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Self-Publishing vs. Working with a (Traditional) Publisher

For first 5 years of Renegade Kid’s existence we worked with publishers to develop and release our original games, using – what some may call – the traditional publishing model. However, for the past two years we have embraced self-publishing.

Jools Watsham, Blogger

September 30, 2013

13 Min Read

For the first 5 years of Renegade Kid’s existence we worked with publishers to develop and release our original games, using – what some may call – the traditional publishing model. However, for the past two years we have embraced self-publishing.

Our first self-published game was Mutant Mudds – released on the Nintendo 3DS’ digital store, called the Nintendo eShop, in January 2012. Mutant Mudds was the catalyst for the change in how we approach the funding, development, publishing, and marketing of our original games today.

Having experienced two sides of publishing our original games, I thought I’d draw a direct comparison between the two as a personal exercise that may help some folk in deciding how they want to proceed with their games.


Working with a publisher
Back in the day, working with a publisher meant they covered the bill – the primary reason for us to work with a publisher. Game development can be a costly affair. In our experience, the monies paid to us to develop the game was always an “advance on royalties”, which meant the publisher would take our royalty share of sales until the development budget was paid back.

When the full development budget was recouped the team then started to see royalties. If the full amount was not recouped, the team did not owe any money to the publisher nor were they responsible for that. This was the financial risk that the publisher took when investing in the development of a game.

The hope was that both parties came out ahead, but this was obviously not always the case. And as such, development budgets were often kept low with the hope of making a profit with sales. This made sense, from a business perspective, but the thing that this could hurt the most was the game; the very thing we were trying to make great.

Many times we had presented a budget to a publisher – something that we felt was competitive, while still allowing us to confidently create a great game – only to have it reduced. Sometimes even cut in half! When this happened we had to re-scope the game to fit into the lower budget. This typically resulted in a game that was not as good as the original vision.

Based on what I have witnessed with successful games; good games typically sell well, especially those that have support from the publisher across the board with development, PR, and marketing. A fully realized effort – not one that has been tainted by reducing costs – usually results in a success.

You get what you pay for.

Going solo and publishing your game by yourself means you’re responsible for the cash. There are many ways to fund a game that you intend to self-publish, such as your bank account, investors, kickstarter, and so on.

Some may not consider anything outside of strictly using your own hard-earned funds in your bank account as being truly “indie”. I disagree. I think what makes a team indie is the fact that you are responsible for obtaining cash to fund your game, and how you do it is on your shoulders regardless of where you get it from. 

We do not have investors or any other creative way of making cash appear in our bank account. We save a little here and there. We do some work-for-hire gigs. We try to make it work as best we can. It is not easy, but the result is something we feel good about.

The main joy I get from not working with a publisher is the freedom to develop what we want to, why we want to, when we want to. Replacing a publisher with an investor for a source of money can be equally or more distracting to the vision of the game.

I check our money situation on a daily basis. It has become a necessary habit to load up my excel doc, enter in funds earned from our current games and see how far our money stretches into the future. It is both glorious and terrifying. If things start to look really bleak – meaning; we’ll have no cash in three months – then, it is time to figure out a solution before it is too late.

Fortunately, self-publishing games digitally means that they always exist and always have the potential to earn you money. We’re still earning cash from Mutant Mudds on the Nintendo eShop today – nearly two years after its release.


Working with a publisher
One of the first things we always had to create for a publisher – beyond the game design document – was the milestone schedule. There was usually a release date already chiseled into stone, and it was usually a holiday season release. Therefore, we had a set amount of time for development. We would typically create a milestone for each month and list the “deliverables” that would be available for review by the publisher. Each milestone also had a payment attached to it.

Only when the publisher reviewed and approved the milestone deliverables would payment be processed – sometimes with a 30 day turnaround on receiving the payment from day of approval. Each month we ran the potential risk of the milestone not meeting the publisher’s expectations.

This use of milestone throughout the project made sense, and was a generally a good idea as it kept the project on track and everyone honest. But, it also took a lot of trust on both sides. In the best scenario, the developer and publisher could work together to resolve any issues if some deliverables did not match publisher expectations as to not disrupt the payment schedule.

The creation of the milestone schedule took a lot of work and required the input from everyone on the team. We had to break the entire game design down into the individual pieces that would create the final experience, and assign a time to each of those tasks. It was not easy. It was not fun. But, it was very important.

It is understandable that some may feel as though they can be more relaxed when they don’t have to submit to a publisher’s demands. I think many developers have fallen into this trap. Anything resembling the flying by the seat of one’s pants, when it comes to game development, can assuredly result in disaster, and no game.

We have, and always will, take the planning of our games very seriously. Next to the other key aspects of game development, such as the vision, game design, technology, and art style, the planning is of equal importance. If done right, planning is the very thing that can allow you to be relaxed – with the knowledge that everything should fit if nothing goes wrong.

Something always goes wrong! Your project schedule needs your constant attention. Every task that is completed on time, ahead of time, or late needs to be noted. Chances are that all of those results will happen throughout the course of the project. Knowing where you stand in the storm of development is the only way you make it through to see sunshine again one day. OK, that was a little cheesy, but hopefully you get my point.

Publishers usually do the things they do for good reason – whether you agree with those reasons or not is your call. Something that we always consider is the ideal release date for our games and see if that gives us enough time to produce what we want. It is a good starting point, at least.

