Right, here we go again. Following on from part one, it’s more words on publishers for folks who maybe don’t know what pitfalls to look out for when it comes to hunting for publishers.
What have the publishers ever done for us?
So what would you want a publisher for? There isn’t really a simple answer to this because there’s lots of things you can go to a publisher for and some folk may only need one of the services a publisher can offer, some folk may need more. Some folk might not even really technically *need* a publisher but it helps to have one because it takes a particular weight off their shoulders.
I asked this question on Twitter a while or so ago to try and get a clearer picture for folks (I’m just one dude and notoriously self publish/own everything I do even when it bites me on the arse to do so, so…). Let’s go through some of the replies whilst we’re not doing anything else. I’ve also included links to folk’s twitter feeds here so you can find some Official Rob Approved Smart People to follow as well.
The Good, The Bad
First out the gate, Dave Gilbert of the brilliant Wadjet Eye and fine purveyor of adventure games and stuff.
“Publishers are great for devs who just want to release their game and forget about it. Good pubs will push your game forever. Good pubs will take an active role in the production process. Bad pubs just slap their logo on your game and call it a day”
I’ll be honest, I think Dave’s being a little generous there to bad publishers but there’s only so much you can say in a pair of tweets anyway. A bad publisher can be actively harmful to the success of your game. Some recent things I’ve seen with my own actual real eyes I was born with include pricing games way too low, constantly offering deep discounts every couple of weeks, putting the game into as many bundles as possible regardless of whether or not it’ll be a good return for the developer, giving away thousands of copies of a game in exchange for a handful of reviews, spamming emails at anyone and everyone as a substitute for engaging with anyone at all ever.
All of these work against you when you’re trying to sell enough copies of your game to hopefully be able to carry on making games. At best, some of these things might end up making your Steam Spy number look a bit bigger (although worth noting that at least one of the bottom end of publishers has requested no numbers made available through Steam Spy *ahem*) but really, they’re just hurting your chances of ever getting anywhere in games.
That’s not really what you want from a publisher, right? You want them to help not hinder. Look, I’ve seen one so-called publisher call themselves “The Biggest Publisher On Steam” – absolutely shit you not here when I say the evidence for this claim is that they run a giveaway group and have given away thousands of copies of videogames to people. At the time of checking a few weeks back, they published precisely one videogame and were offering keys for other videogames in exchange for Greenlight votes. Just when I thought I’d seen it all, y’know?
As bundling is drying up as a reliable source of income, we’re also seeing some bundlers move into this sort of low rent publishing too. I was vaguely aware of one site that’s been running a series of Greenlight bundles in recent months and hadn’t noticed that they also claimed to be publishers. Where, again, publishing here is little more than getting a game through Greenlight. Or rather, taking the credit when a game gets through Greenlight whilst doing the bare minimum of work to make it happen, anyway.
I looked up the user numbers for these games and they were every bit the numbers you’d expect from a game punted onto Steam with no publicity or chatter behind it, in a couple of cases – worse. However, one title stood out for having around a thousand more users registered on SteamSpy than the rest. Interesting, I thought, given the game didn’t seem to be anything that apart from the others. A short check later and sure enough, the bundlers pretending to be publishers are bundling the game, except you can buy the bundles in packs of ten. Bundles of bundles.
You might ask why is this harmful and that’s a fair question to ask. What happens here, invariably is that the games don’t disappear into accounts to be played – a substantial amount drift into the grey market to be traded or, in a lot of cases, sold. The more the market gets flooded with keys, the more business the resellers are able to do and the more business they do, well… rather than have the price of your game dropped for a limited time, you’ve now got these keys floating round that constantly undercut what you’re selling for and at a fairly good margin considering they paid next to nothing for 10 bundles at a time.
So in this case, the publisher is not only selling the work off ridiculously cheap in the first place but enabling an entire market to exist whose sole purpose is to take business from you. Obviously the moment Steam keys became a sought after item it was inevitable a grey market would appear for them and we’re not going to be putting that particular genie back in the bottle any time soon but this is effectively making them the most attractive place to buy your game from. The keys are cheap and in plentiful supply. People use price comparison sites and browser extensions. When they visit your store page on Steam, they see it’s cheaper elsewhere.
Needless to say, don’t sign with those folk either, right?
Marketing And More
Helen Carmichael of Regency Solitaire and soon, Shadowhand.
