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Yogscast Games: "You can tell a lot about the people you're working with through their contracts"

New publishing boss Simon Byron on the state of indie publishing, and finding the next Human: Fall Flat

Simon Bryon has managed something that some games publishers only dream of. He found a hit.

And what a hit it was. Byron met with developer Tomas Sakalauskas at a games investment event five years ago, and signed up his debut game: Human: Fall Flat. Initially a modest success, the game would grow exponentially over the years and now boasts over 30 million sales.

It was the title that put publisher Curve on the map, and the company is now attracting huge investment and acquiring studios.

Now, Byron has said goodbye to Curve to lead Yogcast Games, the publishing arm of the games media organisation best known for its YouTube creators.

"Anybody who worked on Human: Fall Flat will acknowledge that there are a load of things that happened by chance and by accident"

"It really does feel like joining Curve six years ago," Byron tells us. "It feels like that sort of opportunity. Yogscast currently publishes four games. They've got another game signed for next year at the moment, so it's in its infancy. But that opportunity to join something that's already established, and... it would be ambitious for me to say to repeat Curve's trajectory, but hopefully to grow it and to do brilliant things."

And find the next Human: Fall Flat?

"That sort of thing happens once in a lifetime, really, doesn't it? Anybody who worked on Human: Fall Flat will acknowledge that there are a load of things that happened by chance and by accident, and actually nobody ever predicted its incredible success at the start.

"What you need to do is find something you like, people that you like, with things that you believe can have that chance. Human: Fall Flat was doing well anyway, but it was 18 months after it launched that it went crazy. But always at the beginning was a game that we loved, working with Tomas was brilliant, and so it always stood the chance.

"I would never establish a publishing division whereby you had to have the success of something like Human: Fall Flat, because that's just crazy. You build something slowly, and then hope that you can achieve that sort of breakout."

Simon Byron has swapped Curve for Yogscast

In theory, Yogscast seems like the perfect company to launch an indie publishing business. Popular YouTubers and Twitch streamers have the power to turn small indie games into massive sellers. Getting a game showcased by a big content creator is the holy grail for indie publishers, and so to have a variety of them working for the same business sounds like a recipe for success.

Yet the reality can be quite different. The biggest creators didn't get to where they are promoting games that they don't believe in. Just because a game is published by Yogscast, doesn't mean that it's going to get covered by Yogscast.

"Everybody knows that if you pay for coverage, it's not as effective, it's not as engaging as coverage that is organic. You can tell when streamers are really into stuff," Byron agrees.

"Right at the start, it'll be finding games that our creators will enjoy streaming regardless, and bringing them in earlier in the publishing cycle, and just getting them invested. It's certainly not going to be a case where Yogs creators are going to be forced to cover stuff. We're going to need to find games that they're going to naturally want to do it anyway. But having that under your wing is a compelling pitch.

"That doesn't mean that we're only going go and sign meme games. Actually, within the Yogscast network, there's a whole range of channels that've got different games that they like, and it's just making sure that we're finding games that we know will excite our creators."

Byron says that the company is looking to publish three games next year, and he feels the secret to a 'streamer-friendly' game is one where watching it and playing it can be almost classed as separate experiences.

"In terms of publishers and the amount of content out there, there is more than enough to go around"

"I've always felt that games and streamers work best when.... you watch someone play a game, but then have a different experience yourself. That can be because it's customisable, it's sandbox, or it's a strategy game. It becomes a challenge if you watch someone play a game that's effectively a linear experience or has linear puzzles. If you watch someone play that, then you've got no need to do it yourself.

"If you look at titles that I signed that did well at Curve: Autonauts, For the King, Bomber Crew, they're all games that have got systems that are joys to watch."

Every month, sometimes every week, it can feel like there's a new indie publisher being announced. "And there's more to come," Byron says with a smile. It's a hyper competitive field, and surely there isn't room for everyone?

"It's never been easier to write a game. It's never been easier for somebody to release a game. And so, actually, in terms of publishers and the amount of content out there, there is more than enough to go around," Byron argues.

"Those publishers that you see doing well have track records within genres. They're publishers like Annapurna, Fellow Traveller, Raw Fury, No More Robots, Devolver. They all carry a weight and actually working with them brings value, and that's not the same for every publisher.

"What we see with markets like Steam is that it's so dynamic, it's so algorithmic, that things can catch light and really take off, and those opportunities are there for everybody. So, how do you stand out in that crowd? Well, you work with people that have done it before, that know what they're doing, that know things like time to launch a game, pricing, discounting, stores, all of that stuff. So while there are an enormous number of indie publishers, actually it can be really beneficial working with people that have got the wounds."

