Don’t Believe Everything a Publisher Tells You

Back when Sairento VR had just launched for a couple of months, a game publisher approached us and said they could make us even bigger.

It was a new publisher but boasted that it was a AAA publishing studio because it had a big name game veteran heading it, along with big investors and some celebs backing the company. Luckily I never took things at face value, so I negotiated hard, asked many questions, including one that asked them to prove that they had the money to market games they took on. I felt that it was a justified question given that they are a new publisher with zero track record despite their claims and they don’t give an advance.

With that, the CEO lost his temper and stopped the discussion.

Many months later, they launched their first game. I was holding my breath, expecting to see a spectacular performance on Steam with dozens of rave reviews supported by a strong marketing campaign. The end result – 20 reviews after 20 days. A few paid lousy press releases, interviews and reviews. And that was that.

I will not divulge the name of this publisher, but I am both disappointed that they seem to be a lot less than what they projected themselves to be and also gratified that we never signed up with them.

Moral of the story – Don’t trust a publisher easily. Ask all the hard questions and if you have even a tinge of doubt, run far far away. You would do better to work with one that has a proven track record and is patient in answering all your questions.

So if you are a game developer, do you really need a game publisher?

The answer is – it depends on what you are lacking and what you need a publisher for. Are you looking for development money, for distribution, for marketing or for mentorship and advice?

Most indie game developers are in need of development funds unless you have already made some buckeroo with a previous release or your dad has a last name like 'Gates'.

They often look toward game publishers for this very elusive thing called funding.

Now, it is no secret that publishers are known to finance development of games, but it is also no secret that they only like to finance games that they think have a good chance of making big money and games submitted by developers that they trust.

In other words, game publishers are businesses runned and headed by individuals who want that fat bonus at the end of the year and they need to think very carefully which games they should support to get that bonus. Also, think of it this way - when they finance a game's development, they are essentially investing in that game, so they'd better invest in a game they like and a team they believe in.

So the good news is, while some game publishers (not all) are in the business of looking out for games to finance, they are very unlikely to financially support an unproven indie label unless your team has an excellent track record of shipping commercially successful titles.

Saying that, you don't necessarily have to depend on a game publisher for financing. There are other sources.

Steam Early Access | You can launch your early build game as an EA title on Steam at a discounted price to get some early adopters on board. For Sairento VR, we did exactly this and within the first few days we already recouped our initial investment of $30,000. Over the new few months we made enough to finance our full development. Just make sure that your early build game is not just a simple proof of concept but something actually playable, enjoyable and offers a decent amount of playtime. Think of it as a demo to tease your potential customers and get them to buy into the idea that they are getting this future great game at a discount.

Fig.co | Fig.co is like the dedicated Kickstarter for games. They have an innovative system where people can either buy your game as an early stage supporter or invest in your game as an investor. Many games have raised pretty decent amounts of cash on this platform, ranging from tens of thousands to even a few millions. Again, proven developers tend to raise the serious money compared to the new unproven ones.

If this is in the 80s, 90s or even early 2000s, indie game developers may have an excuse to think that it is crucial to have a publisher help them for distribution.

But this is 2017 where literally anyone can sign up for a developer account with Steam, Apple App Store, Google Play Store, Amazon, Humble Bundle and a whole load of online game marketplaces and act as their own distributors.

Saying that, powerful publishers do have an advantage when it comes to visibility on these distribution channels. Ever notice games by famous publishers get unfairly big banners on Steam? How about the fact that they always get featured by Apple and Google? This is the unfair advantage that good publishers have over an individual.

Now there is a myth that publishers can automatically get you distributed on boxed retail. That is not true.

While some big publishers do indeed have the means to get you on boxed retail, and if you are lucky to work with one, they tend not to automatically put you on the boxed retail route simply because you are indie and unproven. Your sales on the online channel would have to be quite phenomenal for them to discuss distributing your game via the boxed retail route because they would have to cough up a substantial investment to design, print, distribute and market those boxed games.

On the other hand, there are publishers who specialize in distributing boxed retail. They are however very selective on who they approach to discuss a distribution deal. The same rule applies - your game would have to chalk up impressive results in the online stores for them to even consider it.

We experienced this first hand when several publishers just approached us out of the blue to ask if we would consider publishing the PSVR version (both online and boxed retail) of Sairento VR through them.

For us, we reached the stage where retail publishers took notice of us without signing up with any publisher in the first place. We are in a pretty happy position because we got to keep all our earnings (minus Steam's cut and taxes). 

If your concern is about marketing, I think it is somewhat valid if you have little or no knowledge of marketing.

Game publishers with a good track record of publishing successful titles will probably be able to help your game gain more traction than you possibly could. For starters, they have more relationships. During the course of running their business, they would have built up a network of influencers and game reviewers they can call up to ask for favors. They would have relationships with online distributors like Steam, Google Play Store and Apple Store where they could ask for a special feature on store front.

And if the above isn't powerful enough, they have money. Moolah they can deploy towards ads or install purchases. Those have direct impact on sales and visibility.

With that said, you need to consider a few points.

  • Can you do any of the marketing yourself?
  • What are you giving up for this?
  • Can the game publisher truly deliver?

Can You Do Any Of The Marketing Yourself?
From my experience, you most definitely can! I have written an article on this topic and will not elaborate further here. You can read it here.

What Are You Giving Up To Publishers?
Depending on the publisher, they ask anywhere from 40% to 70%. The more you ask of them (eg. development funds), the more revenue share they demand from you. At the end of the day, you have to decide if the deal is worthwhile for you.

Can The Game Publisher Truly Deliver?
Unfortunately there is no answer to this. The best way to mitigate your risk is to first choose a publisher with an established track record of publishing successful titles. Search for these games on Google and Youtube to see how many media outlets and reviewers have covered them. Don't be afraid to ask the hard questions (read my personal account with a publisher below).

Mentorship can be a double-edged sword.

For tried and proven platforms like mobile and PC, it makes perfect sense to listen to what an expereinced publisher has to share with you about trends and the best practices to monetize a game.

However, for newer platforms like VR, their guess is really as good as yours, sometimes worse.

Take for example Sairento VR. Many experienced game developers back then (and even today) were saying that you can't do stunts like back flips, wall runs, huge jumps in VR unless you want a barf fest. We said 'to heck with it' and decided to do exactly the opposite because we believed that it is important for a VR game to differentiate itself from a game on other platforms. Obviously Sairento VR became very successful largely due to its bold locomotion.  And if we had listened to the naysayers, Sairento would have been just another typical FPS wave shooter.

So my advice is to listen to everything, but don't accept and embrace everything.

Be selective and do your own independent thinking. Sometimes, publishers' views may differ from the gamers' perspective. In my opinion, the Early Access program on Steam is an excellent way to get direct feedback from your end customers and figure out what they really want. I would always sooner go with the EA route first before considering a publisher for mentorship. To me, customers are always the best mentors.