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Going Solo

Larian Studios' Swen Vincke on the decision to self-publish the studios' future products, and why that's not as hard as it sounds

Last week, two stories emerged that cast the traditional relationship between developers and publishers in a negative light. In the first, Red 5 Studios' Mark Kern alleged that major publishers had backed SOPA/PIPA in an effort to reassert control over the tools of distribution, the very tools with which developers like Mojang and Riot Games have built their success.

The second was the story of Quarrel, a hit iOS game from Scottish studio Denki that took two years to find a publisher willing to back a digital console release. The acquisition teams at every major publisher loved the game, but the finance and marketing teams saw no promise and so the product languished, even as the company itself struggled.

The Belgian developer Larian Studios has had enough. After years of navigating the complexities of the developer-publisher relationship - with a great deal of success - its next game, Dragon Commander, will be published, distributed and marketed by an in-house team. In this interview, founder Swen Vincke explains how independent developers can, and should, take control of their own physical retail releases, and what that means for the future of the industry.

Larian Studios started in 1997 as a developer, but for your next release, Dragon Commander, is the start of a new era for the company. Why did you decide to start self-publishing now?
Swen Vinke

Because we can, is the obvious answer.

So it's more a matter of opportunity than of desperation?
Swen Vinke

Yes. It's something we've been working on for quite some time. As you know, we make large scale RPGs with many hours of gameplay, and they're quite development intensive and also financially intensive to create. Ever since 2002, when we released the first Divinity, we're been trying to get more control over our games, and moving in the direction that we're committing too now.

In 2002 we didn't give out all publishing rights. We had a few territories where we kept control ourselves, and we learned there that it's not that hard to get games into retail. Actually, when we were doing Divinity 2 that was a co-publishing deal, so that was only 50 per cent the publisher and the other 50 per cent was us. Now, we're making the move from 50 per cent to 100 per cent.

I see digital like fuel for setting up a developer so they can go straight towards the consumer, which is what you want to have

Do you expect most of your sales to come from physical retail?
Swen Vinke

All I can go on at this point is the performance of our previous titles, so Divinity 2 and Dragon Knight Saga. There, retail was dominant; we did a lot in digital, but retail was still the dominant factor. I expect them to be more or less balanced with each other [when Dragon Commander is released] this year. For sure, in the future I think digital is going to be more important, but if you're an independent developer nowadays and you're ignoring retail, you're ignoring a large part of the market.

In the independent sector, the concept of self-publishing is now basically synonymous with digital distribution. I doubt many indies would contemplate handling the distribution of a physical product with publisher support.
Swen Vinke

If you think about it, because of digital, you get an evolution like in the Seventies and Eighties in the music industry, when it was all about the publishers being dominant. Now, it's all about the artist being dominant. And you're seeing the same thing [in the games industry].

The cool thing is you have a lot of small developers that have managed to get into the spotlight through digital distribution, so like Terraria, for instance, is just two guys and they're doing really well. But they don't have experience from retail in the background, so they think, 'Okay, digital gave me this opportunity so that's the only thing there is.' But with a little bit of effort you can actually manage to get your products into retail, and then you see that you have a much wider scope. It's important that independent developers really focus on getting their products into retail.

The obvious example of artist empowerment in the music industry is Radiohead, which released its last two albums independently and with innovative price structures. However, they can do that because they're Radiohead, and have a loyal fan-base of millions all over the world. Don't you need the sort of experience Larian has built up to make something like this work?
Swen Vinke

It's funny that you should mention this. We were having a discussion with an independent developer we know who signed away all of his rights to a mid-sized publisher for the retail versions [of his game]. I can't mention who it is because I would be breaching his NDAs, but he sold quite well digitally, and he said, 'Well, I was doing quite well so I gave away the retail rights. I didn't want to bother about it. I'm making so much money with the digital.' And I was going, 'Jesus [laughs]. These properties are pretty hot, and if you just focus a little bit more effort on the retail and you could make so much more revenue. Then you don't need any more publishers at all.'

Ultimately, that's what I see digital to be. It's like fuel for setting up a developer so they can go straight towards the consumer, which is what you want to have. Publishers, other than financing roles, were for the most part gatekeepers towards retail, and there are ways of breaking through that. Even Valve, they're still selling in retail, so that shows it's still a very important market.

So do you think the difficulty of taking control of physical distribution is overstated? That's one of the two key areas that developers still believe publishers are necessary for - the other being marketing.
Swen Vinke

There are two aspects to the question. You rightfully hit the note of marketing there. Obviously, developers need to learn publishing. If you're just going to put a box in the store it's not going to sell, and it won't sell that well with digital either if you don't do anything around it. That means you need to position your product, to communicate with your audience, tell them what you product is and why it's cool, why they want to buy it and where they can buy it.

In terms of getting the product in stores, the easiest route is to go to the territorial distributors. The publisher employee distributors, and there's a list, which is not very hard to get. You just go and talk to them, and usually they are very happy to talk to the developer directly. If you have something that they think is going to sell, they'll happily put it in their stores. Okay, it takes work, but it's not impossible.

We have an entire publishing team now. We hired marketing guys, we hired business development guys, so you have to do it properly, but you can do that because you have the fuel of more direct revenue through digital distribution.

Matthew Handrahan avatar
Matthew Handrahan: Matthew Handrahan joined GamesIndustry in 2011, bringing long-form feature-writing experience to the team as well as a deep understanding of the video game development business. He previously spent more than five years at award-winning magazine gamesTM.
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