There are advantages to being small.
Being little and independent affords luxuries you wouldn't otherwise have as part of a cog in a larger machine. Sometimes, small developers get to do thing themselves because they want to do things themselves. Other times, no so much.
Earlier this week, two small, independent developers announced that they'd teamed up with a publisher. Double Fine Productions' Costume Quest 2 is headed to consoles and PC this Halloween. The Fullbright Company's Gone Home is headed to consoles. Both will arrive as a collaboration between the developers and publisher Midnight City.
Polygon spoke with Double Fine's Tim Schafer and Gabe Miller as well as Fullbright's Steve Gaynor to learn why they joined forces with Midnight City and how working with a publisher can help indies.
The Fullbright Company always wanted Gone Home on consoles, but the studio began with Linux, Mac and Windows PC releases last year because it made sense to focus its efforts there.
"One side, for us, was, if we release it on PC, we don't have to optimize for the really small memory limits that last-gen consoles had," Gaynor told Polygon. "We can just sort of say, 'OK, we're going to make the game, have really high-res textures and load everything into memory at once and not have to spend however much time getting it to run on the currently available console hardware at the time.'"
Gone Home also shipped before next-gen consoles last year. That was also a factor in Fullbright's decision to concentrate on PC.
"And also, just the process of getting your game out to PC gamers has many fewer steps and many fewer parties involved than getting your game up onto consoles," he said. "Since we were doing our initial release completely on our own, we were like, 'You know, we're PC gamers. We know that the people who are going to be interested in this game on day one are plugged-in gamers that are looking for something new that we think will find us on Steam and be enthusiastic about the game from the beginning.' It just made sense for us to target PC first."
Even so, the modern adventure game shipped with controller support last year, drawing on their experience working on AAA shooters. Fullbright still wanted to see it on consoles, but it also wanted to concentrate on its next project. So it started looking for publishers that could help bring the game outside of the PC ecosystem.
Majesco Entertainment launched Midnight City last year as an indie-focused publishing arm. Founder Casey Lynch told Polygon at PAX Prime 2013 that Midnight City aims to be "more than just a game publisher" and hopes to work with many different creators to bring many different creations to the market.
Fullbright's search for a publishing partner ended with Midnight City.
"When we were looking at who was right to help get the game on other platforms, we wanted to work with a partner that was going to be able to really put the attention into the work that we wanted to have," he said. "I think that's one of the scary things about working with a publisher. It's like, 'Uh oh. This is such a huge organization that you're going to get lost in the shuffle.' But Midnight City keeps their scope small and is only going to keep focusing on a handful of titles at a time. I think that their attitude and their approach is really good. We're excited to be working with them."
This Halloween, Double Fine Productions will do something it's never had the opportunity to do before: Make a direct sequel. That will happen because of a partnership with Midnight City.
There was already a pitch document for Costume Quest 2 floating around the Double Fine office, and not long before Christmas 2013, the developer assembled a team and began working on it. They took what they would have done differently, mixed it with years of player feedback and started working it into the sequel too, which will feature a deeper combat system and new costumes.
When asked why Double Fine partnered with Midnight City, Schafer gave an answer similar to Fullbright's Gaynor.
"We've changed our relationship with publishers," Schafer told Polygon. "They used to be our sole source of income. Now that we've been self-publishing, we can kind of pick and choose who we work with and work with publishers that have similar goals that we have. They have the same kind of mission and believe in the same kind of things we believe in."
Working with Midnight City allows Double Fine to concentrate on making the game. It's like "an equal partnership," Schafer said, as opposed to how some other, larger publishers work.
"Some publishers are big companies, and they have a way of doing things, and you have to kind of adapt to their way of doing things," he said. "I think Casey and his group wants Double Fine to do things the Double Fine way, and they know that will lead to the best game. That's what I mean by not being heavy-handed. They don't want to come and tell us how to make games. Definitely with larger companies, they have had success doing things a certain way and they kind of want you to adapt to that."
These are the themes that came up again and again with both indie devs. They want to control their destiny, but that doesn't mean they have to go it alone. Finding the right partner to help get the games on multiple platforms, to help with marketing, to do the moment-to-moment important business things that need done: That's why Double Fine and The Fullbright Company are doings so that the developers can concentrate on doing what they do best: develop games.