Five tips to building developer-publisher relations
Playstack's Harvey Elliott shares advice about what studios should look out for in a publisher, and how to make sure that relationship works out
The number of developers choosing to self-publish is on the rise, sparking questions around whether publishers are needed at all. Are they just middlemen that can be cut out of the equation altogether?
In my view, the need for a publisher has never been more critical. In tough times, short-term decisions can be made in the hope of cutting the fat, but those decisions can end up exposing weaknesses over the long-term. It is far wiser to find a safe haven in tough times, and surround yourself with people who have had the experience of weathering storms, and who know how to build strategies to help you prosper.
But how do you navigate towards a great publishing partner? When searching for the right partner, first look at what each of you bring to the table. Publishers publish games all the time, creating a stream of work as they move from project to project. They should therefore have valuable knowledge from their experience bringing different titles to market across different trends and, often, multiple genres. This gives them vital know-how and experience.
When a developer needs to go to market, they can of course do it themselves, but it is very likely they will experience the sort of pitfalls a publisher will have experienced many times before and know how to avoid.
Tip 1: Choose a publisher that's right for you
Game development is a long-term endeavour – a marathon – so it's imperative to partner with a publisher who you enjoy working with for the long haul. If you don't feel a connection with the publisher on a personal level, there is no point in pursuing a professional relationship with them.
A long-lasting professional relationship in which both parties fully understand one another is created from these foundations, predicated on mutual trust, respect and understanding.
If you don't feel a connection with the publisher on a personal level, there is no point in pursuing a professional relationship with them
Publishers often have different specialties and pedigrees that are known within the industry. These factors are far more significant than just the output of games from the publisher. You should be asking: does this publisher have a stellar reputation for working with developers? Can I be sure that they will be focusing on my project?
Just because a publisher has worked with developers who have created similar games to yours in style, genre or mechanics doesn't mean they are fit for the game being pitched. Each game is unique, and you need to get a strong sense of whether the publisher is right for you.
It's wise not to work with the first person you have initial conversations with. If your game is striking and built with love and quality, it will gain interest among publishers. If it doesn't, then make sure you think about why. Take the time to consider the options in front of you, and try to ensure you have set aside plenty of time to consider them properly.
The importance of the vision
You should ask yourself two questions: does this publisher understand my vision for this game? And equally as important: does this publisher respect my vision for this game? There are countless cases of publishers signing games that they know full well before signing that it's not the exact project they're looking for.
This can lead to difficulties down the road, as the publisher will begin to press for certain changes to be made in the game to best suit their goals, rather than that of the developer. This can be common, as sometimes the developer themself may not have a crystal clear end goal for their game, making it doubly important to choose a publisher who will support your vision rather than shoehorning in their own.
By having a clear vision for a game, the developer will begin to form a clearer understanding of the audience it wants to target, and the publisher can devise the strategies on how to reach it.
Choose a publisher that has expertise in what you want to achieve
Do your research, be open-minded and have a comprehensive view of the landscape before making any concrete decisions. As a developer, you will have a full understanding of your project and understand where (in a global context) you think the game will succeed. This is something you should keep in mind when looking for a publishing partner – if you think your game will be a success in Asia, team up with a publisher that understands the Asian market, or ask to exclude these rights if your publisher cannot help you reach that market.
What game engine have you built your game on? Can you foresee a time when it may help you to talk to people with expertise in it? For example, if you have built your game on Unreal, it may be helpful to choose a publisher that has demonstrable experience in that engine, ideally from their in-house team. Publishers and their staff should be there to lean on if you hit bumps in the road, lending you extra support when you need it to help you achieve the best possible result for your game.
Deciding on a publisher is a huge decision, so give yourself time and space to weigh up the options, understand everything you can about the prospective partners so that you find a publisher that suits you, your personality and your game the most.
Tip 2: Be wary of the cookie-cutter approach
It's not just developers that need to do their research before a contract can be drawn up. The onus is also on the publisher. It is common practice for publishers to conduct due diligence prior to initiating contractual discussions with a developer.
When we talk about cookie-cutter publishers, this means a range of factors such as the revenue share rates being fixed and the commitment they are willing to offer your game being fixed. It's a regimented system with a clear road map of deliverables (reveal trailer, marketing beats, social media and so on) that is never deviated from. Often, developers will take this approach out of ease and simplicity.
