This is the most frequently asked question that comes from indie developers. Unfortunately it doesn’t have a clear cut answer. Every studio is different, every game is different, and every publisher is different. The most basic form of the question can be answered with a simple flowchart.
In reality it’s never quite that simple but those three questions will put you on the right track. Development funding and the user acquisition campaigns necessary for a successful free-to-play title require large amounts of cash up front. This is typically the major selling point for getting a publisher. If you’ve never published a game before then you just need to know about all the other things that publishers do and how to do that well. It isn’t something you want to figure out as you go.
What Do Publishers Do?
Good question and again, no clear cut answer. Fifteen years ago we had 30-50 publishers globally that were worth pitching product to. Now our firm tracks over 750. With that there is a lot of variation in services and the quality of services.
Before the days of Steam and iTunes a publisher was mandatory if you wanted to be on a store shelf and been seen by consumers. Publishers were the ones that had the relationships with Wal-Mart, Best Buy, GameStop, etc. and they handled all the manufacturing, shipping, and warehousing of the games. Publishers were also the ones the maintained the relationships with the major magazines and websites when it came time to promote a title.
Today most games are sold digitally through Steam, Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo. The streamers are quickly replacing the “old gods” of marketing and PR and developers have direct access to them. The key position that publishers held ten years ago is gone and the line between developer and publisher has faded but having a publisher on board can still be very beneficial.
Looking solely at today’s digital market, publishers have five (or six) primary roles.
- Development funding
- Testing and QA
- User Acquisition (Mobile only)
Aside from the funding, each of these jobs can be handled directly if you have the time, experience, financing, and the contacts to do so. An indie developer CAN do all of these things, the question you have to ask are “Do you want to?” and “How much revenue are you willing to give up to have someone else do it?”.
Identifying Your Publisher
The first step in finding the right partner for your game is understanding exactly what you need. The more aspects of the process you can handle internally, the better terms you can negotiate for yourself. Understand which publishers provide which services and start there. Keep in mind that if you are asking for funding for your game you will most likely be handing over the reins to that partner for everything.
The Heavy Hitters
Activision, EA, Ubi Soft, Take Two, etc. The powerhouses of the industry. If your team has shipped AAA titles that reviewed well in the past and your budget is in the millions or tens of millions (or higher), these are the companies you will go to. Many of these publishers don’t want to look at a game unless they are confident it will sell over 10 million units. They have the money to finance multi-year development cycles and they go all out when it comes to marketing and exposure. As an indie, your chances here are slim, but if you have the right team and the right track record they are a deep pocket of funding.
Publishers in the middle of the market stand out from the digital publishers because they do fund development of outside titles and frequently distribute RFP’s (Request For Proposal) to developers for the purpose of finding a team to develop a game based on one of their internal IPs. These publishers will also bear most of the load when it comes to the testing, QA, marketing, etc but their sweet spot for funding is usually under $500,000 USD. The lower the better. It will be mandatory for you to have a solid playable version of your game before approaching these companies
Recent years have seen the growth of what we call “digital publishers”. These are companies that have historically had a PR or Marketing role in the industry or formerly ranked as one of the mid-tier publishers who were pushed off the retail market as shelf space started shrinking. These companies will rarely pay advances but if they do it will be under $100,000 USD. Many of these companies focus on supporting indie teams. They work with late stage games, help with some polish and then manage testing, localization, and marketing.
Building Your Target List
Once you understand what you need it’s time to start building a target list. Ideally you need a CRM software solution for this. We recommend Nutshell or Contactually because they are lightweight and affordable but powerful enough to be effective. Start by looking up the publishers for the platform you are going to lead with. Steam lets you click straight through to a link with the publisher’s name so you can see in an instant how many games they’ve published and a few more clicks tells you how the game was received. Reddit, and a good old fashioned Google search of “Indie friendly game publishers” will help.
It isn’t difficult to do the same research on mobile. SensorTower has a nice page of publisher rankings, the iOS and Google stores are obvious sources, or you can look at AppAnnie. There are a lot of analytics companies out there on mobile. You may need to sign up for a free account but it’s a small price to pay.
For all of these sources you need to dig deep into the list. The front page of the mobile stores will be full of Rovio, King, Glu, Tencent, Supercell, etc but you need to understand that your probability of landing a deal with one of the big firms is extremely small. Publishers in the top 100 for mobile are very viable partners for most games.
Narrow It Down
With your list in hand it’s time to start weeding them out. Go back to your research and look at the overall rankings and reviews for the games the publishers released. Track the user reviews or Metacritic scores in a spreadsheet and start seeing who has the games that are consistently well received. Google the company and see the press they have received and if there are any epic rants aimed at them from unhappy developers. Reddit and Gamasutra are two great resources here. Just remember, it’s the internet and you’re ten times as likely to find someone angry as you are to find an article lavishing them with praise.
Here are some of the basic “Red Flags” to look for:
- Overall poor reviews
- Few releases
- Public complaints from other developers
- Bad press in industry publications
- Have you ever heard of their games?
You want to focus on publishers that have published titles similar to yours. They have a better understanding of that market from experience and you’ll reap that reward. If you’re building a 3D shooter, don’t pitch your title to a company that focuses on 4x strategy games. Also be on the lookout for niche publishers. Some companies may only have a handful of releases but they are done very well or they all target a very specific demographic. Those companies have their type of game down to a science and they could yield you phenomenal sales.
Qualifying Your Partner
Once you have your partner selected and the deal is moving forward you need to fully qualify the company and the individuals you will be working with. This is something that absolutely needs to be completed before the contract is signed. Even when faced with bad news or insights into the company that concern you, it is very hard to let go of a deal that looks like it is moving forward. It is imperative that you weigh this decision carefully. The future of your company could be at stake.
First you need to check references on the company you are going to be working with. Not the references they send you, the references you find on your own. When someone asks you for references concerning a job or a new deal, do you send them to the people that might reflect poorly on you? No. You send them the safe references. We’ve all been guilty of it at some point. The same is going to be true of other companies when you ask them. For that reason, it is always imperative that you do your own research.
How? Simple. Look at the games the publisher has released in the last two years. Find the developers and reach out to them directly. Be as upfront as you can without violating your NDA but let them know you’re considering working with this publisher and you’d like to know how their experience went. Here are a few good questions to get you started.
- Who was your producer and what was the experience like with this individual?
- What was the usual turnaround time on email responses?
- What did they promise to do for you and did they follow through on it?
- What type of marketing did they do and was it effective?
- Did they use the most up to date screenshots and features during promotions?
- Did they use the most up to date build of the game when sending or showing demos?
- Have their sales reports been up to date and accurate?
- Have they paid their advances or royalties on time, every time?
- Would you work with this publisher again?
The final question is the key one. Many things can go wrong during the course of publishing a game. Some of them may be honest mistakes, some may be out of your publisher’s hands. If there were parts of the experience that didn’t go like they wanted to but the developer says they would work with that publisher again, it’s a good sign.
I highly encourage you to think heavily into whether or not you really need a publisher. If you do, it’s a big choice and you should not rush into any agreement. Do your research, have a lawyer review your agreement, fully understand the terms and payment information, and research your partners. You will end up with a much better experience.