Start-up Special 2013: Do you need a publisher?

Start-up Special 2013: Do you need a publisher?
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

November 12th 2013 at 11:00AM

UK developers debate whether new studios should pitch to traditional publishers or explore other routes to market

Do brand new developers need the support of publishers or platform holders in today's varied marketplace?

Gareth Edmondson, ThumbstarGareth Edmondson, CEO, Thumbstar Games: Yes, I would say so, unless you are all of these: very talented and creating unique excellent product; well connected, or at least very active and effective at self-promotion; very lucky and/or adequately funded to take the risk of a number of failures before success; have sufficient resource (both human and financial) to have complete focus on promoting, 

Getting noticed in the mobile market is famously tough, and it's getting tougher. It's pretty clear that the traditional app stores are really doing most of their business on a few games, but as noted below, there are plenty of other opportunities.

Phil Gaskell, RipstonePhil Gaskell, Director, Ripstone: Anyone starting up their own creative business needs support, whether it's games, movies, music or everything in-between. That means government support, publisher support, peer support and more. Creating isn't a precise science, you can't (and I'd argue shouldn't) put a fixed timeline on it, but you still need to pay the bills while it's going on.

Of course, support doesn't need to be purely financial. It's always good to have a fresh pair of eyes to point out the flaws you might be blind to. It's also important to have someone considering things from a commercial angle too, especially in the age of free-to-play where business model and game design are fundamentally linked.

Mark Baldwin, New Star GamesMark Baldwin, Community Manager, New Star Games: I think it's a case of needs and wants. New developers would all love to have the support of publishers and platform holders, especially when starting out, but I think we've shown that you don't need it to be successful.

We have certainly benefited though from platform holders wanting to work along with us and surrounding yourself with people who know the business and who importantly have the contacts to help your business. With so many developers out there it can be hard to get noticed and sometimes you need a helping hand, it really is a case in this business that who you know is as important as what you know. 

The power shifted back to content creators in the market a few years ago, and I expect that to continue. Publishers will need to provide services to developers beyond the traditional marketing and PR functions to remain relevant.

Gareth Edmondson, Thumbstar

How can new studios go about getting publisher support? When is the right time to reach out for it?

Gaskell: It sounds pithy but just ask! Talk to as many people as you can, attend networking events and try to speak with other developers as well as friendly publishers (like Ripstone!). Also, speak with journalists as they're a fantastic way of getting your game that extra visibility.

There's never a right or wrong time to ask, there's just the right and wrong people. Some publishers will want to see and play the game, some might be happy to take a risk just on the team's track record. Pick people who share your ethos, and who you feel can be as passionate about your game as you are. Bigger companies are not always better – in fact, smaller boutique publishers will offer a much more tailored and personal approach.

Edmondson: It's a question of getting yourself out there, speaking to business development people from publishers, sending out demos – all of the usual stuff.

Timing wise, it depends on the publisher probably. Because of our background in development right back from the BBC Micro days, we are very used to seeing early prototypes and understanding if there is something interesting in there, so we are happy to see stuff very early. 

Baldwin: It's really important that you link up with someone who knows this part of the business as knowing the right person to approach is really important.

As for when to start talking, this is a tricky question. If you go in too early asking for backing from a publisher, you risk losing your IP while trying to negotiate a deal. You really need to have more than just great ideas or a brilliant tech demo. Ideally you need a close-to-finished or finished product that a publisher can buy into and help with the advertising and distribution – it means there's less risk on all sides.

Having said that, if you can get the platform holder on side and backing from them, you may not need a publisher at all. For example, if you are doing an iPhone game it's probably more important to try and deal direct with Apple – if you can get them to feature your app then this is potentially worth more than what you could get out of a publishing deal. 

I think new developers would all want to have the support of publishers and platform holders, especially when starting out, but some studios have shown that you don't need it to be successful.

Mark Baldwin, New Star Games 

What are their other options? And what are the advantages and disadvantages of taking an alternate route to market?

