Going it alone: Adventures in self-publishing
Double Fine has seen both sides of the video game publishing coin. The studio originally had titles like Psychonauts, Brutal Legend
and Costume Quest
distributed by a variety of publishers, and while this worked out reasonably for the company, there was always the thought that going down a DIY route could work wonders.
With the release of its Broken Age
Kickstarter, Double Fine stuck a longsword deep into the belly of the traditional publishing beast, and went it alone -- well, "alone" meaning "with tens of thousands of Kickstarter backers," of course... and for the most part, the company isn't looking back.
"For the most part, I think the traditional publishing model for third party development is dead," says Justin Bailey, vice president of business development at Double Fine.
"The days where you take a paper pitch for a console game to a traditional publisher and walk away with $10+ million are effectively over, and have been for a couple of years now," he continues. "Very, very few publishers are spending that kind of cash on outside development, and the value added service they used to provide, such as retail shelf space, dev units, console access, and marketing budgets, have become either irrelevant or inconsequential."
Bailey is quick to point out that there are still a number of publishers adapting well to the shift, and are developing new ways to add value for developers.
"For those publishers, I'd say we are still very much interested in partnering with them, but at least a part of our studio will always be working on self-published games - I don't see that changing," he notes.
When should you self-publish?
Since Double Fine has experience on both sides of the fence, I ask Bailey when smaller studios should be considering self-publishing, rather than using a publisher for their games.
"It's definitely a complicated decision with many far reaching implications," he muses. "The answer to that question relies upon the answer to many other questions, such as will the game need external financing? What is the business model? What's the best distribution model? Etc."
He adds, "If you have an alpha-funded or crowd-funded game, the success of those models usually revolve around effectively engaging and leveraging your supporters. In these cases, the developer needs to stay as close to the community as possible and therefore self-publishing is preferable if not required."
But if a developer is working on a free-to-play mobile or online game, Bailey believes that using an outside publisher is probably a good idea.
"There's a whole slew of things that those types of publishers do that have nothing to do with game development, and quite frankly are not things a game dev is likely to enjoy or be successful at by figuring it out as they go," he reasons.
Another point to consider: Do you have any experience or interest in all of the traditional publishing elements, such as QA, localization, distribution and so forth? If not, you've got another reason to consider a publisher.
"Unfortunately, one of the current challenges is that there's not a 'one-size-fits-all' publisher, so many of these functions usually come as a packaged deal," Bailey says. "And part of the package, especially if there's financing involved, will require a dev to give up some creative control."
For Double Fine, the self-publishing model has fit in with its development style perfectly. "Frankly, we relish being closer to our community and being as transparent with our supporters as possible," Bailey tells me. "And that transparency has paid off in a very surprising way, such as our community serving as de facto good will ambassadors for the studio."
Conversely, Double Fine has found that it needs to be a lot more disciplined as an outfit. Without review milestones put forward by a publisher, the studio is having to create its own targets and goals.
"Since we're the publisher now, we have to ask the hard questions of ourselves, and ultimately it's more stressful because we feel a deep seeded accountability to the fans that helped make these games possible," he notes.
"You're entering a very mature arms race, and if you don't have a significant war chest, you're going to get your ass handed to you."
Of course, the best thing about self-publishing versus the traditional publisher model is that you have complete creative freedom over whatever you are creating, and you can easily bring in community feedback whenever you like.
"When we solicit feedback from our community during development, we have the ability to directly incorporate it into our game designs," Bailey explains. "This type of interaction has already occurred with Broken Age
and Massive Chalice
, and it's almost like the rush that a band gets from putting on live shows, where the fans excitement ends up driving the team to greater and greater heights."
When it comes to self-publishing, there are certain situations in which Bailey would rather not find his company dealing.
"I'd say don't spend money on traditional marketing and customer acquisition," he says. "When you play that game, you're entering a very mature arms race, and if you don't have a significant war chest, you're going to get your ass handed to you."
"Instead, do the things that come naturally - build a grass roots community and spend a lot of time cultivating it. Concentrate on your games' quality so that there's potential for great word-of-mouth buzz when it gets released."
He also recommends partnering up with other developers, and helping each studio out as much as possible. "Disintermediation has created a lot of opportunities for developer to self-publish," he adds, "but it's also created many issues around discoverability - so take every advantage you can. Maybe even partner with a veteran developer who's done it before and who can show you the ropes."
Renegades of self-publishingRenegade Kid
is another studio that has worked with publishers and self-published. Before Jools Watsham started up his own studio, he worked at Iguana/Acclaim for around 13 years, where all the titles he contributed to had a publisher.
"It was a good experience, but it took me and my friends and colleagues through many highs and many lows," he explains. "It was quite a ride. Quite chaotic, really."
"The day we started Renegade Kid... I felt a huge sense of relief and excitement to have the opportunity to make games for the right reasons, and not to be steered by people who - in my opinion - did not base their decisions on what's best for the game and player."
The first five years of Renegade Kid saw Watsham and co. working with publishers, to release original IP like Dementium: The Ward
, both on Nintendo DS.
"This was certainly a step up from what I experienced at Acclaim, and we thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated the experiences," he notes. "But when compared to having ultimate freedom - as we did with Mutant Mudds
- it was still very much tainted in many ways."
Renegade Kid finally moved into self-publishing in 2012, when the studio made the switch from Nintendo DS to 3DS. The aforementioned Mutant Mudds
was the first big self-publishing hit for the company, and Watsham says, "it changed everything for us."
