In a time of self-publishing and crowdfunding, a few young publishers discovered how to be relevant.
Sure, they’re still around. The old massive publishing houses that used to rule the games industry. They are still big and still a force to be reckoned with, but more and more they become a relic of days gone by. Because in an industry that is constantly changing, big isn’t necessarily a good thing. It means that it’s harder to cater to the little guy. And there are more little guys every day.
That’s why we see a new breed of publishers emerging from the drop shadows of the giants. Small companies that know their clients by name, that actively help with virtually every aspect of development and that can switch tactics if the rapidly changing market so demands. A publisher that doesn’t act as a loan shark, but as a partner.
But why now? Especially in a time when self-publishing and crowdfunding could have easily meant the end of publishers. “Well, it didn’t so much end our role as publisher, but is has certainly changed it dramatically”, says Erik Schreuder, CEO of Dutch publisher Iceberg Interactive. “You see, self-publishing doesn’t equal self-promoting per se. There are plenty of developers out there that realize their strengths lie in design and programming. They simply lack the skill, the desire or the money to promote their games to the exponential degree that a publisher can.”
“We also offer other services such as advancing development budget, quality assurance, producing-aid, localizations and age-rating to name a few. Of course a publisher will take a cut of the revenue, so each developer has to make that leap of faith that co-operation will lead to far more sales than going solo. Luckily we have plenty developers that took that leap and are happy with the results.”
Josh Presseien, CEO of publisher Crescent Moon, started out as game developer and rolled into publishing by chance. Now his company is doing both, a combination he feels is really beneficial to his clients: “Helping developers to improve their games so that they can get featured, is one of my specialties.” That doesn’t mean he can just promise that all important feature in the US iTunes App Store, Steam, Google Play or Amazon, but he sure has got enough experience to predict what title will get picked up.
Presseien now spends most of his time on publishing duties. But his love for creating games remains strong. So strong in fact, that he has found a way to get more involved in the creative side of things this year. “Fewer games from third party developers and more time coming up with my own ideas. It’s a fun mix that keeps me busy and never bored.” (Article continues below image)
No time to get bored at Austin based publisher Devolver Digital either. Nigel Lowrie sums up an impressive list of games to come this year. “The first years we were actively looking for new games and new studios to work with, but now we are overwhelmed by the amount of developers that are coming to us.” Devolver debuted as publisher in 2009 with Croteam’s Serious Sam HD. “That established us as not assholes to work with.” Since then, there has been a string of edgy indiegames like Hotline Miami. “We are publisher for developers that don’t need one”, says Lowrie. “We make investments in all our games but it’s never a full on development budget advance. That would make it business. And we like to think of it as a partnership.”
All three publishers were founded in 2009. That’s no coincidence. It was the year that digital distribution really took hold of the industry. The original Angry Birds launched, paving the way for the boom of mobile gaming.
“The biggest change no doubt is the transition to a market of digital download”, says Schreuder. “The once powerful boxed market is completely overtaken. But no matter how little there is left, it’s still here and we don’t ignore it. Our games continue to be released in traditional boxed retail. It has become sort of a marketing tool.”
Worthy of attention
According to Lowrie the rise of digital has taken away a layer between gamers and developers. “Retail was always right there in the middle. Now we communicate directly with consumers and that has changed marketing and PR in a big way. You see communities form around certain games and even though you can’t manipulate it, if you have a game that’s worthy of the attention, gamers will come.”
Presseien takes maintaining the Crescent Moon community seriously. “Social media, forum communities, stuff like that. Keeping them updated on the progress of games, updates, things that need fixing, or new things coming out. It takes up a lot of my time nowadays.”
Iceberg Interactive also recognizes the importance of a strong community. “It’s vital for our business. Reason why we created a fulltime position of Community Manager over a year ago. This person is dedicated to forum monitoring, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Pinterest even. Press coverage is shifting to the What The Fuck Is… and Let’s Play vids so we have to get on board asap, as we believe Twitch is the next big thing.”
These three worldwide publishers have a lot in common. They are mean and lean (none of them employs more than ten people) and have found a competitive edge in a specific niche. Presseien: “We started out with role playing games for touch screen and built a loyal fan base around that. We are releasing lots of other types of games as well. Platformers, action games, even racing games. I believe our core audience wants a more deep experience on mobile devices, mostly, than what is usually available. That’s sort of the niche that we like to fill.”
Lowrie: “At Devolver we look for small indie developers with interesting ideas. We want something new and exciting in terms of design, visuals or narrative. I think we have the games to back up our philosophy.”
Iceberg Interactive has found its niche in space. “Space – strategy and sim – is one the genres that we focus on indeed. We’re not going to come up with the next FIFA or Call of Duty so we have to be smart and operate in other areas. It’s part of our company strategy that we would rather be a bigger player in niche than tiny in me-too.” •
IMAGE: BROFORCE, Devolver Digital