Do you need a publisher to 'make your game sell'?

Do you need a publisher at all?

[Hi, I’m Simon Carless, and you’re reading Game Discoverability Weekly, a regular look at how people find - and buy - your video games. Or don’t. You may know me from helping to run GDC & the Independent Games Festival, and advising indie publisher No More Robots, or from my other newsletter Video Game Deep Cuts.]

So, you probably thought we’d get to this subject eventually. And now we have. In the world of near-infinite games, does a ‘video game publisher’ actually make your game sell better?

This is a gigantic and complex question. Actually, a good starting point might be to strip it back another layer still, and ask - ‘What does a (digital) video game publisher do for you?’

Only when you break down their services and costs, can you make a value judgment about whether you need a publisher for discoverability purposes.

The Publisher Variables

The answer might surprise you, because acting as a publisher can mean any number of things - from ‘we’ll mention you on our social media’ to ‘we help you with every single aspect of game development’. The variables here tend to be:

  • Is there upfront funding from a publisher when you sign the game with them? How much of your development does it fund?

  • When your game releases, how much of the ‘advance’ does the publisher get back and at what percentage recoup rate? Let’s say they advanced you $250k USD. Would the publisher have to get all $250k USD back before paying you a cent?
    (In general it’s agreed that a split recoup - where the dev gets 20% of the ongoing revenue even though the publisher hasn’t fully recouped yet - is fairer on the developer nowadays, unless the game insta-recoups.)

  • And does the publisher also recoup on marketing-related elements (events, advertising, etc) before you get extra money? (Please, not too much of this, publishers!)

  • Do they also provide help with production, design or concept advice, localization, testing, porting, and other useful elements? (And how is it recouped, or is that just part of the lifetime revenue cut? It should largely be the latter imho.)

  • As a result of the above things, what percentage of the post-’recoup’ lifetime game revenue does the publisher receive?

Having a very clear list of what you might be giving up - in cold, hard cash down the line - in exchange for signing on the dotted line is important.

There are SO many possible deals out there. But many ‘indie game’ publishing deals involve the publisher getting 30% of the lifetime revenue for a game, post-recoup.

Higher percentages than that also exist, but map to higher upfront funding or entire funding for smaller studios. And lower percentages too, you generous publishers! That’s what I’ve seen, at least. (Feel free to email me if you think I’m off base here.)

[Side note: we are presuming that the publisher never keeps any of your IP (intellectual property) rights for your game. Please run a long way away from any publishing agreement that includes IP rights unless it’s 1000% a ‘work for hire’ deal on a game you didn’t originate.]

The Publisher Calculation

So maybe you should genuinely try to estimate how much you think your game is going to sell, with and without a publisher, and how you survive pre-launch and post-launch in both circumstances! But that’s super tricky to predict.

And of course, if you need upfront funding beyond your current resources to finish your game, you may actually NEED a publisher! (Unless you can bootstrap, crowdfund, or find project-specific investors - all tricky unless you live in a low-GDP area of the world or your developers are willing to work for a bigger slice of the back end.)

But if you do have a choice, and even if you don’t, my general view is that there are a handful of top-tier indie publishers (such as Devolver Digital - thank me later, Fork Parker!) where you are generally going to come out ahead.

This is because their advances are fairly generous and recoup rules sensible. More importantly, people pay attention to their games and they have streamer & platform-holder relationships. You get genuine uplift from partnering with them.

(Also, they pick good games. So you can have more confidence in your game if they publish it. Just make sure they’re fully committed to publishing your game & don’t discard a percentage of their signed games partway through development - this seems to happen occasionally with one or two top indie pubs.)

But there are also a myriad of meh or slightly above average publishers where there’s a genuine question - did you just give away 30% of your game’s lifetime revenue to have them make no difference to your sales? (I hope you at least got an advance if you did!)

One very sensible way to evaluate publishers, btw, is to look closely at the number of Steam or console game reviews for their titles. Do their games generally all get noticed, or is just one hit powering a bunch of not so great-selling titles? (This happens a bit.)

You can also contact developers who work with the publisher to ask them about their experiences - were the publishers responsive, fair, and did they genuinely help to get the game’s community set up and wishlists boosted ahead of release?

And one vital thing to bear in mind above all else - do you want to do community & marketing for your game, and does your team have time to commit to it? Because you absolutely need to do this to make your game successful nowadays

If you don’t have time, inclination or people to concentrate on this in the months leading up to your game’s launch - and particularly around launch time - then I think you might need a publisher.

Conclusions

Here’s some final points that you might want to consider

  • Just because a publisher is interested in your game, don’t immediately sign on the dotted line! I know it’s super flattering to have someone say they love your game and want to help, but they may not help your discoverability, and just take your (yet to be earned) money.

  • But if one publisher is interested, try to get other competing publishers involved and get the best deal you can. Also, negotiate! I can’t believe how many developers don’t negotiate, because they are just happy to be asked.

  • The best publishers pick really good games that they think could sell even without their help. But they give them enough support to take them ‘over the top’ and sell better, and help anchor the team to complete the game & support the community.

  • Of course, the above statement implies that having a publisher is absolutely not ‘a must’ for releasing a successful game. There are plenty of games that have developed their own fan following & community independently. It’s reasonable to ask - ‘is the publisher just signing a game that will be successful anyhow?’

  • But publishers have the personnel to make a difference around the crunchiest times like launch or console submission. That may be the key thing that you need. Just make sure they are doing what you want them to do, and that they’re not adding everyone’s salaries & sandwiches to your recoup!

So that’s what I think of publishers! Obviously, I do advise one (No More Robots), so I’m not unbiased. FWIW, I do feel like in all cases so far, NMR’s help materially affected the game in a positive way, and the devs are happy and solvent immediately after release.

One key reason (besides Mike Rose & colleagues being brilliant, haha) - NMR has also been working a lot with microteams who have lower upfront costs, so the barrier for success is lower. Something I think everyone should try to aim for, actually - if you’re worried about getting over the hurdle - lower it!

But I’ve also seen plenty of examples of games that absolutely didn’t need a publisher, and are doing great without one. Noita is the latest example, having launched today and gone straight to the top of the Steam charts.

Sure, it has notable creators, some long-running hype, and great-looking tech… but also no publisher in sight! So you pays your publisher money (or not), and you takes your pick.

Take care,
Simon.