Despite the broadening of the games industry, and the shift away from platform holders and AAA publishers being the only gatekeepers bringing content to market, there are still horror stories of developers suffering from a poor publishing deal.
Now four ex-Techland employees have reunited with a plan to create a more ethical publisher in the form of their new venture, Untold Tales.
Based in Warsaw, the company emerges from stealth today announcing its first two games signed, with a third in the works. It declares its goal is to "cut the crap" out of games publishing.
Untold Tales is backed by investment from another Polish indie publisher, QubicGames, although it operates independently.
"For indies, a 50-page agreement is a horror. Our deals won't have all the small print and hidden messages between the lines"
Grzegorz Drabik, Untold Tales
CEO Maciej Laczny tells GamesIndustry.biz his team wants to deliver publishing deals that are "open, full of trust and with a common understanding," adding: "We want to bring the old good habits back into the publisher-developer relationship."
Communications lead Paul Milewski elaborates: "We've seen or been a part of publishing deals that are very, very questionable. But there are examples out there of publishers who do this extremely well, so there are other ways of doing this.
"There are a lot of publishers out there, but the more you speak to developers, the more you get the sense that these [publishers] just want to sign something to put on their quarterly report, and it never feels like the game is being treated as something special or worth the publisher's time."
Head of business development Grzegorz Drabik emphasises that Untold Tales will not ask for rights to developers' IP, push them to release a game that's not ready, nor demand a revenue share "where you end up screwed." Even the publishing agreements themselves will be designed to be easier for indie developers to understand and handle.
"One thing we want to be very transparent about from the get-go is our publishing agreements will be a lot shorter than usual," he says. "We know that typical publishing agreements can have 30 to 50 pages. For the indie studio that has five to ten people -- and almost all of them are artists or programmers -- a 50-page agreement is a horror. Our deals won't have all the small print and hidden messages between the lines. We're upfront with developers."
Having worked at Techland's publishing division, Drabik also knows there's a greater appreciation among developers for companies that offer feedback on a pitch, rather than just an outright rejection.
"Saying no is not enough for a developer," he says. "I'm really a fan of open communications with developers and that's something I'll continue with my work for our new label."
"There are good habits outside of gaming and we can bring that level of communication and respect into games"
Maciej Laczny, Untold Tales
Finally, he adds that the aim is to be just as transparent with players, promising "no ludicrous three-tier pre-order campaigns with paid DLC waiting in the wings a month later."
Untold Tales is currently staffed by a team of around ten, and like the co-founders, all have worked at Techland at some point in their careers.
Laczny, Drabik and Milewski, along with head of marketing Pawel Skaba, all worked at Techland together with terms ranging from two to four years. They specialised in non-development disciplines, such as PR, marketing and business development, which gave them insight into how publishing works in the AAA world.
Each of the four left at various points, moving onto both games and non-games companies, and it's this combined added experience Laczny believes will help Untold Tales stand out as a publisher.
"We can bring certain ethics, rules of behaviour and a business backbone to the discussion," he says. "There are good habits outside of gaming and we can bring that level of communication and respect into games. So we have other experience from beyond games that can benefit our relationships."
Like so many new indie publishers, Untold Tales will focus on a specific area of games: story-driven single-player games. Skaba says this instantly decreases the number of games it can look at, but this sector lies at the core of the new company's business.
"The more you speak to developers, the more you get the sense that [some publishers] just want to sign something to put on their quarterly report"
Paul Milewski, Untold Tales
"We've got a feeling we're good at it," he says. "All of us have experience in working with both AAA games, with huge budgets, and indies, where marketing budgets can be like €10,000 -- which is too little to promote the game worldwide. This kind of experience enables us to be very flexible when publishing games on specific platforms."
A casual glance at the most successful games on the market suggests that multiplayer would be a more lucrative, if crowded, business for Untold Tales to focus on. But the team points to Horizon Zero Dawn's debut on PC -- which SuperData reports sold 716,000 copies in its first month -- as proof there is plenty of demand for single-player experiences.
Of course, when it comes to the indie space, "story-driven" can often mean something with a significantly smaller scope -- titles like What Remains of Edith Finch or Everybody's Gone To The Rapture. Milewski clarifies that, while Untold Tales isn't about to publish the indie answer to Horizon Zero Dawn, it is still looking for games that will excite and engage players.
"When we say narrative, we don't mean that's all it has," he clarifies. "We just mean it needs a chunky central storyline and that's the main pillar."
Drabik adds: "We're not looking for text adventures, and we're definitely not just looking for walking simulators. We're more looking for titles that also tell stories through their environments or through the players' actions -- things like Limbo, Journey, Little Nightmares or Rime. Those are the perfect examples of what we're looking for."
Untold Tales' first two signings are perhaps the best example of what the new publisher is looking for. First, there's slow-motion top-down shooter The Hong Kong Massacre from Swedish studio Vreski, which Untold Tales is bringing to Switch.
Alongside that is Beautiful Desolation, an isometric adventure set in an African-inspired post-apocalyptic world developed by South African team The Brotherhood, heading to Switch and PS4. An unannounced title for PC and consoles is also in the works.
Various members of the team reiterate that, as with these initial releases, Untold Tales is not planning to launch games across all platforms. Instead, it wants to work with developers to identify the best device for them to debut on, before considering porting to other platforms further down the line.
Finally, Laczny says Untold Tales will only be concentrating on one or two titles at a time in order to ensure they can deliver the support developers need to stand out in an increasingly crowded industry.
"We're looking at about four to six games per year in our line-up, so that makes sure we go for quality not quantity," he concludes. "If a publisher releases way more than that, there's a lack of focus. We want to have a close relationship with the developer and a lot of focus on their game."