I’ve been working in the game development industry for 12 years, and have found that negotiating with game publishers plays a major role. Four months ago, the tables were turned after our company (Playlab.com) received some external investment and I was asked (ok I volunteered) to build our Business Development Department and explore the dark side of mobile publishing.
Three events and dozens upon dozens of meetings later, it still surprises me that many game developers don’t really know what to look for in game publishers, and would just go with any company willing to say ‘yes’ to their game. Let me outright say, that you should be suspicious of any game publishers that would accept your game without a thorough evaluation.
This likely means that they are only interested in adding your game to their portfolio without allocating the right resources to maximize its chances of commercial success. Choosing the right mobile game publishing house that is a great fit for your game is critical in bringing your game to a wider audience and increasing its chances of success.
To self-publish or to sign with a publisher?
A few years back, this was a question many developers asked themselves. With a smaller app ecosystem, self-publishing was more or less feasible as veteran (or smart) developers could do their own PR and marketing to ensure that their game was discoverable in the app stores. Fast forward to today, there are 900 new apps submitted daily and the top grossing charts are dominated by large publishers or have the word ‘slots’ in it. In today's app market, heavy mobile advertising is needed to give your games an equal chance to make a modest amount of revenue.
If you do not have the experience or resources with doing your own user acquisition, I would highly recommend partnering with a game publisher; especially if your game is free-to-play. This is of course different from games that intend to be viral (relying on advertising to earn revenue), or paid games (where featuring is still your best chance of success). That is why we don’t publish viral or paid games because we know that as a publisher, we have a smaller impact on the success of the game and we wouldn’t feel right getting a share of the income.
With that out of the way, here is my checklist of ten things you should look for in a publisher.
1. Track Record
Do your homework and confirm that the claims of your publisher sounds realistic given their resources. Dig deep into their track record and check their years of experience, number of games that have reached the charts, and downloads and revenues their games have received. Look for their success cases. I also strongly advise that developers do background checks by asking to speak with their previous development partners.
Do note that, unless they are named Supercell (which thankfully is not in the business of publishing), not all of their launched games will be successful. But you know that already given the nature of our industry. In the end, it will still be the game’s design and quality driving the success, but be wary of publishers taking on too many games with very low percentages of success.
2. Game Portfolio Fit
Publishers, especially smaller ones, focus on the type of games they publish and promote, so choose one that actively looks for the type of game you’ve developed. They understand their target market, demographics, and which metrics are good for that type of game. As a result they can more effectively stretch their marketing dollars. You should go through their game portfolio and get information on similar titles or genres they’ve published in the past.
Also look at what monetization strategies they have been successful with in the past. An experienced publisher would have input on what type of monetization strategy is best for your game and what inapp purchases or promos would work best with your type of title. This input of course should be backed up by data.
3. Quality Assurance
In most cases, an independant developer having a full QA Release team does not make sense given the cyclic nature of development. A publisher on the other hand should be able to maximize the utilization of a QA release team with the multiple titles they are managing. While having at least one Game QA is still required for developers to discover feature bugs and verify fixed bugs; full regression testing and production testing should be handled by the publisher.
4. Consultancy on analytics, SDKs, fraud protection, and everything in between
Developers spend most of their time focused on creativity and user experience. However, to achieve commercial success it is essential to have constant stakeholder feedback on metrics such as retention, churn rate, ARPDAU, etc.
A publisher typically has more experience in analyzing user data and knowing what data points you should be tracking. Aside from this, they will have to work with you to ensure that you implement the proper thirdparty APIs, have a secure server with reliable fraud protection, and server side verification with the proper scalability needed once they start pushing the users in.
5. Live Operations and Community Management
Simply put, developers should not be working weekends tending servers and answering gamer raves and rants. Unless of course it was the dev team that caused production related bugs. The dev team should be focused on improving their game and building updates to keep players coming back for more.
