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EIGHT YEARS DEVELOPING AND INDIE GAME, MY STORY WITH PUBLISHERS.

My story with publishers in the negotiation stage, personal experience share to help understand what makes a deal to go wrong and why, and bringing to the table one of the most important questions about publishing deals: Why do you recoup and nor me?

INTRODUCTION

I have been developing Moons of Darsalon for almost 8 years and in the last 4 I have already been dealing with publishers. I was not in a hurry to finish the game and because I was not going to sign a contract lightly, I needed to learn a lot about industry to understand that I was signing, I have spoken with quite a few publishers, thanks to the universe it seems to be a game that attracts a lot due to its visuals and its mechanics, which has caused the interest of many publishers but luckily, or perhaps unfortunately today none of these conversations ended up sucessfully.

The first thing that I would like to clarify is that I am not the typical single developer who often subsists on limited savings that threaten to run out soon, which notably conditions his priorities. In this case, there is usually a scenario in which the publisher invests money in the development of the game, paying monthly until it is finished or with more or less large money injections per milestones, and, if this is the case, all the standard conditions that publishers usually offer begin to make sense in my head. But in my case, my economic situation does not stress me and this paradoxically is "harming" me since the fact that situation is different from what publishers are used to and thus, they offer me the standard contract.

I am aware that this writing could be my death sentence when it comes to getting a contract with a publisher, not just for this game but for the next ones to come. If that's what's going to happen, ok, I don't like it but alright, it's not the first time I make enemies in the industry because I fight for what I consider fair.

I really hope my words can help some other indie devs to get a fairer deal or maybe to understand a little better what is going on when dealing with publishers and to make better decisions.

Before getting into the main part of this writing, here is the trailer of Moons of Darsalon. I think it is important to watch because it is what got the interest of most of the publishers I’ll be discussing.

So, once I get the interest from a publisher and I do find them interesting as well, these are my main priorities:

1- Guarantees that they will give maximum visibility to the game.
2- Revenue share that is close to reasonable.

MINIMUM GUARANTEES

The first thing one thinks to guarantee something like this is to write it in the contract:

"...the publisher guarantees that it will use its maximum efforts to promote the game blah blah ..."

However in the real world, how is this going to guarantee me anything? If, after publishing the game, I consider that their work has not fulfilled what it should be, would I have to sue them and prove that they have not put in their maximum effort…? I think it would be easier to prove that the Earth has the shape of a dodecahedron. And even if it were possible to prove it, it doesn't matter... I'm already screwed, the game has been released, failed and now I would also have to get involved in an international legal process ???... I'd better shoot myself to finish as soon as possible.

That is why the only option that occurs to me to be able to "guarantee" that the publisher will fulfill its mission is to ask for an amount of money such as ADVANCE (or Minimum Guarantees MG) It is not an investment, it is an advance of royalties, a money that the publisher must pay upfront (at the signing of the contract, for example) and that will be recouped from sales. Yes, it sounds practically the same as funding money. However, there are some key differences. I am not asking for money to finish the game, I am establishing an amount of minimum money that I am going to receive, which should be recouped through their work of selling my product. It is a guarantee that ensures me that you know what you are doing. They are two very different concepts that I like to make clear because if we call it funding money, everything gets mixed and I think it makes you lose bargaining power. In any case, it is something that must be done (no matter how we call this money) because if they are not going to risk money out of their pocket, how can I be sure that if any uncomfortable unforeseen event occurs they will not forget of my game because they have a new more interesting one or any other totally random unfortunate reason? You have to ask for money no matter what, not doing so is playing Russian roulette.

Now, this money that the publisher has to put at risk can be offered (in total or combined with the advance) in the form of INVESTMENT IN MARKETING, which at first seems like a good option if they subcontract to specialized marketing/PR companies, reaching out to influencers, Facebook ads, etc. So it sounds great that your game receives a good promotion, however here comes the catch: that investment in marketing will be recouped from the first sales, which minimizes the risk of the publisher, and at the end of the day, you are the one that pays that marketing because you are not receiving royalties that you could be receiving with those first sales. Not to mention how difficult it would be to monitor that all that investment in marketing has really gone exactly where it should. You can request a copy of these invoices trough your contract, but good luck with this.

But here comes my main question:

Why do I have to pay for marketing myself?

