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Q&A: The state of the indie game industry from the view of an indie publisher

Q&A: The state of the indie game industry from the view of an indie publisher

September 21, 2016 | By Kris Graft




The indie game market is intimidating and confusing. Digital distribution and highly-accessible game engines have led to a crowded marketplace where making a good game doesn't necessarily equate to success.

While many developers still bring their games to market on their own, in the past couple years there has been a rise of smaller publishers like Versus Evil, which works with small indies to bring their games to an increasingly complicated market. 

Gamasutra spoke to Steve Escalante, general manager at Versus Evil about what pitfalls indie developers should avoid if they want to find an audience in the midst of the explosion of new titles.

Can you give me a little bit more of your background on Versus Evil?

I think I'm on my sixteenth year or so in the games business. From basically developing MMOs for about five or six years and then kind of getting into the book publishing side with Brady Games for a few years. Then back into games publishing again.

My last five years before I started Versus Evil was with Bethesda Softworks. I was there as marketing director on Elder Scrolls Online for quite a bit. Then I moved over to Bethesda Softworks team for the last year and a half. Then I started Versus Evil almost three years ago back in, I guess, August of '13. The end of August? Something like that. So we're coming up on our three-year anniversary.


Banner Saga

How many people are at Versus Evil?

There's a total of four including myself.

Low headcount means you don't have to worry too much about each title selling millions of copies to keep everyone employed.

Yes. The flip side of that is we've also got indie teams that we need to support. So if I'm pretty fat as a company, then I have all these expenses that I need to cover and I can't do the deals that I'm doing.

When we started this, there were only a few indie publishers out there. There were certainly developers who were doing it on their own, but very few indie publishers. That's why we're named "Versus Evil." It's like, "How do we break the dynamic of overruling publishers swooping in and taking all the revenues. Recouping all these different things, all these hidden expenses and all this stuff?"


Banner Saga

Since you've been on the larger publisher side and now the smaller publisher side, could you describe this evolution that's happened? It looks like it was all big companies and then there was kind of this "mid-tier" implosion. And now you have all these new tools, and you've got these indie developers, and more open platforms. Where does a publisher fit in these days? Why does Versus Evil and Devolver and publishers like that exist?

To your point about the mid-level guys exploding--THQ and Midway and everybody kind of went away. Which is kind of like the Kmart vs. Walmart and Target. They just got squeezed out.

What's interesting to me is I kind of wonder if we're actually in that part of our business. What I mean by that is, you've got the smaller-value guys that are coming in. I don't even mean to say that we are value like Walmart. It's more of, just those mass market price points, if you will, versus the triple-A $60 stuff more premium. It's really changed some of the dynamic.

As we grow, we look at a Paradox Interactive. I think they said they did, what, $70 million last year and $30 million of profit. They're talking about going public. So they're kind of a "mid-tier" outfit. Are we in the stage where we're going to build some mid-tiers again? It's a question that I ask myself all the time.

Are there mid-tier publishers basically just growing up? As we add more titles and have more hits and things like that, I think it's realistic to assume that you're going to have some publishers, the Paradoxes and bigger, that are suddenly doing a couple hundred million dollars a year because they have some really solid indie hits. (You could also say that about mobile as well, but mobile certainly had the explosion of the "triple-A mobile," if you will, that are making such big money.)


Armikrog

But to answer your question specifically about "Why do we exist?" I think the biggest problem that we have right now -- anybody, whether you're an indie publisher or what -- is discovery. Steam is releasing hundreds of games a month. Hundreds. ... So how do you differentiate yourself from the next guy? The same was said about the App Store.

I think where publishers such as ourselves and others who have expertise in marketing and PR and reach and things like that, we're pretty well suited to do that for a team. When you look at the smaller teams, like the Banner Sagas and Stoic, they are like three or four guys. 

I think more than anything, what we give back to our teams is time. We are able to focus on that while they focus on the game, because that's hard enough as it is. That's not to say that you can't do it alone, but when you have someone that's supporting you and helping you with the financials of all of that as well; working with you as a partner, then you can kind of go, "Okay, good. I can now focus on the game and not have to worry about all this other stuff."


Armikrog

I feel like we have a place in the market because we now have experience, we now have reach, we now have good relationships with the platform holders and things like that. All of those things which are typically a reason why you want to work with a publisher is now kind of coming true with indies. We can really talk with the platform holders about how we can promote and get featured and do those different things. It's just not possible for them to speak with hundreds of developers every single month.

