In August 2018, I took steps to find a publisher for my game Tech Support: Error Unknown, which would soon be picked up by Iceberg Interactive. This followed the release of my previous titles Arelite Core and Astral Traveler, which I had published on my own, resulting in disastrous sales numbers. For quite some time, I was against signing with a publisher due to the fear of what I might lose, as opposed to the consideration of what I had to gain. With this article, I hope to shed some light on my perspective of working with a publisher.
Signing with a publisher is a step which shouldn't be taken lightly. Although it can create tremendous opportunities, it will also bring with it the burden of responsibilities. Suddenly, your game doesn't just belong to you and its success and failure will have broader repercussions. A good publisher will become a partner in your success and invest in it, but conversely will also expect results out of you which you need to be able to deliver upon.
So, before even reaching out to find a publisher, it's important to ask yourself the right questions and to set up realistic expectations. To that end, here are a series of steps to take and questions you might want to consider before signing up with a publisher.
And important to note, my publisher has reviewed the text of this article, though the content and ideas remain my own and do not reflect an endorsement on their part.
What are your goals with your game?
As game developers, we are passionate about creating amazing experiences for players to enjoy, since we share part of ourselves through the games we develop. That being said, many of us have very different goals when it comes to game development. As such, it's important to understand that once you start working with a publisher, those goals will be shared. It's likely that your publisher will have an objective in mind, that you will need to come to terms with.
Getting a publisher is a commercial endeavor. The process implies that you are making your game at least in part for commercial gain, meaning you'd like to recuperate costs incurred and hopefully make a profit. This is in opposition to a hobbyist project which can be more focused towards the enjoyment of creation and, arguably, does not have to be pursued with as much professionalism. It doesn't mean that art and commercialism can't coexist, but you may have a bit less control with the end result, or you might have to pay more attention to the choices you make during the development of the game.
This might also involve changes your publisher could ask you to do. The publisher may have a different perspective from yours, and it's important to understand that you might have to make changes which you don't agree with. Sometimes those pan out, sometimes they don't, but it should be understood by everyone involved that you are on the same team, trying to accomplish the same basic goal: releasing a successful game to an audience who will enjoy it thoroughly.
With Tech Support, my goal was to be a commercial success. Because making games is my full time career, this is how I sustain myself so it was vital for me for this to be a hit. Of course I wanted to create the best game I could as well, something unique that would stand out and provide a very different perspective. These are always difficult realities to balance and ones we must come to term, especially in a commercial context.
What do you want
When outreaching to publishers, it is crucial to determine what your needs and expectations are. The same way you would hire people for specific roles (concept artists to design the world, programmers for the engine), you will likely have a role for your publisher. This may include marketing efforts, artistic resources to improve your game, localization, testing, or even funds to allow you the opportunity to finish the game.
Before reaching out, carefully assess the state of your game and your objectives. You will be entering into a contractual agreement with them, which means that if you later need to update the terms because you forgot an element or underestimated the costs, you may face penalties, including a potential reduction of royalties. Always plan for the worst case scenario concerning the development of your game. Though you may be concerned that by asking for too much, you may lose out on an opportunity, you will likely have a lot more to gain by being realistic as to your expectations and needs.
For my game, I primarily wanted help with marketing, including outreach to media and influencers, and general audience building. I had gone through the launch experience twice by then, and could perform the actions decently (create a trailer, send out press releases, reach out to influencers), but experience taught me that it's not just about the actions, the source itself matters. I expected that having the weight of a publisher behind me would help prominent sources pick up my content, which I feel was quickly justified.
When to get a publisher
Remember that the publisher is likely to receive myriad of requests, so you must be able to present your game in the best possible light, including the team working on it. Having a representative vertical slice of your game will already make a big difference, and having it playable even more so. Publishers are investing into the games and teams presented, so you want them to know what they are getting into and what they can expect out of the final product.
I started seeking out a publisher for my game very late during development, when I had reached the beta stage. By this time, most of the game's features were already available and it could be played through from start to finish. That means that publishers knew exactly what they were getting with this game, which made it easier for them to know if they were interested or not. I was a solo developer, which meant they knew who they would be dealing with, and I already had two released commercial games, which showcased my ability to deliver on my obligations.
Making the best first impression could make the difference between them considering your project or discarding it at first glance. Keep your email presentation straight to the point and have the basic information readily available. Further details can then be found in your pitch deck. Make sure to include clear instructions on how to play your game, preferably in the game itself, as well as debug tools so they can sample everything the game has to offer rapidly.
Where do you find them?
Many publishers are always on the hunt for the next big thing. They want to see great games under their banner, so don't be shy to contact them with your own project. One of the most invaluable tools to find a publisher has been OneMoreGameBro's Indie Game Publishers Database, which is a list of over 150 publishers with contact information. Additionally, you can also scour the Internet for games in a similar genre as yours, figure out who published it, then contact them.
Don't be afraid to cast a wide net. Sometimes publishers may be looking for something to diversify their portfolio, and your game might be exactly what they're looking for. As I understand, Tech Support arrived at the right moment with Iceberg for that reason. Likewise, the worst that can happen is a publisher not getting back to you or simply not being interested in your game. You'll face plenty of rejection, but it only takes one approval to get the show on the road.
Also, make sure you do some research on your publisher, which games they've released in the past, how those games performed and what the publisher do to influence the game's success. Understand how they treat their developers and what you can expect your relationship to be. There are often many red flags to look out for and though it doesn't mean the publisher won't come through for you, you should always remain cautious before signing away the results of your hard labor.
Also, be open to international publishers. Iceberg is in the Netherlands, whereas I'm in Canada, and most of our sales come from the USA, Germany and China.