Ok, I don't pay it directly, they advance the money and then recoup it from the sales, if they don't recoup it they never ask you to pay it back, but this case is very unlikely. What's more, they calculate that no matter how badly the marketing would go, at least the money invested will be recouped, it is almost zero risk, and in the end you have paid for it. So back to the question, why do you have to pay for it? Isn't the publisher in charge of selling the product? … should not be the marketing a total responsibility of the publisher?

In the world of dance music (when house music was a thing), it was normal that the marketing money invested by the publisher (actually record label) was ONLY 50% RECOUPABLE, Because of this, the record label took part of the risk and was motivated by that.

Often the issue of the wages of your workers comes up:

“...consider that we do not charge you the proportional part of the wages of our workers and our day-to-day expenses, but calculate that for each game this goes up to about 80,000… ”

I do not want to diminish the value of the work of the publisher staff, but... honestly, it is not my problem, my problem is the monetary value of what it has cost me to finish (or almost finish) “Moons of Darsalon” and I am not asking you to take my word for it, I have given you a build that you have tried, that you liked and that has led you to negotiate with me because you have considered that it can generate money.

I have also heard things like:

“...think that these offices alone cost 6000 euros per month…”

I don’t get it… are your offices going to make my game sell better? People can see them from steam when buying the game or how is this going? and there were no cheaper offices in the outskirts or what?

Without wishing to offend anyone, it is not my problem, in the same way that it is not your problem if, to impress you, I have bought an expensive suit for the interview, or to refine the art of my game I have spent 4 months creating and adjusting a shader when in the unity store there was one that did the same for 10 euros.Those would have been my problems and I am not going to make you pay for them. That's why you should not talk to me about the increase in your expenses as a negotiation tactic because I've also had my costs and in the end what counts is the result, the result of how the game is going to sell cannot be known for sure, but you have in your hands a build that shows 85% of the final result of the product, I am offering you something solid, you can actually play it. On the contrary, I have to settle for crossing my fingers and hoping that you are going to do a good job and if you don’t, I'll never know… Did it sell poorly because the game isn't liked? Or did it sell poorly because the publisher did not do its job well?

I guess it's a risk you have to take, there's no other way, they also take a risk because the game can be solid in their eyes and then not end up fitting in the market. Though, their job is supposed to be to predict these things. In any case, I think it is clear that my risk is much bigger here.

In my mind, the question always remains without a valid justification. I have come to ask it several times:

“Why do you have to recoup your investment in marketing?”

The standard answer is:

“Because it is money that we pay to external agencies, it is an investment, here we are taking a risk…”

Which always makes me think: does that mean that I can recoup all the money that I have spent on assets from the Unity store?, the new Mac i’ve got to speed up the builds that took more than 5 minutes can I recoup it too? …I have programmed and designed the game myself without receiving a salary, but if I had paid an external team of 5 programmers, designers, artists, musicians… could I recoup that investment as well? When would we do it? after you recoup your 50K from marketing I start collecting 100% of the sales until I recoup the 400k that it cost me to make the game?

REVENUE SHARE

Most publishers offer you 50/50, which in my opinion is totally disproportionate, especially in a case like mine in which I am not asking for money to finish the game but I suppose they have to try and probably many would likely accept it. Even 40/60 doesn’t seem fair to me, 30/70 is something that is close to what I consider fair without actually being quite there, but it is the most I have managed to get them to accept. In some cases I received offers of 60/40 this is 60 for them!!! Are you f%&ing kidding me? In these cases I don’t even try to negotiate, I just say goodbye.

My way of seeing it is that both variables are related and that is why if you ask for a better revenue share, the MG will be lower and vice versa. And well, finding a publisher with whom to reach an agreement on these two variables was somewhat difficult but not impossible, there were two real cases:

FIRST POTENTIAL PUBLISHER

This has been so long since I don't remember if I sent them an email or they found me on twitter. I'm not going to say their name but he was a very reputable publisher, a solid company with a history of powerful and successful releases. We kept in touch for a few years since they were very interested and asked me how the development was going every few months. We did negotiate main conditions, they accepted 30/70 an advance of 20K and a marketing investment of 30K, I was not entirely convinced these numbers but it did not seem like a bad start to me, they sent me their standard contract that included a lot of clauses that I did not like but I decided not to add pressure for the moment until I had the game more closed, when that moment came and coinciding with the fact that they wrote me again asking to resume conversations, I asked some questions and ……. I never heard from them again, I even wrote to them on Discord because the mail could be failing… but nothing… really weird, they just asked me to resume conversations and then ghosted me? … I must have asked a very complicated question.

