Are you wondering if you should self-publish or traditionally publish your next video game? You’re not alone. Around 4,000 games were released on Steam in 2016 alone. Every single one of those developers had to sit down and ask themselves if they really had what it takes to develop, market, and sell a video game while also working on community engagement, data analysis, and then some.
Seems like a simple decision, right? Either you’re a great developer with no skills in the marketing department so you should reach out to a publisher, or you’re a jack of all trades who can handle anything that self-publishing throws at you. Easy!
Well . . . not quite. Turns out there are pros and cons to both traditional publishing and self-publishing. You can always pick up new skills to do what needs to be done, but traditional publishers shouldn’t be forgotten: after all, they’re professionals in their field. So, what’s a developer to do? What are you to do?
The Benefits of Self-Publishing
First and foremost, it’s important to consider why so many developers choose to self-publish their games. One of the biggest pros is that you get 100% of the earnings, minus the platform fees, which hover around 30% depending on what you use. Granted, that may sound more impressive on paper, since Steam sales alone are down for indie games—with the exception of a select lucky few. However, whatever revenue you do get can be spent to get more users, or if you have an instant hit, to help fund your next game project.
But just in case 100% of the earnings isn’t enough, you also get to own 100% of your game. You can do whatever you want with it, market it however you want, and not deal with a lot of external direction that you might not be all too fond of. This limitless creativity and freedom means you’re the boss, and you get to experiment with crazy ideas that established game publishers wouldn’t risk investing in.
Furthermore, self-publishing means flexible deadlines. When you’re not being pressured to deliver something by a certain date and time, you get to relax a bit. There is no mandatory announcement of a release date to publish in all possible media. There is no audience expanding if you don’t want there to be (although it’s usually not a good idea to pass up a chance to expand your potential fanbase). If you’re creating a game to be productive with an entertaining group of people, this sounds like a dream come true. And if you’re more serious, well, it’s still on your schedule. You can still go at your own pace.
Although it seems complicated, self-publishing ensures you have complete control of your own game development process. You can take your time, create your game however you want, and forgo the worrying about meeting marketing deadlines or seeking the widest audience possible. You get to enjoy game development for what it is: something personal, creative and different than what AAA is putting out. It’s flexible and rewarding, and most always reflective of the developer’s unique perspective on the world.
The Drawbacks of Self-Publishing
Of course, everything in life has some negative aspects to it, and self-publishing is no exception. Total independence isn’t free. Self-publishing means you’re in charge of marketing your own game. You’re in charge of user acquisition and getting your game known—while shouldering all the costs. It means all the expenses associated with funding, developing, testing, marketing, and releasing the game are entirely up to you. That’s a hefty feat for a new developer, especially if you don’t already have experience in these areas.
This means you need to learn new skills while developing your game. It also means the risk of losing money is higher. The good news is there are lots of cheap solutions you can explore, which is great for all the developers out there working on ambitious projects. For instance, there are sponsorships and grants, or programs like Indie Fund or Indie Wolverine, both of which help with specific development elements. Programs like Failbetter Games’ Fundbetter, which helps narrative games find a market and audience in exchange for a return on their investment. These organizations and grants help with certain aspects of development, like quality assurance and marketing.
However, their primary purpose is to provide support. Developers are still expected to find artists, designers, and other resources on their own, which requires a lot of time and effort—time spent away from actually developing your game. Meanwhile, those that opt for traditional publishing don’t have this issue as much. They can easily tap into publisher connections to find qualified developers.
Also, self-publishing means even with the support of grants or sponsorships, you’re very much free, meaning there will be a glaring spotlight on your lack of business knowledge and unreasonable expectations. Game development is only one piece of the puzzle. You can get a team of like-minded, passionate people together to make a game, but those rose-tinted glasses slip right off soon enough. Game development does not equal your game project. It’s a business, which means there are rules to follow, procedures you’ll be accountable for, and knowledge that you’ll be better off learning sooner than later, like learning how to use metric tools and how to find your target audience.
Poor management isn’t something to take lightly either. Indie development teams are quite small, and they’re often amateurish when it comes to coordination and subordination—two key business ideas. In other words, everyone on the team is disorganized and horizontal. Everyone acts like they’re different than AAA, which isn’t entirely true. In reality, you’re still working on games, and in order for those projects to see the light of day, much of the same steps are required. Even without a designated “boss,” someone needs to act as one in order to streamline the development process, determine priorities, and assign tasks.
Developers are creative types with big dreams and usually small budgets. It’s easy to get carried away, letting expectations run wild. With little to no business experience, this can lead to a major loss of potential profit, as well as shattered dreams. So, at least some education on these subjects is desirable to backup your project. Otherwise, you risk getting lost in the thousands of indie games cropping up around the world. Not sure where to start? Consider partnering up with companies that offer a variety of tools to make all the analysis, marketing, and distributing easier.
The Benefits of Traditional Publishing
On the other hand, going with a publisher means you can rely on their experienced marketing team to handle all that work for you. With their expertise also comes their big pool of users across their network. There is a bigger potential of earning more money in the long term. What might seem like a painful investment upfront has the possibility of a great ROI, but of course, that all depends on your game.
One of the biggest benefits a traditional publisher provides is the ability to handle all of your marketing tools, such as website and social media accounts. They can gauge what’s missing, who to target, when and where to post, as well as how. By providing all the research for you, and guiding you through a schedule, you’re able to ensure that everything is taken care of the best it can be. And in turn, you get more time to spend on your game development.
