As a digital or indie developer, you’re not self-publishing, you’re publishing: Ten lessons to be learned from retail
You are not just a developer; you become a business publishing unit – all the risk is with you. That being the case, we at Sold Out thought it may be helpful to share our decades of publishing experience to highlight ten things that we believe digital publishers can learn from the boxed sector.
1) Please make a business plan at the same time you are making your game design. Business models and Marketing should not be an afterthought; they should be planned in from the very beginning of a project. You are making a game, but it needs to be commercially viable, so a solid business plan is as important as the games’ quality.
2) If you build it they may not come. Having planned and costed your methods of communicating with your customers, discovery is your next key focus. Discovery challenges are not a new thing. Boxed publishers worked out how to get past the gatekeepers at retailer level, but this took years of effort. The same approach is necessary to get front of deck on digital stores
No one ever releases games in August, but they do digitally. The sales enforce numbers enforce the mantra. Plan for seasonality, and remember, release date congestion is your enemy. Plan further ahead for promotional pricing, as it makes discounting much easier. Nobody likes to discount their products, but the marketplace is crowded – give your game the best chance of success, not just at lunch, but in the years afterwards. Your publicity heartbeats and communication with your target audience need to be set, or they just won’t happen, as the development team becomes busy on the core business of making the best game possible. In a boxed market, no product would ever be taken forward without the PR and marketing plans being approved at the very start of the process.
3) Focus on your financials from day one and question them, at the very least on a monthly basis. This may well be adapted and modified later, but you are now not just a games creator, but a business. If you require outside help, you need a plan, forecasts and costings. Even if you don't require external financial help, you need to know what timings and costs you will have to impact your cash flow. A boxed release had to show profit or it would not be taken forward. We tend to see far too many digital releases “hoping”, rather than planning to be profitable. Staff rolling on from show to show with no "event" date for release is common. And then they can realise at the 11th hour that they have earned only enough revenue to match what you could have taken with less risk as "work for hire project." Without knowing the rewards you are aiming for, why incur the risk?
4) The boxed market understands the need for territories and the value of export. You've generally made a great game for English speaking markets, but how do you take full advantage in France, Spain, and Germany. Have you considered translated PR and marketing releases? What are your key territories? The digital sales in Poland for example may make the localisation and a localised boxed release in that territory financially viable.
5) Boxed always looked to maximise access points to the consumer, not just territories. There are important outlets like supermarkets, the High street, and even back in the day, stands in newsagents and petrol stations. Many digital developers seem happy to just seek success on the Steam network, forgetting that many of the other storefronts added together can offer a further third in sales volumes on top of their Steam figures. Localisation and brand extension, all needs consideration.
6) Product lifecycle management is key in the boxed sector. Once you establish your price you determine how and when you would best like to adjust this in order to maximise sales. With digital there, seems to be a tendency to proceed towards discount strategies with what can only be described in a boxed mind-set as ‘with indecent haste.’ Customers are learning to defer purchase as they can wait for the 75% off sale, or hope it comes as a free game, on a humble bundle or perhaps as part of a Games with Gold subscription. Just because the platform holder suggests that you offer a day one discount for extra coverage doesn’t mean you should. As boxed publishers learned, it’s not all about day one, timely DLC drops, or gold editions, etc. All of these help.
Even if platform holders say it is unlikely that if you don’t hit day one sales volumes, you will be unlikely to be included in further digital promotions. Is it really in your best commercial interests to offer discounts at launch? Question the opportunity cost and your discount planning. Take the example of Rebellion and Zombie Army Trilogy; they believed in the quality of their release and set high pricing on both digital and boxed versions. Pricing that is still in place some seven months from release. Hold your nerve when possible - you can stand out from the crowd.
7) It doesn’t have to be either/or strategies - you can often take both boxed and digital revenues. Boxed publishers like Bethesda are adding digital and mobile revenues to their portfolio. By all means love the Digital lifestyle, but when it comes to revenues, an agnostic approach to cash is often a great help. Boxed is not the enemy – it is just a further route to revenue. Even the most digital focused publisher would find the highly engaged self-directing boxed consumer a great set of eyeballs to target. With the benefit of the correct partner in the sector, boxed project does not have to be problematic.
8) Check out the people you intend to work with. No one in the boxed sector struck a deal until they had checked current financials with their distribution or publishing partners. Yes, you are creative, but now you have to behave even more like a business. The quality of the game is important, but cash flow is king. Slow payments or no payments are a clue you need to find a new partner.
9) If you can avoid it do, not EVER offer your IP or shares of your company as part of any deal to get to market. You make the IP; you should own it exclusively. Boxed publishers learned very swiftly the value of both their IP and their company. Surrender this point at your peril.
10) Create structured roles and employ essential staff only. Employ freelance when you are able to, to keep overheads down. Boxed publishing needs marketing, PR, logistics, localisation skills and many other tasks that do not naturally belong in a developer’s environment. Can you really afford a full time PR role, when you may have only one release per year? Do you really need to take on these publishing people? Finding someone in your business that can do some of this is almost always the wrong answer. Perhaps look for publishing support that can be turned on and off like a tap – as and when needed.