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The truth about revenue sharing | Opinion

Revenue sharing has allowed great games to be made, says Unlock Audio's Elliot Callighan, but it's also used as a crutch by inexperienced teams

Elliot Callighan is a composer and sound designer, and the owner of Unlock Audio. He also teaches as adjunct faculty in the film and game programs at DePaul University in Chicago.

I recently grabbed breakfast with a past student of mine. He entered the 'real world' this past June and so far it seems like he's killing it. He's done a few mixes for short films, handled production sound for commercial work, is assisting a composer with a score, and was recently asked by an indie developer to help with audio for their game.

However, this indie developer asked if he'd do the audio completely on revenue share.

We talk about the business, promotion and legal aspects of things in the advanced classes I teach at DePaul University, so he was wary of revenue share -- but, he really liked the project and the developer. Our breakfast was about catching up, but it was also about getting some advice on this situation, which I was happy to give.

"Revenue share has become a compensation crutch for less experienced teams and a potential huge red flag for service providers"

Revenue sharing has made collaboration possible for many teams and allowed wonderful things to be made. Unfortunately, it has also become a compensation crutch for less experienced teams and a potential huge red flag for service providers. If someone is asking to compensate you with a share of revenue, you first need to make sure they know what they're doing -- applicable in every professional situation, but especially this one.

Ask them (or yourself, if you're offering a rev share) some of these questions:

  • What is the timeline for the project? Is it reasonable?
  • How many and what types of assets are needed? Does the estimate seem well thought out?
  • Is this their first project?
  • What is the marketing plan for the game?
  • How many units do they project they will sell and why?
Elliot Callighan

All these questions will help you determine whether they have done their homework before getting you involved, but the last two questions are probably the most important.

What is their marketing plan for the game?

Even if they haven't totally thought it out in entirety, they have to generally know how they intend to promote the end product. So much promotion today happens during production and involves many different pieces. If they're two months from launch and just starting to think about marketing, I can almost guarantee it won't perform well.

How many units do they expect to sell and why?

If they haven't done any research into this, then you can reasonably deduce they're intentionally asking you to work for free. The revenue share is just an attempt to frame the matter in a different way. Personally, I would prefer they just ask for free work than to try and color it differently. If they have no clear idea whether the game will be successful (or why), then they have no idea how you will ultimately be compensated.

Revenue share sounds awful -- should I avoid it like the plague?

Not so fast. There are many well-meaning teams that have done their homework, know what they're doing, and will have great answers to these questions. The only problem is they don't have money right now. But even for those rare diamonds in the rough, you need to then ask:

  • What is the money you do have going towards?
  • Who else is receiving a share of revenue?
  • How much of a share are the others receiving?

Are they focused on an entire successful campaign for this game? Or only development? If you're the only one being asked to work for rev share, how much do they really value you? And how much of the revenue generated by the game are they giving away? If they genuinely thought the game was going to sell, would they give away that much?

Every situation is different, and sometimes a rev share can blossom into a lot of money. But as good practice, if someone is offering rev share, you need to make sure you're involved with good people, with good heads on their shoulders, who are genuinely trying to compensate you and value your contributions.

And if you're offering rev share to someone, make sure you're asking these same questions to yourself.

Unlock Audio is giving five development teams a free Discover Phase for their game! During this process, Unlock will help teams identify all the ways their audio can be engaging, interesting, and just plain cool -- every team that submits their email address using the Unlock Audio pricing tool at from Dec 9 to 13 will be automatically entered into the contest.