A pitch deck is a document that presents your game and includes a list of its features, underlines your commercial expectations for it, an analysis of your competition and also explains what you are seeking out of the publishing relationship. It is not necessary to go into too many details concerning your game, since the publisher will already be able to try out your game directly. Instead, the pitch deck emphasizes the place of your game within the market. It should remain fairly short, ideally keeping under 20 pages, and focus on bullet points and other easily readable values rather than large amounts of text. Screenshots can also help emphasize your game as a selling point.
Here is the pitch deck I sent out to publishers when I was looking for a partner for Tech Support.
There is no standard contract
Once you've come to an understanding with your potential publisher, a list of terms may be established, or even a contract directly. It's important to understand everything that's expected from you and what's expected from them, so going to a lawyer is a wise choice in most cases.
Most contracts will involve an amount of money dedicated to various activities, such as marketing, production or even an advance for the developer to sustain them ahead of publication. It's important to understand how that money will be distributed. For instance, buying supplies or contracting someone to create a trailer will be different from using the money towards in-house resources to do the same. It might not be possible to completely outline every expense, but at the very least understanding how far that money will stretch will make a lot of difference for your success.
It's ok to negotiate and I would encourage all parties to do so. If you believe some terms to be unrealistic or unfair, for instance potential penalties to missed deadlines, or the amount of money wouldn't cover development properly, have that conversation with the publisher. It is likely that they will have their own reservations and expectations towards you, and will negotiate accordingly. However, also understand that a publishing contract shouldn't be a competition but rather a partnership. Both parties should have much to gain from the successful release of the game, which will in turn encourage them to put forth as much effort as possible.
Before signing with Iceberg, I had several offers presented to me from different sources, which helped me understand what was the perceived value of my game and extent that people were willing to invest in it to make it as successful as possible. That perspective definitely impacted my relationship with Iceberg themselves and the terms we negotiated (which unfortunately I can't share here). The most important aspect for me was for the terms to be clear, which I never had issues with moving forward.
Be willing to walk away
It's easy to get caught up in the hurricane of game development and having lots of tasks, with finding a publisher bringing an extra layer to that. Before taking any decision, take a moment to pause and really consider what your options are. Do some research on the publisher, see how they treat the other developers under their labels. Review the terms of the offer and figure out how realistic they are. You will be entering in a binding legal agreement which will last for years, so understand what that involves and what impact that will have on your process.
If the terms aren't right and you're unable to negotiate something satisfactory, walk away. Don't lock yourself into a bad deal because you feel forced to do so. It might have a negative impact on your game, but a temporary setback will always be preferable to a long lasting one. There's always the possibility of revisiting the project at a later date, or a different opportunity may arise over time.
That being said, also be realistic regarding the value of your game. Most games sell thousands or tens of thousands of copies, not millions. Your publisher will have expectations as far as sales numbers go, and that will be reflected in the contract that they present to you. Likewise, your game might have a purpose within their catalog of games, including the expected release date, so understanding those details can help shape your expectations.
As with any partnership, the most important aspect of the relationship with your publisher will be communication. This may imply regular discussions over Skype or Discord to explain your development progress, along with emails to further track objectives and other relevant resources. At all times, everyone should be clear about their work, what is being asked of them and any anticipated problems. Moreover, everyone should also be advised the moment a situation changes. This of course isn't limited to a relationship with a publisher, but rather a good rule of thumb for any partnership.
Proper communication brings with it a plethora of advantages. You will be working with a team which will be planning moves weeks, or sometimes even months in advance. The launch of a game does not simply occur on the day you press the launch button, you want to ensure that as large an audience as possible will be standing ready to purchase your game from the first moment. This requires a significant degree of planning in multiple stages. Thus, have some consideration to the people you will be working with, and try to convey that you expect them to have that same consideration towards you and your team. Having great communication is a win-win scenario, since it leads to not only a better game launch, but also better working conditions for everyone involved.
A publisher is a partner
Finally, understand that your publisher is your partner. That means that they're not your enemy, but they're also not your friend. From a purely legal standpoint, you both have a series of obligations towards one another aiming towards (presumably) mutual benefit. Your obligations stop at the terms involved in the contract, and so do theirs. It's a very cold way of seeing things, but it can help establish realistic expectations towards the approach your publisher will take towards your game and also ensure that the terms are properly written down in the contract from the get-go.
It certainly doesn't mean that you can't befriend the people you work with. In fact, I've had a great time with the people of Iceberg at every tier of management. However, I also know that we're here to work, meaning it is a commercial endeavor and that people's livelihoods (including my own) depend on it. As such, I always ensure to expedite whatever my publisher requires of me, since that will enable their staff to work more efficiently, which in turn will profit my game and myself. Conversely, I expect the same when the tables are reversed.
That being said, holding a good relationship can still involve going above and beyond the agreements in the contract. From my perspective, the best contracts are negotiated, signed and immediately forgotten about. My goal isn't to do the bare minimum, but rather create the best game possible and put that out into the world. As mentioned, it can involve a degree of work above and beyond the terms, but the gamers will ultimately end up being the ones who benefit from it, which is exactly as it should be.
People who have followed my story know that my first two games, which I published myself, didn't do as well commercially as they could have. As such, thanks to the help of Iceberg Interactive, Tech Support has sold considerably better.
Publishers are like any other group you work with: some will be more engaged than others, their expectations and visions for your game will be different and the investment they're willing to make follows from that as well. Therefore, it's important to look around for the appropriate match for your project and your expectations.
It's also important to understand that signing with a publisher does not guarantee the success of your game. Be weary of any publisher that makes such promises. The gaming industry is volatile and there are never any guarantees. In my opinion though, it is a practical way to increase the resources you have available and to maximize the potential of your project, which hopefully will allow you to continue on to your next endeavor with a clear conscience.
If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me using the links below.