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Reverb: Solving The Publisher Problem

CEO Doug Kennedy on a new kind of publisher-developer relationship

The role of the publisher in the modern game business grows more precarious by the day. Companies that used to dominate the industry have begun to falter, a select few leap from success to success, yet the development community is diligently exploring ways of cutting publishers out of the picture altogether: Larian Studios has built its own channels into physical retail and brought marketing in-house; Double Fine is raising millions from its fans to fund an idea that few publishers would believe had market potential.

It's hard to know what all of this talk and possibly isolated incidents will mean in 10 years time, but developers' frustration at the aversion to risk and the influence of marketing and finance teams is impossible to ignore. According to Doug Kennedy, CEO of Reverb Publishing, the current model is "broken", and it's up to publishers to find ways to stay relevant to developers.

In this interview, Kennedy discusses Reverb's musical legacy, the unique challenges of digital publishing, putting developers in the spotlight, and bringing the million-selling Dungeon Defenders to market. Reverb has a long history in the games industry, but you're now expanding into digital publishing. Why make the switch? How will Reverb be different?
Doug Kennedy

We started as an agency about 10 years ago, and we were best known for working with two big IPs. I came out of the music business, and when I started the agency the first game that I wanted to take to client and work on, we came up with a little game called Guitar Hero.

We handled the worldwide sales, marketing and public relations for Guitar Hero 1 and 2 until the company was bought by Activision in 2007. After that, we stayed on board. We have a great love of partnering with developers, so we partnered up with Harmonix and signed a contract with MTV, and that's when we managed the Rock Band franchise. We worked on the three Rock Band games, Beatles, Green Day, AC/DC, Dance Central, and all the derivatives from the franchise.

In 2009, we started to see a lot of growth in the digital space, and we heard a lot of companies say that they were going to be digital publishers. We took a look at the digital space, and saw how the publishing community as a whole was really kind of stepping on the developers, and really not giving them their time in the sun. Up to that point, most digital publishers were marketing and PR publishers wo said, "You develop the game, and we'll support you by doing press releases and making sure your game gets attention.

The deals we cut with developers put the power in their hands. There isn't a single deal I've cut with a developer where I go after IP ownership

We took a different approach; upon deciding that we were going to move into the digital publishing space, we went to all the major platform-holders and secured our publishing licenses, secondly we went out and perused the industry and hired some of the best producers around, and then lastly we found some of the top-tier agency folks that really understood gaming. We're not talking about people that write press releases; we're talking about people that log 20 or 30 hours a week playing games.

That frees up the developers to focus 100 per cent of their efforts on building the best game. We manage everything from first-party relationships to making sure the press and media campaigns are in order. The digital space is occupied by a lot of independent developers, and they don't show much love for publishers and the publisher/developer relationship.
Doug Kennedy

It doesn't. It is a massively broken model, and what's broken is a couple of things: number one, you've got publishers that ultimately try and check developers, put them in the closet and say, "Look, we're the publisher, we're the most important people in the industry, you just hand your code through the door, and stop talking to press, and stop getting passionate about it." We take the opposite approach. These are the people with the vision to build these games, they should be mind-share leaders to go out into the marketplace and talk about them.

Secondly, the mind-set that these big, established publishers have when they take on a digital project to market, they think in terms of taking a retail product to market; that is, massive ramp in advance of a product launching, going towards a launch-date or a street-date, and once that street-date hits they redirect the team working on the project to work on something else. For us, when our game hits PSN or XBLA, we're only done 30 to 40 per cent of the work on the title. Most of work comes from DLC, new releases, community programmes, community blogs, and things that are going to drive attention for our games. Digital distribution has caused a huge rise in self-publishing in the indie sector. Loss of revenue aside, I think a big concern is handing a creative work, and often the IP rights, to a company that might not respect or understand it.
Doug Kennedy

That's the beauty of our model. The deals we cut with developers put the power in their hands. There isn't a single deal I've cut with a developer where I go after IP ownership. I want my developers to be building an IP library. And every deal I negotiate I pay the developer the lion's share of the money; our split pays the developers at least two thirds of the money on any deal that we do.

The reason being that if I have a developer that does not have any IP portfolio that he's built up, and doesn't have enough money coming into their company to pay a talented staff, he's worrying about managing his business; he's not worrying about building games. And I've got to have them worrying about building the best games in the marketplace. I recently talked to Swen Vincke at Larian, who is self-publishing his next game as a physical retail and digital release. He said that actually getting a physical product on to shelves wasn't that hard, but the positioning, marketing and messaging required more work. Is the value of that sort of expertise undervalued by indies who can easily self-distribute?
Doug Kennedy

Look, I think one of the real shames of this industry - and I've got my team doing this, and I hope that other companies look at this - taking a look backwards across the last five to seven years, there have been some terrific titles launched by independent developers that, because they didn't understand the public relations space, the marketing space, how to position the title properly to the consumer, great games ultimately never became successful.

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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