SECOND POTENTIAL PUBLISHER

After confirming that the ghosting of the first publisher was real and official, I sent a few emails and ended up talking to another publisher which had an interesting value that I will not detail so that it cannot be identified, it also had previous games that were selling well although not many because the company had been operating for not long, although they offered me 50/50 they ended up accepting 30/70 + 50K from MG without much effort, we spoke once on Skype and then by email where he was always very explanatory, flexible, correct, and he kept repeating how much he loved the game …we managed to specify many more aspects of the contract, physical units, ports , territories, merchandising… Everything was going from strength to strength, until after sending the contract to a lawyer friend of mine to consult him about some clauses that he did not understand, I wrote back with the questions/changes my attorney suggested and…guess what? …. GHOSTING NUMBER TWO IN PROGRESS … again, I wrote to the Skype chat: “hey, are you there?” … it seems that it is becoming a habit to ghost me…

SO WHAT DO I THINK IS HAPPENING?

Moons of Darsalon may not be the best game in the universe, but it is attractive. I know that for sure, please don’t think it’s the typical developer’s lack of objectivity. If I am sure the game is attractive, it is because I have had some of the biggest publishers asking me for a build to play it in their offices just after seeing the game in a physical event or watching the trailer on the internet. So what is going wrong? Well , some of these guys end up not having a slot, not feeling the gameplay completely or any other random reason? You never know, because even if they give you an answer for the rejection, this is likely not the truth, but more likely a manufactured answer that is designed to avoid you to keep asking or insisting, here an example:

PUB:- “We don’t take it cause the AI is not good enough.”
DEV:- “Oh I can make it better i'll send you a new build in a month”.(the don’t want to hear this lol)

They prefer to give you an answer that you have to accept no matter what, even though it is completely fake. For example, and this is a real answer I have got from one of the biggest publishers:

PUB:- “We don’t take it cause it doesn’t fit in our product focus right now.”

How funny is it that these guys were literally chasing me on Twitter to get a build and test it. So, you chase a guy for a build of his game that doesn’t fit in your product focus? The only explanation I can come up with is their answer is BS.

So you never know what push them back, which is so sad because that would be one of the best ways to learn and improve your game:

-Was the gameplay still not very polished?
-Mouse and keyboard controls are confusing?
-Should I add more enemies?
-Is is… actually the game itself? This is important. At first I never thought of this as a possibility but the more I learned talking to publishers and from those panels they usually do at events in which invite publishers to talk …the more I realized the game itself is just a variable, and not necessarily the most important, which could probably be the team itself… how many games have you made before? How many devs are in the team? How old are they? Basically … how many times are you going to screw my release plan spreadsheet?… Which in my case can simplify all this in what I call the “solo dev factor

if (soloDev == true)
           problemRatio *= 5000;

But these are not all the cases, there are some publishers I don't think are interesting enough to release my game, either because I think they are small and their “publishing power” doesn't compensate for their revenue share or any other reasons I don’t think they fit.

Then there are others that I do think are interesting and they don't fear the solo dev that much and these are the two I have mentioned I have been dealing with. However, if you ask too many questions, there is a moment when they start thinking: “Do I really need to keep investing time on this guy that wants to polish every single detail of the contract for a 30/70 deal when I could be talking to any of these other studios that will accept almost anything I throw at them?”

EPILOGUE

Some are surprised at how long I’ve been developing Moons of Darsalon, and well, it’s true that being only a dev you can’t make a game as a Moons of Darsalon in two or three years, but almost 8 years seems excessive… Well, maybe it would be if I just do development, but I also have to deal with many other things related to the release of the game and one of the main ones is the search for a publisher. I could have a publisher tomorrow, but I don’t want to have a publisher tomorrow, I want a contract and a publisher with guarantees. But this is something that, minding the events that I just told, for better or for worse is probably not going to happen so I have no choice but to prepare the release of Moons of Darsalon myself.

Wish me luck!

Moons of Darsalon on Steam

Follow me on Twitter

English translation supervision by Parallax Abstraction

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