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How to choose the best publisher for your mobile game - part 1

This article suggests a set of criteria that developers can use to evaluate the suitability of a potential publisher to their game and business case.

This article was first published on my website on 06.05.2016.

Photo by lecroitg via Pixabay Photo by lecroitg via Pixabay 

In my previous entry I wrote about making the strategic decision regarding whether to publish the mobile game by yourself or use an external publisher for publishing.

This is a sequel to that previous article.

As a foreword to this entry, I've seen that many game developers are used to sometimes very rigorous evaluation of mobile games, and due diligence of mobile game developers when the publishers are evaluating incoming titles to them. What I've seen is that sometimes mobile game developers forget that they should also do a similar evaluation of publishers themselves, so that they can get the best possible publisher for their game.

The goal of this article is to provide fellow developers an actionable framework with which they can pursue and evaluate the suitability of different publishers on their business case. In the end, this should make the decision process more clear and beneficial for the developer.

1. Suitability of the publisher's portfolio to your game

Let's say that you have a mobile puzzle game targeted towards a young, casual games audience. Then, you have two mobile game publishers as prospects to reach out to. The first is a three year old mobile game publisher who has published similar puzzle games before. The second one is a mid-core online publisher who is transitioning to mobile.

By limiting your decision making criteria only to this first variable, what would be your decision? Of course it would be the the one who has more experience on publishing similar games before.

Specifically, if the publisher has already published similar games, there is a better chance that:

  1. They will understand the target audience of your game better, which will increase the quality of live operations, customer support and user acquisition efforts.
  2. They will understand your game and game design better, which will increase the quality of communications between you and the publisher.
  3. They can actually come up with good ideas for your game and enhance it together with you.

My recommendation is to find a publisher who lives and breathes similar games to the ones you are making. If you are designing small puzzle game experiences, try Ketchapp. If mid-core strategy / RPG games are making your pants wet check out Flaregames. Of course, these are just a few pointers, there are many more publishers out there.

So get up off your ass and get working.. networking!

2. Ability to get featuring for the game from platform owners

This is the most obvious item in this list, as getting attention and downloads to your mobile game in the ever-more-crowded mobile gaming space has gotten more difficult and expensive every year.

You can evaluate a publisher's ability to get featuring for the games they publish by looking at App Store / Google Play data from services such as App Annie. By typing in the publisher's name in the search field and then selecting the "Publishers" from the right-hand side column, you will easily see all the games a publisher has published on a given platform. Then selecting a game and from there the "Featured" link from the left-hand side menu.

But, as you can see, App Annie only shows App Store 'featurings' on a daily basis which makes it really difficult to find all the possible featurings the platform owner has granted to the game.Getting into Featured section of the app in App Annie

Getting into Featured section of the app in App Annie

"Featured" view of an app in App Annie "Featured" view of an app in App Annie

Another tactic is more direct; just approach the publisher directly or the developer of the game via Twitter, email or Skype and ask what kind of featuring they obtained from the platform holder and when.

No matter what the strategy for getting the information on the ability of the publisher getting platform featuring is, it's very important piece of the puzzle. You need to know before making the decision to jump on board with the publisher.

3. Way of working with the developer

This item relates to everything that is involved with working with the publisher together to make awesome games. These things you cannot define in deal terms since these are the "little things" that you cannot specify explicitly.

For instance, some publishers are really "friendly" towards developers in a sense that even if the next milestone would not satisfy all the criteria as defined in the project plan beforehand, they would still continue working with you and possibly even continue to fund the game development. Others will do everything to get every cent back to them during the development and after the launch.

Another really difficult issue to evaluate is the quality of communications. Some publishers I have worked with, have had a really tough time keeping all the balls in the air, which will come even from working with one development. Sometimes the ball stays in their court far too long. And I can assure you that if your own schedule is very tight, the last thing you want to waste your time on is waiting for the publisher to catch the ball in their own end.

So try to evaluate the level and quality of communication from the publisher and the ability to "juggle many balls in air". You can do this by talking with other developers, asking them how they see the communication with the publisher. However, always take the views of other developers with a grain of salt and always try to triangulate the views of a single developer with other partners of the publisher and by asking direct questions from the publisher itself.

Remember that all this work is prep-work for you to actually make the best possible choice. You are going to spend at least many months with the publisher, in the best case many years, and the consequences of this decision will have long-term effects to your business. So you want to be really thorough with the evaluation of the publisher and later during the deal negotiation process.

4. Amount of games they are publishing

The amount of games the publisher has set to take in and publish directly affects how big the competition you are facing in later phases of co-operation with the publisher will be. It also affects what kind of attention you will get from them in your day-to-day dealings.

No matter how big the publisher is, it only has limited amount of resources to pay attention to you and your game as well as resources spend on marketing your game. So you want t maximize the chance that you are the one which they will be investing in the most.

My recommendation is simple; choose the publisher that takes in fewer amounts of titles. This will increase the chances that they actually will communicate with you better, invest time in your game and you have better chances to stand out from the crowd.

Summary

So these are the things that I've seen which can make or break your success with the publisher. These is the preparation work that you should do before proceeding to the negotiation phase of the deal making process. In the next article, I will share my five cents on deal terms and deal structuring.

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