What is a Game Publisher Good For?
Editor’s Note: CitizenTekk publishes experts and startups. We invited Flying Helmet Games to write for us because we are intrigued (and annoyed) by the struggle game developers still face in publishing. We especially like Flying Helmet for their small size and desire to be independent.
My partner turns to me and says “What is publisher good for? It’s 2013. Why are we still involved in this archaic system when we have so many options for self distribution?” As an owner of a small, independent game studio coming up on finishing our first game it’s a question I spend a lot of time thinking about.
Flying Helmet Games is not as independent as you can get. Many of our team-members come from AAA development. The nature of our project and ambitions have attracted government funding support (of course we have to pay it back!) and we’ve only bootstrapped so far before we pulled in a bit of outside investment. However we are still in complete control of our project and creative – you can say we’re independent. Yet I’m looking for a publisher.
Common ‘Wisdom’ in the independent development land is that a publisher will take 30 to 70 percent of your take (after you 1st party ‘store’ takes their 30 percent), for the honor of being in a position to tell you how to make your game. And then, if you’re lucky, they’ll sell a few copies for you. Well, you know what, that’s mostly true. But for a few crazy reasons, at least today, I want to find one. I have a few reasons for that.
Common ‘Wisdom’ in the independent development land is that a publisher will take 30 to 70 percent of your take (after you 1st party ‘store’ takes their 30 percent), for the honor of being in a position to tell you how to make your game.
I (and the team at Flying Helmet Games) know how to make a game. We, generally, know how to finance it. I’m not so sure about selling it! I look at what we’re trying to do and it’s big, it’s ambitious, it’s a little bit crazy, and it’s pretty different than anything out there. You follow gaming news and you hear endless success stories, rags from riches tales about Angry Birds, Minecraft, Clash of Clans, and countless others. What you don’t hear about is the other tens of thousands of games that hit apps stores and quietly fade away. Some of them pull in some revenue, so many of them never make a blip on the radar. I want a partner who knows how to get our labor of passion to our audience!
I run an independent studio, but we’re not two guys out of a basement. I want to feed my team, give them a great place to work, that means I want to bring in enough revenue to support that family. We could try to self-publish, learn as much as we can about grass-roots marketing and hope for the best. It’s as easy as ever to pop a game up on an App store and hope someone notices, but I can’t turn to my team and say ‘we’ll toss it out there, and hope for the best.’
What I really want in a publisher is a partner who understands the kind of game we are making and knows how to bring it to the audience who will love it. Honestly, I don’t know how to do that myself. In a few games maybe I will, but today I don’t think personally I can reach a large enough audience on my own to be profitable and to keep paying my team.
The trick is finding the right partners who believe in what we’re trying to do and help us get to that audience, rather than change what we’re doing to fit a ‘business model of the week.’ I think a group like that is out there. But will they take a big cut of what comes in? You better believe they will, but I know that a smaller cut of a much larger audience is better for everyone than a bigger cut of a tiny audience. And, well, there’s something to be said for benefiting from the experience of others – for the same reason that we’re not building our own game engine, bringing a game to market is just not a core competency… yet.
Any partnership decisions greatly affects the future of the company – we’ll be tied to this group for a long time – and in my gut, I’m nervous about tying us to any other partners in such a tight manner, but pragmatically it makes more sense than going alone. So when my partner turns to me and asks “Why do we need to partner with a publisher?” my answer is, for now, “Because we don’t know how to sell our own game – yet. And I don’t want to rely on luck.” We’ll learn in the future, but for now it’s about slowly meeting partners and learning the best fit. But even with a good publisher, we still have to make a great game!
Edward J Douglas is a co-founder and the Creative Director at Flying Helmet Games in Vancouver, and now knows more about tax credits and game financing than he ever wanted to! Prior to going indie he put in time at Electronic Arts on the Need for Speed franchise, new IP and Mass Effect 2 at Bioware, and the Tom Clancy franchise at Ubisoft. http://www.flyinghelmetgames.com/
Edward has worked as a cinematics director, creative director, designer and producer and is now seeing just how far an indie game budget can go.