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How indie publishers stand out - and why they need your game to help them

Speaking at Reboot Develop, Devolver Digital, Paradox Interactive and Raw Fury reflect on their role in a game's success and offer advice on pitching to them

Indie publishers, boutique publishers, indie labels - whatever they like to call themselves, there's an abundance of companies looking to help developers bring their games to market.

In such a crowded environment, you would be forgiven for thinking each publisher invests heavily in promoting their own brand. But during a panel at Reboot Develop, moderated by GamesIndustry.biz's own Matthew Handrahan, it turns out this isn't the case.

On the panel were Paradox Interactive's outgoing CEO Fredrik Wester, Raw Fury's chief scout Callum Underwood, and Harry Miller, co-founder and CEO of Devolver Digital - arguably the firm that laid the template for the various indie publishers out there.

Harry Miller, Devolver Digital

We asked Miller how much of Devolver's brand and identity was laid out when the firm was first founded.

"Nothing," he says. "When we started Devolver, our main thought process was that no one cares about publishers. What the player wants is games, access to good games. We'd also just had a company called Gamecock Media, which burned a fiery death, so we were coming out of that and wanted to be as quiet as possible.

"What led to our success as a brand was working with good studios, great games and time took care of itself. While we thought there was no need for a publisher brand, we somehow stumbled into it."

While Devolver's bread and butter remains the catalogue of Croatian developer Croteam, Miller acknowledges that Hotline Miami was a pivotal release for them, one that "forced us into a brand, told us who we were."

"We always need a seven-year relationship because the first game you ship together is going to be the worst one. The second one is going to be better, and the third one is hopefully going to be really awesome"

Fredrik Wester, Paradox

"I still think we kept on the path of really pushing the developer ahead of us," he continuesd. "Later on, we started to become a stronger brand and maybe there is some loyalty to a brand, but again that really was accidental and we don't try to push that too hard. Although we do have fun, and the philosophy of the business is to remember that we are in games and should be fun, so we try to treat it that way."

Another distinct part of Devolver's offering is its E3 presence. A far cry from the loud and flashy booths of the AAA publishers, this is a more relaxed affair, held in a nearby car park and complete with barbecue food. But Miller says this was built out of a conscious effort to define the Devolver brand.

"Originally, that was an economical thing," he says. "It was too expensive for us to be in the show and we couldn't really do what we wanted to do inside the show, so providing that atmosphere... it was enjoyable, we provided a great platform for the games because even though it was outside and there was a lot of noise, we have the trailers so it's quiet. That's just how we wanted to represent ourselves and the games we're working with."

The trio of indie publishers discussed the importance of their reputation with developers during a panel session at Reboot Develop 2018

Wester cites expenses as a key driver in Paradox's decisions as well, and praises Devolver for its E3 showing.

"I think that's inspiring to see other people think different as well. You don't necessarily need to spend a lot of money to be visible in the market. I think Devolver are experts at that, so we take a lot of inspiration from them."

"Think about the publisher and the whole package that they bring, because we bring a lot more than just money - I would argue that's the least important thing we bring"

Callum Underwood, Raw Fury

Last year, Devolver upped its game with a digital press conference, beautifully satirising the showcases of larger firms throughout the week. Again, Miller insists this was not about promoting Devolver as a brand, but more "about the cheekiness."

"We get pretty serious in this business and that was making fun of that," he says. "It worked out - we weren't sure it would.

"I don't think it's a brand conscious thing, it's more that we had a platform we thought would work to make fun of ourselves - not just us, but all of us. That was the inspiration for it, not so much a strategy of how to build Devolver."

Raw Fury's Underwood adds: "What was really smart about that digital E3 press conference was E3 is often - at least the big companies like Xbox and Nintendo - it's often solely focused on the consumers watching at home. What Devolver managed to do was not only get all the consumers excited, but also get all the developers and everyone in the industry turning heads and looking towards it.

"For me, at Raw Fury, we try to do the same thing, where the brand isn't just a brand for consumers, it's also that your brand for developers is just as important, and Devolver really nailed it with that."

Callum Underwood, Raw Fury

Underwood is a fairly recent recruit at Raw Fury, having joined from Oculus. He also stresses that there were no strict branding rules laid out to him when he joined - instead, Raw Fury's ethos stems from a shared attitude by the various members of its team, many of whom left larger companies in the hopes of building something smaller and more personable.

