Press "Enter" to skip to content

Month: April 2015

Quick Thoughts: On Publishers

Publishing is an odd part of the industry. It’s also the most tricky business interaction a lot of developers will have to deal with. The platforms themselves often have rather standard deals and tend to not deviate from those unless you specifically negotiate changes. Publishers, however, vary wildly in what they can & will do for you, how much they take and whether you should reach out to them.

Earlier today developer Matt Atkins posted the heartwrenching story of submitting an app to notorious publisher Ketchapp. Ketchapp is best known for the runaway hit 2048, which incidentally was an oddly indirect ripoff of Asher Vollmers’ hit game Threes. While Atkins’ game was rejected by the publisher, he later found a game with an extremely similar design published by Ketchapp on the App Store. Whether this means that Ketchapp intentionally cloned the game is a seperate issue, and while I object to many ideas in the article, it does lead to an interesting conversation. What is important is that I fear a lot of new developers are struggling with the same issues and feelings Atkins describes. Atkins was searching for a publisher that would churn out ‘crap’ like a ‘well-oiled’ machine to publish his game.

“A company with resources that could take my games about jumping and balls and cats to the top of the charts for all good people to play. Someone with no scruples or moral resolve. Someone like Ketchapp.”

In case you are dealing with questions on whether you should find a publisher, those are complex issues that I can’t answer in a blog post. What I can do is sort of explain how publishing works, and give you some things to consider when you’re considering working with a publisher for your next game.
If you’re working with a publisher, you’re doing more than ‘letting them do marketing’. You’d hire a PR agency if you wanted to pay money for those services. A publisher literally publishes your game, which usually means that they handle (in some capacity) promotion, publishing and paperwork. In almost all cases, they’ll fully handle finances. That means that you’re literally handing the keys and the financials to your project over to them, and trusting them to uphold their end of the bargain in exchange.

• Check for the experiences other developers. If you’re interested in working with a publisher, check on their website for developers that they’ve worked with. If you know a developer they’ve worked with, ask for their experiences. If you don’t, e-mail some of the developers they’ve worked with and ask if you can ask them about their experiences. Use the responses to figure out whether this publisher is good to work with. If you’ve got no idea who could publish your game, just ask other developers you know. This is not a strange thing to do – I get questions about Devolver Digital on an almost weekly basis after working on LUFTRAUSERS with them.
Check for controversy. The games industry is a small industry in so many ways, and a reputation is valuable. That also means that if somebody screws someone over, the news about that spreads like wildfire. Check the news for plausible controversy, and see how the publisher handled that. If you agree with their defense or stances, go for it. If not, walk away. Your name and brand is not worth being tied to a publisher whose stances you disagree with.
Ask them what they can do for you and make sure they can do what they promise. If they promise main capsule features on iOS, check whether any of the games they’ve published made it there. If they promise E3 stage presence during a Sony presentation, make sure they’ve achieved and fulfilled that promise before. If they promise a PS4 launch, check whether they’ve done a PS4 launch before. If they promise money, ask for an advance. Talk to them about what they can do and what their experience is in each field. A good publisher doesn’t need to evade or exaggerate.
Make sure feel their terms feel reasonable to you. As a general rule of thumb, 30% is a relatively common cut for the publisher, but depending of the risk, investment and efforts you are asking of them a cut can be as low as 15% or as high as 70%. Don’t forget that publisher cut comes after the platform cut, so at a 30% publisher fee you’re basically losing 50% of your revenue. If you’re asking a publisher for money, expect them to recoup that money with profits from the game’s profits before you start getting a serious part of revenue. The more a publisher is legally committing to, the higher the cut will be – if they ask for 70% for basically hitting the release button, in most cases you probably want to walk away.
• Do not commit to anything without taking some time to think. You are never required to make a decision right now, especially when it’s sprung on you. If a publisher doesn’t want to give you time to consider their contract, or their terms, walk away. If they were good terms, they wouldn’t be in a hurry. Always see what information you can find on deals for the platform you’re launching on.
• Get them to put skin in the game. Whether it’s a monetary advance or a clause in the contract for specific marketing efforts (don’t forget: a business deal isn’t a business deal until it’s in a contract!) – get the publisher to commit to something. The cut itself might sound like enough reason, but the reality is many of these publishers publish games as a way to invest or spread risk. If they don’t want to do that, it might be worth seeing if other publishers are more willing.
• There are a lot of publishers. Don’t be afraid of pitching to a couple of publishers. There are many, and comparing the terms you get from a number of them might be beneficial to your understanding of the worth of your game.