There was maybe a year or so where indie developers started coming up through some of the emerging platforms and it was like, "Screw you, publishers. we don't need to share revenue. We can do this ourselves!" Now, thanks to all the changes that are happening, some are saying, "Actually, now we do." Now that it's more flooded, the need has come back and we're heading back to where we were publisher-wise, in a way.

What it used to be was, you've got to go to manufacturing. You've got to negotiate with all the top-tier retailers, which means you need a sales team, because you've got to get into the buyers. You're not getting into Walmart unless you know the buyer or unless you've got a sales team that can get you in front of the buyer. Even then, it wasn't a given that they would actually buy your product. So it was risky.

At the same time, there were lot more retailers back then. You had the EBs of the world, and GameStops, everybody that was out there. You also had a cost of goods that. That being said, as a consumer, the confidence was when I walked into the store there was a pretty decent slew of PC games and console games.


Toren

As soon as you go digital, once they opened up those floodgates, it really helped build a lot of great content. The indie movement has brought back old genres. They've brought back old art styles, and moved them forward. Some games are beautifully stunning and yet they're still an 8-bit, 16-bit type of look. Then you get games like Hyperlight Drifter that are just beautiful to look at. Banner Saga, which almost turns a concept artist into your main artist, which is not typical in a game. It's really kind of opened up a whole marketplace.

I do agree with you, there's all these indies out there and not everyone is succeeding and some of these games are really good. Is there a way that I can help them?

What I found with a lot of the experienced teams that became indie and we were talking to, some of them were like, "Yeah, screw you, publishers. I don't want to work with anyone because I've been raked across the coals so many times."

You get that a lot, then?

That dynamic has been removed. I could tell you my first year of signing titles, it was all with hesitancy. It's really hard to make that decision to become independent and then to start talking to a publisher.

Has that sentiment changed for the better, for you?

From my perspective, I think it has. I think there certainly are teams that go it alone. Some of those teams that I've talked to haven't done as well and they've kind of come back saying, "Hey, we'd like to talk with you about our next one. We didn't do as well as we'd hoped."

Everyone kind of checks references, which I think is very cool. The indie community is very well connected, right? Because Versus Evil has had a good reputation with the developers that we've worked with, I'll talk to a developers that we're working with, and they say, "Oh, I talked with those guys. So you signed that game?"


Toren

We run Versus Evil like a service company. These are my clients, and I need to do well by them. Otherwise we're not Versus Evil, we're just this overruling publisher that does messed up things just like everybody else. We become the evil. So we're very cautious of that.

I think the conversation has changed. When we launched Banner Saga 1, I think there were 34 titles launched that month. I think this last April there were 320. It's different. All of a sudden, it's more like the App Store and how do you differentiate yourself? Just the last two years Twitch and YouTube from a live streaming perspective have really changed things as well.

How can you tell an indie developer that you can do a better job at discovery than they could?

I hate to keep saying the same thing, but it really just boils down to time and focus. I'm not a person to say, "I can do this better than you." If you look at it from a marketing and community standpoint, we're not talking rocket science here. There's knowledge and experience, don't get me wrong. There's things that I've done over the last 16 years that allow me to say, "This works. This doesn't."

Everyone is a consumer, so they can really have an opinion about the marketing and the management of the community and things like that. We're not saying that we can do it better, we're just saying we have experience doing it. You have a good artist that's pretty well trained in what he does, don't ask him to program. And in some regards, don't ask him to do marketing. 

Ask anyone who's run a Kickstarter campaign. You lose at least 30 days prior getting ready for the Kickstarter and then the 30 days running the Kickstarter. And then afterwards fulfilling it. It's a job in itself,  and you've not been developing the game during that time. It's things like that that you're kind of like, "How much am I going derail myself from managing community, managing different things, from developing the game?"


Bedlam

Some people can do it. The Stardew Valley guy did an amazing job. I'm not silly enough to sit here and say that I can do it better. I'm saying that I can do a good job and I'm saying that we are 100 percent focused on it and we feel that we will add value, we will bring more.

What are you looking for in a game?

The answer to this question has changed from when I first started. In the past, when Steam wasn't so wide open, it was just, "Fun? Good."

There was a time that I think I was looking at four viking games at the exact same time. My team and I were laughing about it, but they're all good games. For me now, those core values still exist. It's got to be a fun game. It's got to be an art style that is different and noteworthy.

We don't have multi-million dollar marketing budgets that we can brand an image into many consumers' minds. So you need to make sure that your art style is unique enough so that when you do anything, even your social media posts, your imgur stuff, that it stands on its own. That's where your branding and everything comes from when you're starting to build community and get out there on social media. Your look and feel can be "Oh, that's The Banner Saga. Oh, that's Guild of Dungeoneering, because it's so unique."


