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Trend watch: the rise of 'publisher as a service'?

A different way to get your PC/console games out there...

[The GameDiscoverCo game discovery newsletter is written by ‘how people find your game’ expert & company founder Simon Carless, and is a regular look at how people discover and buy video games in the 2020s.]

Well, time for another week in the firing line of this here ‘interactive video game industry’ that we all seem to have signed up for. First time? Worry ye not, we’re here to help navigate you through it all.

Oh, we got ‘borderline praise’ for our last music mix suggestion, so here’s a neat one: ‘Sounds On Screen: Techno Thrillers’, “two hours of electronica, IDM, and indie rock from the soundtracks of 1980s + '90s techno thriller films, featuring music from The Matrix, Hackers, eXistenZ and more.” (Found via Read Max.) Let’s go do some growth ‘hacking’!

’Publisher as a service’ - the Popagenda approach

So, there are two choices in making games as a developer - ‘get a publisher’, or ‘don’t get a publisher’, right? And if you don’t get a publisher, you (maybe) have to hire a PR agency or something… right? Well, maybe. But it’s a lot more complex than that.

In fact, publishers offer a multi-faceted set of services. And in our view, it’s been difficult to hire in service companies to bridge the divide. Sure, you can get firms to help you with social media and PR. But some forward-thinking PR/marketing agencies are starting to go significantly beyond that.

Exhibit A: popagenda, the boutique agency which - sure - does PR (for Cuphead, Grindstone, Landfall, Ooblets, the Playdate & more.) But it does more than that. For example, for the recently released (and excellent!) Nobody Saves The World from Drinkbox, popagenda did “Marketing Strategy, Release Management, PR, Social, Trailers.”

What’s notable in there (besides ‘Marketing Strategy’) is ‘Release Management’. This means co-ordinating with QA and porting studios to ship on console and other platforms. And it involves a lot of the heavy lifting that can be a unique selling point of publishers. (Popagenda also does this for We Are OFK (below), TOEM, and more.)

So while some might quibble with ‘publisher as a service’ as a term, we’re owning it, and we claim popagenda is it. So we asked popagenda co-founders Geneviève St-Onge, Marie-Christine Bourdua, and Nicolas Verge some questions about the trend.

There seem to be a few 'value added' PR/marketing agencies such as yours that are effectively publishing partners. Why has this become a trend, do you think? What need does it fill?

G: The landscape has very much evolved into a space where teams/individuals can now pitch and secure their own limited recoup funding (either via first party partners, equity and non equity funding groups, etc) without the aggressive cut a publisher would take. Publishing tools and knowledge are also more readily available than they used to be. Equipped with all that, developers then only have to make the following call: do I have the desire to learn and time to invest into non-core development initiatives?

When the answer is no (because frankly, making a video game is time consuming enough), outsourcing partners begin to naturally appear: porting houses, localization groups, PR agencies, and advertising companies have already been around for a long time. Adding release management, production support, business development, trailer editing, and marketing strategy services to the mix was a no-brainer, at least for us.

MC: Releasing on consoles can be quite intimidating with all the first parties requirements and certification processes. Our approach gets particularly interesting when we come with the accumulated knowledge of nearly 50 SKUs we helped ship in the last 4 years. There's nothing that brings us more joy than to solve problems for our teams before they even occur.

How do you structure your deals, in general - are they flat fee, a % of end results, or both?

G: We currently operate with a single hourly rate sheet for all of our clients. The only variable is how much time/bandwidth we need to dedicate to each project, depending on its scope and budget. Our team is extremely small, so we are severely picky about which projects and teams we sign on, making sure we are assigning sufficient time and resources to each and every one of them. We are brought on, do the work, and then move on; our purpose is to reduce overhead and studio burn rates.

N: I’ll add that we rarely turn down a project we’re very excited about because they don’t have a huge budget. We always try to make it work by being flexible or doing the biz dev to secure them the necessary funds.

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Do you think platform relationships are becoming more vital over time? Should devs be spending more time developing them, or can agencies/publishers help there?

