Versus Evil's "developer first" approach to indie publishing
Managing director Steve Escalante on avoiding "the old dynamic" in publishing - "the publisher is going to take everything and the developer is going to starve"
The number of games released on Steam in 2016 was up by 40% on the year prior, totalling more than 4,200. Last year, over 6,000 titles appeared on the platform by November. In this climate, it's increasingly difficult to hear the signal through the noise and for the best games to make an impact.
Crowdfunding has empowered indie developers to bring their ideas to life, and while it's true that Kickstarter is not the force of nature it once was in the industry, it still played a vital role in that empowerment, and remains an important resource for countless developers.
Of course, whether its Fig, Patreon, Kickstarter or Indiegogo, a successful crowdfunding campaign is not necessarily the golden ticket many developers hope it will be. Developing a game is one thing, but publishing it is something else entirely.
Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz, industry veteran and managing director of indie publisher Versus Evil, Steve Escalante, discussed his "developer first" approach to bringing games to market.
"You can't just put it up on [Steam] and suddenly be a rockstar. It just doesn't work that way"
Versus Evil came crashing onto the scene with the launch of the award-winning Banner Saga series in 2014. Since then, the publisher has been responsible for a handful of other titles including The Guild of Dungeoneering and Armikrog, and it recently took on the publishing role for Obsidian's Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire.
As former marketing director for Zenimax and with 15 years experience in the industry, Escalante knows that publishers aren't a silver bullet solution. He's also acutely aware that it's possible for an indie team, even the smallest one, to bring a game to market without a publisher's help. But the skills, resources and time a publisher offers can free up a developer to work on their game and make it the product they want it be, without compromise.
"What are the key components of working with an indie studio? Well, the first thing is that we need to like each other," says Escalante. "And people chuckle about that a little bit, but we're going to have some tough conversations. If those conversations are tough to begin with, and we can't get even get over some challenging moments, it can turn into some really ugly conversations, and it can become a really strange relationship."
The relationship between publisher and developer in the indie scene is paramount, Escalante stresses. The publisher's key role is arming developers with the information they need to make good decisions.
"We might have a smack-down, dragged out fight with them, but it's okay because we like each other and we can move on," he says.
"I can tell you it's not always gone the way I wanted it to go, but it's also been fine as well. We're not the all-knowing just because we're the publisher. Some of the most brilliant things that have been done in gaming have been outside the box or have challenged traditional thinking."
A huge part of the developer/publisher relationship, especially in the indie sphere, comes down to trust. Escalante argues that a big part of building trust is respecting the developer's relationship with the consumer, which, especially with crowdfunded titles such as Pillars of Eternity II, can be quite particular.
"It's a really important relationship between developers and consumers," says Escalante. "More specifically, if you just think about the indie space in general, a lot of the reason why publishers have had such control in the past is because they always control the consumer relationship, and it's been harder for developers to own that consumer relationship outside of an online game.
"With crowdfunding, you can start to have that conversation. We don't pretend to own that entirely. We're working together but I don't want to hurt their business by saying those relationships are mine now."
Even when handing that relationship over to the developer, and not meddling with the creative direction of a game, it can still be hard to build that trust - especially, says Escalante, with developers who have been "dragged over the hot coals" by publishers in the past.
"If we get too big and fat and suddenly I need to take higher royalty percentages, we're just getting back to the old dynamic"
"At some point you do have to take a leap of faith," he says. "You can kind of tell by conversations with people; how they're answering questions, the information they're giving you and, more importantly, the information they're not."
Part of the challenge with building this trust, Escalante suggests, is the enticing accessibility of platforms like Steam, "you can't just put it up on there and suddenly be a rockstar. It just doesn't work that way."
As a result, he noted how some developers decided to forgo a publisher only to later question their decision.
"We've lost games to teams that wanted to self-publish, but a good majority of them have come back and said they should have worked with us, and that's not because we're super smart or anything," he says.
"I think they get kind of overwhelmed when you're looking at it from the developer's side. It's quite easy to think 'we can do this' and a lot of them do with great success. But once you get into it you can get overwhelmed with all of the things you need to do in order to get a title done."
When it comes to indie publishing, the size and structure of the company is also vital. Versus Evil, Escalante says, is structured to live off thinner margins and founded on the principle that the majority of revenue goes to the developer.
"If we get too big and fat and suddenly I need to take higher royalty percentages, we're just getting back to the old dynamic which is that the publisher is going to take everything and the developer is going to starve," he says. "So we need to be very responsible with how we are structured as a company to ensure that these developers are getting good royalty rates."
But there is one thing that a good publisher can offer an indie developer which they can't get anywhere else, and that's time. Many indie developers have succeeded without publishers, and will continue to do so, but time is finite when making a game. Time is, Escalante says, the most valuable resource you can give a developer.
"Some people might say 'yes, but if you gave me a million dollars it might mean a little bit more to me,' and while I understand that, even after I gave them a million dollars to fund their game, it would still boil down to the time that they gain back by being 100% able to focus on the game. Knowing and trusting that we were handling everything else is just comforting."