Full Circle: What devs want to know from publishers

Full Circle: What devs want to know from publishers
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

November 17th 2015 at 2:45PM

In the first in a new series of interviews, we find out what a developer would ask a publisher

The walls of the games industry are coming down. Developers are becoming publishers, players are becoming developers and publishers are trying to find the best ways to work with both developers and players in a market where success is more elusive than ever.

Develop decided it was time to take a step back and find out what each side of this triangle really wants to know. So we have arranged for this first round of Full Circle interviews, in which different sides of the industry will question each other on the biggest challenges they face.

To clarify, we have a developer interviewing a publisher, a publishing interviewing a player, and a player interviewing a developer.

For our first entry, we have Andrew Deegan (above left) – founder and game designer at Sugra Games – talking to Jan-Michel Saaksmeier (above right), head of licensing at casual games publisher Spil Games.

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Deegan:
As a publisher, would you prefer one to three games targeted at specific subsets of customers, similar to Supercell's portfolio? Or 30 to 80 games targeted at a broad variety of customers, like EA?

Saaksmeier:
In theory, I would prefer a small number of games targeted at a specific audience. In practice, there are advantages to having a more diverse portfolio and for most publishers there is a sweet spot somewhere between the two extremes.

Our strategy at Spil Games is to use our existing 100m web audience to expand, for example, into native midcore games. This means we concentrate on games that fit that business model rather than on numbers. 

Deegan: 
Have you ever worked with a successful game project that has been planned and executed on budget and on time that has been commercially successful as well? By success, I mean both financially profitable and critically acclaimed)
 

Saaksmeier:
In fact, yes – but these were small, simple titles. Planning gets blurred with more complex games.

Sure, there a tons of “tools” to counter this. But let’s face facts: we are not producing packet soup. These are highly creative and experimental products involving teams of people bringing different skills. Perfect planning is no guarantee of converting a bunch of concept papers into a great product.

Sometimes the hunt for “the proof of fun” takes longer than you would hope. So it is important that everyone keeps the faith and works together to make the game successful in the end. 

Deegan: 
It can be argued that some games are very suitable for building an audience from day one through dev blogs, reddit a.m.a., streaming development and art work sessions, early beta testing, and so on. By the same argument, other games are not suitable at all. Do you think this is true or false? Can you give examples? 

Saaksmeier:
It’s more complex than a simple true or false. It is true that some games lend themselves to being promoted. People just get them more quickly. Any of the endless runner titles would be good examples of games that are easy to promote.

Let’s face facts: we are not producing packet soup. These are highly creative and experimental products involving teams of people bringing different skills. Perfect planning is no guarantee of converting a bunch of concept papers into a great product.

Jan-Michel Saaksmeier, Spil Games

It is also true that it is harder for some other games to find their natural audience. But they may still be great games. The trick for the publisher is to target the right audience and find ways of communicating the game’s appeal. A good example of a game that started out looking unpromising but that found its niche would be Clash of Clans.

But the problem may also be that we are looking in the wrong place for our game’s perfect audience. We need to think about SEO and app store optimisation.

Deegan: 
If you were to build a mobile game and have enough money to market it properly, what percentage of budget would be for marketing and what percentage would be for development in your experience? Where would you spend that money in marketing?
 

Saaksmeier:
When you produce a retail game you have to set a marketing budget beforehand: you use it to create hype and then you’re locked into firing the game out. If the game is no good, the money is burned.

It’s different with free-to-play and online games. The marketing budget can grow with the game’s performance. You see – spending on a strong game with good key performance indicators (KPI) is a better investment than throwing a huge marketing budget at a game before launch. This means spending as a percentage of development costs varies greatly from one game to another. The most successful games will have a much higher percentage spent on marketing when you look back on them, but at the beginning you don’t need to say “I spent X on development so I should set aside Y% for marketing”.

You need enough initial installations for a soft launch – a few thousand – to iterate and shape the game. And you will spend some money on creating good marketing materials and getting social media attention.

It is a good idea to buy users across multiple channels at the same time to be able to monitor performance and re-allocate budgets accordingly.

But the biggest part of a marketing budget is buying installs for your game. And the potential can be clearly estimated by using the games live KPIs. Especially with the Lifetime Value (LTV). As long as the LTV is higher than the Cost per Install (CPI), you can scale your marketing budget further and further. 

Measuring a game’s performance and tuning it after release is often the difference between its success and failure. This is something that many studios do not have the capacity to do, but that publishers do as a matter of course.

Jan-Michel Saaksmeier, Spil Games

Deegan: 
The mobile market is extremely saturated right now and getting noticed on any app store is a mountainous task. What do publishers really do now to solve this problem that game developers cannot simply do themselves? 

Saaksmeier:
Cross-promotion is the maybe the biggest plus of using a publisher. At Spil Games, we can get your game in front of 100m users of other games every month. That’s a huge amount of potential traffic to your app store presence.

We also bring resources and expertise in areas that some studios struggle with: app store optimisation, quality, audience targeting, localisation, monetisation, PR and marketing. Live game management is a good example. Measuring a game’s performance and tuning it after release is often the difference between its success and failure. This is something that many studios do not have the capacity to do, but that we do as a matter of course.

Watch out for the second installment in our Full Circle interview series, in which publisher Spil Games will speak directly with a typical games player.