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Finding Out if a Publisher is Right for You

A veteran Ubisoft producer explains what publishers look for in developers, and also explains what developers should look for in return, and how sometimes the more experienced studios and publishers with better offers aren't the best choices.

[A veteran Ubisoft producer explains what publishers look for in developers, and also explains what developers should look for in return, and how sometimes the more experienced studios and publishers with better offers aren't the best choices.]

Every studio is unique, and the same goes for publishers. Cultures, development philosophies, and strategies are among the things that differentiate every company, and they are all driven at different levels by business, design, tech, marketing, and more.

With that in mind, how do you make a good match between a studio and a publisher? Each side has its own ideas about what it is looking for, so it shouldn't be that difficult. But building a successful collaboration isn't that easy and takes time.

It takes also a good start. Usually when things get serious -- with all background checks done and work for hire business terms outlined -- it starts with some sort of due diligence where the publisher visits the studio's office. This process is mainly what is going to be covered in this article.

What's the Point of Due Diligence?

Obviously, the development team is important, and making sure it has all the talent, skills and experience is essential. However, a background check and some interviews are not going to reveal what the team dynamic during game development will be like, as talent management and good direction is really what is going to make a difference.

This is why the studio's management is key. In fact, if the manager is good, he or she is going to build a great team. Independently of their size, this is what the best studios do. If the management is lacking, even if by chance the team members are individually good, the project is most likely to go wrong at some point.

Often a large part of the studio visit is dedicated to technology. Tech tends to be a big deal to publishers' business teams, because this is an area we do not master, and is thus seen as pretty risky. It is not necessary for us to go deep into the subject, as it is covered well already -- more importantly, my point is that it doesn't matter much.

Taking a step back, most studios today use licensed tech, and those sticking with proprietary solutions tend to be really good at them. And as we know, using a particular licensed technology or having some cutting-edge feature is not a deciding factor in the quality or success of a game. This is why for one unit of time spent discussing tech, double should be dedicated to the making of games in general.

Development solutions are also not going to affect productivity in the same order of magnitude as project management issues do (planning, shortage of resources, contingencies, etc...) Coding practices are also more likely to affect the outcome.

Is the game code going to be well-designed, flexible, and eventually well-optimized and easy to maintain? These questions make it possible to collect clues during an interview, but don't offer much of a guarantee.

More importantly, the main goal of these discussions should be around making sure that the partnership has a chance to work out. As expressed by Game Developer magazine editor in chief Brandon Sheffield, the due diligence process is not only a one way street.

For a good start in this type of collaboration, it's necessary to discuss things openly -- things like creative control, what kind of input to expect from the publisher, respective levels of expectation, problem solving, and so on. In my experience, a lot of trouble can be avoided down the road by discussing these topics early.

And not only it is a mutual evaluation process, but it also takes a full development cycle for each party to really learn about the other, and to see that everyone has delivered as promised. At this point, if you have the will, it may turn into a longterm partnership.


What is a Publisher Looking For in the Due Diligence Process?

  • Publishers often look for longterm partnerships. It's a rational approach, as making a game with a third party developer represents an investment for both parties in term of resources and developing the tech, tools, knowhow, and more.

    For either a new project or a sequel, it is definitely easier for a publisher to work with someone familiar -- and with an existing production pipeline, in the case of the latter. The publisher is also betting on the fact that the studio is going to improve over time.

    Basically, for a publisher, due diligence consists of understanding the studio's culture and wishes, and identifying its potential. As a studio, you should be clear about your strategy, and what your longterm goals are, especially in terms of improving your structure and your games. A studio that seeks to continuously improve and questions itself is definitely more likely to be around in the next five years.
  • A must-have quality for a studio is to have enough wisdom to integrate and make use of different kinds of knowledge -- including the publisher's knowledge related to marketing, editorial, and so on. Even if a developer has made a good game before, he or she should also be smart enough to see the value of an external perspective. You can, for instance, prepare yourself to answer questions about your past experiences with (or without) other publishers, and to provide examples of how external input has improved your game, helped you focus, or pushed you to go the extra mile.
  • A studio needs to be demanding with itself and its products. Some publishers can be demanding as well -- for good reasons -- but it is definitely better when the developer is. Publishers will favor studios they need not be hands-on with, ones they can trust. Show good autonomy in assessing your own work, and explain exactly how you do it. If you have an inconsistent track record for delivering quality games, the publisher's team has probably looked at your most recent releases in considering you as a possible partner. It is all the more important in this case to insist on your internal quality and review process.
  • What a publisher is often looking for is a studio with an identity, and how this identity translates into the shape of its games. Remind the publisher of your strengths, and what qualities of your games are recognized by players or game reviewers. Insist, also, on how this can benefit the game you are pitching -- especially if it's the publisher's IP.
  • Following the previous point, a publisher is not simply looking for a studio that can make a game; it is also potentially looking for a partner who can deliver great PR for the game. This can be considered as a pre-check to see what the studio's public profile is; you are here to sell yourself, so do not hesitate to quote the press, describe how you handle communication on your original IPs, or if you have a community of players following you. This is not a necessary condition, but it definitely helps balance the relationship more in favor of the studio.

The Qualities that Impress Publishers

During conference talks, many studio heads insist on the importance of building a great team. Having someone who is really focused on the team is certainly a strong indication of a studio's potential. Attracting, mentoring, and retaining talent is strategic.

A couple of years ago, I visited a studio in Guilford doing digital games. It was cool to see that people were challenged to team up in pairs to develop mobile phone games in a week. This sort of game jam seems to be a lot more common nowadays; this is just one practice that points to the fact that a studio is a great workplace, and that the management cares about the team and its performance.

