Lessons Learned: Self-publishing vs working with a publisher

Hi all and welcome to our next post in our indie guide to the galaxy! In this one we’ll talk about risks and rewards of self-publishing and why it might or might not be for you.

As you might know we didn’t end up working with a publisher for our first title Lost Ember and although we talked to a lot of different publishers of all sizes for quite a while (thanks again to all you very patient indie publishers out there!) we went the self-publishing route in the end. That had a couple of reasons and I want to go into a little bit more detail about those reasons. After all, we are asking you to come to us to publish your game now, so why wouldn’t you just do what we did and self-publish?

For many of you there is not even a question of whether to self-publish or not. You want to develop games and that’s it. All that marketing stuff and being distracted by support e-mails and social media is just not what you signed up for and that’s fine. In that case you probably won’t need this post very much, I guess, because you definitely should go with a publisher. Self-publishing definitely costs a lot of extra time and effort and will distract you from actually working on your game. For most developers out there this might already be the most convincing reason to work with someone who will take that workload off their shoulders and free up their time and mind to focus on the game itself. For all the others: please read on.

What does a publisher actually do?

The first thing most developers think of when thinking of a publisher is: money. Especially when you’re a young studio or fresh out of university to develop your first game, you just don’t have the funds available to pay for everything. After all, game development is expensive and takes a lot of time. But if money is all you need, there are private investors or (depending on where you are) government funding options that would probably take a smaller cut of your revenue after release. A publisher should be more than just a bag of money: they are responsible for bringing the players to your game and freeing up your mind to concentrate on the development.

When detailing the differences between your options and what our thoughts on this were with Lost Ember, there is a very clear change in perspective before and after our Kickstarter, so I will first lay out the reasons that led to us doing the Kickstarter instead of already going to a publisher at this point.

Why we went with Kickstarter instead of a publisher

Before the Kickstarter, we were pretty much broke. We didn’t have any money at all and at no point could we say with certainty that we could maintain our studio even for another two months. We did contract work on the side that ranged from website-building to architectural visualization and also all had part-time jobs that at least covered most of our basic monetary needs like rent and food. But we knew we couldn’t maintain this state for too long as it was very much a strain on our mental health. So it was pretty clear that we needed some external funding. Back then there was no government funding available in Germany (at least in our city of Hamburg), so our only realistic options were investors, publishers or crowdfunding, as no bank would give us a loan at that stage. At that point pretty much all investors that we talked to thought it was too early in the development and too much of a risk. So we’re down to publishers and crowdfunding.

We pitched the game to several publishers and some of them were really eager to convince us to sign with them, but some wouldn’t even invest anything or far less than what we needed, so this wasn’t really an option. Those publishers might have helped with the Kickstarter or made it easier to get funding from investors, but that wasn’t guaranteed and without any investment we felt that they didn’t have anything to lose from just not doing anything anymore, so why would they if they sign another, more profitable project? We were looking for at least some kind of commitment. But there were also publishers that would have covered what we were asking for back then.

The way that usually works is agreeing on a milestone plan and then having to submit something for those milestones to the publisher. If they think it’s going in the right direction and the milestone was met, they send the next chunk of money. There’s one very obvious risk with that: what if we cannot deliver a milestone? Or what if we realize later on that what we put down for a specific milestone doesn’t make sense anymore? Now I guess pretty much every publisher will tell you “don’t worry, we’ll find a solution for that”, but that’s still a heck of a lot of trust you have to put in them, because technically they could just terminate the contract at that point and (if you weren’t careful enough when reading the fine-print on your contract) either demand refund on their payments or take the IP or whatever else that would effectively cancel your game. I guess most small- to mid-range publishers really don’t want to do that and would likely really find some kind of other solution, but since you most likely don’t know them you can’t be sure of that. We certainly weren’t.

Another very important point in our decision-making was: what if they sign a “better” game and focus all their energy on that? If our game doesn’t perform as well as some other game, will they still put any time and effort into promoting our game? There would still be the benefit of being part of a bigger library and maybe bundles and things like that, but at that point we would have had to take care of social media and community management ourselves again, which is not what we were looking for.

And that very much leads to the next question: what if they don’t do a good job? There are so many games out there that have a publisher and still only a couple hundred sales. If all the publisher does is a tweet or two on release day and put the game on sale every few months, that’s something we can easily do ourselves.

All of these points basically meant we had these options: go with a publisher that we believe will actually do their best to push the game forward, but wasn’t able to cover all development costs, or go with a bigger publisher that we weren’t so sure wouldn’t just do a halfhearted job if the game was anything but a huge success. We quickly decided that, if we were going to a publisher, it could only be someone who we believed would actually put some effort in. We didn’t just want to be “game no. 68” in a huge portfolio, that sometimes gets automatically selected for a bundle sale on Steam. So that meant that at this point we didn’t have enough funds to actually finish the game. The idea to do a Kickstarter (or rather crowdfunding in general) came pretty quickly after that and we now had to decide: do we sign with a publisher before the Kickstarter and get some help in promoting it or do we do it ourselves? And if we did it ourselves, would a failed campaign mean that no publisher would be interested anymore since apparently noone is interested in the game? Luckily something helped us make that decision pretty soon: we won 25,000€ (about $30,000) for our prototype in the Newcomer category of the German Video Game Awards. That was a huge deal for us and basically gave us the push we were looking for to take on the risk of managing the Kickstarter ourselves. We now had some money to put into advertising and some contacts to press who reached out after the award ceremony.

