Boutique publishers are the future of the indie games market
Devolver, Double Fine, Raw Fury and Buried Signal's Jason Roberts on how publisher identity can help indie games to rise above the noise
In an increasingly crowded marketplace where dozens of games are released every day, most of them from developers players haven't heard of, a breed of 'boutique' indie publishers has emerged. They offer developers the same assistance with funding, localisation, QA and marketing that publishers always have, but they also have a clearly defined brand of their own. The association of a boutique publisher with a game isn't just a mark of credibility or even quality: it suggests something more about the aesthetic values at the core of those games.
When Annapurna Interactive launched in 2016, the company explained that it would focus on developing games that were "personal, emotional and original." The games it has signed and published since span across genres, and among others include first-person narrative in What Remains of Edith Finch, brain-bending pencil-drawn puzzler Gorogoa and, coming later in 2018, a game called Donut County in which you play as a hole.
"In an endless wilderness of game choices, players are looking for any thread they can follow that might lead them to what they want to play"Jason Roberts
None of these games look or play alike, and yet they share plenty in common. They fulfill the announced remit of being personal, emotional and original, and already an 'Annapurna game' has come to mean something.
"Even though Annapurna has only released a few games, I already see people online connecting the dots between Edith Finch, Gorogoa, and [mobile narrative game] Florence," says Jason Roberts, Gorogoa's designer. "They remark on the fact that all these games come from the same publisher, and they're beginning to triangulate the publisher's voice or style.
"A very crowded marketplace and other factors mean that fewer games succeed now than they did four years ago. In such an endless wilderness of game choices, I think players are looking for any thread they can follow that might lead them to what they want to play."
Roberts thinks Annapurna will eventually become a more visible presence in the marketing for the games they publish, putting "from the publisher of..." at the beginning of trailers. "Movie marketing does this all the time, and it works on me," he says.
When contacted for this feature, Annapurna executive Nathan Gary said that they "prefer to let the developers and the products speak for us." This was a common comment from the publishers I spoke to, though some have solved the problem in different ways.
"One of the things you always see in press releases is a quote from the developer who, often times, they're like, 'What the hell am I going to say?'" says Nigel Lowrie, co-founder of publisher Devolver Digital. "So the other one was, is there a quote from the publisher? Here's a quote from Devolver Digital about how great this fucking game is. The thought was, none of us wanted to take credit. Let's just make up somebody."
For a boutique publisher, marketing doesn't just sell the games - its style and tone is part of communicating the publisher's own values. This is how Fork Parker was born, a fictional publishing company executive who comments on Devolver's releases and sounds off regularly on Twitter. "More like Chrono Triggered am I right nerds?" the account tweeted in response to Chrono Trigger's troubled PC port. "It's as if millions of dollars suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced," was the account's response to EA removing microtransactions from Star Wars Battlefront II after a fan backlash.
"You see a lot of industry luminaries, if you will - older white men - telling you how it is," says Lowrie. "And it was a response to that: have some fun being able to poke at ourselves and at the industry a little bit, from that old white man point of view."
"You see a lot of industry luminaries, if you will - older white men - telling you how it is. And it was a response to that"Nigel Lowrie, Devolver Digital
Devolver was one of the first games publishers to capitalise on the rise of indie games and set the template for the boutique publishers that followed. Despite publishing dozens, the company hasn't deviated much from the style of indie game it started with in 2011. From Serious Sam: The Random Encounter and Hotline Miami through to Strafe and Ruiner in 2017, everything Devolver publishes is irreverent, a little bit punk, usually violent and often funny. Fork Parker has come to personify the company's style.
As important as the games a boutique publisher signs is the games they don't. It's not enough to just publish games that you think are good or will sell; any deviation has the potential to dilute the brand.
"There's definitely things - I guess genres or gameplay styles - that we look at and we'll tell the developer, 'Man, this is a great idea. There's something that you are on to here that's really interesting but we're not the team to make this happen," says Lowrie.
When asked what Devolver looks for in the games they sign, Lowrie says they've been trying to put the same thing into words internally. He says it's obtuse, but the best answer he can give is that they're looking for games "that we share with each other, and it's that moment of, wow, I haven't seen that before."
The key might lie in a more specific detail: although Devolver published 16 games last year, the company still only employs twelve full-time or part-time people. "Most people think we're much larger but this is how it works we think," says Lowrie. He says that growing any larger would cause them to "lose that intimate relationship" with developers, but the relatively small team size might also be what allows the personal tastes of the people who work at Devolver to be cohesive and come through in the games they select. Any larger, and it wouldn't be so easy to share games with one another and become collectively excited by them.
Raw Fury is an even smaller publisher, founded in 2015 and the publisher of three games in 2017. "We definitely have some core values that we all share," says Callum Underwood, whose main role for the company is to scout for new games. "We care about people, we care about games; we aren't in this to make free-to-play games that suck money away from uninformed young gamers. We've turned down a couple games before because the theme or subject matter jars with what we as people ethically think."
Underwood believes the company is too new to have a "Raw Fury style," but like Devolver he says that they "only want to work on games that we love, and developers that we connect with. Often we pass on games that are likely to be a financial success. 'Can we sell this game?' absolutely factors into our decision, but it does not outweigh other factors."