"The development of the game was a joy," he adds, "despite it being a project we crammed in on the side while we developed games for money during the day. And, to have the game be received as well as it has been is more than a dream come true."
Now Renegade Kid plans to stick with self-publishing, and has done so with further titles like Planet Crashers
and the upcoming Mutant Mudds
sequel. Yet Watsham says he is not against working with publishers again at some point.
"It just has to be for the right reasons and under respectful conditions on both sides," he notes. "It should be a partnership, not a parent-child relationship."
"I think what's most important is trying to determine what's going to make you and your team happy."
With Watsham's path to self-publishing in mind, I ask him when a new studio looking to release its first game should consider self-publishing over the traditional publisher model.
"I think what's most important is trying to determine what's going to make you and your team happy," he answers. "What is the most important thing you wish to accomplish by making your game? Is it success, sales, and so on? Perhaps it is artistic expression? Or, maybe it is just the desire to create fun?"
Once you're 100 percent clear on what that important element is, you'll be in a much better frame of mind for deciding how to guide your game through the publishing process.
"Something I firmly believe in is that one of the biggest risks of all can be taking no risks at all," Watsham says. "Be bold. Have fun. Tomorrow won't make it any easier. Just do it today. These are all very cliche, I know, but they are also very true. The trick is to believe in them, and truly understand why you believe in them."
And what about those studios that have decided self-publishing is the correct route for them? Are there are obvious dos and don'ts to be aware of?
"No, I don't think so," Watsham tells me. "Everyone and every game is so different that in today's crazy market anything goes really."
That being said, he's keen to stress that your studio's image can be extremely important in today's connected world, thanks to social media like Twitter and Facebook.
"I don't necessarily think anyone should censor themselves, but you should be mindful of the fact that a press website can take anything you say and turn it into a headline," he notes. "That can be both in your favor and harshly against your favor. Boosting sales and crippling them accordingly."
"How you connect with your audience, and how you respond to individual's questions is something you will encounter if your game is successful," he says. "It is important to at least take a moment and think about how you - and your company - want to be perceived by the public, and live with that decision."
When a publisher doesn't make sense anymoreAdam Saltsman
is another developer who has seen it all. Along with his studio Semi-Secret Software, Saltsman has worked on self-published games (Hundreds, Canabalt
), licensed games (Hunger Games: Girl on Fire
) and many more.
His thoughts on the publishing vs. self-publishing divide are blunt and to the point. "From where I sit, I have a hard time imagining a scenario where a publisher would fit in with my plans," he tells me.
"That's not to say it's totally out of the question; publishers can totally help you. Publishers can have money so you can buy food, and connections that can help your game reach a wider audience, and they can help negotiate with platforms and distributors, and they can help you push your game to that kind of super clean presentable level of polish even. But they can also be really toxic, and risk-averse, and controlling, and can be looking for really evil levels of returns on the back end."
The developer suggests that any studios considering whether to go with a publisher should think less about the ideology, and more about whether your interests align with those of a potential partner.
"Right now a lot of the things a publisher can offer are not super valuable to me," he says, "and it feels like the returns they expect are really out of proportion. But I also know a lot of really smart, talented people that are having really positive experiences with publishers, especially on consoles."
And if you do opt to self-publish, Saltsman has some simple pointers to keep you heading in the right direction. "At this point I think my main advice is to just start building hype early, and don't worry about over-explaining things," he says.
"Err on the side of open. Building awareness of what makes your game different and special and clever and fun is hard, and it takes a long time, and if you wait until after your game comes out you are taking a pretty huge gamble," the dev notes.
He admits that either way it's all a gamble at the end of the day -- "but you are taking an unnecessary risk if you put [building awareness] off to the last minute," he adds. "And you can do this in a good, honest, authentic way - marketing doesn't have to be nasty and slimy. But it does take a long time!"
And on mobile?
Notably, Saltsman has dabbling in mobile game publishing too. Semi Secret Software published Aquaria
on iPad -- yet Saltsman states that mobile game publishers on the whole are even less reliable than those for traditional platforms.
"It's less reliable in the sense that publishers with some big hits are definitely not converting every game they publish into something that gets a wide audience," he states. "It's more extreme in the sense that they often give less money up front, and take more money on the backend. I am suspicious that they can do this because the signal-to-noise ratio is so low on mobile right now, that anybody and everybody are desperate to get noticed, even if it means giving their game to someone else."
Are there are specific situations in which the Canabalt
dev thinks a studio would benefit from having a publisher for a mobile game?
"Not at the moment," he answers. "They don't seem to be able to convert their audiences or have good brand recognition, and there is so much competition for App Store space and player brain time, that I just don't see the point right now."
Tate Multimedia is another studio that has experience with mobile game publishing. The company is about to release Urban Trial Freestyle
on mobile, having already brought the game to consoles and handhelds -- and having a publisher for the iOS release just made sense for the company's Paul Leskowicz.
"Having a publisher for our mobile games makes real sense when it comes to targeting a specific market, where the content of the our mobile game shall be adapted to the local cultural and gaming habits," he notes.
"Releasing a mobile game in Japan with a publisher makes great sense," he continues, "since what the players expect there is quite different to what might be proposed to the European or American players, and the input of a local publisher might be a great added value to match the player’s expectations."
Leskowicz notes that self-publishing could allow the studio more freedom in the development process, and that working with a publisher means they don't have full control over every aspect of the game -- but self-publishing means his studio would have to do its own QA, marketing, press relations, sales et al, and he's perfectly happy to get a publisher to handle all this.