“Sort out your PR & marketing, play testing, line you up with logo designers. Put your work in front of influential people.”
It’s worth noting at this point that not everyone has the best idea of what marketing is or what marketing is good for your game. Not to harp on about Blackshell too much here but this is not good marketing.
Yeah, don’t worry. My head hurts too after reading that. But this is about all you can expect from the more predatory publishers, if even that much. They should be working with you to find tactics and angles that are good for your game and doing stuff that makes your game look really good. That’s good marketing. Tweeting a bit? Naw. Not even tweeting a bit? Double naw.
Bluntly, a high follower count doesn’t translate to sales of videogames so you can entirely disregard that. You can also disregard folks who just spam out mails to everyone and hope someone catches it, more on that in a minute though.
Videogame veterans and fruit enthusiasts, Infinite State Games:
“If they have press contacts they can make journalists who’d otherwise ignore you write about your game”
Old hand, James Closs too.
“Relationships – with app stores and Journos mainly. App stores v. important for mobile particularly. Some pubs do have them!”
Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it infamy. Shawn Mills of Quest For Infamy (and more) who is probably sick of hearing that by now.
“Good publishers will get your game in front of the gaming media / press which helps generate sales”
Johnson Siau of Hanaji Games:
“Overcome technical issues, build your press and public presence, do the worrying for you.”
Ben Kuchera, journalist and officially (maybe) Most Excited By VR person.
“Fund or offer marketing / PR to get game in front of people. Handle localization to launch in other markets.”
Whilst I wouldn’t quite phrase it the way Infinite States do myself as it conjures up an image of an overly enthusiastic publisher dude holding a journalist at gunpoint whilst screaming “WRITE ABOUT THE BLOODY GAME, MAN”, it’s true that a good publisher *will* have press contacts and *will* be able to use them. That’s not to say you can’t do this yourself just for a lot of folks, there’s a fairly high chance of passing under the radar. I’m tempted to say a good publisher can be your voice for you but I think, ideally, it’s about helping you find your voice too.
What you see with the more predatory publishers is that they just build up a massive list of email addresses (and I do mean huge here, I’ve spoken to people who are utterly baffled as to why they even get these mails given how peripheral to games they are) and send out a press release to all of them. On the face of it maybe that sounds smart but what invariably happens here is that folk learn to tune them out because 99% of what these janky publishers send through is of no interest to anyone. A good part of this lark is matching the right game with the right people and that takes a whole lot more than cold emails, y’know? This is an old tweet now but it’s still worth considering:
Too many devs get excited by the size of a firm’s rolodex without seeing if those relationships are strong/relevant. Anyone can spam blogs.
— Anthony Carboni (@acarboni) August 11, 2012
When I say ‘tune them out’ I mean that quite sincerely. Whenever I’ve raised discussions around some of these more predatory publishers, folk either say they ignore any and all emails from them because they’re that used to getting spammed by them or they’re not even vaguely tempted to open the mails because there isn’t even the slightest effort there to make it appeal to person who’s supposed to open the things.
As ever, there’s no guarantees here that a publisher can definitely get you pushed on sites you may not normally be able to reach (and this is also why PR and Marketing firms exist too, but that’s not for this post) but upping the odds, yeah? It’s not just about mailshots either, it’s about what we call mixers (where devs and journalists meet to talk about works) and show floors and organising demonstrations for the press and sorting keys out and so much more. It’s work.
And there’s plenty of publishers who do that work. Like I said there’s no guarantees but look at how much cachet the more known publishers have built up, a new game from them is an event (at the time of writing, currently, may not last, who knows). There’s publishers who’ve built up a good reputation for bringing games to other platforms, folks who work in niches and now we’ve got a new breed of known-indies-as-publisher to boot – folks with a little bit of time and money in their back pocket to boost games that they personally think have some potential.
That’s not to say that smaller, less well known publishers can’t still be effective but it’s worth checking out their track record for yourself. Assuming you’re not looking at a weirdy wargame or something, the sort of thing that pretty much never gets coverage on a large site unless Tim Stone has your back, what writing can you find about most of their catalogue?
Like, if they’re so good, there should be something. And not just for, say, one game or two in a large catalogue.
Right. Take a break time again and we’ll cover a few more things in part three to wrap this lot up. Catch you in a bit.