Lately, more and more companies are getting into the publishing business, and even some indie studios are trying their hand at helping their fellow developers bring titles to the market. For small teams, partnering with a publisher can help with public relations, marketing, and getting on console platforms like Nintendo’ Switch. This can be crucial, especially for developers who aren’t in North American or Europe, like those in South Africa.
But it can be tough to get a publishing deal: You may never get a chance to meet with a publisher, or your pitch may never get through their crowded inboxes. I reached out to a handful of indie publishers to get a feel for what kind of games pique their interest, as well as to get some advice for developers on how to pitch them.
The representatives from Devolver Digital, Raw Fury, Square Enix Collective, Team17, Playdius, and Ysbryd Games whom I spoke with all had similar advice about some things. For instance, all of them describe looking for quality games that will grab players’ attention in a crowded marketplace. Even though the saying goes to never judge a book by its cover, a game’s art style is crucial to differentiate itself on a platform like the PC marketplace Steam, where 7,672 games launched in 2017.
The publishers I spoke to offered some general advice as well as talked about the things they’re specifically looking for. Keep in mind that these are just the perspectives and strategies of these particular companies, and indie developers should do their own research before pitching the publishers of their choice.
What are publishers looking for?
Raw Fury publishing scout Callum Underwood gave a talk earlier this year at Reboot Develop, a games event in Croatia, titled “Why pitching to publishers sucks.” The presentation is online, and in it, he talks broadly about the process as well as details about what Raw Fury is looking for.
In Underwood’s talk, he devotes a slide to why publishers turn down VR games. This doesn’t mean that Raw Fury will necessarily never sign a VR title. Yet these can be a big commitment of resources and a huge pivot for publishers who have already worked out a process for evaluating, playtesting, and marketing more traditional games.
“If we want to have a PAX booth and we have to add a VR game into that, that’s much more space than just another TV screen or something like that. I’ll never say never, but I tend not to review pitches,” said Underwood. “We just don’t really look at pitches, because I don’t want to waste a developer’s time.”
Most publishers have certain genres or types of games that they shy away from. Raw Fury isn’t a good fit for free-to-play mobile titles, for instance. Playdius head of publishing Guillaume Jamet echoes Raw Fury’s sentiment about VR and free-to-play games, and he adds that his team isn’t really interested in local multiplayer games. Generally, it wants titles that are geared for midcore to hardcore players on PC and consoles, and it looks for more casual narrative-driven games on mobile.
Square Enix director of indie publishing Phil Elliott says that sports games are a tough sell for Collective, as are multiplayer online battle arenas and battle royale titles.
“I’d probably steer away from [MOBAs and battle royales] just because I don’t think there’s a lot of room in the market for even a spectacularly different take on those,” said Elliott. “People are really coalescing around a few titles in that genre.”
Team17 isn’t a great home for MOBAs either, or for digital card games. Its developer relations manager, Troy Horton says, that it’s because of similar reasons — the marketplace for those types of games is crowded, and most people are playing the same big titles.
You can sometimes tell what types of games a publisher is interested in by checking out its portfolio. But just because a studio has previously published a certain genre of games, that doesn’t mean they’re only interested in that.
Ysbyrd founder Brian Kwek says that after it published Sukeban Games’ futuristic bartending simulator VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action, it received a ton of pitches for visual novels. However, none of these developers got signed, partly because VA-11 HALL-A had a unique pixel art aesthetic to offer — if it had looked more like its straight-up anime-style compatriots, “I might have said, no, this looks too much like Hunie Pop,” said Kwek — and partly because of market trends.
“Obviously, I empathize with a developer’s position. If you’re making a visual novel game, or any game for that matter, you keep a keen eye for what’s done well and try to maximize your chances of success,” said Kwek. “But at the same time, if VA-11 Hall-A did well in 2016, do you necessarily — I would ask this hypothetical dev — do you think that in 2018, we’ll have the exact same chance that all the trends will be the same, and that your game has the exact set of variables, in terms of art style, music, narrative content, all that resonating with the audience?”
Devolver Digital’s Nigel Lowrie says that his team is looking for something unique.
