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How digital publishing is shaping the future of the game industry

The era of digital publishing is here -- but do you have a handle on everything you should consider when deciding whether or not to work with a publisher to release your game?

Christian Nutt, Contributor

September 30, 2013

11 Min Read

To kick off Gamasutra's themed week on Digital Publishing, Christian Nutt writes about the trends that are shaping the space -- and what developers should consider when making decisions about how they publish their games. Stay tuned for more articles and blogs. We knew it would come to this. Developers have been directly selling games to players for decades; a business selling "shareware" via local, dial-up BBSes in the early 1990s eventually grew into Epic Games. But back in the 1990s, Epic felt it needed to turn to traditional publishers to realize the full potential of its Unreal series. While the potential for directly selling games to consumers was obvious even then, the pieces weren't all there to do it cheaply and reliably while reaching a broad audience. They are now. Digital publishing is here. That's not to say there aren't problems -- we're familiar all of them. If you're on PC, chances are you want to be on Steam, and that's still a hurdle for many developers. On the mobile app stores, where anyone can release a game… anyone does. There's a huge fight for visibility, and competition is brutal. Before that, even, there's getting funded. Then there's dealing with the headaches of business, legal, marketing, PR, testing, localization -- all of the stuff publishers once did for developers. And players are no less demanding than they were in the past. Still, it's obvious as of this writing that fundamental changes are coming to publishing. Just months after it became necessary to write this editorial on why Microsoft needed to enable self-publishing on the Xbox One, it became the last of the three console manufacturers to launch a program to allow developers to go direct-to-player on its platform, following in the footsteps of Nintendo and Sony. The question is no longer one of "if" -- self-publishing is here. Now, developers must be concerned with "how," "where," and "why or why not." As it turns out, possibilities bring decisions to make. And while the game industry can only benefit from creators free to do what they want... it turns out it's not that easy to figure out what it is that you want, after all, when you're not sure what you should do.

The Coming Changes

When your horizons are wide open, it's easy to forget that the walls that used to hem you in actually had a point. The feud between developer and publisher -- for creative freedom, for money, for understanding -- is as old as the relationship between the two. There are obvious reasons that the two camps butt heads. However, what it's easy to forget about when you're toiling under the yoke of an uncaring master is that publishers do provide services many developers would either rather not deal with, or never even gave much thought to until they were gone. The most obvious thing publishers have provided, of course, is capital -- no matter how tiny, games need budgets. But publishers don't like to be looked at as piggy banks, and for good reason, that's not all they provide developers. In fact, some new-breed digital publishers, particularly in the mobile space -- Wooga and Facebook -- don't provide funding at all. As it turns out, publishing is metamorphosing into a service, and as it does, you're starting to see more and more interpretations of it -- more opinions on what it's important to provide and what is irrelevant. So, too, will you see different attitudes about how publishers and developers should be working together -- in that above-linked article, for example, Wooga says it plans to plug independent developers into the same machinery it uses for its internal teams, treating them just the same. What works -- and what is necessary -- will continue to be decided by this sort of experimentation.

What Players Want, and How That Shapes Things

It's not just solving problems with game development that drives the conversation around whether or not you need a publisher these days and what that publisher, if you decide to get one, should be doing. Players are having a profound effect on game development and publishing, too. While it's hard to say there are hard-and-fast rules -- some developers have followed the conventional wisdom and tanked, while others have flouted it and seen unimaginable success -- there are moments we can look to as those that shaped the ecosystems developers now dwell in. In 2005, Steam opened up to independent developers. Eight years later, it is the distribution platform of choice for a majority of PC game players. More than being the market leader, though, Steam created a new concept for distribution: a massive audience plugged in and ready to buy your digital games. It also fundamentally changed the way PC gamers amass and interact with their game libraries. It even changed their playing habits -- in many cases opening paths for independent developers to thrive alongside more conventional PC fare. Apple's iOS App Store, which launched in 2008 -- before there even was an iPad -- also set the tone for what mobile customers expect, even across devices that don't support it (Google and Amazon's Android app stores don't deviate dramatically from its template, do they?) It is slow to evolve and presents many challenges, but its introduction fundamentally changed the nature of phone applications, including games. Of course, Kickstarter existed before 2012, and had been used to fund games, but that year Double Fine Adventure opened the floodgates. From a developer perspective, the implications are obvious, but it also marked an important shift in the player mentality: people became cognizant that their money could go directly toward making a game exist, and in the process, enter into a relationship with its creators. Minecraft's success teaches us a lot of things, too, but its alpha funding paradigm was a wake up call about the fundamental way in which players want to interact with games. In an industry focused on polish, few expected that such a broad swath of players would appreciate playing a half-done game. Waiting patiently for new content to be implemented? It doesn't matter as long as what's there is already fun, and we know just how hard they're working on it. These last two have come together in Chris Roberts' Star Citizen. You can, of course, try to chalk up his success to being "the Wing Commander guy" if you like, but it would be unwise to ignore just how Roberts has synthesized crowdfunding, alpha funding, and community into a cohesive whole. Last week, Star Citizen crossed $20 million. Roughly 90 percent of that came from outside Kickstarter. Another line has been drawn in the sand. And for all of its struggles, the Ouya functions just fine as a symbol of a changing industry. The technology is cheap and mobile-based. Developers can go direct-to-system without an intermediary of any kind. It challenges the notions of what a game console should and can be. Whether you can make a successful Ouya game is not the point; whether or not the console itself is successful as a product is also irrelevant. It's a crystallization of the kind of thinking that's going on right now in the industry, and has already had ripple effects on bigger companies.