G: Absolutely. A lot of folks who self-publish their titles (with or without agency support) are proficient at maintaining good relationships with first party partners. Good business development is mutually beneficial - platforms are looking for great content, and developers are looking for the best business opportunities for their games and studios. It’s good for everyone involved to know what the other is looking for, and vice versa. Agencies can help facilitate those relationships, but the developers should always be at the forefront of those conversations.

N: First parties treat us similarly to a traditional publisher, since we have a portfolio of games we represent and we have regular meetings with their portfolio teams and marketing teams. A lot of our devs already have their contacts. But for teams that don’t, or teams that release a game every five years, it helps that we’re in constant communication with first parties already.

MC: Additionally, I think just the general understanding of how each platform operates is highly important. We often advise on how and when to proceed for different phases of the project. Knowing how to approach each first party is an important skill and the developer should always be a part of it.

What's your view on simultaneous PC/console releases nowadays - is it always or generally a good idea?

MC: Even though shipping simultaneously on all platforms is quite the puzzle, from an organization standpoint it's always easier to do and helps to mobilize the troops!

N: Marketing and PR-wise, it’s a lot simpler to do it all in one go. We especially work on a lot of console titles, and exclusivity deals don’t always allow it. It’s also rare for teams to just port to all consoles in one go unless they have the funding to do so. That said, a lot of games, especially Early Access games, find great success focusing on PC first and shipping later on consoles. Landfall (Totally Accurate Battle Simulator) is a great example of a studio we’ve been supporting with console publishing.

What are some key things that you feel have made recent games that you have partnered with succeed? (Is it game 'hook'? Is quality enough?)

G: It’s a big Venn diagram of “does the game feel good/does it look good?”, plus “is now the right time/what other competing titles are there right now?”, and “is there available space for it on the airwaves?”, aka do folks have time to play it, or is it a packed review season/summertime press nightmare? Are you putting zero buffer in your certification process, thus not giving store teams enough time to properly support your game? A lot goes into it.

N: For us success takes different shapes, but yes the hook is part of it, the art direction is very important but genre is also crucial. I’m thinking of Nobody Saves the World for example, a new take on the action-RPG which is a very PC centric genre, and it led to the game being Drinkbox’s strongest Steam launch ever. We also worked on Cozy Grove, an Animal Crossing-like lifesim game which ended up selling very well, especially on Switch, even if it came out day and date on Apple Arcade.

And for a different example of success, seeing a smaller game like TOEM (below) getting the attention it got, winning a BAFTA recently and being celebrated overall, was really about the game’s quality. While it didn’t sell truckloads, it really set up the studio for future success and opened many doors for them. And that’s all due to the game being extremely special, something we recognized right away when we played an early build.

https_bucketeer-e05bbc84-baa3-437e-9518-adb32be77984.s3.amazonaws.com_public_images_15fdbd82-35d3-4b79-9269-52eed68d9390_800x450.webp

What parts of higher-level marketing strategy do you think many people miss out on doing in this space?

G: Objectively accounting for delays. Teams are always very eager to announce their games – most times because they are proud of what they’re working on, and rightfully so – and then end up having to delay their release for a multitude of reasons. Unfortunately, the longer a game has been announced, the more difficult it is to keep it exciting and relevant for consumers, platform partners, and press.

N: To me, a lot of high level strategy is about being smart and efficient in our marketing beats. Some teams try to do everything and exhaust their material and dev team’s energy to create assets. We always want to make sure that whenever a team works on a trailer for example, that we make sure to debut it at the right place and the right time. It’s really about optimizing and maximizing every marketing opportunity instead of trying to do too much for too long.

Marketing strategy, execution, and associated subjects like community management can be tricky to co-ordinate between publishers, marketers, and devs. Any tips for keeping people pointed in the right direction?

N: We want to be as embedded as possible with the teams we work with, so we’re in their Slack / Discord, talking with the team on a daily / weekly basis. When teams have a CM, we love that for us! We sync up on our marketing beats so they have all they need for their social comms.

We often recommend teams that have evolving games, early access games, or games with a big audience, that they bring someone full time onboard if they can. We’re there to help with social media when it’s needed, but it’s a very tedious, time consuming service that sometimes ends up inflating their budgets, so we rarely recommend going that route.

