Navigating the troubled waters of publishing as a new studio can be daunting, and even with the best preparation in the world you're unlikely to get it right the first time. The games industry is full of stories from studios that attempted self-publishing and struggled, or went with the wrong publisher and regretted it. Trial and error is at the core of the games business.
Thatgamecompany published three titles with external partners before turning to self-publishing for Sky: Children of Light. The Chinese Room self-published its first-person exploration hit Dear Esther, before working with partners for its following titles and ultimately deciding to become a part of Sumo Digital. Even AAA is not set in stone; after two years of being published by Activision, Bungie took Destiny 2 in its own hands and decided to self-publish.
Publishing naturally comes with ebbs and flows, and figuring out exactly the model that will work for your indie studio can be a challenge. And it is one that Odile Limpach witnesses on a regular basis.
After almost 12 years as managing director of Ubisoft Germany, followed by six years in the same role at Ubisoft Blue Byte, Limpach co-founded SpielFabrique, an accelerator program for start-ups in the games industry, and became a professor of economics and entrepreneurship at the Cologne Game Lab. She recently released a book called "The Publishing Challenge for Independent Video Game Developers: A Practical Guide."
The book provides insight into the indie PC and console market, gives a detailed structure of publishing and its main players, and offers an in-depth checklist of things to consider when choosing your publishing strategy. It also looks into funding, the specifics of game publishing agreements, recommends tools and resources, and details some case studies.
"[This book] is really about a gap I was seeing," Limpach tells the GamesIndustry.biz Academy. "We work a lot with young developers, and also with investors and people who want to enter the gaming industry, and over the years I really realised that everybody was speaking about publishing but didn't know exactly what it means.
"Everybody says: 'Oh, I need a publisher and I need to have some financing.' But really, each time, nobody knew exactly what it meant or people had trouble getting into the subject, and understanding the structure of this market. So that's why I thought it would be interesting to explain how to do that."
Franco-German production Homo Machina
Figuring out your needs
The starting point of Limpach's book, which also features contributors from various branches of the industry, is that a game project requires a well thought-out strategy in order to engage the market. But there is no one-size-fits-all solution and, as a new developer, you need to find a path that will actually be beneficial to you and your game. Should you self-publish or try to find a publisher?
To help with that core interrogation, Limpach put together a list of questions for developers, to see if they are a good candidate for external publishing and are ready to embark on that adventure. It covers everything from making sure you have the right team to whether you'll be able to maintain clear documentation on the project.
"You're always into your daily business, but sometimes it's good to take a step back and have a look at the long term"
"I put all these questions in the book to try to force people that read it to think about this, because this is something we see very often when we work with young developers. You're always into your daily business, you're growing unto the next milestone, but sometimes it's good to take a step back and have a look at the long term. It's nice to have a guide, to ask yourself a few questions so that, in the end, you find out where you want to go."
Among the 27 questions covered in the book, Limpach identifies two axes that are particularly crucial to figuring out your needs.
"The first thing is that you need to understand what you're going to do. Reflect [on] yourself: where do I want to go? Do I want to be always independent, and not have any partners that might influence my decisions or my future? Do I want to stay small? Do I want to grow very big? Do I want to switch between different genres?
"All these are really putting your strategy in place and what your goals are as a company, so that then you can say: okay, this is the way to go, and actually the best [thing] is to look for a publisher because I need help and support, or because I don't want to learn to do community management, marketing and advertising. Or I don't want to have a partner because I want to be independent and learn all these different subjects. What do you want to reach with your company as it grows?"
Thatgamecompany is a good example of a studio that turned to self-publishing after a few titles, for Sky: Children of Light
Limpach says she very often sees that dichotomy in aspiring developers: they either want to learn about the overall business of releasing a game, or just want to focus on their corner of the industry.
"We have 45 new students coming to Cologne [every year] and I would say it's always 50/50 -- 50% of them are interested in doing something else other than game development, and 50% don't care," she says. "And that's fine to be [just] the artist and you don't want to do something else, but you just have to know it. So, I think this is really the most important question."
The second most important element is to look at external publishing as a commitment. Signing up with a publisher is usually not a short-term partnership, so if you're afraid of that commitment, self-publishing may fit you better. This is something the GamesIndustry.biz Academy also recently touched upon in an article about modern publishers.
"At some point in the book, I compare [publishing] to a relationship," Limpach says. "It's like a marriage. When you go work with somebody, are you ready to go into a relationship? Because there's always good times and bad times in a relationship, and hopefully the good times are the most [common], but there will be always one point where you're not very happy about what your partner is going to do, and then you have to have the will to [stay] in this partnership."
External publishing vs self-publishing
These preliminary questions about yourself and your project should help to shape the direction you're going, but you may still have interrogations about the advantages of each strategy. While Limpach addresses both self-publishing and external publishing in her book, she focuses mainly on the intricacies of working with a publisher and how to best prepare for it as an indie studio.
"I think that the advantages of working with a publisher is the professionalisation of everything -- if it's a good publisher, of course," she says. "The number one advantage is to have very professional marketing, sales and positioning for your game -- and also lifetime management.
"You really need experience to know how to manage the lifetime sales of your game"
"As an independent developer, you really need a lot of years of experience to know how to manage the lifetime sales of your game, and the publishers do that for a lot of games. You need very sharp marketing nowadays, you really need to define exactly what [makes] your game better than the other ones, how to position it and to communicate it, and a publisher will definitely bring this.
