The Digital Jungle

Easy Tiger founder Joel Benton explains in more detail why the digital space can allow new publishing structures to thrive

While there's no question that more and more companies are looking to the digital platforms as a viable route to market for their products - independent developers in particular - the transition from traditional publishing deal to self-publishing hasn't yet settled down.

Joel Benton, who launched digital publishing company Easy Tiger today, has his thoughts on how a model aimed at empowering developers should work - and he explains that to here.

Q: So what is Easy Tiger is all about?

Joel Benton: Easy Tiger is a new style of publisher, reversing the traditional publishing model to allow the new breed of developers that want to connect directly with consumers to get all the support they need to be able to do that - in other words get on platforms and market their wares effectively.

It's a bit like a record label for recording artists - this is doing all the ancillary stuff around making games, other than actually making them. We take completed games and put them on platforms, do everything else.

Q: The digital platforms have been around for a little while, so why is it that it's coming together now?

Joel Benton: I think the economic climate is causing publishers who traditionally have the money to speculate on new IP to double down on their bets and concentrate on their existing franchises and licenses. Any speculation on new IP is going to be within wholly-owned or internal studios because they can control cost that way, and hopefully get more for their money - but it leaves independent developers in a difficult position.

Where developers are maybe used to feeding off publishers and treating publishers as their customers, making their money from advances and really disregarding royalties as a revenue stream, now they're able to connect with consumers - a lot of developers have enough money to make their own XBLA and PSN games, and they're struggling less with the finance, but more with the marketing and getting it on platform.

Q: "Reversing the traditional publishing model" is sure to grab some attention, but can you just explain that idea in a little more depth?

Joel Benton: Well, the way in which developers currently go to market... without XBLA, PSN and direct-to-market models, the only options for console developers were boxed retail games. The business model was to go and pitch content, or on a work-for-hire basis, get an advance to make the games, and then a royalty on the back end.

So they get all their money up front, and developers realised quite correctly that in order to see that royalty the publisher is going to have to recoup the advance and all the marketing. People within the publishing organisation - who the developer have no relationship with in terms of sales and marketing - are going to have to do exceptionally well for them to see the royalties.

Quite sensibly the developers realise they can't put their company's profits in the hands of people they have no relationship with, or don't know whether or not they do a good job, and they make all their margin on the advance.

So the publisher takes all the risk, and the developer doesn't ultimately care - apart from professional pride, and there is plenty of that - whether the game sells or not. From the developer's point of view they've made all their money on the front end, not the back end.

What I'm trying to do for anybody moving to a model where they're deferring their profits to the back end - because they're doing direct-to-consumer and taking market risk - is to use my skills, knowledge and experience to help them do that, and be successful.

Q: So what's your business model - what do you get out of it?

Joel Benton: In the old model the developer takes a big chunk up front and a small percentage royalty on the back end - if they ever see it. Now they're taking no money up front, they're coming up with the money to make the games, and I'm supporting in any way possible. I finance and execute the marketing through the PlayReplay agency and I take a small percentage to put them on platforms and do all the publishing stuff which isn't their core experience or knowledge.

Publishers play a vital role in the value chain - it's just that traditional publishers aren't set up to do digital download games because the absolute returns aren't large enough yet, and they don't really get the online marketing. They're very much used to traditional retail markets, while online there are all sorts of other challenges, which is something that PlayReplay is very good at indeed.

Q: PlayReplay was launched recently - it will work together with Easy Tiger?

Joel Benton: Yes - PlayReplay just provides a service to Easy Tiger, but they provide a service to lots of other people as well.

Q: Intellectual property is normally the first thing off the table in the traditional publishing model - what's your stance on that?

Joel Benton: Nobody knows more than I do about the struggles in getting deals signed - I've spent my career doing advance/royalty deals and business development at not only Kuju but companies all over the world, and it's very difficult to argue that you want to keep the IP when the publisher is putting millions of pounds into not only making, but marketing that game. They want to keep the IP.

But once you've given away your baby - your magnum opus of an idea - there's not a great deal of motivation on the part of developers to make it exceptionally good, other than professional pride. Now, developers do have a lot of that, and want to make as good a game as possible, but it behoves them to make the best game possible if they end up owning that IP - they can build value in that IP, which builds value in their own organisation.

Q: A number of independent developers we've spoken to are pretty concerned about the lack of commissioning for the 2011 slate, and while there will be some developers out there who can finance their own games, there will be a lot in transition that might not be able to - is it that hard to get money to create a digital title? We're not talking about USD 10 million, but if banks aren't lending even smaller amounts, what can people do to bridge that gap?

Joel Benton: That's an excellent question. It's amazing what you can do when your heart is fully in it, it isn't a massive margin and when you're motivated by the ultimate sales to the consumer - you can make a little bit of money go a long way.

I know a guy who sold his house to make a game, and I'm not suggesting everybody rush out and do that - but it's a level of commitment that I can't stand by and not support. They put their hearts and souls into making a game and they want a publisher that'll get behind them and support them - but be invisible to the consumer and not eclipse their efforts.

The days of the monolithic brands promoting themselves are gone I think - consumers want to engage with the creatives, and it doesn't take a massive amount of money to develop these titles.

What I think we'll see is with these publishers laying off staff who have families and don't to move, they'll have some redundancy money, pool it and make themselves a game. They know what they're doing, they're professionals, great at making games - they just need somebody to work with who'll support them.

Q: The rewards are there, so it's time for developers to take the risk... is that the way the industry is changing?

Joel Benton: Developers are the creatives in the industry, and the big publishers can't argue that their most important relationships aren't with those creatives, they're with the buyers at Best Buy, WalMart, GameStop and Game. That seems a bit backward, a bit strange, that they don't value the people that make games the most highly in their organisation. That can't be anything but a broken model.

Q: There was a time when it seemed as if new development studios were being set up with the intention of being acquired a few years down the road - but, Playfish aside, we've not really seen much activity this year. Are those days gone for the time being, do you think?

Joel Benton: Well, Playfish has a very interesting business model - they've done something very smart and very well. As a work-for-hire or independent developer, it's very difficult. You see companies like Chrome laying off staff, what happened to GRiN and various other studios having a very hard time of it.

They've got a lot of bums of seats they've got to pay, and that means going to publishers and getting advances. Their customers aren't people who play games - their customers are publishers, who give them their money. And once the deal is signed the developer is motivated to spend as little as possible to get their game finished, because that eats into their profits.

That's fine when there's lots of money around and publishers are spending money on work-for-hire or new content, but the economy is shrinking, so that's just not going to happen.

Now, with this digital revolution if you like, it's facilitating what the consumer wants - which is engaging in a relationship with the creatives.

Joel Benton is the founder of Easy Tiger. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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