Tom Ohle explains how his team of two is navigating the dangerous waters of indie publishing
A recently launched indie publisher has been forced to change its name to following threats of litigation, but the team of two has rebranded and vows to fight on to prove that indies can stand up to legal strong-arming.
Renegade Machine was launched back in October as Rebel Machine by Evolve PR founder Tom Ohle and games industry veteran Khaled Ibrahimi – cinematic producer and director on Killzone 3, Cannibal Games's innovation officer, and partner at Rise of the Triad developer Interceptor Entertainment.
A blog post from the team didn't provide much detail on the legal challenge, but said that it's a reminder of the determination required of all independent game developers.
"This surprising turn of events is a good reminder that indies are constantly going to be up against the juggernauts who have more money and power," reads the post.
"We’re constantly going to be told, “you can’t do that,” or, “fall into line or we will crush you under the mighty might of our mighty boot!” We need to be scrappy. We have to fight back. We have to prove them all wrong. And we will."
Lawsuits are just one of the many dangers that await small publishers and developers, and Develop reached out to the two renegades to ask how they planned to navigate the difficult passage to fame and fortune.
For now, Renegade is an entirely bootstrapped venture, though Ohle says that doesn't preclude the possibility of investment at a later date. With that in mind, both founders will stay on in their respective roles at Evolve and Interceptor, focusing their time and efforts to deliver on contracts as they come up.
But can even an experienced pairing like Ohle and Ibrahimi actually tackle the challenges facing a modern publisher?
“For now, we think it is,” says Ohle. “Of course we'll need to grow in the future, but a few of the key needs we've identified from talking to developers are money, marketing and production support.”
“We can't help with the money side of things just yet, but we can definitely help with the latter areas. Those areas may not help every developer, but there are definitely a few devs out there who have great games that could use some help in those departments. For us, it's a matter of finding the right partners to launch with, and then we can grow the business as needed from there.”
The fact that anyone can think of getting into the publishing side of things without being able to offer money is a sure sign that times have changed.
With the rise in the number of free tools and direct-to-consumer funding options like Kickstarter, the barriers to entry in the games business are incredibly low. That said, the cost of attracting users has been going up, and many developers aren't aware that it takes more than a late-game PR and advertising push to score a financial success.
“We have more creative games than ever before, and it's easier than ever for teams to get together to release great games,” explained Ohle.
“However, with the growth of the market comes increased competition. It's no longer enough just to get on Steam or GOG.com. It's not enough to have a good idea.”
Ohle says that this is a common problem he's faced at Evolve, and that he needed more than the tools available to a PR firm if he really wanted to help.
“We've seen this at Evolve over and over and over again with our indie clients: we get people coming to us late in development, expecting a one-month PR push to lead them to success. Then the game hits and there just isn't enough awareness, or there are bugs that hold the game back, or some other element that just doesn't click with the audience,” he explained.
“We want to be able to help developers get over that final hurdle, without needing the budget to hire an agency like Evolve to do PR, or having to hire their own QA department, etc. Breaking through the noise is something we want to help developers with, and based on early feedback from our announcement, there's definitely a demand there.”
For now, Renegade will be targeting the PC market, but is in the process of being registered as a console publisher, and mobile games could even be a possibility at some point.
But Ohle says that despite the relative ease of multi-platform publishing and the growth of open platforms, the important thing is that developers and publishers know they can actually support success – not just a release – on their target platform.
“The platform question is still an important one for developers to ask of publishers,” he explained.
“It's not as easy as saying, 'Okay, we can publish on this platform now,' as just being on a platform doesn't mean you can succeed on it. For a developer to take on multi-platform self-publishing, they need to have strong QA support, they need to understand the business side, they have to be aware of promotional opportunities with platform-holders and much more.”
“For a developer that also has to finish a game... well... that's a big job. So I definitely think having a publisher to help navigate that landscape is important... or at least beneficial.”
This is certainly a lot for a team of two to navigate, but as the industry becomes more diverse, so has its publishing arm.
While AAA publishers may still command the global headlines, there are a growing number of small publishers that specialize in projects that don't need the same capital investment or massive advertising campaign associated with core gaming.
Ohle reckons Renegade fits into the category of companies that don't force developers into a set regimen, offering instead a product driven by the individual needs of a project.
“It's tough to say what defines a publisher today, and we see a lot of publishers that fulfill different roles: you still have traditional AAA publishers, as well as those that have in-house and third-party titles (like Paradox), and also the indie-focused teams like Midnight City and Devolver,” he explained.
“I think that, as before, it comes down to helping games rise above the noise while maintaining a high level of quality.”
This means helping out where most indies find their weaknesses: managing business concerns, QA support, coordinated marketing, and PR.
“It's easy for developers to make a game. It's not quite so easy to make sure that game is really good, bug-free, well positioned in the market, explained and promoted effectively to media and players,” said Ohle.
“I think most developers just want to make games, while a portion of them do enjoy the business and marketing sides. It's just a lot of work for small teams to handle it all themselves, and I think that's where publishers come in. Any great developer/team can have a go of it themselves, and many are succeeding; all the power to them. We're here to help those who want to just focus on development.”