New UK publisher Playstack: 'You create the game, we'll handle the funding'

New UK publisher Playstack: 'You create the game, we'll handle the funding'
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

August 18th 2016 at 11:00AM

New UK publisher aims to fund and support developers with high-quality games

A new UK publisher has opened its doors that plans to fund and support independent studios from their game's concept to launch.

PlayStack is headed up by Harvey Elliott (pictured above), former CEO of cross-platform tools maker Marmalade Technologies and ex-EA exec, who plans to focus on identifying and harnessing UK talent to discover hit new games IPs and bring them to market.

The publisher has already signed its first game – Nemesis: Air Combat by Stratosphere Games (pictured below), a mobile studio staffed by former Splash Damage, Rocksteady, Yager and Nexon staff. The game will be released later this year.

We caught up with Elliott to find out more about what PlayStack can offer developers.

Why form a new UK publisher? How can you stand out from all the other new, smaller/indie publishers that have emerged over the last couple of years?
Just by looking at the sheer volume of high quality games that don’t make their mark in terms of sales, there is an opportunity for a publisher that can give a developer the support they need in order to become a success. Many developers today are formed from great creative individuals coming together and their focus needs to be on creating a great game, but to achieve commercial success they will need to partner with experts in bringing games to market with access to great finances and tech. This is what we offer.

We are not a small indie publisher – we have expertise in publishing and we have great access to finances and technology. Our resources can help drive user adoption and ensures we are able to support games we believe in to be fully funded from start to success. 

This funding could be direct investment into the developer, milestone development, or supporting the project as it readies for market with other services such as QA, localisation and player feedback. Once the game is ready we have access to further capital that means we can scale the marketing according to the opportunity – not limited by our balance sheet. So even as a relatively small team ourselves we can impact the market just as the larger publishers would.

What type of developers are you looking for? What type of games?
We are always looking out for creative and talented developers, but more importantly we look for people that we can work well with. We will succeed when we can leverage our expertise and the developer can leverage theirs – the result is that we are very much looking to form a partnership with the developer around their IP. In fact, this is one of the reasons we’d like to invest into developers: we believe that becoming part of their company with them will align us around the same priorities, and we can work together to help them succeed.

For the type of game, we need to find titles that can really stand out from the crowd – not just in terms of quality, but player engagement, entertainment, and IP.  We’re less specific on genre or platform, but obviously every game needs to have real market opportunity to be worth the investment of time and people. Once we find a game, we’ll put together the right team on our side to compliment the developer’s team and work to carve out it’s opportunity.

Through my years as Chair of the BAFTA Games Committee, I oversaw four BAFTA Games Awards, five years of BAFTA Young Games Designers, and a whole host of inspirational talks, lectures and workshops showcasing the best of the industry. When BAFTA are awarding a game, the membership vote on the games that they think are deserving of an award creating a stack of games for juries to play and find the nominees and winners from. PlayStack is setting out to create that stack of games – it’s where the name came from – where we find and connect games together that share a theme or commonality, and our players will want to play all of the games in a Stack, knowing that they have been curated and chosen for their high standards.

We’re leveraging my time at BAFTA, my background, and the background and expertise of the whole PlayStack team to find and curate games, so that when we release a game into the market we know it will deliver real fun and enjoyment for its market and reinforce the value of our approach.

Just by looking at the sheer volume of high quality games that don’t make their mark in terms of sales, there is an opportunity for a publisher that can give a developer the support they need in order to become a success. 

What can you offer developers beyond typical publishing services, e.g. funding/operational services?
Our ideal is to be investing with a developer into an IP.  For us, this is about building a foundation for each game with a developer we will enjoy working with. The PlayStack team is being deliberately recruited because of their expertise in creating, publishing and operating games, building marketing presence and community, and access to broader industry skills and talents – and as a result we can offer all of this expertise to the developers we work with.

Many of our team have come from a development background and know how to shape and create an IP, and can offer advice to help developers make the most of their games. That said, the critical word is advice – we've all seen too often the dangers of publishers directing a project in development. We are picking the developers we want to work with who we know are capable of creating the games we want to play, so it’s really important for us that they lead the creative development of the IP.

