Skybound Games is unique in the indie publishing landscape. Having launched in April as the publishing division of Skybound Entertainment, the company founded by The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman in 2010, it has access to resources that your typical indie publisher couldn’t even dream of.
Skybound Entertainment’s structure is an interesting one. The firm deals with its licenses (including The Walking Dead) across a wide variety of media: comics, TV, films, to name only a few. But it also licences them into video games via Skybound Interactive, which brought The Walking Dead to mobile and consoles (and soon VR with The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners), among others.
And now Skybound Games, led by 505 Games’ founder Ian Howe, has been created to complement the Interactive division, with the aim to partner with developers to create new IP and further expand Skybound properties.
“We’re in a fortunate position that we’ve got some great IP,” Mark Stanger, general manager for EMEA at Skybound Games, tells MCV. “When the opportunity is right we can be the vehicle that takes our IP to market. So whether that’s The Walking Dead or Outcast or Oblivion, or anything from our historical stable of IP.
“We’ve still got the Interactive team so we’re still actively looking at third-party opportunities to take that IP to market. As a group we’re in a great position, we have options. With the right opportunity, we can self-publish, but if the right thing is to build on something we’ve already done with Telltale Games or 505 Games, then we can do that too. And it’s nice that it’s powered by some genuinely compelling global IP.
“From a games publishing perspective we can rely on products and services that the group has. We have a relationship with Universal for movie treatments, we have a relationship with Amazon for TV, with Simon & Schuster for books…”
Skybound can also rely on the massive community that it’s built over the years around the parent company’s IPs, called ‘Skybound Insiders’.
“We have two and a half million opted in subscribers for Skybound Insiders so we have a sizeable global community that we can tap into,” Stanger says. “So those are things that other games publishers don’t necessarily have at their disposal immediately. But as a group we do, and where it’s right for the product we can bring those departments in to support us.”
WHAT’S IN THE BOX?
Having this background and resources available doesn’t mean that Skybound Games could just rest on its laurels since its inception six months ago though.
“It’s going well but there was a lot of work to do because we had the first two releases as a new publishing company in early September – Slime Rancher and The Long Dark,” Stanger says. “We started really gearing up in April/May time. There was a huge amount of work to do to get plans in place before the summer vacation period started. Although the publishing entity is new, the people involved had been around the industry for quite some time so it’s quite an experienced team and we’re able to move quickly and make some good plans for our releases. So I think we’re in pretty good shape.”
Monomi Park’s Slime Rancher and Hinterland Studio’s The Long Dark both launched at retail on September 7th, having successfully released on Steam in summer 2017.
“The reviews, the user feedback from Steam was exceptional for both titles, which was actually one of the initial triggers that made us think they could be interesting retail propositions. But the market is different to what it was five, seven, ten years ago so we’ve been sensible,” says Stanger. “We’ve been, if anything, erring on the side of caution the way that we’ve approached retail. We want to give everybody a positive experience, for everybody to sell the stock that we put into market, that they feel comfortable with the way that we approached it so when we come through with the next title they are happy to work with us again. What we’re seeing is that, although in the UK and Germany digital is a big component within the market for sure, there is still a very worthwhile retail piece to be exploited.
“In some of the other markets, we’re discovering, digital hasn’t made the kind of inroads from a consumer perspective that it has in the UK, Germany, US. So the retail market is still there, it’s still viable. But again we’ve been sensible in the way we’ve approached it.”
To make sure its retail strategy is viable, Skybound Games has partnered with specialists in key territories – MBG in Germany, CentreSoft in the UK, Just for Games in France – to undertake the physical distribution in those markets. And when it comes to retail, it’s very much a matter of finding a unique selling point, Stanger believes. Simply putting a game in a box won’t do the trick anymore.
“The retail landscape has changed massively. Digital has become so strong and so dominant. But we feel that for the right titles presented in the right way there is an opportunity at retail,” he says. “And let’s face it, retail still exists, people do still go into shops and buy games and we feel that if we can offer something really compelling in the box then there’s a market for that.
“With the experience of the team, it also means that we’re comfortable with that environment. Although it has changed, we still feel that we understand it, we have a view on how we can make that work for us. So that’s why we thought it was right to exploit this for these first two titles. And we knew that they both had sizeable communities that were actively talking about the game. So again if we had something interesting in the retail box then that could be quite compelling.”
He adds that both Slime Rancher and The Long Dark “have physical added value and digital added value that have not been seen previously” included in their physical editions. Slime Rancher comes with a ‘Slimepedia’ as well as new slimes, while The Long Dark comes with a survival guide and the soundtrack. Skybound Games also just announced it will be handling the physical versions of Team Cherry’s indie hit Hollow Knight, as well as Adult Swim Games’ and White Rabbit’s Death’s Gambit and Reverge Labs’ Skullgirls. These should come in Q1 next year Stanger tells us. And it’s fair to expect them to come with similar added value.
FINDING THE SWEET SPOT
Skybound Games is not only dedicated to carving its niche at retail, but also to expanding on the games’ universes if the opportunity is right, Stanger adds.
“The physical box distribution is something we feel that we understand and feel comfortable with. And then there’s all the other stuff. Where it’s right and where there’s the ambition, we can talk about film, we can talk about TV, we can talk about comics, we can talk about book publishing. We have got two and a half million Skybound Insiders that would love to talk about certain types of game that we know will resonate with that audience. We’ve got a merchandise team. We’ve got a live event team. We have a digital content creation team that sits within Skybound Group – two or three ex-guys from Machinima. So whether it’s a 30-minute documentary or whether it’s a trailer, we can do that in-house with some real experts on creating that kind of digital content.
“The word ‘hollistic’ is overused in some instances but there are a lot of avenues we can open to content creators, to help take their product to market and support it once it’s there. And I’m not sure that every indie publisher has that range of support services. So that’s the differentiation.”
Skybound Games previously announced a target of eight to ten releases a year, which Stanger confirms:
“That would be the sweet spot for us in terms of genuinely having a range we can talk about, but making sure that we can get the right focus and attention to each title and it gets the right treatment. At the end of the day that’s the single most important thing: to do what’s right for the game and the team that created it.”
For Skybound Games’ portfolio, Stanger also hopes to find a sweet spot between growing existing IP and signing new third-party developers.
“It’s going to be a balance and I think that’s going to be the really exciting piece, when we get a portfolio that contains some of our own IP but also bring to market games that have already been released digitally with ourselves and the studio being able to do something compelling for the physical version, as is the case with Slime Rancher and The Long Dark. And then there’s the more traditional publisher role where we work with the developer at an earlier stage and we invest in the development of the product and look to secure the digital and the physical rights. There’s a very interesting story around complementary release across both the digital and physical landscape.”
Concluding our chat, Stanger doesn’t shy away from Skybound Games’ ambitions.
“I think the ambition is really, on a global scale, to become a leading player in indie publishing and help define the highest quality of indie publishing by utilising expertise that the group developed over recent years.
“But the challenge is to do that while remaining creative-centric, do what’s right for the game at every instance. But if we can execute on that, I think we have a really compelling proposition.”