Big Challenges Ahead

It is now completely possible to self-publish your games without the assistance (or interference) of a publisher. However, it can be more difficult than it sounds. Where opportunities arise, challenges lurk. The following list is not presented as an inducement for developers to work with publishers. Gamasutra has no pro (or anti) publisher agenda. It is a list of functions that publishers have historically provided that developers should consider before making decisions about their publishing plans. Many of these services are not trivial, and are difficult to replicate. It is best to consider all factors before making a decision about what route you will go. Funding. Crowdfunding has allowed many developers to pay for their game's development via direct fan involvement. It can, however, be a complicated process, due mainly to the (usually physical) rewards many developers promise to deliver -- a time-consuming logistical distraction. It is worth noting that publishers still fund games across all platforms. Finding external investment via venture capitalists, banks, or private investors is still difficult, as many do not understand how the game industry works. Business. As it turns out, business is difficult to find time for -- and difficult to execute, too. Publishers take care of many business functions in a way that was entirely transparent to developers, and everything from paying taxes to dealing with salaries, IP rights, and contracts can be a difficult, confusing process. Don't forget HR, either. Discovery. While it is no longer necessary to work with a publisher to get into digital storefronts, it can still be desirable -- when these publishers have existing relationships with the companies that govern how content is scheduled and promoted. Publishers can help raise your game's profile, and also help cross-promote your game across their lineup. User and focus testing. Many independent developers rely on impromptu and informal tests -- as simple (and as limited) as passing a device to a few friends for feedback. Publishers often engage in organized testing to discover what players want from games and how they interact with them. Independent companies do also provide these services; alpha distribution and in-game metrics also allow developers to collect data directly, albeit after some sort of initial release. QA testing. Of course, games need to be tested for bugs -- and publishers often employ large testing departments or contract out for the services of external testing companies. Another place developers can get hung up is compliance testing for consoles; each has its requirements for how games must perform and what messages they must display when. Of course, these services can be contracted… or suffered through. Plenty of indies hack their way through bugs, and there are plenty of useful tools for tracking them. Automated bug testing is beginning to make some inroads, too. Localization. Again, a service you can contact -- but publishers are often set up to handle it, with existing workflows and, in some cases, trusted in-house staff to handle translation and cultural adaptation. Sometimes, developers work with publishers in foreign territories where they are incapable of adequately addressing localized markets while self-publishing in their own domestic territory and its neighbors. Liaising. Publishers have people whose job it is to work with all of these external parties and feed necessary information to and from the right parties on the development team. Without someone assigned to that role, this will fall to a developer who may or may not have the bandwidth to handle it. Equipment and facilities. Of course, publishers provide facilities for internal teams, but they sometimes also provide equipment, such as console development kits, to external teams. However, distributed online work tools and technology and work-share spaces have made the former less necessary, while console manufacturers have lately begun to loosen their policies and costs around development kit distribution directly to developers. And a word of caution. The most obvious retort to the above is "will these be handled competently, though?" And "will the publisher care enough about my game, or our relationship, to work hard?" The answer to both is… "Depends." In the end, there are bad relationships and good relationships. We'd encourage you to share stories in the comments or on your own blog.


If one thing is clear, it is that it is entirely possible, in 2013, to create and release a successful game without a publisher. Developers are completely capable of going it alone and finding both creative and commercial fulfillment. It is also clear that this is not an easy road, and many developers who have gone their own way are still struggling to make their games, release them, and find audiences for them. Of course, not all of their problems would necessarily be solved by working with publishers -- but some might. It's also clear that publishing is in flux. The notion of what a publisher is and what it does has begun to metamorphose -- new companies are arriving with new ideas about what to do, old companies are adapting to new realities, and platforms are continually shifting policies to make things easier for developers. Doors are opening and closing all the time. We can be sure we will continue to see evolution around what publishers, fundamentally, are -- and for now, like anything else in game development, the decision of whether to go it alone or get help is a tough one.

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