I won’t go into much detail about the Kickstarter and the preparation we did (maybe that’s something for another post), but let’s just say it turned out to be the right decision.

After the Kickstarter

After the Kickstarter we were able to focus on the game for a while, but we already knew that money would be tight. Our calculated budget for publishing the game ourselves at that point was about 350,000€ ($385,000) and we now had 330,000€ ($365,000). That’s a big chunk, but still not all of it, and who knew if we had included enough buffer (spoiler: we didn’t). So we already knew that it was pretty likely that we still needed some external funding. So the question remained: publisher or no publisher?

The Kickstarter was extremely helpful for us in figuring out if we could do marketing and if we liked doing marketing. We managed the full campaign ourselves, no partners or services or anything like that and it ended up being a huge success with a lot of media attention. So we now at least knew that we could technically reach an audience of interested people. We also realized that it was really fun for us to interact with our community and to prepare clips and GIFs and see their reactions to it. It was incredibly rewarding to see that after already having spent more than two years on the game. With that new-found confidence and experience we continued talking to a lot of publishers, but now we were more certain than ever that we didn’t want to work with someone who only would see Lost Ember as some part of the portfolio and not actually care about the game. We knew at this point that, if we weren’t really happy with the work of a publisher, we would just end up doing it ourselves anyway. And even more than that: we probably would have ended up putting just as much effort in it ourselves even if they did a great job, because we no longer wanted to not be a part of the community interaction. And we were pretty sure we wouldn’t be doing a terrible job with that.

That meant that a very big part of the appeal of a publisher now wasn’t that appealing to us anymore: marketing and community management. The main things we were looking for at this point were funding, QA, platform handling and localization. Localization and (in part) QA are things that are regularly outsourced by smaller to medium-sized publishers anyway, so if we knew which companies they outsourced these services to, it was again just a question of additional funding. The only non-money-related thing we still needed was handling of platforms and stores. So we started looking into that. We reached out to platform holders, talked to others who had released games on different platforms and stores and tried to get to know the people behind the public contact addresses. In the end, we were just confident enough to try and do that ourselves as well (although I would say that it turned out to be much more complicated that we thought at that point), which meant now we “just” needed more money. Again, I won’t go into much detail about where that money ended up coming from (but might do so in another post), but we were able to find a mix of private investores, public funds and loans that (barely) got us to the finish line.

So… should I sign or not?

This was a lot of information and a lot of personal experience that of course will be very different from your situation, so let’s try and sum up and generalize some of that.

A publisher can help you get your game in front of the right audience and helps you with everything surrounding the actual development of the game. That can be marketing, PR, QA, localization, age ratings, store preparations, platform registrations, dev kits and much more. They also often fund the development.

There are some simple cases in which I would say it makes a lot of sense for you to go with a publisher. If all you want to do is develop a game, go with a publisher. If you’re not sure whether you can build a big enough community and don’t have much time to try things, go with a publisher. If you have no time to learn about the whole release process and what’s necessary to release a game, go with a publisher. In general, if you have no time to spend on QA, marketing, store pages, or other things like that, go with a publisher.

If all you need is money, talk to both publishers and other investors. In a lot of countries you can apply for grants and there are things like the Indie Fund (https://indie-fund.com/) or other investment collectives. Be aware that this means you will have to spend a lot more time on releasing the game and therefore likely means you would need more money than you would need from a publisher who also takes some of that workload off your shoulders!

If you have found a publisher who is willing to invest and to publish the game, the last question you will have to answer for yourself is: do you trust them to do a great job? I often see developers signing with publishers that don’t seem to be a great fit or that just have a bunch of failed games with maybe one or two successes in their portfolio. When considering a publisher, I would always suggest looking at their other titles: do you think fans of those games would enjoy your game as well? Otherwise it doesn’t really matter if they have millions of fans. If their whole community only consists of racing fans, you won’t have much luck with your JRPG. And how is the ratio between successful and failed games? Are only very few games ever successful? This might suggest that they only put effort into the games that bring in the most revenue and ignore the rest. You cannot be 100% sure about that, of course, there are lots of reasons for a game to not be successful, but I would at least hesitate and maybe talk to them about what they would do in different cases.

If you still aren’t sure about whether you can trust a publisher to do a good job, go and talk to some of the developers of other games they published. From personal experience as a developer I can say that we always got and get a lot of questions about all kinds of things and although sometimes these questions get lost in an overflowing inbox in especially busy times, I’m always happy to share my experiences and ultimately that’s the best way to learn how it actually is working with a publisher.

Alright, I hope we were able to help you make that decision of how to publish your game or at least could shine some light on what you should be looking out for when considering a publisher. If you are preparing a pitch to a publisher, make sure to check out our post about pitching here: Lessons Learned: Pitching your game to a publisher

Have a great day!
– Tobias

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