Why is the publisher/dev dance getting more contentious?

The fandango's pace only quickens.

[The GameDiscoverCo game discovery newsletter is written by ‘how people find your game’ expert & GameDiscoverCo founder Simon Carless, and is a regular look at how people discover and buy video games in the 2020s.]

Welcome to our one Thanksgiving-week free newsletter update at GameDiscoverCo. We thought we’d pop into your inbox - especially since you Europeans actually don’t have a week off - and poke at the latest game discovery news and trends.

By the way, I was curious to see if anybody made Thanksgiving-specific games for Steam in the same way there are Halloween and Xmas-themed games. And the answer is yes - you too can buy Thanksgiving Day Griddlers for $4.99, should you desire. There’s something for everyone in video games, huh?

(ICYMI: thanks to everyone who signed up to our special ‘33% off first year’ Plus deal for our first anniversary/Black Friday. Only 8 days left to grab it! Lots more info - including a video showing our new data offerings - are available via the custom newsletter we sent out.)

Publishers & devs - what’s going wrong recently?

For any of you keeping up on social media and the ‘general vibe’, it seems like there’s been a little more static/conflict recently about the relationship between game publisher and developers, especially on the indie side of things.

There’s two recent articles I wanted to highlight and talk about on this specific subject. Firstly, there’s a very long interview with Selfloss creator Alex Goodwin over at GameWorldObserver. It’s interesting because the dev is incredibly honest about his dealings with publishers, and has had a visually beautiful and somewhat hyped game.

As he explains: “In 2019, Selfloss was featured in Indie Cup, Eastern Europe’s largest indie games contest. It was then that publishers started reaching out… At first, it was four or five small publishers, like Crytivo. But during the three years since the beginning of development, I talked with around 40 or 50 different publishers in total.”

So he has the advantage of chatting in-depth to many publishers. I will note that Alex is different from a lot of people, and can afford to be more picky. He has self-funded, seems to have an investor now, and says: “I’m interested in everything publishers can offer except funding. I don’t need money. What I need is porting, localization, QA.”

Now, clearly Alex himself has a singular, subjective point of view. When we talked about this article in the GameDiscoverCo Plus Discord server, somebody pointed out that he criticizes publishers for not getting back to him - but also says that he doesn’t reply to publishers when he doesn’t want to sign with them. So, yep.

I still believe his criticisms are particularly interesting in two places. Firstly, he says - warning, hyperbole: “There was a time when 30% was the norm, or so they say… But that hardly ever happens anymore! For a publisher to agree to a 30% cut, I don’t know how incredible your game must be. All prestigious publishers will take 50%, if you already have a game that looks really good.” (I think he misunderstands how the revenue cuts happen, btw - they are cuts of the net from Steam, not a % of gross.)

His second angle is cheeky, but well worth musing on: “A lot of these publishers don’t even do anything themselves! They just have connections with a bunch of different small agencies. One of them does marketing, the other one ports games, the third one localizes them. So the publisher takes your money, outsources everything, and you are lucky if they assign a manager to your project who would control all these other businesses.”

Can you trustfall with your publisher?

The above comments get to the heart of the matter - it’s ultimately about trust, revenue share, and the value add. And the ‘trust’ angle is one that I see Rami Ismail amplifying with his recent newsletter on publisher contract red flags, which is very helpful. Nonetheless, it’s coming from a default starting point of ‘publisher contracts may be bad for you, the dev’.

Part of the issue here is that there’s clearly contracts floating around which do weird stuff - and many of us haven’t personally seen them. (Another part of the problem is that legalese can often be inherently sharp-edged sounding, btw. But that’s largely not the issue here.)

To give two examples, Rami’s comment on Game Pass deals potentially not being included in a game’s recoupable revenue sounds weird to me. But I’m presuming he made it because there’s a contract out there somewhere which excludes it. (Ugh.)

Secondly, on "avoid signing any contract or term sheet that prohibits you from continuing to negotiate with other potential publishers" - I chatted to Hooded Horse’s Tim Bender - himself a former lawyer - about this, and he agreed this was weird.

