Across indie development communities, questions about the role of a publisher are extremely common. Especially at the beginning of your journey, you might find yourself grasping at straws. Your first game is coming along nicely, you’re all hyped-up and ready when you suddenly hit a wall. Now that your creation is taking shape, how will you place it in front of the right crowd?
Our time at Ludicious 2018 gave us a chance to shine light on this matter. In a mind-opening panel, several publishers sat down and discussed how exactly their companies contribute to the industry. In a separate talk, Raw Fury’s Callum Underwood explained the path his team follows from pitch to signed contract. He was also kind enough to share some of his presentation with us, so that we could attach it to this article.
As we kept taking notes and the crowd asked questions, we realized just how much our community could use a similar guide. A bit of writing later, here it is!
A Formidable Yet Misunderstood Ally
When they first think of hiring an outsider for help, many indie developers begin to panic. After all, AAA-producers who turn their client’s product inside out and twist their arms are not unheard of. It’s only natural that the newcomers fear the same will happen to their games.
On the contrary, the large majority of indie publishers finds this approach counterproductive. Building a game from scratch requires time and resources that these groups will have to pay for. Companies like Callum’s rely on a relatively small team and usually don’t have piles of cash at their disposal. Not all of the games an indie publisher signs will manage to break even.
This is why a solid idea should already be there before you seek assistance. The publisher of your choice will take it, analyze it, and help you find the right talents to work with. The same group of people will also smooth your game’s edges, handle marketing, and manage the entire process. Although the specifics vary from company to company, you’re usually also paid a monthly salary. An allowance of sorts to keep you focused and encourage you to finish the game.
“You Mean I could Pay Bills?! How Do I Sign Up?”
In recent years, competition around indie publishers skyrocketed. As this once-niche industry increasingly grew larger, so did the number of devs who reached out for help. Once again, time and resources come into play. Usually, each publisher will only take a limited amount of games under their wing. This lets them give each team the right amount of care and attention. In layman’s terms: only a fraction of those who apply for a deal is going to receive one.
Now that you’re familiar with your chances, you’ll need a solid action plan. The first step is to scope out the market and find the indie publisher that is more likely to work with what you have. Keep in mind that some companies will prioritize certain genres over others. Do your homework: check each publisher’s track record, ask fellow developers, and inquire about their M.O.
Once you research is complete, you can move to the next phase. Make a list of your favorite companies and get in touch with the ones you like the most first. Remember that not all publishers will respond immediately. Contacting multiple firms at the same time might boost your success rate, but you’ll have to take sides at some point. The way you present your game also influences the likelihood of being chosen. Truth be told, mastering the art of pitching should be any developer’s utmost priority. Whether you’re talking to an event manager, the press or a publisher, the right kind of email can do wonders.
To quote what Callum said during his talk at Ludicious 2018, your pitch has to be both proactive and engaging.There’s no need to attach a full business strategy for the next five years to the first message. Similarly, your entire team’s bio, resume, and achievements are all equally superfluous. Those on the receiving end shouldn’t need a follow-up email to get their hands on your game. As long as it tells what the project is and includes a playable build, the content of your message doesn’t really matter. There will be time to discuss everything in detail later!
“What If This or That Indie Publisher Declines My Offer?”
First of all, rejection is part of the game. Understand that indie publishers receive a humongous amount of requests every day and they simply cannot sign them all in. While acceptance involves entire teams trying your game, it takes a single person only a handful of minutes to tell you no.
The decision to sign your game ultimately rests on a plethora of variables. Since they too are running a business, the person in charge will usually go through an investigation known as due diligence. They will evaluate the build you sent them, inquire into your budget predictions, check up on your team members and organize face-to-face meetings. This is what you should focus on.
Furthermore, many pitches are discarded for reasons beyond the developer’s control. That indie publisher might be already working on a similar project or might feel your game just doesn’t click. They might have reached their quota for the financial year or just not be in the mood for that kind of game. Put it simply: sometimes it really isn’t your fault!
That said, you shouldn’t let a negative response discourage you. On the contrary, it is okay to ask a publisher why they felt the two of you wouldn’t be a good fit. Many of the figures that work in publishing have at some point been passionate gamers. A good number of them still are! See this as a chance to learn more about the industry, its inner workings, and the mechanics around a successful release. As long as you’re civilized, they won’t just shut their door on your face.
One last note: enlisting the help of a publisher won’t magically turn a mediocre game into an instant classic. Not all published games become best sellers and not all developers who get a contract will be able to afford a multi-million dollar villa in LA. Always be ready to go back to the drawing board and always have a back-up plan for when things go sour!
We’d like to thank Callum Underwood, Raw Fury, and Ludicious 2018 for the chance to learn more about this topic. You can find the man himself on Twitter. He’s cool with devs asking for tips, but please avoid drowning him in messages!