Baldwin: Without a publisher, you have to find a way to self-fund. This may mean initially not giving up your day job or making sure that your household is still bringing income in, and it requires a lot of patience to not rush your game and be tempted to borrow lots of money.

It may also mean looking at a cheaper way of getting your game out there. You may have to get creative with the way you launch a game. We launched the current version of New Star Soccer on flash sites like Kongregate at the same time as the mobile version, and the flash version had a link to the app store. This generated a lot of initial traffic for us and word of mouth helped to get the game noticed. 

So the benefits are that you don't have to share any of your profits with other parties (e.g. publishers). That's great if everything goes well, but it also means you take the whole financial burden on your shoulders and when things don't go to plan it can be a heavy burden to shoulder. Keeping your game in the public eye after launch is also a difficult thing to do without the backing of a publisher. 

Edmondson: In mobile, you have to devote a serious amount of time to getting your product seen through self-publishing. However, there are all sorts of other ways of getting a game to customers.

At Thumbstar we help developers through publishing activities as you would expect, but often, developers want to do the publishing on iOS or Google Play themselves, and come to us for additional revenues through all of the other potential stores. This is a massive growth area, and is more of a distribution business rather than a publishing activity.

Gaskell: You could work twice as hard and land some work-for-hire contracts to help pay your way while you toil and iterate over your private idea. It works for some studios but if you are a micro developer it can be difficult to land those jobs, and it will drain you physically.

There's the crowd-funding route, which requires a modest outlay initially to create a professional and engaging set of assets to communicate your idea, but if successful, it allows you complete freedom.

Finally, the younger gaming entrepreneurs could always turn to the Bank of Mum & Dad for help – although I'm not sure I'd like to be responsible for losing my parent's pension!

How has the role of publishers changed in the last five years?

Edmondson: We see publishing as a service to developers, rather than the perhaps old fashioned view of things being the other way round. We need quality, innovative and unique product, and I fully expect that to continue in a significant way to come from start-ups and indies. Our role is to help developers, guide them in the market and crucially help to 'not leave any money on the table'. The power shifted back to content creators in the market a few years ago, and I expect that to continue.

Gaskell: I don't think the role of a publisher has changed that much at all. The barriers to enter the market have changed but the value that a good publisher relationship adds to development is still as meaningful as it ever was. 

Baldwin: Publishers are under more pressure than ever before to provide the next triple-A massive hit and they seem to be taking less and less risks and demanding more and more from developers. With the occasional exception to the rule, we are seeing "safe" bets from publishers i.e. sequels and established franchises.

What we have seen is the role of platform holder almost merging into that of a publisher. Sony in particular seems to be forging ahead in this way and we will have to see how their approach to Indie developers works over time. 

The barriers to enter the market have changed but the value that a good publisher relationship adds to development is still as meaningful as it ever was. 

Phil Gaskell, Ripstone

How will it change during the next console generation?

Gaskell: The goal of a publisher should and will be to break new IP. They will need to take bigger risks to push what gaming entertainment can mean to people, instead of milking cash cows and monopolising emerging business models. Their role is just as pivotal as the creative developers dreaming up the ideas, they need to be as willing as developers are to back new, risky and forward-thinking ideas.

Baldwin: It's exciting to think about the future. Unless publishers learn to adapt to the current market, especially the free-to-play model, we might see the demise of some of the big traditional publishers.

Platform holders are becoming more and more influential and I think that developer/platform holder relations will become ever more important. The likes of Microsoft, Sony, Apple and Steam hold the keys to a small developer's success and it will become more and more important to have contacts that can help introduce you to people who can make things happen. 

Edmondson: I am deliberately avoiding the next console generation debate as I am further removed from that market now, but I think that the power will continue to shift towards content creators, and publishers will need to provide services to developers beyond the traditional marketing and PR functions to remain relevant.

All this month, Develop is publishing its Start Your Own Studio guide online. You can find all of our start-up articles at www.develop-online.net/startupspecial, plus a full schedule of the guides still to come by clicking here.