It could be argued that the rise of the indies is reaching its peak. As digital stores, particularly on mobile, become more crowded, small developers are finding it harder to get noticed even with quality games.
Next-gen consoles PS4, Xbox One and Wii U are more indie-friendly than ever, encouraging small developers to release games on their platforms with a number of self-publishing efforts and support of indies.
But while more curated, currently at least, than iOS and Android, these systems could soon suffer the same fate in terms of extremely difficult discoverability, even if not quite to the tune of hundreds of thousands of titles all competing for consumer attention.
Steam appears to be heading toward self-publishing, with a raft of titles moving through Greenlight and Valve promising to make it even easier to get on their store by one day abolishing it, and breaking what it calls "bottlenecks".
So does this mean publishers are becoming increasingly relevant again? Former Zenimax Online Studios marketing director Steve Escalante, who just set up a new indie-focused publisher Versus Evil, thinks so.
Speaking to Develop, he said the fact traditional publishers now have to aim high, often only looking at titles that will sell two million plus units, is partly what caused the wave of indie developers self-publishing over the last few years - of course not forgetting the industry-changing impact of mobile.
And he says now the issue of discoverability is becoming a major issue, small developers may need more help than ever bringing their games to the attention of consumers.
We asked him just what Versus Evil is up to having published already work with Stoic on The Banner Saga, what’s changing in the indie revolution and where publishers now sit in the new game industry.
Why have you formed Versus Evil?
When I was asked to lead Versus Evil, it was simply to be a publisher of games. I have done this for so long and knew there were plenty of independent studios out there that needed publishing support.
Once I got started however, I quickly realised that in order for us to truly make a difference in this industry then we should not embrace the old practices of publishing, but to build from the ground up a company focused on making its partners successful first and foremost.
What do you bring to the table that other publishers don't?
First, I would say that we offer most, if not all, of the services of any publisher. The difference is our approach and how we work with the development studios. That boils down to our attitude and philosophy.
We are a publisher, plain and simple, however we approach the relationship like we can get fired at any time. This means we serve our development studios to the best of our ability, provide them with quality work, get their input along the way and share information about business deals, opportunities, challenges, etcetera throughout the entire process.
Versus Evil also commits their own dollars to marketing and promoting these games. This is not just PR, but adding our marketing expertise by increasing reach through a well thought out media plan. We work very hard to make sure the teams we work with have a sustainable product plan that can generate revenue for them each and every month. And to this point, what also sets us apart, is we share in the revenue generously in order to ensure the team is as successful as possible.
What is the role of a modern game publisher when it comes to indies?
I am sure others can answer this differently than Versus Evil, but my point of view is to make sure independent studios remain independent. This is not easy and some would argue that their getting snatched up by a major publisher is also a win. I agree that is a win, but my personal preference is that they remain independent so they can continue to develop the games they want to make which is how this industry was founded.
From the business perspective, our role is to help give the independent studios access to services and solutions they might not have available or the knowledge or time to get them done. A lot of indies test their own products, manage their own websites or communities and manage their distribution. While it’s important for them to play an active role in all of these business needs, it also takes them away from making the game.
Most indies just want to be able to make the games they want to make. Making a game is hard and making a good game is even harder. If we can take the stress and some of the financial burden away from the studio so they can focus on making their game then that’s a big help right there.
Generating a couple million dollars in royalties for an independent game studio of three-to-eight people is also a great thing and helps ensure they are able to grow their own fan base.
The barriers to entry on the digital platforms have been lowered from the development point of view, but there is an increase in the need for good marketing, PR, and community management
What has changed in the publishing landscape over the last few years?
It depends on how far back you want to go but once I started looking at how Versus Evil can fit in this space a few points became very clear.
1. Most major publishers are ignoring games that can sell units in the 100,000 to one million range. For years, I have heard from my friends leading development teams that Company XYZ passed on it because it can’t sell more than two million units.
2. More channels are accessible to indies; PC (Steam), consoles (next-gen), mobile (iOS and android)
3. External funding sources are helping independent teams fund their project without having to sell their company or their product short (Kickstarter, Indiegogo)
4. The independent games community is a very social, very supportive community to each other.
All of these points really go back to #1 which, for me, translates to the industry found a way for independent studios to create the games they want to make because they were tired of being told no.
This market was created by the major publishers who require a title to make tens of millions of dollars. This is mainly caused by the fact that they are so overburdened with costs and infrastructure that they must focus on those titles that can make that kind of money and then get them into the sequel churn. I get it. But, that still leaves all of these amazing products that can achieve good, solid revenue for small independent teams.
Moving into next-gen, is the role of the publisher changing again?
I don’t think so. I think the same challenges facing indie mobile gaming companies are going to face indies going next-gen. At the end of the day the digital storefront, regardless of the benefits of the long tail, has a limited shopping experience beyond what gets displayed. How far will a customer just search through the many pages of digital games looking at the thumbnail of the product and buy based on that?
Too many data points can reflect this reality; the importance for being in the top on Apple, the importance of being on the first page of Google for SEO, the importance for books to be on the NY Times bestselling list, the importance of good reviews, etcetera.
The barriers to entry on the digital platforms have been lowered from the development point of view, but there is an increase in the need for good marketing, PR, and community management. The digital storefronts are so overloaded in bringing in new content one could say that the titles with a good community will get bumped in front of other titles in the queue.
The role of the publisher is to help these titles rise above the noise, help build that community, create the promotions and activities, and more so that the game has a chance of being successful.
Are publishers still relevant to developers, and do you think they will continue to be?
Yes, as reflected in my answer above. It’s also important to remember that many developers still need funding and publishing type services (if they can’t do it themselves). This can come from publishers, work-for-hire projects, crowd-sourcing, investors, friends and family, and of course sweat equity. Some developers may eventually hire internal teams to solve these needs that may reduce the need.
There are so many disciplines in implementing a marketing and PR strategy that I do feel using a knowledgeable group is a good thing. Versus Evil was set up to ensure we can survive with this new model and new way of launching titles in mind.
For the most part the developers, indie or otherwise, still just want to make games and not worry about all the other stuff. That’s their passion. That’s their focus. You can say the same about the Versus Evil team. We geek out about our role in the process and have a terribly fun time doing it. Not every team will need the services a publisher can provide, but for those that do, there is a new publishing model that is available to them that will allow them to keep their core values and create the products they want to create.