In the end, you’ll have to add all these together and make up your mind. The core thing you’re looking for is trust. You’ll have to build your studio upon a foundation of trust with your players, and you should consider yourself a consumer in this market. They have to make you trust them, not the other way around.

Personally, I’d never sign a deal with someone I’ve not personally met and don’t feel good about – many good publishers either have offices around the world or have agents flying around the world (even in many emergent territories!). You can probably get a face-to-face meeting with them at a relatively low expense. My first meeting with Sony was on the sidewalk in Utrecht, eating cheap Burger King with a representative that had come out to the Netherlands for an event.

Keep in mind that usually the job for people like that is to get you to sign on. An agent for a publisher being a seemingly nice person, or being excited about your game, means approximately nothing – it’s the follow up emails and the signature on the line at the bottom of the contract are the sign that they’re invested.

And don’t forget, exchange business cards at the start of your pitch. It’s a common way to duck out of a pitch by saying ‘that’s great, have my card and stay in touch’. It’ll force them to be a bit more honest if they want out, or to check out your game just that tiny bit longer.  They’re just doing their job, too, so just don’t waste their time. Have a build or slide deck and a good pitch ready.

Quick Thoughts are short articles written in a minimal amount of time as a response to current events in the industry. My apologies for typos and mistakes, and generally for being a bit less thought out and eloquent out than the rest of my writings.

Six stages of game dev community development

During the last few years, I’ve found myself focused on community development in emergent territories around the world. Territory is loosely defined here: it can be a city, a province, a state or an entire country. Game development communities tend to develop along very similar lines, and at some point I’ve started to mentally organize these community growth thresholds into a model. Note that this model is not scientific in any way, and is mostly used by me personally to figure out how I can help a certain territory when I visit. Many people I mention the model to asked me to write things down, and many developers in emerging territories found it interesting to talk about where they fall on the scale. As such, here’s my six stages of community development.

The model is separated into six major stages that communities go through. Certain communities can skip steps through governmental or cultural support, or in some cases even thanks to one or several well-intended individuals throughout the community. There are historical moments in which certain territories have fallen back one, or even multiple stages.

Stage 1

Stage 1 is one of the less common stages around the world. In this stage, developers do exist in a territory, but are spread thin and often unaware of each other’s existence. No events exist, or the events that exist are extremely local. The goals of a territory in this stage are very utilitarian: the dream is to make money. Developers are commonly amateur developers without access to knowledge that is prevalent throughout the industry, and the games they make will very often be limited both in execution and cultural value. As such, games very often (closely) resemble ideas already prevalent in established territories.

Stage 2

Stage 2 is the most common stage around the world. Developers in the territory have found each other, established communication hubs and organized internal events for the full territory. In most territories, thought leaders emerge from these meetups, creating informal community leaders. Exchange of knowledge rapidly becomes prevalent in the territory, and with that a voice emerges for a territory. Since knowledge shared is mostly based on assumptions made by unestablished developers, the growth of such a territory is usually limited. In this stage there commonly is a noticeable lack of understanding of basic concepts as ‘polish’, ‘game feel’ and ‘context’, because such concepts evolved as jargon in established territories.

Stage 3

In Stage 3 the focus moves to international knowledge exchange. Either the territories events or community leaders invite external thought leaders or experts, or developers from the territory visit events in established territories, creating informal ambassadors. Existing knowledge in the community is validated or invalidated through this collision with the established territories. To create more reach, a territory joins international organizations such as the IGDA, or establishes local organizations or groups that speak on its behalf. Companies rapidly grow to adapt to the structure of the international games industry, learning to reach out to press and media. In this stage, a territory defines an identity, but not a cultural flavor. Commonly, the goal for developers is still ‘to make it big’ in ‘the West’, and as such games still overwhelmingly resemble existing popular games, often with a minor twist.

Stage 4

This is by far the most important stage. This stage begins when a hero emerges, and international knowledge exchange has been established. A hero is defined as any individual or company that has reached economical and critical acclaim in the established territories. These heroes bring in valuable money, contacts and knowledge, and often act as a bridge between the international industry and the local industry. More importantly, the hero validates the idea that game development can be lucrative, and presents a measurable point of success for other developers to look up to. Ironically, this stage often includes a lot of developers making games based on similar ideas as the hero game, even though the hero game is frequently highly similar to a game from an established territory. Developers in this territory frequently refer to the hero when asked about their work.

