games, Team17, Curve Digital, Kiss, Versus Evil, Sold Out, Green Man Loaded and more, how do you find the right publisher for you?
As far as the basics go, Team17 MD Debbie Bestwick, whose company has helped indie hit The Escapists make some $10m, says the most important thing is to make sure a publisher adds value. This can range from media, marketing, sales, backend testing, localisation or console submissions, through to helping add polish with additional development resources.
“If any publisher you are talking to can’t add value, simply walk away,” she says.
Curve Digital publishing director Simon Byron adds that some the basics can include anything to do with submissions, certification, support, PR, marketing and community support. Depending on the agreement, this may also include development support too, either creatively or financially.
But there’s a lot to look out for when taking part in those tricky negotiations. And it’s important not to get taken advantage of.
Avoid any publisher who seeks your IP or shares of your company as part of any deal to get to market.
Garry Williams, Sold Out
“Check out the people you intend to work with, ask around and question the developers who have worked with them – did they pay on time, and did they deliver?” says Sold Out business development director Garry Williams.
“Avoid any who seek your IP or shares of your company as part of any deal to get to market. Ideally look for publishing support that can be turned on and off like a tap – as and when needed. Be certain that the publishing partner can add value to your game with lifecycle management skills and genuine publishing support.”
Byron says developers should also look out for how a publisher reacts to a game that performs poorly after release. After all, not all games will sell well from the off.
“Sure, we all want our games to sell as well as they can – but you need to know that if things don’t work out initially, that there is a longer-term plan beyond a shrug of the shoulders,” he says.
He adds that during negotiations, developers should be prepared. Know what you’re asking for and what you’re willing to accept. He says that a good publisher shouldn’t need to go out their way to make sweeping demands to convince you to sign, while also warning devs to be wary of anyone putting on time pressures.
505 Games global brand and marketing SVP Tim Woodley says another thing to make sure you ask your potential publishing partner is about their relationships with platform holders and digital marketplace leaders, like Valve, Apple, Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft and Google. Making sure your publisher has close ties with the major players on your target platform is crucial.
“They are the new ‘retailers’ and getting front of store is no less important now than it was when we were selling boxes into Walmart, Tescos or Micromania,” he explains. “Ask your publisher about their relationship with the relevant first-party retailers, how often they meet and their approach to ‘selling-in’ their titles.”
Making sure you know what you are looking for from publishers is only part of the preparation, of course. Developers need to deliver a successful pitch for their due diligence on the right partner to matter.
Bestwick says developers need not always worry too much. If the game is good enough, it will always get a deal. But she has some useful tips to keep in mind.
“The best advice I can share is please research the game you are making,” she says. “Look at every similar game and know why your game is going to stand out above what’s in the market now and also at the time your game will actually be released.”
Keep your pitch short – it forces you to focus on the key details and removes unnecessary info.
David Clark, Kiss
Williams believes developers need to show not only a great game and clear enthusiasm for the project, but also evidence of clear preparation and planning.
“Although things like SWOT (Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis start to sound boring, an idea of why you have a passion for a genre, how you intend to deliver the project and your plan to place this game in front of consumers are all really helpful,” he explains.
“It may sound basic, but too many people get caught up with the ‘concept’ and the thoughts of their peer group, and spend too little time considering schedules, costs, marketing and planning to reach market with impact.”
Kiss head of marketing David Clark says he wants to understand as quickly and as easily as possible exactly what the game is about and what sets it apart from others.
“If we can’t work it out, then how will the customer?” he says, adding that sending across a 400-page design document will only highlight how good you are at writing, “but not a lot else”.
“Keep it short – it forces you to focus on the key details and removes the unnecessary background info,” advises Clark. “Obviously a build of some kind is essential and we react best to enthusiasm and originality.”
It’s important to note that publishers receive pitches of all shapes and sizes every week. Woodley says that 505 Games often evaluates a project according to where the team has originated.
