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[Gamesbriefers] Is it better to go it alone than to trust a publisher with your game?

By on February 18, 2013


Three developers recently published an open letter alleging that a UK publisher Lace Mamba had failed to pay the minimum guarantees it had promised, had distributed games in territories where it did not hold the rights and had sold rights it did not have to sub-licensors.

Does the Lace Mamba experience show that independent developers with successful digital distribution should go it alone? If a developer is looking to work with a publisher, what should they be looking for, and what are the warning signs that say “steer clear”?


Andy Payne CEO of Appynation

Good to see those that are breaking the terms of a deal actually outed for once. I wish I could help people make more informed decisions. As we all start to share more information amongst the games community we will see better decisions made.

Everyone should pick their partners carefully. Yes you always want paying for the work you do. Yes you want the royalties you are entitled to. Yes you want to be treated fairly. These should all be a given in my book. A deal is a deal. Reputations and trust takes a while to establish.

There are many decidedly dodgy companies out there. Seek out companies that treat you like a partner, not a beaten wife. Ask around, take your time and don’t be scared to piss people off by asking hard and direct questions. If the work does not feel right, if the quality is not there, then my advice is avoid like the plague.

I would be happy to help any developer seeking a sales-publishing-distribution agreement free of charge. We cannot continue to stand by and let our friends get fleeced by unscrupulous chancers and frauds.

Ella Romanos Founder of Remode

Having gone through the model where ‘publishers’ distribute your game, with no risk taken on their part, I have come to the conclusion that unless all partners are taking some risk, and getting a return based on that risk, then the relationship is never going to work well.

If the partner isn’t willing to take some tangible risk upfront (i.e. put cash towards the project whether it’s for development, marketing or advanced royalties), then they probably aren’t a partner you want to work with and in my experience I wouldn’t trust them as they have nothing to lose.

There are a lot of distribution opportunities out there, most of which sound too good to be true because they are…

Stuart Dredge Journalist at The Guardian

Here’s my take with a music industry hack hat on…

A few years ago, there was lots of chatter about music artists cutting out the middlemen (labels) and going direct to fans – distributing music directly. Lots of “YEAH! What do labels do anyway apart from SCREW musicians? FUCK The Man! Go direct to fans!” and so on.

It hasn’t quite turned out that way: some artists do go direct – Metallica recently reclaimed their master recordings and launched their own label, David Guetta has all his rights and merely licenses them to EMI – but the traditional ‘record deal’ is still the main mechanism. Even as ‘records’ fade from the scene! It turned out that doing everything yourself as an artist was often a massive ball-ache – lots of admin, lots of grappling with subjects like metadata, figuring out which new digital things were important etc.

BUT. The existence of that potential label-free alternative has had a big impact, I think, on record deals. Contracts are (on the whole) less screw-the-artisty. The threat forced labels to be more artist-friendly.

So, I hope that’s what will happen in the games world – and perhaps more so, because going direct (whether through the App Store, Steam or whatever) is less of a ball-ache, practically speaking, than managing a music career digitally. So I hope the fact that developers can go direct means publishers will feel more need to justify themselves, make a bigger effort and not screw their partners.

*optimistic face*

So I think developers will hopefully have more leverage to strike better deals, in short.

That said, in mobile/tablet specifically, I think it’s less about ‘do you need a publisher’ and more about ‘what network are you tapping into to cut through the app store clutter?’. Who are you working with that has tens / hundreds of millions of people playing games who they can promote your title to?

Might be a publisher, might be a Mobage/GREE-style platform, might be one of those monetisation/offer/thingy networks, might be another developer (Rovio’s move into publishing being the most prominent recent example). So perhaps you don’t need a publisher, but you do need a network – and that might be supplied by a publisher.

In the music industry, savvy artist managers are realising that if they staff up, they can fulfil a lot of the functions of a traditional label, while also being a bit more nimble. Managers as the new labels. So artists may not need a label, but they may need a label-like entity that’s very carefully not calling itself a label.

Although this opens new cans of worms – 1. managers traditionally acted as the artist’s defender against label screwiness, so what now if they’re acting as both? 2. Managers traditionally aren’t the people who’d tell an artist ‘actually, that song’s shit, that song needs a new chorus, you need to write two more hits to get radio airplay’. Can they become that important A&R function?

And to bring THAT back to games, perhaps we’re underestimating the importance of publishers’ A&R-style roles, working with a developer throughout the process, giving feedback, figuring out what wider market trends mean for this specific in-development title… All stuff a developer *could* do themselves, but perhaps would appreciate external input for?

Will Luton Consultant for mobile, social and free-to-play games

I’ve been shafted by a publisher that just decided they didn’t want to pay. Eeked out payment, blaming the Euro, then invented a reason not to pay. If you want to know who that is, ask me when you see me next.

Does that mean that studios should run from publishers? No. One bad deal doesn’t make all publishing bad. Publishers can and do offer necessary services, but because they handle the cash unscrupulous ones can make it hard for you regardless of what a contract might say. However they hold less sway these days and reputation is everything. The company in question in my case has done itself no favours. I warn everyone I know from them and I’ll never do business with anyone involved again – they’ve damaged their business for the sake of a few grand. That is unsustainable.

Patrick O’Luanaigh Founder of nDreams

We’ve worked with a number of publishers over the last six years, and we’re now in the fortunate position where we can self-publish about 80% of our projects. We have had bad experiences, but we’ve also had some good ones. All things being equal, we’d much prefer to self-publish as we’re in complete creative control, we can alter our plans as we need to, we build our own community and we keep 70% of the gross revenue. But it’s definitely easier to do that on a platform like PlayStation Home than it is on iOS/Android.

