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Time to Stop Asking for Permission
This was originally written for TIGA in August 2010, and it’s as true as ever. To learn more about life after permission, buy How to Publish a Game.
For the past twenty years, developers have had to ask permission before they could make a game.
The costs of distributing and marketing physical disks were so high that you needed to get a publisher to finance them, which meant going cap-in-hand to every two-bit acquisitions manager in the world in the hope that he would stump up the $5 million or more you needed to make a game.
And then to compound the pain, you and the publisher had to go cap-in-hand to Microsoft, Sony or Nintendo for concept approval to launch your game on those platforms.
It was the era of marketing’s primacy over creativity, of publisher primacy over developers.
Those days are over. You no longer need anyone’s permission to publish.
Publishing a game
That is not strictly true. There is a continuum of gatekeeping that still exists. At one extreme, Microsoft won’t let anyone publish unless they are a publisher committed to boxed products at retail. At the other end, the Internet is totally open and companies such as Bigpoint, Mind Candy and Jagex have taken full advantage of this freedom.
In between, in order, you have Sony, Apple, Android and Facebook. Overall, there have never been fewer people that you need to get permission from in order to get your game in front of an audience.
The problem I see is that too many developers have got so used to asking for permission, they don’t know how to stop.
Developers don’t need publishers any more, but they still need to finance their games. So many developers make a prototype and a design document and hawk it around anyone who will listen. Broadcasters. Venture capitalists. Advertisers. Government bodies.
That’s not self-publishing. It’s just switching paymasters.
It still means a twelve to twenty-four month lead time of business development, negotiation and design changes with people who will never be as passionate about your game as you are. And the sad thing is that it’s often not even necessary.
So I’m calling on developers to start changing the way they think. To stop asking for permission. To start looking at how they can get their game to market without lengthy business development cycles and without having to pander to gatekeepers.
How to self-publish
The exact self-publishing steps you need to take will depend on the platform. The requirements of a game on PSN are very different from those on Facebook or the wider web. But there are four core components of publishing which always need to be done, and it behooves you to understand them all.
- Sales is the process of taking money from your end users, either directly via a billing platform or indirectly through advertising.
- Distribution is the process of getting the game code in front of your players. In the online world it is often indistinguishable from marketing.
- Marketing is the process of building awareness of your title and, much more importantly, increasing the propensity of your users to spend money on your game.
- Finance is the pre-requisite to making the game in the first place, and being able to invest in sales, distribution and marketing.
A developer doesn’t need to do all four roles themselves. If you publish on PSN or iPhone, you are outsourcing the sales and distribution functions at a cost of 30% of your gross revenues. But I strongly believe that all developers need to understand all four of the functions before they outsource them – after all, how can you be sure you are getting a good service for your money if you don’t understand the process?
Games design for self-publishing
This new world is very different from the old one. You need to design for a minimum viable product, not for the bells and whistles that add little to the game experience but tick the boxes a publisher wants ticked. It’s about shipping early and responding to the community. In closed platforms like PSN, it’s about building a company strategy to cross-promote your games so that each one is not a brand new marketing challenge.
Above all, it’s about finding ways to ship a product by hook or by crook. It’s about removing all the people from your life who used to be able to say “we want more monkeys” or “why is the lead character blue.”
The Second Golden Age of Development is upon us. But only if you ship.