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Independent developers need partners, not “publishers”

By on August 12, 2013

This is a guest post from Giordano Contestabile of Tilting Point Media.

Will Harbin, CEO of social games developer Kixeye, recently gave a Casual Connect keynote speech with the provocative title of “Self-Publish or Die.” The gist of the talk is that, due to the rise of digital distribution, the barriers of entry have fallen and publishers, no longer controlling retail shelf space, don’t have a reason to exist anymore. As such, developers should go for it alone, and take control of their destiny.

The title of the keynote is impactful and intriguing, and while it’s true that developers nowadays have an opportunity to connect directly with their audience that wasn’t available in the old world of consoles and retail boxes, the message ends up being misguided and dangerous for most independent developers.

Let’s address what’s at the core of Harbin’s argument – the definition of “publisher.” The way that word is thrown around by most companies operating in the mobile games market today amounts to little more than distribution services – signing up games that are close to launch, cross-promoting them with a pre-existing user base, and leveraging platform relationships to try and get the game featured. If that’s the extent of what a so-called “publisher” offers an independent developer, then Harbin’s right – you don’t need that. Or, more appropriately, you shouldn’t give up 30% or more of your revenue for that. Now, I’m not saying that those services are not useful – they are – but they don’t constitute a publishing offering. Rather, they are distribution services, and companies that provide them are “distributors.” They should not be called, or call themselves, publishers.

What’s a publisher, then? Once upon a time, when consoles still roamed the Earth and development teams had headcount numbering in the hundreds, publishers were organizations that assumed financial risk for development, marketing and inventory, holding millions of dollars’ worth of discs (or cartridges) in warehouses and shipping them to retailers all over the world. They also provided a portfolio of ancillary services, thereby allowing developers to focus on making the best possible games. There’s something wrong with trying to apply the same definition in the context of digital free-to-play games, but does that mean mobile game developers are better off releasing their games without any outside help? In the earliest days of the app stores, it was easy to make that argument, but a lot has changed since then.

First, the barriers of entry for succeeding in mobile, while significantly lower than on console, are steadily and rapidly rising due to the increase in development budgets, which in turn is driven by rising consumer expectations, evolving competition, and improved hardware capabilities. In parallel, the sheer number of titles launched every week in the mobile market make being noticed by the public an extremely challenging proposition, leading to the need to deploy large enough marketing budgets to have a chance to succeed. By and large, the era of a small team launching a game without any marketing spend and getting to the top of the charts is coming to an end.

Second, succeeding in mobile isn’t just about creating a great game that people want to play. While that’s still by far the most important component, and without a great game there’s no chance of success, rocketing to the top of the charts requires expertise in a range of disciplines as varied as monetization and virality design, paid user acquisition, brand marketing, analytics, technology infrastructure development, and live operations. Mastering all of those is, simply put, out of reach for the majority of independent game developers, and often a small team can be distracted from the core task of focusing on the game’s quality by trying to pursue all of those goals. Additionally, not all developers are interested in addressing those aspects of their business, and many of them have told me recently that they don’t actually want to grow their team and scope to include all those components, but want to focus on making great games and not have to deal with marketing and other activities they have less interest in.

Finally, even game developers that are encountering commercial success are limited in the number of games they can put into production with their own resources, and as a result often end up betting the farm on their “next big game.” Historically, this has been the primary cause of failure for game developers, as sales of their putative hit disappoint. Having a partner on board that’s willing to assume the financial risk for development of certain games is a good way for already successful developers to lower overall risk and increase their chances of success by launching more games into the market.

In my opinion, the sum of those reasons make “going it alone” challenging and often not optimal for even the most successful independent game developers. There are, and there will be, developers that succeed in the market without any outside help, but there will be even more developers that find success by choosing the right partner and leveraging funding and services that would otherwise be out of reach.

In short, a good partner for independent game developers shoulders the financial risk, provides a range of services to its partners from early on in development through the lifecycle of the game, and allows developers to focus on making a great game, taking care of everything else. A bad “publisher” takes a game that’s nearly completed and offers distribution services and little more. Partnering with a “bad publisher” can indeed kill a developer. But being supported by the right partner will be, for many developers, the only way to survive in an increasingly competitive market.

About Giordano Contestabile

Giordano Contestabile is a product management, operations and business development executive, regularly featured as a speaker in industry conferences, currently working at Tilting Point Media after a six-year stint at PopCap.