As we’ve seen in our previous article on what's next for indies, the ‘indie’ game development landscape has changed and continues to evolve at apace. Getting your game discovered is becoming increasingly difficult – though not impossible – and perhaps more time than ever needs to be dedicated to the marketing and promotion of your game.
This realisation has spawned a wide variety of indie publishers during the last couple of years. Long-time UK developer Team17 has added a publishing arm to its operations, helping release titles such as prison game The Escapists and stealth hacking title Light. Digital retailer Green Man Gaming has also expanded into publishing with Green Man Loaded, and is helping bring god game IdolHands and physics-based puzzle title Keebles to market.
A myriad of other publishers, including Versus Evil and Devolver Digital, are also pledging their services to indies, claiming to offer a helping hand, but one that will not force developers into signing their IP away. Of the three publishers we spoke to, all of them said they have no intentions of owning IP rights.
“It was past time for a massive shake-up in the traditional business retail/publisher models,” says Team17 MD Debbie Bestwick.
“Traditional publishers and retailers have been failing content creators – independent developers – for years by not taking enough risks and very one-sided revenue/royalty deals. Overnight we saw an explosion of options and with Valve opening up their Steam distribution network to third-parties, all of a sudden content creators had a choice.
“Publishing is a skill that even great games need. Thankfully for everyone’s sakes, we have seen the emergence of a new wave of super smart publishers who understand the nature of agile publishing.”
Steve Escalante, GM of Banner Saga publisher Versus Evil, says discovery is one of the biggest challenges for indie developers, whether their game is coming to mobile, PC or console. He explains that a publisher’s job is not to just create a PR buzz, but add value to all areas of the marketing phase pre and post-release, as well as supporting developers in other ways. This is perhaps something indies should take careful notice of if looking for a partner.
“A solid indie publisher is not just bringing PR that is going to create buzz, but brings access to more events, communities, a media buying team that can add value to advertising and branding, and a product strategy that works to find a good month to launch, looks at competitive windows, has a solid understanding of when sales occur and more,” says Escalante.
“All of this can roll into helping with the crowded retail space.”
Getting to market
To overcome that discoverability issue, developers – whether deciding to opt for a publishing partner or not – have a lot to consider. As well as building the game itself, creators need to determine the best time to launch their game, a factor perhaps made more complex by Early Access on Steam. While providing a great space for feedback, developers can also fall into the trap of launching their title too early and harming their game’s chances. There are also other factors to be mindful of, says Escalante.
“Look at your competitive window and understand what is occurring in the industry,” he explains.
“Are you launching on top of a big sale? Have you given yourself enough time to get through certification with first-party? What events are occurring? Knowing and understanding these events will help you build out a tactical strategy for when it is right to launch a title – but look to the future. When is the first time you might go on sale? Is that during a holiday? Is it too close to your pre-order offer?”
Traditional publishers and retailers have been failing content creators – independent developers – for years by not taking enough risks and very one-sided revenue/royalty deals
Debbie Bestwic, Team17
Green Man Loaded EVP Gary Rowe says the very first conversation he has with developers is how they’re going to talk about their game. He says often their primary task is making the best game with the time and budget they have available. He notes, however, that developers also need to start planning their launch right from the start.
“Factoring in time to build good supporting art assets – key art, trailers, and so on – is important, and they also need to allocate time to spend talking about their game via social channels, such as blogs, Twitter, Twitch, etcetera, at every stage of the dev process, so they’re building up an audience before launch.”
Bestwick pointedly states that indies need to be aware of “everything” when launching a new game.
“Just because they are an indie developer, it doesn’t mean consumers will accept anything less than a commercial professional game being released,” she says.
“So usability, QA, localisation, compatibility testing, age ratings – where applicable; with platform holders there are set conditions that must be met. It’s fundamentally important to ensure the game doesn’t go out broken and is as bug free as possible.”
Eyes on the long-term
Bestwick says, however, that this is the easy bit; what developers need to be on top of is the lifecycle management of their game. She explains that though indies who are focused on digital no longer have to worry about shelf-life, they still need to manage their title to sustain long-term revenue and achieve maximum returns.
“This is a clever combination of production updates, clever marketing and sales planning,” she says.
Rowe says long-term success can be achieved by fixing bugs and making small improvements by listening to feedback, while additional content also helps drive promotional awareness and allows the conversation to continue post-release.
“Remaining vocal, being visible, and keeping active is hugely important, and is where publishers like Green Man Loaded can provide valuable additional support,” he says.
One method of ensuring revenue comes in long after a game’s release is through sales and bundles. Though it can be extremely effective for many indies, Escalante advises that developers don’t always need to put their games on sale, and should make sure they build value for their title.
“Keep your value, go on sale when you need to, go in bundles when it’s the right time in your lifecycle, and keep that value promise you have made to your customers,” says Escalante. “Lastly, stay in contact with your retail and platform partners to make sure you are part of their plans.
“This is your modern day retail storefront that have sales, events, holidays and more that you benefit from. Push to be a part of it, but don’t sell yourself short.”
Is a publisher right for you?
With these considerations and others in mind, in can be a difficult decision for developers when considering if their game needs publishing help. Rowe says that a good publishing partner is one that will know how to manage the price lifecycle of the product from pre-orders to release through short-term promotions, offers and more.
Developers need to allocate time to spend talking about their game via social channels, such as blogs, Twitter, Twitch, etcetera, at every stage of the dev process.
Gary Rowe, Green Man Loaded
Publishers may also have a wider network that developers may find difficult to access, such as YouTube, social communities and affiliate marketing partners.
“Getting this right can dramatically improve sales revenue,” states Rowe. “Perhaps more importantly, a good publisher should be able to show they know how to drive awareness of a new game over and above simply loading the game up on a store.
“This must include a solid PR strategy and marketing plan to generate interest and awareness in the title, which requires specialist expertise, and is why many developers consider working with a publisher who has these resources and skills. A good publisher will have access to, and influence with, a large community of gamers and press.”
Bestwick admits some indie developers can do everything themselves, as shown by developers such as Simon Roth and Mike Bithell in our ‘What’s next for indies?’ feature. She states, however, that there is still a cost to that, and believes it is important to partner up with someone that has strengths in areas they don’t.
“Our own programme is more about collaborations in publishing as well as helping them make the best game possible,” she says.
“Think smart, know your strengths and seek out people who can complement you and help you achieve maximum success.”