“It’s not a scientific process by any means, our team looks at prospective games and decide as a group if it’s a project that is doing something genuinely unique or is a new take on something familiar that we believe Devolver Digital can help bring to wider audience,” said Lowrie. “Sometimes it’s unconventional storytelling like The Red Strings Club, a genius mechanic like Minit, or a supremely designed take on an existing genre like Enter the Gungeon. Sometimes it’s larger projects like Absolver that really blend different elements into something unlike anything we’ve ever seen.”
It’s an idea that all these companies have in common, and it’s intuitive: Publishers want games that add some kind of twist on genre tropes or stand out in some way.
“The market has become very crowded so we look for titles which have something unique — sometimes this is apparent in the pitch, and sometimes this is nuanced within the pitch for which fans of the game’s genre will appreciate,” said Horton. “Our internal teams play a vast spectrum of games from all genres so we think we’re pretty good at spotting unique elements in games.”
How to pitch publishers
What I would call the perfect first email to send to a publisher (although, a steam key is also fine!). With and without the overlay! <3 pic.twitter.com/n21d0BqPFi
— Callum 🚀 Nordic Game (@DevRelCallum) October 10, 2017
Almost across the board, publishers said that having a playable prototype is best, even if it’s in its early stages.
“The only thing playable might be a white box demo,” said Elliott. “We signed The Turing Test off the strength of a white box demo. They showed us the screen renders of what they had for the final visual style. What we could then do is look at their level design, understand how the game was going to be played, how it was going to feel, and then alongside that we could look at what the visuals of the game—how that was going to be applied on the top.”
“All we want to really see is what the developer think makes the game special/fun/provocative,” said Lowrie. “Pitch docs are fine but a playable prototype or even a video of them playing it and explaining it are the most illustrative and what we usually look for before making any real decisions.”
Team17’s Horton says as a general rule of thumb, it likes to see the following information in a pitch email: “A high level premise of the game; development team summary (size/experience); where the project is at, target platforms and release window; gameplay footage captured from a vertical slice or prototype; [and] a summary of the development team needs in terms of support (i.e., funding/production/marketing etc.).”
Underwood says that the three things he wants to see in a pitch email is a link to a build, some gameplay footage, and a proposed budget.
“What are they asking the publisher for? I think that’s the important thing to have, even if it’s not necessary,” said Underwood. “The one thing so many devs leave out, which drives me up the wall, is budget. I’ll get an email with a build and a really amazing-looking pitch deck and all this stuff, and I’m like, I don’t know what you want. How much does this game cost?”
Elliott advises developers to keep in mind how long the production schedule will be, too, and take that into consideration when composing a budget.
“Far too many times, I see teams eke out that budget, and they’re running on fumes as the game ships, and then they don’t take into account the fact that they’re not going to get paid for, on average, six weeks, or maybe eight to 10 weeks, because the platforms pay at least one month in arrears, starting from the end of the month they release in,” said Elliott. “It’s about that survivability. I think particularly, again, in the current climate—when we look at teams we think, how are they going to sustain themselves in that interim period?”
Some developers might try to pitch the game as sellable based on similar titles in the market, but this can backfire. What Collective has seen is that developers will take successful indie titles and extrapolate what that means for their game. This is usually based on data gleaned from sites such as Steam Spy.
“If I’ve heard of all the titles on someone’s forecasting list, I start to get a bit worried,” said Elliott. “What I like to see is when people have actually looked at—who are their peers that they can judge themselves against? You’re not going to judge yourself against people who make games like Cuphead or Firewatch. That’s the gold rush. It’s fantastic to aspire to that quality of game, but you have to be realistic, particularly in the current market.”
Elliott recommends that folks sign up for ICO Partners Steam newsletter, which is a free email that summarizes all the titles that were released on the PC marketplace in the previous week.
Kwek says that the timing of the email also matters. If a pitch hits his inbox during Game Developers Conference and the Electronic Entertainment Expo, it’s unlikely that they’ll hear back from him because it’s such a busy time. Underwood agrees that it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle around events, but he encourages developers to go ahead and email when they’re ready.
