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  • Cultivating A Healthy Publisher / Developer Relationship

    [02.13.20]
    - Ryan Sumo
  • Publisher and developer relations have always been fraught with peril.  There is a natural imbalance that occurs when a much more experienced entity with capital deals with a financially naive developer that wants to put their art out into the wider world. Recent news has borne this out, as I have heard of another publisher mistreating or wilfully misleading a developer.  The point of this article is not to name and shame (and honestly, depending on when you actually read this, I could be referring to an issue from 2019 or from 2022), but rather to show what a healthy publisher/developer relationship can look like. I will also be providing actual contract details for Ruinarch (wishlist now!) to serve as a datapoint, as I believe information asymmetry is one of the key issues that leads to developers being taken advantage of.

    First off, let's define our terms.

    Publishing

    A publishing deal is one that first and foremost provides funding.  For absolute clarity, I will refer to any deal that offers no money as "distribution" which I will describe later. I am aware that others may disagree with my definition, but I believe it is important for developers to hold that distinction in mind. 

    Aside from capital, a publishing deal typically also offers knowledge sharing and advice.  This means advice regarding all aspects of game development, from programming to marketing.  This is most useful for a first time developer, but even accomplished developers derive value from having a new set of eyes on their game.

    In exchange for capital and information, a publisher will typically ask for profit sharing based on revenue generated after they recoup their costs. Basically, since they fronted the money, they want to be assured that at the very least, they will be able to recoup the risk that they took spending that money in the first place.

    This profit sharing agreement can take many forms.  For example, the publisher could ask for a 75/25 split on revenue until they have recouped their costs, and thereafter the split is 50/50.  For our own deal with Maccima (as I'll discuss later) we get a 100% recoup first before splitting the deal 70/30 in favor of the developers.


    Distribution

    A distribution deal is one that provides no funding, but basically provides marketing and distribution support in exchange for revenue.

    I am personally quite wary of distribution deals.  The up front money from a publishing deal establishes "skin in the game" for the publisher.  As a developer, I am also more appreciative of the up front money because it immediately takes a lot of the risk off the table and lets me make the game without fear.  A distribution deal feels to me like I have taken most of the risk by making the game on my own, then someone is going to come in at the tail end of the process and take some of my hard earned revenue.

    However, to paraphrase Shark Tank , "70% of a hundred thousand dollars is better than 100% of 0 dollars".  There are many reasons why you would want to take a distribution deal:  

    1. You are a developer that just hates everything to do with marketing and money and you want to hide in your room and code all day. 

    2. You trust the people behind the distribution deal, and they are up front with exactly how much money they are planning to spend on marketing (this shows skin in the game).

    3. You already have an established game and want to expand to a market that you are not familiar with, like China or the console market.

    These are all valid reasons to accept a distribution deal.  As a developer you will have to make the hard decisions about whether or not a deal is suitable to you.

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