"The other advantage, of course, is financing. And even if they don't give you much money upfront, having a financial partner that is there and that is paying for big parts of the marketing [budget] is very positive.
"And I would say the third one is the long-term development of your brands and your games. You can have more visibility and also more contacts with [platform holders] Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony. Without a publisher, it's so difficult to get hold of these people and to be positioned in their stores."
Limpach believes self-publishing is a legitimate route to market, but it may be more painful to go it alone if it's your first game. In the long term, it can be a good idea to mix both approaches depending on the project, as some games may need more support than others.
Bungie split with publisher Activision in 2019 and decided to self-publish Destiny 2
"It's really okay to not work with a publisher and to go on self-publishing," she says. "I regularly see young studios that have been doing such a great job by themselves. And I think if you don't work with a publisher you'll learn so much about community building and you're also forced to be even more organised, because you have nobody to tell you: 'Your milestone has to be ready now.' I think it's still the most difficult way, but it can be so good because you learn so much about structuring your business."
However, she highlights that there's often a misconception about what self-publishing implies. Developers that are new to the industry sometimes have this idea that self-publishing essentially just means having a Steam page.
"Each team we have at the university really underestimates the task of publishing"
"Yes, definitely, it's always the case," Limpach says. "All teams I speak to, that have published a first game, always say they totally underestimated what it meant. Because it's not written anywhere, what it all means, but also because it's a lot of different fields you have to multitask, from technical [aspects] to advertising, to communication, to developing and lifetime management -- and somehow understand it [all].
"That's why I also thought it would be interesting to have this book, because each team we have at the university really underestimates the task of publishing."
Tackling communication and marketing on your own
Even when going with a partner, you may end up having to tackle some aspects of publishing on your own. A company such as Kowloon Nights, for example, will help you to bring your game to market with funding, but will be very hands-off with production.
Developing your marketing and communication skills on your own with few resources is possible though, Limpach says. The key is to start working on these aspects at the very beginning of the development cycle and iterate on it as you go to make it grow organically.
"I always say marketing is not rocket science, it's logical thinking. You can't learn programming that fast, but I think you can learn marketing very fast if you think about it. And the thing I would advise is to really start very early. Start to write your marketing and community plan at the very beginning and then iterate on it, and [while] your game is developing, come back to it and see if it's the right positioning and the right approach to the market.
"Marketing is not rocket science, it's logical thinking. I think you can learn marketing very fast"
"If you start early to put into your community, then at the second stage you can directly also start to work with a [few] gamers, people that are interested in your concept and are going to help you to really create the very core of your community.
"So I think it's really just tackling all these issues at the very beginning and not, as a lot of developers do, just develop the game and then afterwards [say]: 'Oh, we also have to do marketing.' Because this doesn't work anymore nowadays. And this is what all the big publishers and developers -- EA, Ubisoft, and so on -- are doing. They have marketing people from the very beginning involved into the production of the game."
The appeal of co-production
An interesting opportunity for developers that Limpach touches upon in her book is co-production, which is a route that's rarely talked about on the indie scene. However, some acclaimed projects have been the result of collaborations, such as Seaven Studio and Darjeeling's Homo Machina, or Aardman Animations and Digixart's 11-11 Memories Retold.
Limpach notes that being a co-production usually gives access to better funding and allows developers to create more ambitious projects, ultimately leading to being more attractive to publishers.
Published by Bandai Namco, 11-11 Memories Retold was a co-production between British animation powerhouse Aardman Animations and French studio Digixart
"I [co-founded] this company called SpielFabrique and we work on Franco-German co-production projects," Limpach says. "We came to this idea by looking at two different markets. [First] we looked at big developers like Activision, EA -- all the big developers are [built upon] co-production, because they are not able to do one game [with only one team]. So all the big games are co-developed on different sites. Co-production in the video games industry is actually pretty widely used and known for the big projects.
"And the other side is we looked at the film market and we saw that it's something that is happening very often. Films are most of the time co-produced. And then we said: 'Well, why can't we do that for the [indie] video games market?' Because then we would also have access to more financing and other interesting ways of putting a project together.
"So that's why we think it's interesting. If you co-produce with somebody you can have access to more sources of financing, and you can have access to more expertise, and you can make a bigger game, because you're not limited by your team size."
With the market being more and more fragmented, Limpach believes it's worth thinking about new ways to bring projects to market.
"The thing is, when you look at 20 years ago, you had to decide if you developed a game for PC or PlayStation and that was all more or less. But now when you start to develop, there's so many possibilities that you can get lost into it.
"The new platforms want new developers, and want young developers to make new concepts, so on one [hand] it is an opportunity, but then on the other it makes the market very complicated. The other barrier that I think is really high is the strength of some publishing platforms -- it doesn't bring anything to [the table] to just go on Steam, you have to know how to go [on Steam]."
The GamesIndustry.biz Academy dedicated an ongoing series of guides to Steam, and how to do it right, which you can read on this page. But Limpach's point still stands: some platforms hold the market in their hands and it can be difficult for indies to make a mark.
"15 years ago you could do a game, publish it, and there were good chances that, if the game was good, you would be discovered. Now there's no chance you would be discovered just because you put a game somewhere. So it's not technical barriers, it's more the marketing and positioning side of it that are very high to overcome right now."
Limpach hopes that her book will help at least a few lost souls to navigate the games industry jungle.