“If you’re waiting because you’re worried we’ll be too busy during GDC, it’s the wrong way to look at it,” said Underwood. “It’s when you think you’re ready, send it over, and just understand that at some times we might be busier than others. And I guess that then comes down to email etiquette. How often do you ping? Do you remind us that we haven’t gotten back to you? That’s just down to personal preference. I do like to be reminded. Emails can get lost.”
Another thing developers should also consider is not to approach publishers too late in the development process.
“Last GDC I met a very nice dev who told me ‘We are releasing next month it’s a done deal, we need a publisher to help us,’” said Playdius’s Jamet. “Well, there’s nothing I can do there! Publishing a game is not only about having a game ready. It takes time to set up communication, sales, business development, etc. It’s not just because a game is ready on the dev side that it is actually ready to go to the market.”
In-person meetings vs. emails
Beyond just what the game offers, the human factor matters, as well. Underwood says Raw Fury brings developers to its Stockholm for “karaoke, dinner, drinking, talking about game design, talking about the game itself if they want” with the greater aim at seeing whether or not everyone involved hit it off as people. Kwek says that he has a “litmust test — could we be buddies?”
Depending on the project, publishers and developers could be working together for years on a title, so it’s important to get along.
“We love to work with passionate people who want to bring great experiences to gamers,” said Horton. “Making games is hard — it’s important to see passion, commitment and a collaborative mindset in potential development partners!”
That’s part of the reason why in-person meetings are important. Developers are aware of this — it’s why so many of them scrape together the funds necessary to make it out to industry events like GDC or E3. Lowrie describes how Enter the Gungeon developer Dave Crooks “flew from Virginia to L.A. during E3 and walked onto our trailer park without warning and just said ‘check out our game.’” Devolver did, and it went on to sign Enter the Gungeon.
But publishers are also aware of how expensive it is to attend these conferences.
Raw Fury tries to make it out to smaller events throughout Europe so that it can meet with developers there. Lowrie says the best way to reach out to Devolver is via email and social media. Playdius reviews every game submitted through its website form.
Kwek usually tries to make it out to PAX at least — the publisher is based in Singapore, so it has to go out and mingle with players to maintain its brand visibility. Though developers can email him, it’s a little tougher for him because he doesn’t have a designated game scout to go through every pitch. Most of the titles he’s signed, he’s found himself.
When it comes to bandwidth to wrangle emails, it can come down to publisher resources. Smaller publishers have much smaller teams, which means less time to field cold pitches.
Collective has pivoted recently because it noticed that it couldn’t help smaller teams as much as it would like. Forgotton Anne is the last game under its old model, and it’s now looking to make bigger investments in fewer titles every year.
“I think what we’ve decided to do in the last few months is change our approach slightly and try to play a bit more to our strengths, where we see other indie publishers like Devolver or Team17, with a really strong indie publisher brand,” said Elliott. “I think they’re probably better placed, in a lot of ways, than us, to find those small starting teams and actually, with the brand of their publisher identity, help take them to that credible level. Whereas for us, despite our best efforts, I think that we’re still best placed to maybe work now with more established teams, because we’ve got resources we can access.”
Some publishers have an unofficial cap on the number of titles they can take on. Square Enix Collective is looking at about four or five games every year, and because Ysbryd has a small team, it has published about one per year.
Playdius plans to release two or three “major games” on PC and console every year, like its upcoming JRPG, Edge of Eternity. It’s also publishing three or four small projects, such as Impulsion, which was originally a student game.
“Our goal is to release five to six games every year on PC and consoles with the same amount on mobile,” said Jamet. “If you do the math that’s about 10 to 12 games a year. We believe we can handle a monthly release schedule so it keeps us busy.”
Raw Fury has traditionally signed between four to seven titles every year. Underwood says it’s because it wants each one to be a “flagship game,” and he uses the analogy of a PAX booth —
“If you only have space for four games and you have 30 games in your catalog, that’s 26 games that don’t get to be at PAX because you signed them rather than some other publisher that just wants to have a small slate of games,” said Underwood. “That said, we just added another producer the other day. We definitely don’t have a hard cap.”
Team17 doesn’t have a set number of games that it releases every year, though Horton says that the number of titles it’s working on has “grown organically.”
