Publishing indies in the era of self-publishing
Versus Evil head explains where small developers want help, even if they don't necessarily need it
Small developers have never had less need for publishers. With the proliferation of platforms and barriers to entry falling on every front, it's never been more feasible for a small team to raise funding, create a game, build awareness, and release a hit without going through middlemen. That said, the explosion of independent developers in recent years has created a market for middlemen who can help with parts of that equation.
Versus Evil is one such operation, a new independent publisher put together by former Trion Worlds and Bethesda Softworks employees. Speaking with GamesIndustry International, the company's general manager Steve Escalante explained the growing need for independent publishers, even in a world where traditional gatekeepers like console makers are aggressively courting the independent community.
"To get recognized and seen on those platforms is hard," Escalante said. "You have to do some solid marketing, whether it's community or PR or actually paid media. It's expensive to have a success. Sure, there are anomalies. But when you look at what everybody else is trying to do in terms of building a business, not everyone is a runaway success. So how do you rise above that? How do you build a business not assuming that you're going to sell millions and millions of copies?
"Marketing and promoting a game, working with a PR team, finding the right ads, doing a whole bunch of different community things is a lot of work and a lot of time. And it takes you away from developing the game."
"Marketing and promoting a game, working with a PR team, finding the right ads, doing a whole bunch of different community things is a lot of work and a lot of time," Escalante continued. "And it takes you away from developing the game. So most of these guys just want to create the game, and they're happy to have someone else handle that."
Escalante has met with dozens of companies and has found that attitude to be consistent across the board. While many of the developers he speaks with need funding (which Versus Evil can provide), the largest demand so far has been on the marketing and promotion side of things.
"There are a lot of guys that have the wherewithal to develop and deliver their game themselves," Escalante said. "A lot of them are pretty up front and say, 'We did this and we launched it, but we didn't do that well. We are not that good at marketing and promoting our products, and we need help.'"
Even when the developers are good at raising awareness for their work, Escalante said they can appreciate an added boost. One of Versus Evil's first clients was Stoic Games, creators of The Banner Saga. They orchestrated a very successful Kickstarter campaign for the game, but when they started exhibiting the game at shows, they found many people still weren't aware of The Banner Saga.
"They'd done a great job, but there were more [gamers] out there," Escalante said. "As soon as we started doing things and getting into the PR, strategy and stuff, the coverage was much greater. And they weren't sure they would have gotten that without us. It was like, 'We didn't know that many press sites existed.'"
While the indie boom has given Versus Evil a massive pool of potential clients, it has raised some questions about whether the market for these creators is big enough to support the flood of new entrants.
"There's been a tremendous amount of content, and people have a lot of choice because of the indie movement, but I don't think it's necessarily a bubble," Escalante said. "It's really creating some good, old-fashioned competition where people can create some games, launch niche products digitally, and be successful as opposed to having to be forced to go to retail. It's maturing, and we're going to figure out what types of titles will be successful or not. And just like anything else, it's just a new wave. I can't imagine independent developers not creating new content anymore and driving this industry like they did when this industry was founded."
As for the firm's rather blunt name, Escalante said it positions the company in direct contrast to the way things in the industry used to be done.
"Without creating healthy independent game companies, then we're going to constantly be in the same rut that I think this industry was in years ago, which is seeing the same stuff over and over again."
"To me, the traditional publisher model doesn't support the independent game community, and people have to kind of sell themselves in order to get their baby launched," Escalante said. "Call it the evil corporate monster, call it whatever you want. But it's us hopefully helping to make independent game developers successful without having to sell their IP, without having to sell the company, or taking a horrible royalty rate and getting themselves into a predicament where they're essentially doing everything against the reason why they're independent in the first place."
That's not much different from the pitch other indie publishers give, but Escalante said what sets his team apart is its approach to working from the development team's point of view. He's mindful of "horror stories" from developers who tried working with indie publishers in the past, where they weren't kept in the loop, or where trailers for their games were released without their knowledge or approval.
"Everything is organic," Escalante said. "There's not some agenda. We're very budget-conscious so if the developers are concerned we're overspending, or that we will overspend, we make sure we really walk them through plans. They can ask any questions they want and we can all review everything that goes out the door. It is very much a partnership versus 'this is what we're doing.' It's just a transparent relationship."
At the same time, Versus Evil is looking to take a hands-off approach to development. They'll offer help, but won't dictate it, Escalante said. It's an approach rooted in the company's name and in the belief that enabling independent developers is ultimately good for everyone in the industry.
"Without creating healthy independent game companies, then we're going to constantly be in the same rut that I think this industry was in years ago, which is seeing the same stuff over and over again. What the independent game studios have done is they've really injected the creative soul back into this industry, and the best way we can support them is to make sure they're financially stable so they're able to make the decisions they want to make, and not force them to make bad decisions."