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The Power of Partnerships

The growth of free-to-play gaming in the mobile industry has led to changes in the dynamic between publishers and developers. Here we discuss how previously lop-sided relationships are often now longer-term and more equally balanced.

Since Tag Games opened in 2006, we’ve been lucky enough to be hired by a steady stream of publishers, broadcasters and IP owners looking to work with us. Back in those early days the work-for-hire model was very much the standard between developers and publishers and at Tag things were no different. A game was made and shipped, a bag of silver changed hands then both parties went their separate ways with little more than a handshake at the best of times.

It was a straightforward way of doing things, but not necessarily an ideal one for a business thinking of the long-term. Once we realised the potential of the free-to-play (F2P) market however, the goalposts moved both in terms of the games we made and the way we worked with publishers. As games transformed into ongoing, evolving live services, the need for developers to stay involved past launch grew exponentially. No longer was the client-developer relationship akin to that of Jabba the Hutt and his bounty hunters, but more a meeting of minds and expertise like Kirk and Spock.

With hundreds of new games hitting the app store every single day creating a hit is tough in today’s market. With such fierce competition, there is a natural shift towards shared risk and responsibility and taking advantage of two sets of skills and resources. This in turn builds a level of trust and reciprocation between parties that simply wasn’t there under the old model. Developers are given a freedom they didn’t have before and can make the game the way that suits their team, often using their own tools and processes. At Tag, 505 Games were happy to let us use our own engine and work to our own design process during work on Cat Tap Fever in 2014. This gave us that extra degree of ownership in the project and extra confidence in delivering the right product, which had the knock-on effect of building our client’s confidence in us.

One of the biggest benefits this brings for developers is adding a new sense of balance to proceedings. In a world where mobile games can still be growing and evolving three or four years after release, it makes sense for publishers to keep developers onside to deal with post-launch updates and live support. At an absolute base level, you could say that this method keeps both sides in line. A publisher that needs the support of their developer long-term is less likely to impose unrealistic crunch demands, stealthily implement feature creep or move the financial goalposts in their favour. Equally, a developer with three years’ worth of project work on the cards is equally less likely to deliver a buggy pig’s breakfast of a product, before running off into the sunset with their paycheque.

Instead, when developers and publishers form a solid partnership one side’s issues become everyone’s issues and the same goes for successes. Developers might have their voices heard louder with regards to monetization policies, or find themselves with a say in areas such as marketing and promotion that have usually been exclusively the domain of the publisher. Likewise, publishers (who more often than not have development teams themselves) can be more willing to get their hands dirty and chip in a little if things are getting tough on the dev side.

At Tag, we have also found that these closer ties to our clients can keep both sides on the same page throughout the development process. When developing Moshi Monsters Village with Mind Candy, one of the main challenges were the constantly evolving COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Association) rules, which continually altered what was possible to do in apps designed for children. Had Mind Candy been little more than a looming Emperor Palpatine-like presence over Skype now and then, this could have made development a major headache on our side. Given the mutual understanding between both parties however, we were able to understand our client’s approach to these rules, how that affected us, and use their experience to plan ahead for further kinks in the road.

We’ve held off from talking about it too much, but there’s no doubt that cold, hard revenue also plays a major part in what makes partnerships tick. It’s a common sight in the industry nowadays to see publishers sharing a little of the financial risk and in turn a little of the financial profits, with developers. The impetus for this can come from the development side too and there are plenty of studios with the confidence to actively look for publishers to work alongside in this manner. At Tag, a backend revenue agreement during the development of Dr Who: The Mazes of Time kept a steady stream of revenue coming in throughout and kept the team motivated when deadlines changed late on in the process. When two sides are committing resources, knowledge and skills to a long-term project, a share of the profits seems the natural way to do business. Both sides working for each other and the ongoing nature of F2P keeps revenue heading the developer’s way long after the product has shipped. Partnership working is no place for stuffed brown envelopes.

At Tag, we’ve found that all the above points have guided is in recent years towards a business model that focuses on working with publishing partners on free-to-play, live games as a service. This approach helps our business grow and evolve and has seen us build lasting relationships with some of the biggest names in gaming. It’s a way of working which has seen us work on some tremendous projects over the past few years, and a way of working that remains central to our plans for the future.

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