“We dedicate substantial resources to each product — they are assigned a producer, brand manager, community manager, and video editor, for example — and we are very careful that we take on the right amount of games so we can ensure the right level of support for all our label development partners,” said Horton.
For Devolver, it depends on the size of the projects it’s also working on.
“We do try to maintain a steady stream of releases, paced out over time that we think our team can handle well,” said Lowrie. “It’s not so much a number as it is a look at our resources and what we can do. Massive games (for us) like Serious Sam 4 account for more resources than something like Reigns so those aren’t necessarily easy to compare together as ‘one game’ –things like scope have to be taken into account.”
Defining success for indie developers and publishers
The publishers seem to agree that the most important thing for indie developers is to be able to continue to make games.
“That’s the whole point of doing this, so the devs can make money,” said Underwood. “But of course not every game is a success. And I think that’s part of the power balance, again. The whole business model of publishers makes sense and works because we can take a hit on two games and make a hit on one game and still come out OK.”
Kwek thinks that developers should aspire to build long-term relationships and fostering a community rather than hope for an instant hit. 11 Bit’s Frostpunk came up in conversation as an example of a recent successful indie game, and Kwek pointed out that it’s also from a studio that wasn’t an overnight success. It’s been around since 2010 and started out on mobile with the 2011’s Anomaly: Warzone Earth.
“They’ve taken many stabs at it,” said Kwek. “I think 11 Bit spent a lot of time building an audience across different games, and you could say different successes as well. If, over time, a developer or publisher is able to build that audience through their games, through Steam, through whatever means are available – social media, Discord, PAX, whatever – if you build and retain an audience over time, I think that’s actually the most rewarding success you can have. An audience that loves your stuff, that evangelizes for you and your brand, I think that’s the — it’s the gift that keeps on giving, I would say.”
All of the publishers have said that developers retain their IP, though revenue share depends on factors like how much they’re investing in the game. One thing that Underwood says most developers forget about is the recoup rate in agreements. It’s something to look out for, because it can determine when developers will actually get paid.
“Now, there’s two ways of recouping money: the old-school way, and the new-school way. The old-school way is, when you hear these stories of successful indie devs, ’90s and 2000s, their games sold a million copies, but the developer never made any money — how does that happen?” said Underwood. He described the “old-school way”: “If the publisher puts in $100,000, and the game makes $100,000, the publisher can say, OK, well, let’s say we have a 50/50 split. Fifty percent of that is yours, 50 percent is mine. Fifty-thousand dollars has been paid off the debt, but I’m also going to take your $50,000 and put that in my back pocket because you haven’t paid your debt off yet. The game has to make $200,000 in order for the dev to start earning out, because the publisher is only using its portion of the revenue split to pay off that debt.”
The issue with that is whenever the publisher spends money on marketing or any other services, this prolongs the period of time before the developer can earn any revenue at all. Raw Fury doesn’t adhere to this model, though Underwood couldn’t go into detail about the contracts it signs with developers.
Elliott says that Collective takes 70 percent of the revenue from day one until it hits the recoup point. Then the developer shifts from earning 30 percent to 70 percent of the net revenue.
“A lot of our costs aren’t actually recouped,” said Elliott. “Collective was never set up to make profit, to go fund triple-A games. It was always intended to be a very specific part of the business. We were very clear from the start. Any profit we make as Collective, we will reinvest into indie development.”
According to Elliott, Square Enix has a keen interest in supporting the health of the indie ecosystem, because it sees it as “onramp for new talent.” To that end, Square Enix has promoted game pitches on its website to try to rally its community to support those developers’ crowdfunding campaigns. Those games don’t usually get picked up by Collective to publish, but it’s a way to help indies get a little bit more visibility.
“There’s a big emphasis on new ideas and on creativity, and also frankly a diversity of perspective,” said Elliott. “Games from all parts of the world, as opposed to just the well-trodden U.K., U.S., Canada, France, Germany kind of thing. And so we wanted to find a way to try to support those teams, to work with them, but actually build their IP up, build them into businesses. And hopefully we’ll bring a bit more stability to what is ultimately quite a fragile ecosystem still. The difference between success and failure is pretty stark.”