Game publishing, the Double Fine way
It's not hard to imagine why Double Fine might want to reform the publishing business from the inside. Psychonauts
and Brutal Legend
were both dropped by their initial publishers, leading to a dash to find new ones. THQ went out of business, which meant that Double Fine had to broker deals to get back the rights to their games Costume Quest
In an email to the press, Double Fine described Double Fine Presents -- which is what it calls its publishing business -- as a "new initiative to help out other independent game developers." The word "publishing" is absent from both the name and the explanation.
Still, that's what it is. Gamasutra asked COO Justin Bailey if this new business had anything to do with its past experiences. Nothing specific, he said -- it's a reaction to the general shape of publishing today.
"We believe the best games will emerge from arrangements where developers control the rights to their IP, own the creative vision, and where a publisher is incentivized to act like a partner. One of our aims with Double Fine Presents is to help be a catalyst to bring this change to the industry."
"We've been publishing our own titles, and we know there's value there, but we're feeling around to figure how, or even if, we can leverage that externally to help other indies," Bailey says. "Publishing used to be very rigid." He hopes that Double Fine, as a developer, can shake things up by keeping up with developers' changing needs.
"I would say everything was tailored to my specific position."
It's fair to say that, at least in the experience of its first developer partner, Double Fine has been anything but rigid: "I would say everything was tailored to my specific position," says Ian Stocker, creator of Escape Goat 2
-- the first game published
by the studio.
That flexibility is key to the Double Fine Presents process, it seems. In my conversation with Stocker and Bailey, it kept coming up again and again:
"We've now done a straight promotion/distribution deal, provided advisory help on a Kickstarter campaign, and next we're looking to support an Early Access project," says Bailey. That list doesn't include its Day of the Devs festival
, a press-focused indie showcase at its San Francisco headquarters. While the games there weren't published by Double Fine, it's not business as usual for a studio to show off others
' games to the press.
What Double Fine considers "publishing" will naturally evolve based on what developers want and what works, Bailey suggests, "in a flexible a la carte style where their needs intersect with the value we bring. And we're not looking to define that model by ourselves, but work as partners to define it together."
What is a Publisher?
Defining what a publisher does in this day and age is difficult. Not only are there a host of possibilities -- "publishers traditionally have provided a greenlight process, funding, development guidance, promotion, and distribution," notes Bailey -- but not all of them are necessary or even desirable.
Distribution is free and ubiquitous, and there are other, less restrictive ways to get funding, too. "I think a lot of us find ourselves asking whether or not we need publisher support after all," Stocker says.
"Indies these days seem a bit skeptical of publishers, when I talk with them one-on-one."
When you add in the fact that many developers have been burned by bad publisher relationships, things get even more complicated. "Indies these days seem a bit skeptical of publishers, when I talk with them one-on-one," says Stocker. "Some have gone through horror stories involving lawsuits or losing the rights to their game, and many who have done publishing deals speculate on whether it was worth it."
"Because distribution is free these days, what publishers can offer (aside from funding, of course) is a publicity campaign in exchange for revenue. This is a tough deal to evaluate ahead of time -- nobody knows the real impact of media coverage these days, and it's a difficult thing to get a guarantee on for legwork from the publisher." It's enough to make a developer want to avoid publishers altogether.
So why did Stocker go with Double Fine Presents?
Making the ChoiceEscape Goat 2
was already nearly complete before Stocker signed up with Double Fine. Though he had talked to other publishers, he wasn't planning on using one. "We didn't really need funding, or help getting distribution deals -- we were already on Steam. So exchanging a cut of revenue for help with media coverage and publicity didn't seem like it was in our interest."
He's glad he went with Double Fine, however: "The DF marketing machine snapped into action and get me an unreal amount of buzz on the internet for our launch day. I had never seen so many tweets about one of my games." Tim Schafer took time out during GDC to help Stocker make an Escape Goat 2
video ad, Stocker notes.
All this helped Escape Goat 2
get noticed by the press, but it's not just the media that Double Fine leverages its relationships with, says Bailey. "We have great relationships with all the press and major platforms and that's key to helping get the word out and securing a feature spot, which in turn can lead to early sale success and pave the way for more opportunities down the road."
That personal generosity is one thing that wowed Stocker, but given his comments about what publishers can offer a developer, it's clear he's satisfied with the business end, too: "their offer was very flexible and generous. I didn't see a scenario where it wouldn't be in our interest to join forces with them."
It's worth noting that Stocker is in a stronger position than many indies are: He has several successful games under his belt; his latest had hit the PAX 10, was already funded, and nearly completed. He just wanted a partner to take him across the finish line.
An Ongoing Relationship
"Finish line" is a misnomer, of course. These days, things don't end with a single launch. Stocker's relationship with Double Fine continues to the newly announced
PlayStation 4 version of the game. Stocker told Gamasutra that Double Fine counseled him on the ins and outs of a console port from early on.
Bailey is keen to highlight the fact that as Double Fine has learned so much -- from its successful Kickstarter campaigns, from taking its Amnesia Fortnight game jam to the web and turning it into a public greenlight process -- that it not only understands the way indies work now, but knows when to let them handle what they can handle, and step in when needed.
"From a development perspective we can help evaluate art, design, animation, and programming," Bailey says. Double Fine not only develops games internally -- it works with partners on things like ports, QA, and localization. "We can leverage our experience and these relationships to provide feedback to indies and help make their games better," Bailey says.
Working with Double Fine
Finding the right partners to work with is not easy -- and that goes for Double Fine as much as the developers it partners with.
"It's a bit squishy at the moment, and we're likely to keep it that way."
Since opening up Double Fine Presents, the company has been inundated with requests. How does it select who to approach? "There's definitely not a hard-fast criteria. It's a bit squishy at the moment, and we're likely to keep it that way," says Bailey. "From a high level, we're just looking for developers who are passionate about games and dedicated to a strong creative vision."
That can be seen in the second Double Fine Presents game, Last Life
. Currently, Double Fine is consulting on its (successful) Kickstarter campaign, which has a week left
The other challenge is getting to know potential partners. Double Fine is, unsurprisingly, demanding about this too: "Ideally, we'd like to hang out with the developer in our offices and have an opportunity for them to share their games with us -- and we want to do the same, and have them play some of our builds as well. Even if we don't decide to formally work together, I think we can both benefit from the experience, and our games will be better for it," Bailey says.
The doors are closed for the moment, however, as the company evaluates what to do next.
Moving ForwardEscape Goat 2
came to Double Fine as it neared completion; Last Life
is just crossing its starting
line. That's as good an indicator as any that the shape of the Double Fine Presents business is still not fully formed -- something Bailey admits.
"So far I'd say the initiative has been a success and shows a lot of promise. Roadmap-wise, we're looking to help out just one more project and then regrouping to see what worked best before adding additional titles and potentially expanding the program," he says.
Whatever happens, the studio is not in a rush to metamorphose into a publisher: It will chart its course based on what opportunities arise and what lessons are learned, and do so cautiously.
"For the short term, we just want to test the waters out and grow organically. We don't want to force anything. If it turns out to be successful for both parties, and there's adequate demand, then we can always ramp things up, but it's likely to be a slow process for us."