You may not be a publicly traded company with stock-holders demanding results, but releasing your game at a good time for maximum sales is always a good idea. Well, unless you don’t like money I suppose. We make games to make money to make games. So, the cash-factor is important to us and our continued development efforts.


Working with a publisher
Some of the aspects of game development that we were not concerned about when working with a publisher was QA/testing, age rating, devkits, and so on. The publisher typically handled all of this, which was helpful. However, those costs would also contribute to the overall development cost of the project and be included in our advance.

One of the less glamorous elements of self-publishing is having to find a solution for QA/testing. Some games can get away with very little testing – as we found with Mutant Mudds – and some require a professional testing company – as we found with ATV Wild Ride 3D, largely due to the on-line component.

At the start of a project, try to think of everything that may be needed to complete the development of your game, and account for it in your budget. QA/testing can be $5 - $20K depending on the game and time needed. Devkits can be expensive or even loaned from the console manufacturer in some cases.

The ESRB kindly offers fast and free rating services for smaller digital games. You will have to sign up on their website (http://www.esrb.org) and then simply fill in their on-line short-form and be on your way. If your game requires what’s called the long-form, you will be looking at a more complicated and expensive rating experience.


Working with a publisher
Publishers typically have great relationships with console manufacturers that can benefit the submission process in some emergency scenarios – definitely a benefit of having a publishing partner. Much of this might be unseen by the development team.

There is a fair amount of paper work involved with submitting your game to a console manufacturer. The publisher’s producer usually takes care of this with some help from the development team. The QA/testing team can also be a great help with this process as this is something they deal with a lot of the time.

Most of the time, you just need to make sure the bugs are fixed and follow the submission guidelines and then upload the build to a FTP server somewhere and wait. Then the publisher takes over and gets it through the system.

This is when you will typically be waiting approximately 10 – 15 days to hear back on the build. Time to get some sleep and then some fresh air.

Dealing with the submission process on your own is a daunting task. The good news is that the folks who work at the console manufacturers are all awesome people willing to help you. It is important to get all of your contacts at Nintendo, Sony, etc. figured out early so you know who to email about what.

There really isn’t much advice to offer for submission apart from get reading! There are a lot of guides provided by the console manufacturer and unfortunately it is something you just have to go through to get a better understanding of the many, many things involved in the process.


Working with a publisher
When working with a publisher, the exposure of your game is largely handled by the publisher – sometimes with very little input or involvement from the development team. Sometimes this can be good, and sometimes this can be bad.

I should note that working with Gamecock Media to publish Dementium: The Ward was really the perfect publisher / developer relationship – especially in regards to PR and marketing. They included us on everything that was going on with PR and marketing. Nothing was done without our approval. Really amazing – especially when compared to most publishers in the industry. Gamecock was not a traditional publisher. 

Trying to get someone, anyone, to care or talk about your game as an independent developer/publisher can be quite challenging. The number of indie developers who are self-publishing their games seems to be growing each day, which is a great thing, but also means there’s more noise and competition for press attention.

You need someone on your team who really wants to talk about your games to be communicating with fans on twitter and members of the press. Honest passion for what you’re doing comes across to those listening and is way more effective than just going through the motions because you know it needs to be done.

I have always enjoyed the behind-the-scenes of game development – even as a kid before I worked on games professionally. And now that I am developing my own games, I find it exciting to talk about what we’re up to and engage with like-minded folk who are interested in our games.

I started a youtube channel and blog where I blab about random development occurrences. I tweet out random game-related things on twitter. We have a facebook page, which is a little neglected, honestly!

When it comes to sending out review codes I send a personal email to each member of the press. I started from scratch, and slowly accumulated a list of contacts at various websites and send them all a code for our games when I have them.

Due to the fact that we do not have a marketing budget, yet, I try to start the awareness of our a new game a few months before the intended release date. It can start with the name, a logo, some key art, or even a single screenshot.

We have been fortunate with Mutant Mudds and Treasurenauts in that they were both announced in print magazines as a special feature in Nintendo Power and Nintendo Force respectfully. Not only does this hopefully get the word out to lots of people, but always lends a sense of grandeur and legitimacy to your game that will hopefully be carried along with it up to its release.

One other big change for us is having a booth at PAX. Our very own booth! Crazy awesome. We had our first booth at PAX East 2013, and intend to continue for years to come. It is a priceless way to connect with players face-to-face. The sense of comradery with fellow developers you get at a show is exciting and helpful for everyone involved. If you have the opportunity to do so, having a booth at PAX can be a key element in your company’s growth and public/industry acceptance. 


For the most-part, I really enjoyed working with publishers to develop Dementium, Moon, ATV Wild Ride, Face Racers, and Planet Crashers. Each project had its ups and downs, but without the support and trust from each of the different publishers we worked with, none of those games would have made it to the stores. I truly appreciate those opportunities.

However, the sense of excitement and freedom I now feel with the development and publishing of our own games is unmatched. There is a lot of risk and subsequent scary times involved with self-publishing. This path is not for everyone. But, for me; this is what I have been working towards my whole career.

I started developing games professionally over 20 years ago. I could not have imagined that I would be where I am today. I am thankful for the opportunity that I have. I consider it with respect. I look forward to what the next 20 years will bring! Viva independence!!

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