How to Navigate Publisher-Developer Relationships
Historically, big companies have taken over every niche in the video game market, once that market has had time to mature. But smartphone gaming is 10 years old, and indies are still topping the download charts. Most of these indies operate on a similar small business model: simple, ad-based casual games.
In this genre, big companies with huge workforces don’t hold an advantage. The best games can be made by a single inspired individual. Still, indies aren’t always able to handle aspects like marketing or market analysis.
As a result, publishers like Ketchapp and Voodoo have been playing the role of the “big companies” in mobile casual, bringing both market knowledge and deep pools of funding to the market. Out of the top 10 most downloaded games on the App Store at the time of writing, 9 are casual games. Of that 9, 7 are from big publishers.
Is working with a publisher still worth it, or should you go it alone? Here’s a quick look at what indie developers stand to gain—or, potentially, lose—when working with a publisher.
What mobile casual publishers offer
Traditional publishers in markets like console gaming exist to provide funding for development. But in mobile, very few publishers will offer up-front cash. Knowledge is what’s on the table, instead. Publishers offer to guide developers through every aspect of development, using their accumulated know-how on topics like game mechanics and player retention. TabTale, for instance, offers training in analysis, community, marketing, and tech issues.
Marketing is the second largest consideration. Publishers with lots of hits, like Ketchapp, cross-promote heavily within their portfolios. The publisher’s co-founder, Antoine Morcos, claims that cross-promotion is the only way their games can get millions of users. Games that prove they can retain players can become instant hits, as traffic floods in from established games.
Finally, mobile publishers often have in-house technology such as ad mediation software, which helps maximize ad revenue. A ready-made toolbox can save time, and help the developer focus more on game mechanics.
Publishing is a game you can lose
Contracts from publishers are notoriously tricky. Most developers can understand up-front clauses about profit splits and intellectual property rights. But contracts can be tricky in what they don’t say — or in clauses the developer doesn’t expect to happen, such as the publisher taking over the game in case of missed deadlines or unsatisfactory work.
More than one developer has been surprised to find that publishers prioritize their own business goals, sometimes with no regard to the developer’s survival. For instance, if the contract does not specify a launch date for the game, the publisher can wait until well after the game is done to launch it. The solution is a stated deadline, which allows the developer to switch publishers if their game isn’t launched. “It’s a great tool to have in your arsenal when fighting against the big guys; if they don’t work quickly to market and publish your game, you regain the ability to take it elsewhere,” says games lawyer Zachary Strebeck.
But deadlines are one potential problem out of many. The best solution is a lawyer specializing in the game industry. If that’s not an option, the next best choice is an adviser, usually another developer, who has experience with publishing contracts. It also pays to do diligence with other developers who use the same publisher. It’s easy to find other developers who have worked with a large publisher like Voodoo and Ketchapp.
Maintaining the relationship
The key to a good working relationship, especially with big publishers who maintain a stable of developers, is accountability. Setting a point person on each side saves both parties from the mess of non-binding decisions and pointing fingers. Get agreements in writing, and be careful not to casually make oral commitments, which some publishers may use against you.
Like any relationship, working or personal, the occasional miscommunication is inevitable. Establishing lanes is important. For instance, when a publisher promises to handle marketing, that’s not the end of the story: which channels are they covering, and how much do they plan to spend per channel? If a developer signs on to develop updates, how much content are they obligated to create for the game? Bill Petro, former VP of production at Sega, recommends keeping a digital paper trail of requests from the publisher that developers can easily pull up and review.
In general, horror stories about publishing relationships gone wrong are the exception, rather than the rule. Newbie indie developers, and sometimes even pros, can reap huge benefits from the knowledge and cross-promotion that mobile casual publishers offer. On the other hand, going it alone is still an option — Turkey’s Gram Games, for instance, built its business from the ground up, before being acquired by Zynga for $250 million. For now, big companies still don’t own mobile gaming.