What funding is available and what do developers need to do in order to be eligible for it?
We have a whole range of funding available, from standard developer advances and support funding, through to investments – including SEIS/EIS funds for developers based in the UK, and marketing capital to drive success around titles. 

Our goal is to maximise the potential of every game we sign, which means our primary focus is finding games that we believe have real potential. The funding is obviously important, but from a developer’s perspective their hard work should be focused on creating the game. We’ll focus on the funding – so if we select a title to publish it’s going to have all the backing it needs to succeed.

How long can this offer of funding last? How will you secure more investment that can be given to developers?
We’ve already raised the funds that we need to support our first portfolio of games, and in the process have created a template that we can use to raise more money. We’ve actually found more games than we originally expected, but we’re also seeing a lot of investor appetite in PlayStack and our financial products so much of the work now is on getting everything to happen in tandem.

The key for everyone that we work with whether they are a developer or backer is that we will only commit to support projects that we know we can see through to the very end – and the focus for us is on building each title to it’s maximum potential.

BAFTA members vote on the games they think deserve an award, creating a stack of games for juries to play and find winners from. PlayStack is setting out to create that stack of games

How has the closure of UK studios affected the development talent pool here?
We’ve seen a disappointingly high number of closures in the past weeks and months, and it is impossible not to feel sad for the teams and people affected as uncertainty can cause a lot of disruption to the people affected and their families. 

That said, it has led to an increase in new businesses being formed, and perhaps given us even more opportunities to look at. It’s really important to note that studio closures are usually the impact of something at a high level – a shift in strategy, or decisions made at senior levels – and the teams beneath are often incredibly skilled and capable in crafting new games.

The talent is definitely there, and perhaps it’s just a little more visible than it was before.

How will PlayStack ‘harness this talent'?
We’re not looking to hire a significant number of developers into our organisation – our team will be focused on the publishing expertise, technology and finance that games need to succeed.  So to harness this talent we are looking to developers to form or build their companies, and invest our expertise and capital into that. And to explain what investing expertise means – we know what it takes to create a great game, we know the skills you need on-team to succeed, and we know the skills you need to access off-team. 

And we know what it takes to build a business, how to structure finances, corporate governance, employment contracts, access tax credits and government support, share ownership and so on. Our goal is to help developers build a successful IP company, with great games at the core. We want to help champion their talent, promote their games, and showcase just how good they are as developers. At the end of releasing the first game, we want to have enjoyed working with a developer, them to have enjoyed working with us, and have a hit game that we’d all like to beat with the next title and do it all again.

Developer should be focused on creating the game, we’ll focus on the funding. If we select a title to publish, it’s going to have all the backing it needs to succeed.

What are you doing to reach out to new developers and find games to publish?
We’re heading out to where the developers are, at meet-ups, developer events – like Develop:Brighton, GDC, Pocket Gamer, Gamescom and so on – and we’re contacting people in our network to see who they know, and who may benefit from working with us. 

To be honest, we’ve not had to try too hard just yet. We’ve been hugely impressed with just how many great games are out there ready to be discovered, and feel even more confident that we can offer something different in how we help these games to succeed.

What do developers need to do to impress you? How can they improve their chances of securing a publishing deal?
To get a deal with us we need to see a great team with the potential to create a great game, to be capable of leading the creative development of the title and IP, and to be someone we can envisage working with over a longer period.

We’re going to go through due-diligence on the companies and people we work with, so taking up references, assessing their tech and approach, and basically getting comfortable with what they are capable of doing – likewise we’d expect them to ask the right questions of us, and assess our skills in a similar way so that we all go into developing a game without too many surprises.

We know that this isn’t going to be the easiest ever route for a new business as the games industry is littered with as many failures as successes. However, we do believe that our foundations of great people, great developers, strong technology and financial backing all combine to create a great opportunity for the market.  There is so much developer talent out there – both in the UK and overseas – that it would be wrong of us not to try and help more games succeed, and in the process we know it’s going to be a lot of fun with huge potential.  We’re deliberately transparent with developers about how we work, what we do and what we don’t do so that everyone can be clear about the opportunities in front of us – and together I’m confident we can.