He continues: "What I'm seeing at the moment, certainly from indie publishers, is this desire to share. This didn't happen very frequently before, and it's really encouraging to see because everybody recognises that you're not all fighting over the same game.

"Publishers that have obvious strengths, games will find their natural homes with them, and so I don't see myself competing with everybody else, because there'll be games that are more of a fit for Yogscast than others. It's a busy market, and you have to work hard to stand out. It's a crowded market, but there's certainly more than enough content to go around."

Human: Fall Flat has sold 30 million copies worldwide

Byron's says the key to identifying a good indie publisher is not about the hits its achieved, but rather how they react when things don't necessarily go to plan.

"The real test of a publisher is when things don't go quite so well or start off slower. It's making sure that they're going to stick with you. That, for me, has always been key. Yes, it's about the game, and it's about the audience, but it's about the people as well. You're going to be working together for a long time, and you need to make sure that you like the people that you are working with, because it is challenging.

"Even if you don't get the sales that you hoped for within that first day, or week, there's still a lot of stuff that you can do behind the scenes that can give it that chance of really becoming a success."

We spoke to Byron for almost an hour around upcoming developments in indie games publishing, but the biggest thing for him right now is the support that Microsoft is throwing behind the indie scene, particularly in relation to Game Pass.

"Publishing is such an uncertain business. How do you forecast? The truth is no one knows how many copies a game's going to sell. What you can look at is what it needs to sell to cover its costs, and if you've got investors, what does it need to sell to keep them happy. But ultimately, as long as it's not closing businesses, then generally, forecasts should be pretty fluid.

"Now you've got someone like Microsoft that comes in, and if they're excited by your game and they feel that they're a good fit for Game Pass, some of the agreements that they're reaching at the moment just remove all uncertainty for the developer. It gives you the confidence to move forward to launch, knowing that it's going to be okay. That just changes things behind the scenes."

"Some of the agreements that Microsoft is reaching just remove all uncertainty for the developer"

He continues: "I've seen first-hand how working with Microsoft and Game Pass can really enhance sales on other formats. Now, obviously, being on Game Pass will impact your Xbox sales, but again, it's realising that at the start and knowing that any agreement that you do reach, you need to balance off what you think that's going to do to digital sales. But, going in with eyes open, I can see only good things coming from how they're currently working."

Convenience is also going to continue to be a major factor for gamers, Byron predicts. "I finished [third-person adventure game] Last Stop, and I was playing it on this PC, streaming. I was playing it on Xbox when I was able to. And then, when I was on holiday, I was playing it on my mobile phone. And that ability just to continue a game seamlessly... I wouldn't have finished Last Stop otherwise.

"And similarly, Steam Deck's going to be offering that convenience as well. Maybe one day I'll finish Days Gone. Similar to what the Switch offers, this idea that you can bring games with you. That's enormously exciting."

Byron spoke earlier in our conversation about publishers sharing things amongst themselves, but it's not just the publishers sharing information. There's been a recent trend of developers sharing their publishing contract offers on social media. Last month, one indie dev shared a contract where, if the developer was to miss a milestone or breach the contract in some way, it could result in them losing all revenue rights and having to pay huge sums to the publisher. It is one of many moments where publisher contracts were put under the spotlight.

"All this openness and sharing is hopefully making everybody be better," Byron concludes.

"I, like most other people, read with horror some of the clauses that were in that contract, and spent a lot of time trying to guess who it was. But whoever it was, if that story is entirely true, should be ashamed, and should hopefully revise how they do business.

"There have never been more games out there, and publishers need to work harder in order to find devs to work with. And this sharing of this information can only make everybody improve.

"There are areas in which publishers do need to protect themselves, but that protection does need to be balanced, which it doesn't feel like it was in this situation. But what I try and do is have those conversations up front.

"Contracts are great when you're talking about how brilliant it's going to be. Contracts aren't fun when you're talking about what's going to go wrong. It's like putting an engagement ring on somebody's finger, and going, 'By the way, what are we going to do when we split up?' And that's what a publishing agreement needs to do.

"I would always feel quite comfortable with the bad clauses in contracts that I've negotiated, because I've felt there is a way of talking through them. And morally, I didn't feel that there were any clauses in the contracts that I've done that have been particularly horrific.

"Hopefully what will come out of sharing that particular contract will be whoever it is changing some of their terms, because they were dreadful. And I have to say, joining Yogscast, our contracts are like eight pages. Really straightforward.

"You can tell a lot about the people that you're going to be working with through their contracts, and I'm very happy to stand by ours."

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Christopher Dring avatar
Christopher Dring: Chris is a 17-year media veteran specialising in the business of video games. And, erm, Doctor Who
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