Interview: EA Partners Signs DeathSpank, Shank
Electronic Arts' co-publishing arm EA Partners is best known for teaming up with third-party developers on major packaged game releases, such as Harmonix's The Beatles: Rock Band, Valve's Left 4 Dead and Double Fine's Brutal Legend.
Now, EA Partners is co-publishing digitally-distributed games for the first time with the signing of Hothead Games and Ron Gilbert's "Diablo meets Monkey Island" title DeathSpank, and Klei Entertainment's 2D beat 'em up Shank, which is an Independent Games Festival 2010 finalist. EAP is bringing both games to Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network, EAP announced Thursday, while it will also release Shank on PC.
[UPDATE: Asked about potential PC plans for DeathSpank, a game drawing from genres with strong PC heritage, an EA representative declined to comment conclusively, but told Gamasutra, "EA and Hothead want as many people as possible to experience DeathSpank," and advised gamers "not to read too much into the [announced] SKUs just yet."]
"Our charter has always been to work with the best talent in the games industry. ... We're not going to necessarily limit ourselves because of distribution mechanisms," said EAP business development outreach director Jamil Moledina in a phone interview.
Hothead's DeathSpank, due later this year, comes from the mind of Ron Gilbert, designer for the adventure game Secret of Monkey Island. Hothead is promising that DeathSpank will deliver to gamers the quirky humor from the Monkey Island series in an original, loot-collecting action RPG package.
Teaming up with a major company like EA was partially brought about after Hothead's series of games based on the Penny Arcade webcomic performed under commercial expectations. Originally, Hothead had planned on self-publishing DeathSpank.
"The company has had experience publishing the Penny Arcade series. We looked at [self-publishing] very seriously," said Ian Wilkinson CEO of Hothead. "We know we're very good at making games. The Penny Arcade series didn't sell as well as we would have liked. Critically, it was well-received, but commercially, from our perspective, [it wasn't]. Most companies would be happy with the performance, but we are not."
He said, "With Penny Arcade, yes, a lot of people knew about it, but we just couldn't transition those people into buyers."
Wilkinson said that DeathSpank has received very positive feedback from people who've played the game so far. He thinks EAP can provide essential marketing, distribution, and a simultaneous platform launch that the game needs to be a major success, at the same time allowing the studio to focus on actually making its game.
"I'd like to believe that if we get the exposure that I believe EA could get us, the game will do very, very well," he said.
Klei Entertainment, which created also created the game Eets and aided with development of N+ has similar reasons for joining up with EAP. The indie company hopes that a publisher with the resources of EA can expand Klei's audience with Shank's release this summer. Moledina is particularly confident that EA's marketing resources can oblige.
"We marketed in the last quarter, Brutal Legend, Left 4 Dead 2 and The Beatles: Rock Band out of EA Partners," Moledina said. "If you can imagine that on a small budget but of the same quality, that's kind of what we're planning to bring."
Jamie Cheng, Klei CEO and executive producer on Shank, said that EAP is a good partner to work with, and apparently doesn't meddle with the creative side of development. Even marketing is a joint effort. "I wouldn't say that we're just saying, 'ok, here's the marketing, go for it!' We're managing [the marketing] as well. We're just working with [EAP] to reach a larger audience," said Cheng.
Prior to the deal, Klei worked hard to spread the word about Shank. The studio brought a demo of Shank to last year's PAX event and stirred up some coverage. Cheng said that other indies can land publishing deals as long as they remain true their own vision of a game. That is, after all, part of the indie mentality.
"In 2009, we decided we'd develop this game, Shank, on our own dime," Cheng explained. "We just decided to go for it, we were going to create what we love. As long as developers are doing that and they create these amazing pieces of art, I think the deals will come naturally."