The role of publishers in games has changed massively in the last four decades. They've gone from fledgling (80s), to absolute necessity (90s), to near-irrelevance (indie boom of mid-late 2000s), to the curious interstitial place they're in now. Five years ago, I'd have said the only point of a publisher was to give you money and get out of the way. Now, for indies, I think they are either not even good for that, or massively more important, depending on which type you're talking about.
I am, at any given time, pitching a game or two to publishers. At Necrosoft Games, we're always looking for that next source of funding, a fancy way to market ourselves, or some other such thing that a publisher traditionally provides.
But when it comes down to it, most publishers today aren't actually useful beyond the money they provide for development. And if they're not useful beyond the money they provide, how much do you really need them? If you can crowdfund or bootstrap your game, most publishers will be of limited use to you.
Selling a game is more difficult than ever. There's no captive audience like there may have been in the Sega Genesis days. If that was the console you had—well, your grandma was buying you the new Batman game for Genesis, because she heard you liked that movie and she knows you've got the console. It was in this sort of environment that traditional publishers like Acclaim thrived. They paid money for a game, and they knew they could sell it because they knew where the people were and had a good idea of what might be popular.
Now, more games are coming out than at any other point in history. You can't guarantee Grandma knows how to gift you a Steam code, and she certainly doesn't know which particular game you want, because it's not plastered all over the inside of a Toys “R” Us. And it's not just publishers. Most game developers haven't even heard of half the games that become quietly Steam-popular and make millions for their devs. (Did you know about Verdun? It sold 500k units at around $25 each. I sure didn't know, til my programmer Shane Marks found it.)
A very small number of publishers combat this problem with innovative marketing. Companies like TinyBuild and Devolver use streamers, YouTubers, and smart social media stunts to hype games before they launch. This actually works.
But most publishers still use static press releases, a few game trailers, and an expo booth as their big marketing drive. This just doesn't work anymore. Friends of mine have brought their games to over a dozen expos, from PAX to E3, and it didn't affect their sales. Why? Because that's all they did, nothing more. Going to expos and getting press writeups doesn't sell games. It might get you to a YouTuber, but you've got to make that happen with legwork, you can't rely on accidents. You've got to have a multipronged approach to marketing, and many publishers simply don't have the expertise to do it, because they're too entrenched in the old ways.
Even if they're not innovative, though, a publisher can be useful if they have a built-in audience. Say you've got a JRPG. Atlus, Square Enix, or XSEED might be the publisher for you. If you're going for a violent action game, maybe Devolver is the thing. Simply by putting one of these publishers' names on your game, you're likely to sell more, because they've got a fan base actively looking for the type of game you're making. In this case, it doesn't matter as much whether they do any aggressive marketing, because their fans are already looking for that kind of game from them. (Devolver is a one-two punch though, because they do both.)
If your game looks like this, a JRPG publisher might be a wise choice (oh hey, that's our new secret project)
Then you've got the more common sort of publisher. The one I mentioned before, which gives you a bit of money, takes a recoup and a revenue share, and doesn't promote your game in any way that's going to help it sell. This is, unfortunately, most publishers out there today. They also usually don't have much of an identity (like Atlus does). These publishers tend to stay in business with their bigger marquee titles and use indies as a “try it and see” sort of investment in the hopes that it'll hit—but will leave games to flop if they don't, without putting in any real effort.
Marketing needs to be a continuous push, even after launch. If a publisher can't or won't do that, it’s not really going to help you do anything other than pay for exactly how much your game costs to make. And let's be clear, that is not enough money. The sales from that game have to pay you at least until you can get another deal, or ideally make you enough to fund your next game yourself.
When pitching around, if the only publishers who are interested are of this kind, you might be better off releasing your game on your own. Then at least you get all the profits you earn and can live or die by your own skill. At Necrosoft, we've come to the conclusion that we can market our own game better than most publishers. Not nearly as well as the good ones, but… there just aren't that many good ones, so if none of those wind up being interested, we might as well skip that whole thing.
So how the heck do you identify the good ones? Here's how we feel about it.
Other than that, go with your gut!
Punch club sold over 330,000 units thanks in part to TinyBuild's clever Twitch marketing.
Funding development is important, to be sure, and sometimes you just need to get the cash. So if you do wind up going with a publisher who's going to fund your game, then fire and forget, be aware that all the marketing will be on you. You'll be responsible for contacting streamers, coming up with a game plan, making press meetings happen, creating cool things to tweet out to fans, et cetera. It's no developer's favorite job, but somebody has to do it – and there's a very good chance your publisher won't.