Far from an indie publisher's brand being the highest priority, Underwood believes the reputation with developers is the most important thing for such a company to work on.

"The whole reason I have a job is based on reputation and not shitting on the developers because they're what makes us successful," he says. "Having a brand that faces developers is as important if not more important than facing consumers because without developers you have nothing to sell.

"Honesty is the key. If it's a no, give them a no. You can't always give feedback if you're seeing so many games but you can be honest."

Underwood stresses that being a publisher means "more than just handing over a cheque and shipping a game". Instead, it's crucial to support developers in a multitude of ways - because if they don't, word spreads among the development community very quickly.

Wester observes that this reputation extends beyond the initial deal, and into a long-term relationship: "We always need a seven-year relationship with people because the first game you ship together is going to be the worst one. The second one is going to be better, and the third one is hopefully going to be really awesome. Therefore it's important that the developers and Paradox share the same values. We're super transparent with that, with how we work as a company and what we're trying to achieve.

"It wasn't too long ago that I didn't trust anyone that was older than me on the business side, because it was so awful in the '90s and early 2000. Developers were treated really poorly"

Harry Miller, Devolver Digital

Miller adds: "Transparency is key to our business. And it seems so commonplace now whereas in the old days it was a luxury. It wasn't too long ago that I didn't trust anyone that was older than me on the business side, because it was so awful in the '90s and early 2000s. Developers were treated really poorly, but they didn't talk to each other. Luckily that's changed over the years."

And yet developers have been known to base their choice of indie publisher purely on the persona or brand that they perceive. Miller reveals that several studios have later told him they avoided pitching to Devolver because they didn't think their game was something the firm would be interested in - something he deems a "common misconception."

All three publishers on stage have portfolios that are more varied than some studios might realise. While Paradox specialises in grand strategy, it has also publishers RPGs. Devolver might be known for its pixel games but has also dabbled in VR, and Raw Fury's upcoming catalogue ranges from a point-and-click adventure to a non-combat 3D exploration game.

"Most indie publishers are just looking for cool shit," says Underwood. "And maybe that comes from the same place, the same type, but we don't specifically go out there looking for genres. The only game I've ever said no to was a tennis simulator because we didn't know what we could do with it. But everything else is fair game."

Underwood goes on to urge developers to build the game they want, not the one they believe publishers want to sign.

"This is the weird fucked-up thing about publishing: we want to believe game developers are artists with an unshakeable vision and they're going to let us join on this amazing journey of shipping this amazing thing that will hopefully make a lot of money," he says. "But many game developers have to feed their family, so they want to build something a publisher is going to sign. I think there's a sweet spot in the middle where they know it's going to be commercially successful and they let you join them on your journey, and that's what we're looking for. It's a very thin slice of the market - there are very few developers out there who don't give a fuck and just want to make their game, and will allow us to help them."

Fredrik Wester, Paradox Interactive

Wester says that, in general, publishers receive three types of pitches: those that need money to finish the game, those that are aiming to capitalise on a popular trend, or those that are trying to fill a gap in the market. But it's not the pitch that defines whether these are a good fit for a publisher.

"What we look for is the passion of the team," he says. "If the passion of the team can match one of those three, it's brilliant but if it can't, don't make the game."

Underwood adds: "I don't put much into the pitch idea, I don't really like to read decks or have a developer tell me their half an hour vision of what they're going to do. I like to play the game, know how much it costs and meet the developer. You can understand a lot from just those three things."

When asked for advice on how to pitch to indie publishers, Miller says developers need to think very carefully about their needs.

"Know what it is you're looking for," he says. "Where are your strengths? Where are you weaknesses? It's not just about do you need money or not - what can that publisher do to help you?"

Underwood adds: "Decide if you need a publisher, rather than a loan or some financing. Think about the publisher and the whole package that they bring, because we bring a lot more than just money - I would argue that's the least important thing we bring, especially at the lower end of funding things.

"There are other ways to get funding. A publisher is about all the other things a publisher does. Having a publisher is about working with someone that has your back, that holds your hand through the process and tries to support you where possible."

Answering questions from the audience after the main session, all three said the pitch itself is no longer the deciding factor in a potential publishing deal. Underwood stressed that being able to play the game really helped Raw Fury get a feel for the potential, while Miller added that the rise of off-the-shelf engines makes it inexcusable not to have a playable prototype.