And he noted: “term sheets are supposed to be signed after all key provisions of the deal are agreed to and the parties are committing (even if not in a legally binding way) to complete the contract.” We haven’t seen this used in indie publishing - but again, maybe somebody is? And that would be non-great if so: it’s not the right tool for the job.

But, to conclude by trying to summarize why I think a bigger lack of trust might be developing:

  • The market is filling up with games: This is making it more difficult to make successful games, even if you’re seriously trying. So you’re seeing a lot more published titles that don’t recoup, or recoup very slowly. Under these circumstances, there are often unfulfilled expectations between a publisher & developer - with blame attached.

  • If you need upfront funding, you have to get a publisher: with a few exceptions like Kowloon Nights, the ‘funding without also publishing’ route isn’t very easy to find at the smaller dev level. So you are signing up for money to complete your game, and you are also signing up to a full publishing suite, whether you like it or not. It’s a bundle deal that justifies the percentage taken.

  • The infusion of capital at the ‘public market’ end is making everything super weird: I want to talk about this a lot more in another newsletter. But there are larger indie publishers now worth hundreds of millions of dollars (on paper - but they can redeem that paper for real money by selling shares!) This can be great for devs - for jumbo funding, or if they get bought by the publisher, for example. But it’s further tilting the balance of power in very odd ways.

  • There are bad actors out there: there are definitely overly selfish publishers who will try to a) sign a very large number of games at relatively high publisher cut b) not spend a lot of time on each of them, and therefore just play more of a ‘portfolio’ approach, without adding much value. Some of them are actively cut-throat. Don’t be one of those.

So I don’t mean to make this newsletter too sour. And I’m sure many of you publishers will be piqued by Alex’s take on the situation. (It’s borderline troll-like in places.) But it also has the occasional warm element. And to conclude, I liked his take on his idyllic publisher relationship - whether he can find it or not:

“I want the publisher I’ll work with to be like those book publishers of the 80s, when there was still no internet. You enter into a partnership. It is not necessarily a loving and maybe not even friendly relationship. But it is a partnership in the sense that they should support you in every way possible, nourish your creativity. Because it’s in their best interests that you stay in a good mood, scribbling new books for them.”

Ultimately, great publishing should be about having both a sympathetic creative and business partnership. Both sides need to bring unique skills to the table. The relationships I’ve seen that have worked great have been that - not just ‘publisher brings the money, developer brings the game’. So let’s all aspire to the former?

A call for funny/weird Steam refund messages!

Following up on our October 2020 newsletter where we asked devs to “go digging around in their Steam user refund comments, to see what amusing things turned up” and showed the results, we’re holding another call for submissions.

You can either reply to this Twitter thread or email us with any messages that crop up - we’ll do a little piece on the results, if enough funny things appear. Last time, we discovered that some players just type pretty much anything - or abject weirdness - in their ‘please can I have a refund?’ box.

(If you don’t know: refund messages are on Steamworks Sales & Activations site, click on ‘Steam packages’ - the game’s ‘home’ page - go to ‘Refund Data’ link on the right & hit 'View Notes'.)

One big caveat, though. As Yannic on Twitter pointed out, some of the refund messages can be harsh about your game, and lead to you feeling bad. So maybe get someone less intimately associated with your game to look at Steam refund messages, if you don't do it often? (Or wear flameproof undergarments.)

The game discovery news round-up..

Finishing up with a week’s worth of interesting game platform and discovery links and diversified goodness, let’s take a look at it all in one solid block. And then jump and hit that block to get a Fire Flower pickup? Let’s gooo:

Finally, since we have this new post-release Steam chart for Plus members and I was poking around it for breakout games, I ran into an amusing ‘review stuffing’ example. Don’t even see how this helps the game in question - unless you like playing all your games in Latin:

[We’re GameDiscoverCo, a new agency based around one simple issue: how do players find, buy and enjoy your premium PC or console game? We run the newsletter you’re reading, and provide consulting services for publishers, funds, and other smart game industry folks.]