Of course, this plan can work for certain scenarios depending on what the developer is looking for (if the audience has already been clearly identified and their vision for the release build-up is clear), but alternatives exist for a reason and a more curated and careful publisher can often outsell the cookie-cutter published games.
In addition to this, the games industry moves quickly. Choosing a more personal and curated publisher means being able to work closely on how to pivot and be better suited to react to market trends and changes.
Tip 3: Understand the importance of a good contract
While the perfect scenario is to have a contract that sets out the key deal terms, signed and never looked at again – the reality is that this is crucial in documenting all of the expectations each party has of the other, and could lead to further discussions down the road.
A good contract consists of all of the commitments each party is making, sets out how changes to the design, schedule or marketing plans would be handled, and gives a foundation of trust that both parties can build from.
Common contractual bumps in the road
The biggest bump in the road is when the publisher doesn't include certain things within the contract that they may assume is a given. Critical to many games is the Alpha build milestone – considered by many as a crucial step in validating a game is on track for release to market. But the very term ‘Alpha' is defined differently in different parts of the industry. If it isn't clearly defined, how do we all know whether a milestone is actually met?
The biggest bump in the road is when the publisher doesn't include certain things within the contract that they may assume is a given
This is just one example of making sure that these words and phrases are clearly defined in the contract to avoid any misunderstandings further down the line.
A successful publisher has a vision and the foresight to adapt to any changes that occur during the development and publishing processes. Publishers must be aware that a lot of things can change and make allowances for that.
One of the biggest mistakes we encounter in a contract as a publisher is when a milestone is due to be delivered, and again, the specifications are not laid out. A game road map and specification use the touchstones of Milestone 1, Milestone 2, Milestone 3, Alpha, Beta, and ship. Understand what they mean and how you are going to work together to reach them.
Tip 4: Listen to the publisher in the early stages
There are a multitude of factors to consider to make your game successful and often publishers will have the keys to unlocking the potential. It's vital that the developer listens to the publisher on how best to bring the game to market, especially in the early and pre-launch phases.
Publishers not only bring resources to the table, but they also bring expertise. A reliable publisher will provide counsel and devise a strategy on how to market your game, what the pain points are and how effectively to showcase certain features.
The importance of pre-launch
Both parties share the same goal – the success of the game. A good publisher will take the reins on a lot of the pre-launch activities to ensure a game's success, such as community building, but this should be in partnership with the studio, not in isolation.
Community building can lead to an organic growth of anticipation before a game is even released. This also provides a solid foundation to build on for a longer lifespan, due to strong word-of-mouth in the post-launch period.
In the modern landscape of game development, with thousands of games to choose from across the major platforms, failure to implement strong pre-release strategies could result in your game not getting noticed by players.
Tip 5: Make sure you have contingency plans in place
In the long process of game development, things can go wrong and pitfalls can occur. Whether this is in the contract or discussed with the publisher beforehand, it's vital to know what is going to happen if anything is unaccounted for in the early stages.
Extra funding may be required if development for a project runs over – set out with your publisher beforehand if this is something that is an option. Games are delayed frequently, so the most competent game publisher worth its salt will have options to support you if issues arise (contractually or otherwise) throughout the development process.
It's vital to know what is going to happen if anything is unaccounted for in the early stages
A pitfall we often encounter when working with smaller, independent developers is that their sole focus is on one platform. Games achieve greater audience recognition and financial success when multiplatform. A publisher can work closely with a developer to support the porting of a game, often partnering with external studios to make this a reality – something that is more challenging to achieve when the studio works on its lonesome.
Sometimes a game will take longer than expected due to issues such as a key member of the development team leaving. Publishers should be well-connected within the industry, and be able to lend a hand in factors such as the hiring of new talent at a studio. The most important thing is having a publisher who is a true partner – who understands games development, is sympathetic, and wants to help work with you on a solution
Harvey Elliott, is CEO and founder of UK games publisher Playstack, which recently released The Entropy Centre and the BAFTA-nominated The Case of the Golden Idol. Elliott has worked in games for over 25 years, including senior positions within EA, Acclaim Entertainment and Marmalade.