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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.