Stage 5

Stage 5 is the most common stage for Western Europe and large parts of the United States. Commonly, the visibility of the hero has created a huge influx of new studios and developers, and with that a huge new influx of ideas. Local developers stop looking up to the hero, and start rebelling against the hero. In this stage, the goal for many developers is to be like the hero developer, but “not that”. In stage 5, multiple heroes emerge rapidly, diminishing the value of a single hero. During this phase, a territory evolves a more cultural perspective on games as the goal shifts from trying to prove game development is a feasible expense of time to making interesting content. As the community grows more comfortable, games become more personal and less utilitarian.

Stage 5+

In stage 5+, a territory is seen as a thought leader in the international games industry. Very few territories ever reach this stage, and it is my belief that there is no possibility for very many Stage 5+ territories to exist at once. Note that the existence of large international events in a location does not automatically create a Stage 5+ territory, but that it should be seen as a fleeting and temporary status as a thought leader. Many Stage 5+ territories float between Stage 5 and Stage 5+ continuously.

Ways of assisting a territory

I want to emphasize once again that these are simply my thoughts on how to best help a community in a given stage. None of this is scientific, and a lot of this has developed through personal preference and experience over the past few years. I don’t take these considerations as ‘formal’ myself, and will usually figure out what I’ll do after getting my bearings in a territory. In general, they fall within or near the parameters I discuss below.

  • In stage 1, it is my belief that interacting on a community level is potentially damaging to evolving a local culture of game development. As such, I talk to individual developers, usually with the recommendation to start local meetups.
  • In stage 2, the most useful thing is to share knowledge about basic design concepts and frameworks, how to give and receive feedback, and introduction-level ideas about marketing. If game jams aren’t prevalent in a territory, I recommend organizing game jams.
  • In stage 3, the most useful thing is to focus squarely on specific developers. In the case you come across a game or a developer with potential, using your existing network to introduce them to parties that can help them out – whether those are platforms, media or publishers – can be critical.
  • In stage 4, focusing back on community-wide issues is generally the best way of helping. Postmortems, business talks, talks that are specifically focused on dealing with platforms that aren’t prevalent but available in a territory and in-depth exploration of cultural concepts are useful here.
  • In stage 5 or 5+, one can assume that a territory is aware of most trends, issues and ideas in the industry. Since at the start of stage 5, territories become more distinct from other territories, it’s impossible to say what will be useful in these territories.

The wonder of emergent territories is how much a slightly different perspective on history, culture, art or play can bring to our medium. Some of my favorite conversations of 2014 took place in countries like Uruguay, Argentina, India or Taiwan – places that you wouldn’t immediately think of when you think about games, but are rapidly growing to be a big part of our industries cultural output in the future. At the Games for Change conference in New York City next week, I’ll be presenting a curation of games from around the world that I feel express their territories culture in an interesting way.

Let me know if you recognize your own territory in the model, and what stage you think your territory is in currently and why.


ICBM is a freeware title that is very clever, very propagandistic, very stylish and very well made. It makes no excuses for the experience it’s trying to convey. Highly recommended.

GDC 2015: Teaching Arabic, the language barrier & introducing

I will be writing many more words about in the future, but for now I want to take you back to where it was announced. One could say I’m a veteran speaker at the Game Developers Conference by now, but the weight of the announcement definitely had me a bit nervous. This year, I was lucky enough to have a talk as part of Richard Lemarchand’s Microtalks. Richard is an amazing inspiration to me, both in his work and in his tireless optimism, kindness and care for the medium and the people that contribute to it. The entire session is wonderful and full of powerful talks, some lovely talks, some clever, some unexpected but all of them thoughtful and engaging.

My talk is towards the end of the panel (it starts at 55:50), but I would urge you to watch all of them if you have the time.

During my main session in the Advocacy track, I used a novel way of getting my point across. It’s really hard communicating the severity of the language barrier to people that (overwhelmingly) understand only one language – which is sadly still a very common situation in the United States specifically – so I had to approach my talk a bit more carefully. In my microtalk, I decided to not use written English unless it was a single word or used as illustration. For the main talk, I would teach the entire audience Arabic.

All of my talks are available on the GDC Vault, which is a veritable treasure trove of wonderful talks -of which many have been made available for free– by the Game Developers Conference.