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From gatekeepers to guns for hire: The new role of indie game publishers

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The role of a publisher used to be simple, although the business itself is complex. They would fund your game, they would make sure it was released on consoles or the PC and in exchange they would often own the intellectual property behind the game and take a cut of profits. You needed a publisher to get on consoles and to make sure your game found an audience. They held the keys to the kingdom.

This is no longer the case, and the idea of what a publisher does or doesn't do, or whether they're ever needed for smaller developers, is rapidly evolving.

"We are a publisher for developers that don’t need one, and I think that’s the first thing everyone needs to know: You don’t need one," Nigel Lowrie, of Devolver Digital, told Polygon. "Once you’ve established that, I think everything else becomes a lot easier, because what you’re going to find out is that there’s things a publisher can do to make your life easier, bring your game to a wider audience and ultimately maybe make your game better."

Devolver Digital is the publisher behind Broforce, Hotline Miami and Shadow Warrior, among others. Devolver is a small company — Lowrie joked that recently adding a sixth member to their team increased their size by an alarming 20 percent — that has found great success in publishing independent games, but the words "publishing" and "independent" in that sentence may be misleading; people argue about what each word means in the modern industry

"I’m not even going to say a publisher because that term is totally changing. There’s indies publishing other indies. There’s individuals publishing games. There’s publishers publishing games, and there’s people not using publishers at all, and all of them have worked," Lowrie explained.

This is the new world of publishing, and in many ways the balance of power has slipped. It’s a buyer’s market for developers, and they’re "hiring" publishers for services instead of relying on them for access or cash. You may not need a publisher, but there are services for which you may be willing to pay.

The rules have changed

Developers are in the business of making and selling games, and the time spent on business is time that is not spent creating a game. You're not creating content if you’re dealing with taxes, if you’re negotiating with Valve for Steam access or Sony about bringing your game to their platform. This is where the modern publisher comes in; they can take care of the business aspect of game development, freeing you up to be creative.

"We have to prove our worth"

"Vlambeer does not need us to publish Luftrauser by any means. That’s coming to PC and PlayStation. They’ve prepared games for both. They’re very well known, they’re very active, they’re very good at what they do. They’re with us because we free them up to work," Lowrie said.

"I mean they have another game technically under early access right now. And I’m not sure, you’d have to ask [Vlambeer's Rami Ismail], but I don’t know how excited they would be to work on two full games at the same time launching so close to each other if it weren’t for a partner like us," he continued.

"So I think, like I said, they don’t need us. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship in the purest sense I think, and if there’s other people out there that can do that, that’s great, because I think there’s a lot of people that could probably use some help.

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This is a drastic shift in the power structure between developer and publisher, and you don't need to be as well-known as Vlambeer to benefit. Many projects don’t require a publisher to finish the game, but agreeing to pay for certain services may allow you to focus on what you do want to do, which is make games. Publishers in the indie space have moved from gate keepers to service providers, and those services can change from project to project.

Nkidu is another small publisher working in the indie space with two games under their belt. They asked a sample of developers who had shipped games what they need to help with their business, and only 30 percent needed funding, while 80 percent were looking for promotion. Creating a game isn’t easy, but the barrier to entry has been lowered significantly. That also makes it harder to stand out, increasing the market for promotional services.

"There are a lot of projects out there, and a lot of games. There’s a big pie we can all be sharing," Nkidu’s Tom Ohle said when I asked about competing with other indie pulishers. That also means that, as a publisher, they have to be reactive to what the developer needs.

"We can be really flexible in what we can offer, and be really indie developer friendly. If you have a team that is totally amazing and all you need is promotion, we’ll end up taking a smaller portion of revenue then we would if you need QA support or you need help on the development side," he explained. "We have a really modular approach to how we do the revenue split."

There is also worth in the knowledge of what it takes to ship a game, and the level of polish needed to stand out in the crowded marketplace. You have to deal with platform holders, you need to make sure you’re keeping the necessary records, you have to get a rating for your game depending on the platform. This is stuff you can learn, and plenty of developers have, but there is value in paying someone to handle it for you.

"If you haven’t been in a situation where you’ve shipped games, you don’t know all the things that come up in the last couple months until launch," Ohle said. That roadmap has value, and paying a publisher can make sense if you can't get it any other way.

Lowrie offers to let developers they may want to work with speak with developers they have worked with in the past. Again, the publisher has to prove their worth to the developer in many cases, not the other way around, especially if they’re not funding a game directly and are instead providing services in exchange for a cut of revenue.

These days no one needs a publisher

"I think with the deals that we at Devolver do is, first and foremost, we have to prove our worth because, for the most part, everyone sees the value of what they’ve put together, and see successful indie games out there, what is possible from a financial standpoint," Lowrie said. "So when we ask to share in that success financially, we have to be able to prove what we’re bringing to the table and why that’s valuable. And then we can produce a success above and beyond what they can do on their own."

Lowrie bristles at the idea that publishers are selling simple book-keeping services in exchange for a cut of revenue. In his mind a publisher proves their worth not just by removing stress and doing paperwork, but by delivering sales and success that wouldn't be possible without the publisher.

