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Making an indie label in the era of self-publishing

Co-founders of Majesco's Midnight City stress the significance of indie developers and what they have to offer them

In the games industry of the past, independent developers had to struggle to get the attention of publishers. These days, publishers are starting to put their resources into getting the attention of independent developers. Majesco Entertainment is one such company, having launched its own Midnight City publishing label for independent developers last year. Midnight City VP of publishing Casey Lynch and VP of business development Doug Kennedy recently spoke with GamesIndustry International about how they sold the idea to Majesco and how they're selling the label to developers before they can sell their games to the public.

Starting with Majesco, Kennedy said that seeds of Midnight City were planted years ago, back when he and Lynch were working with external PR firm and upstart publisher Reverb Communications. Majesco was a client at the time, and one that had noticed what was going on with some of Reverb's indie clients.

"As they started to watch the success we were having with indie titles--Dungeon Defenders, Sanctum, and things like that--we started having some deeper conversations," Kennedy said. "We got into a conversation about what it would take to offer up the right type of support, the right type of funding, and the right type of vehicle so independent developers didn't feel managed by the traditional publisher but felt supported by the traditional publisher."

Kennedy said those conversations soon grew serious, and they laid out a roadmap that involved bringing on Lynch, who had since left Reverb to be editor-in-chief at IGN. Lynch said that while Majesco had a history of working with indie developers on titles like Psychonauts, Advent Rising, and Monaco, the thing it lacked was a full-fledged strategy for dealing with the indie community.

"The truth is indie developers don't necessarily need publishers."

Casey Lynch

"One thing about Majesco is they've done a really good job of building infrastructure and taking product to market and understanding the space. Where Casey and I step in is helping them figure out what works in the independent space. So I don't think it took a lot of convincing. It just took a lot of proper planning to make sure that when we rolled this out it was done in the most effective manner for the developers, but also in a manner that made sense for Majesco."

With the publisher on board, the challenge became identifying and securing the indie developers. But as small developers have more options than ever before, labels like Midnight City have to prove their worth if they want to attract the best talent.

"The truth is indie developers don't necessarily need publishers," Lynch acknowledged. "What it really comes down to is how good they are at managing the development of their game while simultaneously telling the story of their game, getting out in front of the media, working with first-party, and what type of access they have to resources like QA and test. And some developers are really good at those things. But for every one to 10 of those, there are hundreds of independent teams that are out there that either don't know anything about that, don't have those types of relationships, whether it be with the media or other partners that would benefit them."

Kennedy likens a successful game launch to a bunch of archers surrounding a guy with an apple on his head. To avoid any unintended unpleasantness, every one of those archers has to hit the mark at the exact same time.

"Marketing has to hit. PR has to hit. You've got to have your distribution. You've got to have a great game. And if anybody misfires, they're going to shoot somebody on the other side and it's going to be a failed exercise," Kennedy said.

Standing out from the indie crowd is tough, but games like Krautscape could give Midnight City an advantage on that front.

That's where Midnight City comes in, he explained. The company manages all of the extraneous elements (at "a reasonable royalty rate," of course), leaving the developers to focus on the work of building a great game. While Midnight City has already launched three titles--Slender: The Arrival, Blood of the Werewolf, and The Bridge--Kennedy said prospective clients looking to see what he and Lynch can do with a game should look to their work at Reverb, to their efforts working with Trendy Entertainment on Dungeon Defenders and Harmonix on the Guitar Hero and Rock Band series.

But again, developers have options. Even if they decide to find an indie publishing label, Midnight City is by no means the only game in town.

"A lot of these companies that step up and want to be support vehicles for independent developers have two initiatives: they want to sign games and they just want to make money," Kennedy said. "While those are important elements, we're looking at this in the long-term facet of how we support the independent game model so that community can grow. So it's not just about trying to churn and funnel stuff through our portfolio. It's about finding the right titles, getting lined up with the right type of developers, and having long-term relationships with them that help them grow as studios."

Those "long-term relationships" Kennedy referred to aren't built on contractual obligations. Beyond developers retaining control of their intellectual property, Midnight City also doesn't insist on any sort of right of refusal on future games should one of their efforts become a breakout hit.

"If we're doing a good job, [developers] will want to stay," Kennedy explained. "If we're doing a bad job, why have them handcuffed to us and make them present their next games or have to work with us because we have the rights to their next round of titles? So it really puts the onus on us to perform based on our relationship with the developers."

"If I was making a decision on console and was a hardcore gamer, I would look at who is going to have the most independent games on that console, because that's really the differentiating factor for me."

Doug Kennedy

As for what Midnight City looks for in a game, it's not that different from what the end consumer will be looking for. They want something that stands out from the crowd, whether it be through indie-focused game shows, Twitter, TIGSource, or even failed game Kickstarters.

"We're interested in finding games that have something to say or something to offer that is unique," Lynch said. "They affect us and after we play them, we want to sit and talk about them."

Kennedy added, "If everybody on the street is standing there with vanilla ice cream, how do you get your vanilla ice cream to stand out? You find vanilla ice cream that's not vanilla ice cream, that's a little more prominent than all the other vanilla things in the marketplace."

While the small developers Midnight City is targeting have traditionally favored the lower barriers to entry on the PC, console makers have begun to go out of their way to make their own walled gardens seem more attractive, Kennedy said. He gave particular credit to Sony for its indie push since last year's E3 show, suggesting such efforts could sway the current console war one way or the other.

"If you take a look at all the consoles across the marketplace, every one of those consoles is going to wind up with Assassin's Creed and Call of Duty and all the big franchises," Kennedy said. "If you're an Xbox person, what's the real difference between playing Xbox Call of Duty and PlayStation Call of Duty? I don't know if there's a huge difference, maybe a little bit graphically. But if I was making a decision on console and was a hardcore gamer, I would look at who is going to have the most independent games on that console, because that's really the differentiating factor for me. And Sony's done a great job of that. I think they've done an excellent job of extending an olive branch to the independent games community and making it as easy as possible to get their games on there."

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Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined GamesIndustry.biz in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot in the US.