The hiring policy is also an interesting point to discuss; the qualities a manager looks for in candidates tells a lot about a studio. It is hard to find the right people, so it is always a plus when a manager has a good HR management strategy, plans ahead, and is always interested in adding new talent while trying to keep a good balance within the team.

It is also important when a studio manager has a balanced approach to development and knows his or her strengths and weaknesses, or even acknowledges past failures. There is no pattern for managers with specific backgrounds that do or not not fit better in the job, as long as they are passionate -- both about their role and game development.

The danger comes when a studio is too much driven by one specific aspect of game development (Erik Bethke identified this issue in his book Game Development and Production, giving examples on how it could affect projects). Obviously this issue applies to the publisher as well, when it has its own team directing the project.

Being able to clearly express your studio's vision and values -- and proving that you have stayed true to them -- makes the studio stand out from the others. It answers a number of questions about the studio being the right fit for a project, and helps the publisher adjust to the studio's culture. When a studio turns down borderline requests and says no in constructive ways when necessary, it's a good sign. And if it is not that well received by the publisher, at least it is a pretty accurate early warning system.

Likewise, it is disturbing when the only answer received is a yes (unless, culturally, "yes" means something else). This is one trait that is a red flag in a studio manager. It's also a turn-off when a studio manager doesn't review the studio's games.

A development team expects the management to care about the product and what they are doing, and be supportive. Even big publishers' chief executives review games at several stages of their development. Other items, like the lack of team trust, having too many hats, and "knowing everything" are also warning signs that should be added to the list.


So What Should Developers Look For?

  • It is important to work with a publisher whose stakeholders share the same goals and priorities for the project; this is not always the case, and it isn't always obvious. You simply want to work with a publisher who knows where it is going.

    If the publisher doesn't have a direction, it is easy to imagine situations where improper decision-making and lack of communication will lead to delay, unnecessary changes of direction, or even cancellation. You can simply have a discussion about the project's goals and priorities (for example, time to market over iterating, over polish, over scope...) and see if everyone is on the same page or not. It is also possible to ask about the publisher's greenlight process.
  • A studio also cares about creative freedom and wants some level of control. (It's worth noting here that total control and no guidance, while very common in the publishing business when a studio seeks funding to finish a game, it is less likely to happen in a work for hire type of deal).

    Making sure that the publisher understands that creative direction is different than game direction is important, as basically you can achieve the same goals for a game even if you make different design choices, get different art, and so on. It's worth nothing that while incorporating two different design choices for a given subject can do the job, but too much mixing of sources of input will eventually prevent the possibility of delivering a consistent product. A game could go one direction or another, be positioned in a particular way, and aim at a particular audience, but the creative work and overall execution should be left in the studio's hands.

    A video game is not a common product. In the end, it is the studio's game, and players and reviewers alike will judge the studio's work, not the publisher's. Except for shadow developers, no good studio wants to work on a game without a proper sense of ownership. You can ask the publisher about its editorial policy and development practices with third-party studios, so that you can be sure that these suit you. Most game directors will let a studio make the choices and have final cut -- even if the choices made are unusual. But it's still a good area to check, as this statement may sound a bit idealistic.
  • Someone on the publisher side should be the main contact in charge of running the project: a producer or director who should be able to make the operational decisions, provide appropriate support, and who has a realistic level of expectations for the game. Make sure your counterpart has common sense, is committed to the relationship, and will get to know you, so that she or he can back you up by standing for your choices, and make the best decisions for the game when arbitration is needed.
  • Given that it's a big part of the working relationship, the studio should ask about the publisher's review process. Beyond the usual feedback and how to agree on goals and next steps (sprint, milestone...), publishers could also contract consultants to pre-rate their games or use player-centered testing methods. You should ask if it's going to be the case for your game, and then make sure it is done early enough during development so that you can make adjustments to the game if need be.
  • When a studio is about to sign with a publisher, those involved in the decision should have a good idea of the services a publisher is going to provide and what value the collaboration offers. For instance, signing directly with a console maker will positively impact a studio's business in terms of raising its profile, in addition to the knowledge the studio can take away from it.

    Still, the studio should not hesitate to go deeper to identify precisely what can be expected from the relationship. As a modest example, a studio signing with a publisher which is also a game developer might presume there is access to technical support and additional development resources at will. This may not be true, so check first. More importantly, you may also want to know the level of information and knowledge a publisher is willing to share with you, as internal data and studies could affect some decisions made about the project, and not getting access to those can be frustrating.
  • There is no intention in this article of being very specific; as already mentioned, each studio should have its own criteria about what is expected from a publisher. A studio is a business whose success relies on the development of games and all the choices made around them. But these choices are going to be shared with a publisher, which is obviously the big trade-off of developing games with one.

    By extension, part of the success of a studio which focuses on third party development depends on the quality of its partnerships. With that in mind, looking for partners that will value your views and contributions is not to be neglected. Forming alliances with publishers merely based on figures like a development advance and revenue share is not enough, and there is certainly no guarantee of making a profit with only those elements in mind.

After the first successful collaboration, the working relationship between a publisher and developer can evolve toward a more strategic partnership with significantly fewer procedures and complete ownership over the game's creative aspects.

But before this happens, the general idea is to focus on what really matters for each side. Such an approach should help in figuring out if the partnership can work.

The first choice is not always the studio with more experience with a specific genre or platform. If such a studio doesn't make a good match with a publishing partner, then it is not actually less risky than working with a less experienced studio that happens to have more remarkable core qualities.

On the other hand, a top publisher can look attractive and apparently offer a number of upsides, but that is not going to guarantee a frictionless relationship or prevent a project from being cancelled.

Even if everyone is in a rush and has a plane to catch, do not hesitate to ask the hard questions. Each side usually shares the postmortem; why not share the due diligence?

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