These days no one needs a publisher and even Microsoft, who was the last platform holder to give up on the idea of requiring a publisher if you wanted to release a game on the Xbox platforms, allows developers to publish their own games. Still, you may be willing to pay for promotion, marketing, help with taxes, with ratings, or to help get you into shows like PAX or GDC, and working with someone who can not only provide that but do it well can be a large help to your game. The services that developers need are fluid, but then again so is what you pay for publishing these days.

On the other hand, why give up anything? Or better yet, why not become a publisher yourself?

Indies helping indies

Max Temkin of Cards Against Humanity keeps himself busy with many side projects and fun experiments, and the company seems to delight in providing the seemingly impossible. He’s also begun dabbling in a new area: becoming a game publisher.

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"I played Samurai Gunn a year ago at a party at [Spelunky creator] Derek Yu’s house," Temkin told Polygon. "I just totally fell in love with it."

He asked creator Beau Blyth for a build of the game, and began to show it around at parties and industry events. The game "ruined the party" and drew a huge crowd during a cookout filled with developers and friends from Microsoft’s gaming division. Serious folks began asking Temkin to connect them with Blyth to publish, or in some way invest in, the game.

"The game was so small it didn't need all the services of a console publisher, it didn't need to be a third-party title for PlayStation for him to finish it," Temkin explained. The two men came to an agreement.

Temkin gave Blyth a relatively modest amount of cash to finish the game, and then began to help with website construction and the paperwork needed release the game across multiple platforms. He hired Phil Tibitoski of Young Horses fame to help with the project, which allowed Tibitoski to quit his job and work in gaming full time, which aided in the release of Octodad.

Temkin described his work on Samurai Gunn as "a lot of paperwork and business stuff."

"I just called it a publisher because people knew what a publisher was, I don't know if I technically in a publisher relationship. I didn't profit from the game at all," Temkin explained.

He paid Blyth’s living expenses and supported the game both before and during release, and in return he took 50 percent of revenue until his initial investment was paid off. The rewards weren't monetary.

"It's not totally selfless, I got to learn how this stuff works," he explained. Blyth himself was also an IGF design finalist, which meant his game had a guaranteed spot on Steam. As publisher of the game, this means that Temkin's next title would also find a home on Steam, a slot which carries tremendous value.

Temkin also learned exactly what it takes to publish and release a game. "I'm pretty dumb, and I figured it out. If that's what you're paying a publisher for, just to do all the logistics, that's nothing," Temkin said. "That's certainly not worth a percentage of your game."

This situation helps to prove the value of a publisher, even if they don't consider themselves as taking that role. Samurai Gunn earned, according to Temkin, a year's worth of living expenses for Blyth in its first day of availability. The game was a success, and having well-known industry figures such as Temkin and Tibitoski helping with promotion and release provided tangible benefits outside of the monetary investment.

Other studios have begun moving into this business as well. "We see a lot of other publishers right now who are trying to redefine themselves. What might be different from their motive and our motive is ... I used to be part of a publisher, and used to run an office in South Korea, and I noticed that literally all of the developers there, they all own their own IP, but beside that, they're all their own publishers. That's how its been for the past 10 years," Double Fine's Justin Bailey said.

"There's seeds of that now in the indie community. If you look where games are just in general, there's an opportunity for that to happen in the States. Some publishers, they're trying to set up indies or other developers to be co-dependent with them. Our approach is the opposite," he continued. "We want to share information, not hoard information, be transparent and help indies to be indie. That means letting them maintain complete creative control and having a flexible arrangement where if we're adding value, we want to be associated [with them]. But as soon as you think you can get away from us and do it on your own, we're very happy with us. That's not a failure for us, that's a success."

Double Fine has certainly released a stack of games, and they know their way around what it takes and how to make that process run smoothly. That sort of knowledge is portable, and could benefit other studios going through the process for the first time. It turns out the skills and knowledge needed to make you a successful indie studio also translate into the necessary requirements of being an indie publisher.

What you want, and what you'll pay

These stories all assume a few things, including the idea that you don't need financial help up front to finish your game, and you have a product in which publishers see sales potential. Things change if you require money up front, and you'll likely be asked to give up more of your revenue or potentially ownership of the property itself.

True independence comes at a price, and it's often paid for with time.

"I actually started out as basically a straight-up programmer for Dungeons of Dredmor. I was a programmer. Now, I’m lucky, on any given month, I’m lucky if I get to do 50 percent programming. Now my job mostly is studio directing and publishing stuff and design," Daniel Jacobson of Gaslamp Games told Polygon. He was never interested in working with a publisher, but that meant his role had to change.

"I think that a lot of people, or I would suspect that a lot of people who develop indie games, don’t allocate that amount of time to doing publishing. Maybe they’re just better at it than I am, but it could be that they’re just not interested in it. And for those people, maybe publishing does make sense because you really do have to take on a lot of that," he explained.

"I mean, making video games and getting them to hundreds or thousands or millions of people is hard."