"When looking at games that get pitched, a lot of it is gut feeling," he adds. "I imagine over time a pattern will emerge in the types of games we publish, and we'll be able to talk more about what a 'Raw Fury game' is."
"We've turned down a couple games before because the theme or subject matter jars with what we as people ethically think"Callum Underwood, Raw Fury
For now, Raw Fury has been defined mainly by its public proclamations. In April 2015, the company published a blog post in which it described itself as an "UnPublisher", in reference to the desire to "dismantle how publishing traditionally works." As an example of that, Underwood tells me that Raw Fury "don't do milestones" when it comes to how it funds developers. "We figure out the burn rate of the developer, and we pay this each month, almost like a salary."
This was the case when Raw Fury published its second game, the adventure title Kathy Rain, in 2015. The game launched to lacklustre sales, which threatened the existence of its one-person developer's business. To stem the tide until the game could start earning, Raw Fury promised on May 2016 to pay the developer a no-strings attached salary for 12 months so that they could continue creating. The move paid off and, in a later blog post, Raw Fury announced that Kathy Rain started generating income for its developer in November 2016.
Raw Fury is early in its journey as a publisher, and clearly walks in the footsteps of Devolver. ("They're walking in good footsteps, hopefully," said Devolver's Lowrie, when I put this to him.) And the goodwill associated with the company's brand has already helped to protect one of its games.
At Microsoft's E3 conference in 2017, a trailer for one of Raw Fury's coming games, The Last Night, was shown. The beautiful pixel art and cyberpunk cityscapes caught people's attention immediately - so much so that it was all of 15 minutes before some old tweets by the game's lead designer, Tim Soret, resurfaced. In those tweets from 2014, Soret expressed support for the abusive and harassing Gamergate movement and said that he was "against feminism."
Soret apologised later the same day, but Raw Fury released its own statement in which it affirmed its belief in equality and feminism. It also lent on its reputation, saying in a statement from June 12th that it "[hopes] that everyone reading this who knows us at Raw Fury on a personal and professional level knows that we wouldn't tolerate working with someone who portrays the caricature of Tim going around the internet right now." Whether or not you can forgive Soret or believe that he's genuinely changed his views, Raw Fury vouching for him with its good reputation successfully cushioned the developer against at least some of the criticism.
Where Raw Fury is just a few years old, Double Fine has been developing games since 2000. The company defined its brand through games like Psychonauts, Broken Age and Stacking, and when it branched into publishing indie games in 2014 it aimed to find games that fit the existing Double Fine brand.
"That tends to mean things that are artistically driven by a creative vision," says Greg Rice, Double Fine's VP of business development, who notes that this doesn't mean the games share much in terms of their appearance. "I think a lot of other publishers are tending to look at specific art styles or genres or things like that, but luckily the Double Fine suite of games has been pretty much every genre and dozens of different art styles, so it lets us have a different playground to explore."
"Everything is changing so rapidly that you don't know what works for one game is really going to work for the next one"Nigel Lowrie, Devolver Digital
Still, there is a clear overlap in style between each of Double Fine's published games. From Mountain, which is about a thinking mountain, to the farming and creature collection of Ooblets, everything Double Fine publishes is colourful, silly, rarely violent and always playful.
Rather than personify the company via a fictional character as Devolver has, Double Fine is perhaps best represented by Day of the Devs. The one-day games exhibition was started by Double Fine when it needed to show Broken Age to backers of the adventure game's Kickstarter. It hired a space big enough to hold everyone, and then decided it may as well ask some of its friends to come along and demo their own games, too.
Day Of The Devs has now been running for five years, and the last event in November 2017 featured 70 games and was attended by 7000 people. It's completely free to the public and to developers thanks to funding by sponsors, and even offers free childcare to families who come along to see the games.
"It all ties together with what we're doing on Double Fine Presents, and what's being done in the studio," says Rice. "I think it's trying to show people how many interesting things are happening in games and what they can be and how there's just so much happening in this space right now." It's the perfect event for a company that makes games that are colourful, silly and always playful.
Publishers having a strong identifiable brand of their own helps ameliorate against all the other things that can go wrong on the journey of releasing a new game. If no one has heard of the developer, they've probably heard of the publisher. If lots of games are released on the same day, a recognisable publisher can lift you above the competition on name alone. A strong publishing brand can even - at least to some extent - cover for a game that's otherwise poor or poorly marketed.
Just as the marketplace has become crowded with indie games, it's also become crowded by indie games publishers. Visit these publishers' websites and you'll often read that they're 'not the same as other publishers' because they won't take creators' IP rights, and how they'll help with marketing using their 1000-name mailing list. These things aren't enough. It doesn't even matter if you're a big publisher with decades of experience.
Devolver Digital, Raw Fury, Double Fine, Annapurna Interactive, and a handful of other indie publishers such as Chucklefish and Adult Swim, have established a new benchmark. If players can't work out what your brand is about based on the games you publish and the way you market them, then you're failing to best serve the developers partnering with you. The ultimate advantage of these boutique publishers is that they're unusually protected from the shifting winds of the always-changing game industry.
"Even with everything going right, in the end everything is changing so rapidly that you don't know what works for one game is really going to work for the next one," says Devolver's Nigel Lowrie. "So it's about falling back on experience and being able to put [a game] in the best possible situation for success. That's all we can promise anybody."