Bedlam

But today the big thing that we also look at is multi-platform. With the PC and mobile being so crowded, we have to have multiple SKUs so that we can help recoup risk both from the developer and publisher side, as well as differentiate ourselves, and make it look like a much bigger launch. For us now, it's like, "What's your console plans? What's your PC plans? What's your mobile plans?" All three of those don't have to be "Yes" answers, but we do try to have a "Yes" answer to at least two of those questions.

Speaking of console games, what kind of numbers or performance are you seeing when you release an indie game on a console these days? I hear from a decent amount of indies that release, for example, on PlayStation 4. Seems like a lot of those games are dying on the vine.

To be fair, it's not apples to apples. We launched Banner Saga there two years after the PC release. We launched Toren simultaneously, and I would say it kind of paralleled the numbers. I've been doing a lot of analysis just to see where we are for the year, I would say that my console business is growing and catching up to PC quite quickly with fewer titles.

My three verticals, if you will, I see mobile, I see PC, I see console whereas before I was predominantly PC. I'm now seeing all three of those things grow and compete with each other from a revenue standpoint, and that's exciting. We're much more stable as a company because we have that whole ecosystem. I look at the console games and I don't see that, "It dies on the vine."

The biggest risk for any indie game, whether it's developer or publisher, is going back to the old dynamic of retail. Your storefront is the digital storefront. If you're not getting featured, you're not getting marketing, you're not getting placed well, then how are they really hearing about it?

Whereas before you would walk into a GameStop or a Walmart and you'd walk around the store. You'd pick up a physical box, you'd read the back, and you'd get informed. Maybe you wouldn't buy it, but you'd at least go somewhere and look. You'd have these big media hubs that people would go to like an IGN or GameSpot,  to check news or whatever. A lot of that has changed to, "Who's playing it on YouTube? Who's playing it on Twitch?"


Guild of Dungeoneering

When I look at it, I don't necessarily see it as a correlation to platform. It's all about discovery and making sure that the audience is aware that you're coming to that platform, and they actually care. We've had good success with console, we're going to continue going that way. We feel that console is very important to our market. Armikrog did okay on the PC, but we're really excited about what we're going with it on console.

It certainly is getting more crowded on the consoles, but it's a long ways off from where Steam is right now.

It is. It's a harder process. You have to go through certification. You have to have dev kits, you have to have all these different things and it's more complicated. It is absolutely not impossible. People are doing it and they do it successfully every single day. The barrier to entry is still higher than PC.

What are some common mistakes you see indie devs make from a publishing or marketing standpoint?

I think the common mistake, which really parallels triple-A titles as well, is they push it out. It's one of the things that I tell a lot of indies: "You've got to let it bake. You've got to test it more. If you think it's done, can you sit on it for a month? Make sure that this is the title."

You see a lot of devs saying, "We just need to monetize. We're going to push it out on early access."

My response to that is, "Consumers do not know what an alpha is. They really don't. They don't know what a beta is either." The beta testing that consumers are used to are the Call of Duties and MMORPGs that basically brought millions of people in for a really pretty and polished experience.

What some of the early access titles have been doing is showing them a true alpha or beta and people going, "Whoa. What's this?"


Guild of Dungeoneering

The Darkest Dungeon guys did an excellent job of not doing that. It was fun, it was polished. It wasn't complete, but quite frankly you didn't notice. To me they are still, by far, the best run early access title out there. And they kind of ran it like an MMO where they released content over time and kept engaging people, releasing classes -- And they had their own blowup when they added in heart attacks and things like that, and people kind of freaked out and had to adjust. It was really fun to watch.

It felt like you were getting rewarded. When they add new content that they intended on adding the whole time, you felt like it was a nice surprise and they were gifting you with something.

Right. The key point there is that what they started with was good. It's kind of what World of Warcraft did way back in the day. When you played their beta, it was like, "Wow, this feels better than most MMOs."

The other big mistake I see is focused around Kickstarter and trying to dredge up press. With Kickstarted projects, in order to get the funding they need, they've had to put out all the features, all the stuff that they basically had to do to get funding. Then when they go to the press, the press guys are like, "Well, I saw that on your Kickstarter, it's  old news." They spent all of their cool features to get the Kickstarter money. Which they needed! But then when it comes to dredging up press and PR and getting people excited, it's tougher because there's nothing new to say.

I was talking to somebody who is about to launch a game out of alpha, and he had no idea how it will do. The game was getting good traction during early access on Steam, getting good sales. But when it "actually launches," he's wondering if he's going to see any bump at all.