6. Territories and Localization
Focus your efforts on the 20% that will generate 80% of the results. In game development terms, making sure that you are focused on major mobile game markets first should be a part of your strategy. A publisher should be strong in a few of the top 10 countries (again, get download figures) and will be interested in targeting those territories with you. While a publisher would usually like to have global rights, you can negotiate to retain rights for some countries that you feel you can do your own marketing in, typically if you are based there and can do some guerilla marketing. You can also negotiate which countries they can publish to first with other territories to be signed in the future if you are happy with them. For mobile, this is usually based on the language spoken. For example, at Playlab we typically do all English speaking countries first, then other European languages (French, Russian, Italian, German, Spanish, Portuguese), and then Asian languages last (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, etc). A publisher should do their own localization for the countries they publish in.
7. Be wary of promises of Featuring
A publisher who promises a featuring cannot be trusted. A publisher certainly can increase your chances of getting a game featured as they constantly talk to platform holders. However, the final decision on which games to feature is still with Apple, Google or Amazon; so you should be very wary if they make a promise on their behalf. Relying on featuring as your main strategy for downloads is a recipe for disaster.
8. Who keeps the IP?
In most cases, the developer should be the one keeping the IP. However, if the game publisher helped fund the development of an original IP, they may want to ask for some of the IP ownership in exchange for the risk they are taking. This scenario rarely happens today, so if development was funded by the developer and/or if the IP already has an established fan base, then the IP should not be handed over to the publisher.
9. Sequels, Prequels and Future rights of first refusal?
This is usually another gray area which some publishers will want to have. Personally, I am not in favor of this as I believe a relationship should only be continued as long as it is mutually beneficial. Also, the game industry changes faster than most, so what is true today may no longer be true when the sequel is built. However, this is more a soft ‘we can talk about this’ and should be evaluated together with the rest of the publishing offer.
10. Finally: Upfront license fees, guarantees and marketing commitment
My take is that (1) A developer should expect upfront license fees and guarantees if the game has already proven successful in another territory, i.e., a successful Japan game being localized to the US. (2) A developer should expect a marketing commitment (downloads, installs, marketing dollars) if they can already show successful soft launch data and metrics. Without 1 or 2, a publisher should only be able to commit a smaller budget to do a soft launch and a larger budget if certain metrics are hit. In today’s world, most publishers already look for soft launch data before deciding on publishing a title. My advice would be for developers to do their own soft launch first so that once they get good metrics in, they will have more negotiating power with the publisher. What should you do if you have bad metrics? Well we are in a hit driven games business, so we either iterate on it or fail early enough so you can start again. (Don’t know how to do your own soft launch? Check out this blog.)
Again, I work for a game developer and publisher and we are looking for independent game developers that create casual or midcore games. While this article may look like a shameless endorsement of our company (publishing.playlab.com), we recognize that as a smaller publisher, we are limited to publishing one game every quarter. This is to ensure that we are able to provide the proper focus and marketing dollars (which runs into millions of dollars per title) it needs to maximize its chances of success. This also means we have to turn down many others (though we do offer free feedback even if we don’t take on the game) looking for the right mobile game publisher.
About the Author
Elson Niel Dagondon founded Anino Games in 2001 as the first Game Development Studio in the Philippines. Anino Games specialized in Third Party Development, Outsourcing and its related services for PC and Mac, Mobile, iOS, Facebook, Nintendo DS/Wii catering to top Publishers. Their independent games have won multiple international awards such as the Independent Games Festival while their 3rd party games have also gone on to reach the top 10 rank in the Appstores and Online Portals. In 2014, Anino Games was acquired by Bangkok based Pocket PlayLab. The 45strong studio located in Makati has been rebranded as Anino PlayLab where Niel is currently General Manager and Head of Business Development.
Niel is also the Chairman of the Board of CIIT Philippines, a Digital Arts and Technology college located in Quezon City, Philippines with 700 students.