We’re currently working with a publisher on XBLA items since we’re not allowed to self-publish (due to Microsoft’s antiquated rules about digital publishing), and that’s working very well. And there is a chance that we’ll need work with partners (where they are technically publishers or more like ‘eyeball providers’) on our iOS and Android projects this year.

My advice would be to ask around. Make sure you get recommendations, and make sure you keep networking and talking to other studios about publishers. Join TIGA or UKIE and network; a chance conversation will very often save you a ton of money and grief. I don’t know any developer who wouldn’t be happy to receive a call for advice from other studios. I have heard of at least one fairly sizable publisher who simply isn’t paying anyone at the moment, so seek this kind of knowledge from the people you know and when you see smoke, stay well clear.

Andrew Smith Founder of Spilt Milk Studios

I’ve yet to work with a publisher (working for one doesn’t count!) in the mobile space, but in traditional console land, I had mixed experiences.

I think publishers really can help though, when they’re at their best. They can offer funding support, QA, localisation and distribution power (or rather, in this digital world, they have strong links with gatekeepers like Steam, Apple and the like). They also have audience reach, advertising clout, and a ton of other seemingly little things that add up to basically either saving the dev a lot of time, or lending them access to skill and information they would otherwise not have.

Based on the idea that if you’re good at something then you should be charging for it, publishers should definitely take a cut.

As with most things in life, as soon as money comes into it things change – the digital markets now mean that (rightly) the content creators (devs) are getting more and more clout while the people who support them (publishers) are getting less. Next step – celebrity games designers! 😀

The old model is dead, long live the new.

Martin Darby Founder of Remode

Having gone through this a few years back, I can say that in this day and age this isn’t a model I would recommend to anyone. We did this just prior to the 2009 Zynga & iOS eruption which will always stand out in my mind as the tidal shift in the industry (even though XBLA & PSN were still also quite big at that point). Now, with so many opportunities in growing market segments like mobile, tablet, online etc: why? Just Why?!? As soon as the extent of the changes in the market started to become really evident we jumped out of this old world (while we were still a start-up) like a frog from a hot pan. Frankly, while my mum thought the boxed copy of our first game was quite cool, I’ve never looked back.

However, the whole thing did teach us some valuable lessons. To extend what Ella said, the best thing I could pass on would be that if someone you are negotiating with isn’t prepared to talk numbers quickly then expect the worst even if you hope for the best: Chances are they’re wasting your time.

I frequently ask “tell us about the performance of some of your other games…” and the most frequent excuse back is “We can’t, it would break NDA’s”, at which point we would say “don’t mention any names then, just give us some examples of some best-selling and worst selling products but preserve anonymity”. I’d say our experience is that people who are serious and ethical will happily do this without stalling. They’ll talk to you like you’re building something together. People who are in it for a quick buck/rights will try to string everything out (and give the lightest possible answers as to how they intend to market and distribute the product, as well as what success or failure looks like) until you are starving. Then they will move on a hard deal quickly (which looks like an all-you-can-eat buffet by this point). Sadly I can totally empathise with many indies or early stage businesses where cash is king, answers/advice is thin, and so the jaws close. Therefore if you go for these deals see them as purely a bonus and like Ella said, negotiate yourself an advance and get some risk taken from their side: It might be all the cash you see anyway!

Obviously it is up to every developer how they manage their revenue concentration, fixed costs and risk appetite but when it comes to any sort of business development I have learned to ask two questions…
1) Am I talking to, or do I know and trust the decision maker? (preferably a VP or the CEO if you are dealing with another SME)

2) Is this person talking numbers? This could be a development budget, sales expectations, user numbers. Whatever can be used as a proxy to drill into more detail.

If the answer to both of these is “no” then my recommendation would be to approach with scepticism. It doesn’t matter why the answers are “no”.

The only time I’ve ever seen an upside from ignoring this was when we got Mole Control on Steam. However, at that point particularly, Steam had an overwhelmingly unequivocal positive reputation with indies including the ability to organically get bums on seats. This was by far a one off exception, not the rule, and I still wouldn’t recommend putting all your eggs in one basket: Steam or not.

Ben Board Senior Product Lead at Boss Alien

You can get good ones, you can get bad ones, you have to ask around and find one you trust, but ultimately you need what they can do because you can’t do it yourself and don’t really want to learn. I’m talking about plumbers, of course, but the parallels with publishers are striking.

Publishers five years ago were easy to describe. They fund your project, market it and put it on shelves. Plus if you were independent they would then fuck you over, because they held all the power with the platforms and all the IP, and you were disposable. Ah, good times.

Now that’s changed. The huge diaspora to mobile means developers now have direct relationships with the platforms (inasmuch as anyone does). There’s no distribution. Most of your marketing is done through agencies. Some publishers have yet to realise this and continue on the old path. Any developer with an ounce of savvy will ask around, find them, and avoid them. (And let’s not just criticise the little guys – there’s a bigger publisher closer to home, as any seasoned UK dev will know, from whom you do not want desperately to be waiting for payment.)

But all that said – just because those roles have been less centralised doesn’t mean they’re not still valuable, specialist skills. What game should you be making? When should you release it? How often should you update it? Are your IAPs too expensive? Who’s paying for user acquisition? Should you be doing marketing deals for in-game content? Do you do all your own QA? Focus/UX testing? Do you know how to find and negotiate licenses? And yes, can you afford to bankroll a game to the increasingly high standard required for success?

Someone has to answer these questions and provide these services. I would call this The New Publishing; and a small developer shouldn’t be doing it themselves any more than they should be mending their own dishwasher.

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