And if it counts for anything, landing a publishing contract means your game was good enough to be worthy of investment. Publishers don’t publish just any game, otherwise they’d go under. When they choose a game, it’s because they see a market for it, they see the potential, and they know they can gain something from it. They want to help you, the developer, without sacrificing themselves in the process. So, when your game is selected, take that as a giant vote of confidence. And any suggestions they make regarding the game may seem like a blatant loss of freedom, but it’s all about perspective. At the end of the day, they’re professionals who know what sells. Anything they suggest will come from a place of business incentive.
Just remember. Hiring a publisher won’t make your game better: only you can do that. And if you put your best possible effort into it, you still can’t make everything else, like marketing, work in your favor without the experience. A traditional publisher knows how to do the things you can’t, and they have the connections and experience from doing these things on a daily basis.
The Drawbacks of Traditional Publishing
Of course, bigger revenue potential comes with a bigger share to be taken by your publisher. The exact amount varies among publishers and depends on different factors (type of game, its value to their portfolio, its state when you signed up, etc). Make sure you check this out before signing that dotted line. Working with publishers also means you need to be open to sharing ownership of the game (including making tweaks and revisions that they want), as well as deal with contracts and commit to milestones.
Also, remember that going with a traditional publisher usually means a loss of freedom. While they won’t demand certain concepts or anything of the sort, they will suggest ideas and comment on what you already have. They will only invest if there is potential for return, but once they invest, they are looking to put you through the motions of running a business. Because let’s face it, development is a business. Working with publishers means you give them power: they can change their minds and move in the opposite direction; they can back off and completely dissolve their project. The minute there is a sponsor or publisher, you have to take their opinions into consideration. Because you’re responsible for certain pieces of work, you can’t just switch ideas randomly, modify anything at your own discretion, nor go off schedule.
Assuming You’ve Decided to Self-Publish…
Obviously, no article explaining pros and cons of game publishing is quite complete without an understanding of what it actually means to self-publish. Put simply, it is the combination of everything you, the developer, would normally do, plus all the things publishers do on a routine basis. And as it turns out, that’s a lot of work.
For starters, defining your player base is crucial. Are you launching your game in countries where users would actually like your game? Does it fit into their gaming habits? Will they like the art style? How much does it cost to acquire users there? Services like App Annie and Chartboost will help answer these questions, as well as Facebook’s insights and targeting, or Xsolla Publisher Account.
You’ll also need to gather enough data to show that your game has what it takes to be successful. Doing soft launches and AB tests are common practices used to gather this type of information. Overall, when doing this, there are a few questions you’ll need to answer:
- Are users responding to my ads?
- Are they installing and playing my game?
- Are they returning after the first day of installing the game?
- Do I have a lot of paying users?
- How much do they spend and what are they buying?
Now, having a great game isn’t enough these days. There’s just too much competition. If you want to get users to download and play it, you’ll need to put in hard work. Some ways to acquire users are: paid acquisition via ad networks and Facebook, which are easy to use and can scale with your budget; press releases, which requires fun and entertaining articles and a good network of bloggers and media to review your game; and social network sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Creating a blog with regular updates will also help, as players love feeling like they can directly communicate with the creators behind their favorite games.
Getting users in your game is just the beginning. Keeping them long enough so you can convert them into loyal and paying users is where the real battle happens. Most games have different ways of keeping their users engaged: social features so they can keep playing with their friends: events to give them something rewarding to do outside the normal game flow; or via constant communication through messages, notifications, and social media. As with user acquisition, find a good combination that leads to higher engagement. Having a good system for them to give feedback is also crucial in keeping them loyal, since players love to feel like they’re being heard and catered to.
Earning revenue is ultimately what everything boils down to, even if it’s not your primary motive. It’s what hopefully funds the next game project. To become successful, understanding revenue is a must. Besides the usual updates, promotions and ads, you can earn revenue by investing plenty of time and effort into understanding your players. Dive into the data and know how your players behave, so you can use it to your advantage. Some things to make a note of are which items they purchase the most, which are being ignored, and at which point in the game do they spend the most money. These questions are important to help you improve your game’s flow and find out how to transition your users into loyal, paying players.
Note that there is no single solution that works 100% of the time. Combining all of the above would definitely increase your chances of getting players into your game. The trick is finding the right combination that works best for you, and your game. Appsflyer is a really good tool to help you identify which campaign gives you the most users and where they are coming from.
Game Publishing – Sacrifices & Rewards
Game development isn’t just about making games with people you have loads in common with. It’s a tricky business. Beyond the game, there are numerous of things that go along with it, like marketing, art, public relations, quality assurance, etc. Depending on your experience, you might be able to handle that by yourself, but for everything you don’t know, or can’t do due to time restrictions, that extra funding and support comes in handy. How much you need is ultimately up to you.
If self-publishing sounds ideal for you, make sure to do your research. You need to know things like who your target market is, how user acquisition works, and what you can do to get this done. Furthermore, you’ll need to think of ways to keep your users engaged moving forward, even months or years after a game launch. Turning your users into loyal, paying users isn’t done overnight, but if you invest the time, and analyze data like your life depends on it, you can be successful.
If you choose to find a game publisher, consider what you need and what you’re willing to sacrifice. If all you ultimately need is marketing support, you might not need to look far. There are many paths to success in game development, so be sure to take the time to find the one that’s the best fit for your project.
Disclaimer: Black Shell Media is a games publisher. Also, every publisher has different terms and a different set of offerings. Do your homework and talk directly to publishers to know the most accurate information for your situation.
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