Do indie developers still need publishers?

Finally, thanks to digital distribution, developers can ditch those creatively restrictive publishers and goit alone. MCV speaks to those companies who insist the right publisher can be a force for good

Developers can release games on their own, with no real need for publishers. Why should they still turn to a publishing partner?

Andy Payne, Mastertronic: They shouldn’t, or – more accurately – they needn’t. A ‘publisher’ is many things to many people, and with that role comes not only rights, as was always the case, but responsibilities. A publisher has to be part of the creative team and above all must respect the game creators and the creative process. Oh, and they really need to make sure that sales are increased to pay for their revenue cut at least.

Debbie Bestwick, Team 17: The growth of disruptive distribution platforms along with new, smaller, more creatively-focused indie devs means that anyone could make a game and get it out there. The bad news is that everyone’s making a game and this causes massive discoverability issues. Add to that a lack of marketing experience for many of these new teams and a fractured platform landscape and it was clear that a new kind of publisher was needed. Partners like Team 17 can devote development, marketing, PR, community management resources and real life-cycle management can come into it’s own when trying to handle a multi-platform release. We can do all the stuff that gets in the way of actually making the game.

Jason Perkins, Curve Digital: Traditionally, publishers just helped out with PR and marketing. As we have our own in-house development team we are able to support on a development side. A lot of these indie guys are quite small teams. So being able to develop a PC version in parallel to the console SKUs is a real advantage.

We’re hearing a lot of stories with regards to Steam and that old word ‘discoverability’ seems to be appearing again. Consequently we can create a lot of noise about a game through our own channels, good PR and strong marketing. That’s where we really come into our own. We’ve been making games for a long time now, and we’re offering deals that are very equitable in terms of the revenue share. That’s our headline pitch.

"Publishing partners do all the stuff,
like QA and marketing, that gets in
the way of making the game."

Debbie Bestwick, Team 17

Gary Rowe, Green Man Loaded: It’s no longer enough to put a good game onto Kickstarter or Early Access and hope that people will find you. It can happen and you can be lucky. You can get noticed and you can get picked
up by an influential YouTube star.

A publisher isn’t required in that process, but a good publisher will help. We can raise awareness and drive engagement. And publishers certainly help on the funding side of things.

What are you looking for in developers and games now? Has this changed at all?

Bestwick: The main things are a great original idea and a burning desire to see it come to life. One of the great things about the indie development explosion over the past few years has been this incredible burst of creativity.

There’s definitely upward pressure on production values and an increased expectation of creative, innovative gameplay. Given the massive increase in the number of indie games being published on all platforms it’s becoming increasingly harder to get noticed, especially for ‘me too’ titles.

Perkins: There isn’t really a particular sort of change in terms of the developers that we are looking for. But everyone is on the look out for those slightly bigger titles that might be more interesting to the core gaming market, than maybe the market that is just interested in indie content. We need to attract
more triple-A customers. The big triple-A launches sell millions of units, where an indie title will sell hundreds of thousands. If we can fill that gap then that would be brilliant.

Payne: We want to work with developers who make games that we love to play. We don’t care about physical borders – we work with developers in small or sometimes single-person teams, based all over the globe.

Ed Rumley, Chillingo: In the last three years we’ve reduced the number of games we publish by over 80 per cent. The reason for this is we have shifted to a freemium business model. We still publish the occasional paid game but freemium is where our business is focused. Games have become live services, which means we can’t publish that kind of volume any more. We need to focus on launching games and then really working hard to make them successful.

A number of indie games have come to physical retail as boxed titles or download cards. Have you seen much of an appetite for indie games here?

Tim Woodley, 505 Games: We started life as a brick-and-mortar publisher and was able to bring our retail expertise to the digital space with good effect. We’re still extremely proud of our ability to activate our on-the-ground retail business in all major markets at will.

Terraria sold really well at physical retail and opened up that brand to a whole new audience. Payday 2 was
originally intended to be a digital-only release and, even if the bulk of sales have been done digitally, arguably it would not be the juggernaut franchise that it is today without the physical shop window that release was afforded.

Bestwick: I’m not surprised by the demand for indie games at retail. There are many consumers who just prefer their games on disc. The sales figures for games we’ve released at physical retail show that there’s a sizeable demand there and the platform holders need to create a business model that can support this – and to their credit, that’s something they’ve become increasingly supportive of.

We’re also seeing an increasing number of indie games that can hold their own at retail against the triple-A titles, and the exposure that seeing a game on a store shelf can have can only be a
good thing.

Perkins: Following The Swapper, we’re looking to do more in-store ESD cards rather than boxed releases. We’ve spoken to GAME and it is keen to do more, too.

The High Street still gets an awful lot of footfall. A lot of their business is cash and that obviously allows kids to buy content. With digital you typically need to have a credit card registered to the store. As long as it’s merchandised correctly in-store, if we can get some of our indie games in there then that would be great.

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