If it’s a larger team, its expectations for a thoroughly prepared pitch with a high level of detail are greater. He says, however, that the publisher understands how new and lone developers may not have the experience to deliver the perfect pitch, so expectations for this stage of proceedings may be lowered.
“For smaller, micro-studios – say at MCV and Develop’s Interface events, for example – quite often we’re talking to people who have no experience or expectations as to how publishing even works,” he states. “We will help them get their pitches into a better state for the official greenlight discussion by asking them some of the questions which perhaps they haven’t considered.”
The right time
Not all publishers may be so understanding of a poorly delivered pitch however, so reading up on advice given here or asking for it yourself may be a smart move before commencing discussions for that
But once you’ve done your research on publishers, and understood the pitching process, when is the best time to approach a potential partner? The answer seems to differ between publishers – another reason why it’s important to spend time finding the best fit for your unique requirements.
“Even though I’ve been known to sign a game based only on screenshots and a vision, ideally we would always like to see, and more importantly, play, code, even if it’s a just a working prototype rather than a polished level,” says Bestwick.
“Other important things to bring to the initial meetings are details of your production vision and detail of the team you have in place – the team is as important as the game being made.”
Woodley agrees that at least a prototype is required for a successful pitch. While he believes “a good idea is a good idea”, and will take a look at any game whether it’s close to completion or at the concept stage, a proven idea is ideal.
“It shows that the developer has the courage of their convictions and genuinely believes in the idea,” he explains. “And two, it shows us that what looked like a good idea on paper is starting to manifest itself in code. I would say that the most successful pitches which come to our greenlight table more often than not have some sort of prototype already developed.”
Williams adds that showing a generous amount of code to test the look and feel of a game’s concept can also help when it comes to marketing later on.
“Don’t wait too long delivering this look and feel as we all really benefit from planning marketing into the concept as soon as is possible,” he states. “We genuinely believe we add skills to your business and will help maximise returns, so feedback at an early stage can often save a lot of wasted effort later down the line.”
Publishers should be the sunshine energising the creative process rather than a dark cloud.
Simon Byron, Curve Digital
A new brand of publisher
While there are still horror stories that make their way around the games industry of developer’s burned by bad publishing deals, the sector is certainly different to the landscape of five or ten years ago. More power is now in the hands of developers, thanks for the opportunities in self-publishing – though discoverability is not an issue to be taken lightly.
Woodley says today’s publishers are more respectful of the fact that developers “are the life-blood talent of our industry, without them we are nothing”. He says it’s no surprise from those older horror stories that more indie publishers have sprung up in recent years, often from development studios themselves, such as Team17 and Curve, to disenfranchised individuals from major publishers “looking to put right some of the wrongs of the past”.
“Publishers of today also have to be a lot more dynamic and flexible than the publishers of the past,” he says. “The pace of change in our industry is showing no signs of slowing.
“Whether it’s in specific areas of, for example, consumer marketing, where changing behaviours are throwing up new best practises in consumer communications almost every month, or more broadly in
terms of business models and distribution channels, it is important for the modern-era publishers to keep re-evaluating and re-inventing themselves as the changes happen around them.”
Lifting the publishing veil
Byron says the real difference these days is that much of the mystery around publishing has been removed. Good publishers are accountable, open and honest, he states.
He cites tales of developers never seeing royalty reports, which he labels “absolutely disgraceful”. And those bad deals raise a good point, with the prevalence of social media and so many publishers in competition – a bad publisher will quickly find themselves in the headlines and out of favour with developers.
Byron adds that publishers now also have to work harder for these developers, given the tough discoverability challenges they face across all platforms.
“The ability for almost anyone to write a game means that it’s no longer enough just to be featured in a digital or physical store,” he says.
“We also need to work harder to convince partners to work with us – there’s often the assumption that the results from going it alone or with a publisher will be the same, albeit keeping all the money. Good publishers should be the sunshine energising the creative process rather than a dark cloud sucking up whatever per cent of revenue they’re screwing you for.”