After that, our job entails a lot of coordination in itself, between devs, first parties and other stakeholders, for example when games have publishers. It’s a lot of emails, decks, spreadsheets, media plans, and meetings!

What practical advice do you have for developers who are not using a publisher, but looking for PR/marketing or (PR + marketing + extra services) partners?

G: Shop around. Find a team that resonates with yours, with shared values, and also have worked on similar types of games. The latter will provide them with previous experience, but also innate interest in your project.

N: A lot of us are booked long in advance and have limited bandwidth so reach out to folks whose portfolio matches your game ahead of time. Talk to your peers as well as to what they think you need, it’s good to have a grasp of what you’re actually looking for in terms of services.

Be careful about paying for services that you maybe don’t need. Especially with PR or events, it’s easy to sink a lot of money into that with very low / disappointing results. Not every game needs massive PR campaigns. And know that it’s all very collaborative - you’re not hiring folks and then you’re able to not think about marketing ever again. The more dev teams “give us”, the more we’re able to play around with.

Why aren't you just running the company as a game publisher? Since you do a lot of those things anyhow....

N: We explored a lot of things when we started out four years ago, but it made sense to start as an agency. It allowed us to really make a name for ourselves, build a business and work with teams who were already self-publishing (Young Horses, Studio MDHR, Drinkbox, etc).

G: Our current agency model allows us the flexibility to choose our work and maximize our impact, which was the initial driver to start the business. Having no financial stake provides us with more impartiality when it comes to discussing opportunities (exclusives, events, partnerships) across our portfolio of clients.

While we don’t plan on funding games in the future, we do think there is space to grow into more of a hybrid co-publishing mode with limited terms. But we would have to find the exact right game for us in order to make that move.

[Thanks to popagenda for this fun Q&A. To be honest, perhaps ‘consolidation into a gigantic parent company’ is more of a trend than ‘publisher as a service’ - see today’s Eidos/Embracer news. But we want to see a future that isn’t 100% consolidation - and things like this are key!]

The Long Dark & the role of the ‘season pass’

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One definition that’s been hazy for us is ‘Games As A Service’ (GaaS). We define it as any game which decides to update regularly through its post-release lifetime, regardless of monetization. Others say it’s games that update and charge money for it.

Either way, we were intrigued to read that the devs of long-time ‘pay once’ survival game hit The Long Dark are changing this model up for future updates of its Survival Mode from the former to the latter: “Hinterland intends to release ‘some kind of 'season pass'-type approach’ later this year which will ‘have a ~15-18 month campaign of updates that unlock for anyone who has purchased the pass’.”

The Long Dark’s Raphael van Lierop also emphasizes there will be free updates to the base Survival game, and the season pass will also be available as individual DLC. He also says, correctly that after 8 years: “It’s time for us to put a little more attention around ensuring the game continues to be financially self-sustaining.”

As it happens, we write a ‘Client Radar’ for my regular consulting clients, and one of April’s - not to look prescient or anything - is on this precise topic. Extracting, lightly edited:

“Although this is very specific to the mobile space, I highly recommend you read this GameRefinery piece on taking battle passes to the next level. At this point, the ‘battle pass’ concept - paying regularly for extra stuff in the game - seems to be very well entrenched in all kinds of mobile games, not just those that are Fortnite-like.

So I’m wondering - shouldn’t GaaS-style PC games try this approach too? I know relatively few that do, and it’s odd. Some of the things you could try:

  • Season passes that just involve sets of new content, but you sign up individually for each new season.
  • Recurring payments to get access to new levels/tracks regularly.
  • Multipliers on in-game XP to grab cosmetics if you sign up for these things.

I know this doesn’t apply to all of the games in your portfolio. But even if you’re working on games that are level-based, there’s some possibility to do this. (I also think strategy and action sports games have some chance to do well here!)”

[BTW, I know some folks think this type of monetization is gross or unacceptable. To which I’d say: it can be done the right way, as The Long Dark is doing. It’s important to give PC/console devs financial options to keep them, uh, independent if they want.]

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