It is interesting because when speaking to press about a title that's been in early access, they ask what you've added, what's new. And you have to say, "Oh, no, we're just done. We're out of early access."


Kyn

This suggests that you've got to have a big content drop at the time of release. If you don't, you might not get any press to give you a bump. How are you bringing back the people who tried the early access seven months ago? How are you bringing them back and getting them excited again?

Another strategy is, do early access on PC for six, seven, eight months. Then when you go live, roll out your console and PC version together. Because now you've got multiple platforms, now you've got different marketing, you've got different press excited about it because the console guys haven't been paying attention. 

Kickstarter is interesting. We've seen some pretty good things there where your Steam community does not care that these guys paid you some money on Kickstarter. They'll say, "It's a good game, but they gave the Kickstarter people something special. I want those things too."

Well, they funded the title, just to be clear. They deserve it. But some of the Steam community is like, "Yeah, but I want that too." I get that, but to be angry about it seems interesting to me.

So basically keep in mind the different audiences on different platforms and how they'll react to business moves.

You've absolutely got to. I think that's probably the biggest mistake -- I tell that with people that we don't work with. "Do me a favor, just take a step back." Think about when you're launching. Look at your window. Who are you launching against? When's the next sale?

You've got to wind this thing up. Are you doing a pre-order discount? Are you doing a launch discount? You've got to make sure that you're not upsetting any of your early adopters. You've got to line up when you're going to drop certain things along the way.


Kyn

Even just from a high level. "I've got my beta. Maybe early access. Then I've got a launch. How am I doing in pre-sales? How am I doing launch discount? When's my first sale?" You can't put it on sale two weeks later, because you just pissed off all your early adopters. You've got to respect the people that are actually following you and being your fans.

The message needs to be, "You guys are getting something and I'm not going to suddenly drop it a couple weeks later because I was looking for some money real quick."

Do you think that the industry is setting itself up for another kind of mid-level collapse? Could that happen again?

I'm sure some economist would disagree with me, but I kind of look at it like a mid-level birth. Because back in the day, what you were dealing with in the traditional retailer sense, you were dealing with physical retail distribution, placement in those stores, dealing with all the triple-A guys who had these massive kiosks and things like that, that you may or may not have been able to afford, because you just don't have enough titles to financially justify those types of displays. Whereas today, mainly because of how wonderful the console players have been and how Apple and Google really are open doors, you can get your content on there, it's just how you do it. Then with Steam and others on the PC, you've basically got a lot of avenues to create a really good brand.

I would almost argue that it's all about your community and your management of the press and your management of the streamers to create a brand for yourself and hold on to that. You could exist as a medium-level company so long as you just don't screw that up.

I'm sure the day will come when I'm going to get squeezed out, because the big guys always figure out a way to do that. But I think medium-level publishers can exist for a long time because they don't have a lot of the barriers that existed in the past that would require them to close doors.

And we're not even a medium-sized publisher yet, so -- [laughs] Yeah, we've got plenty of time before we have to worry about that.

It's an interesting thing, but I do think about it. If a Midway and THQ was around when there was the digital platforms and everything was much more open and they didn't have those expenses and things, where would they be today? I don't know. They had a lot of baggage going into it so it was tough for them to stay square. Merged with Eidos and that made them quite a bit bigger.

Warner has done an excellent job of establishing themselves. Great IP, great games. So it's interesting. I think it's exciting to look ahead. I think the medium-level publishers can exist for indie teams that are also getting bigger that want the $5-$10 million development budgets to do "III" third party development. Could be cool.

Big companies like THQ were publicly traded and there's so much focus on growth, growth, growth, growth for their investors, where perhaps that's not going to be such a huge focus for some of these independent publishers that are on the rise.

Yeah, I don't think so. For me, a lot of the reasons why I like where we are is I want to have fun and in the process create some great relationships with partners and be successful with each other. If I can end my career in however long, I've got plenty of time left, I guess, and I was able to accomplish that with multiple teams, I'm going to be a pretty happy guy.

It doesn't mean that everybody had some big payout and they made hundreds or even tens of millions of dollars, and they're able to retire. It's more like did we do it well? Did we treat each other respectfully? Were we completely transparent? Did we have a good time doing it? Did we do good products? I love what I do and I know these guys do as well. 

That's where the big publishers helped birth the indie market. "Well, if this doesn't sell over a million copies, we're not interested."

I wouldn't focus on trying to hit a million units or saying that selling 200,000 copies is easy. It's difficult because you've got a lot of choice out there. I mean, I'd be happy to sell a million copies. That would be great. We're set up to be able to not have to be focused on that type of success. But if that level of success happens, then you're in a really good place.



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