Publishing 101 — Should You Partner with a Game Publisher?

Hi! David Logan here, CEO of Akupara Games! We get a lot of questions about the game publishing process and I decided I wanted to write a series of articles to help guide developers throughout decisions surrounding the release of their game. Before we get too nitty gritty, let’s start with the biggest decision every developer has to make: should you partner with a game publisher?

Akupara Games is a video game publisher, so it is no secret that we believe publishers can bring value to a lot of games, however that doesn’t always mean that a publisher is right for you. I’d like to outline some of the perks publishers can offer, to try to encourage you to consider them as an option for your team and title.

In this article, I will be going over the services and benefits a publisher provides — such as distribution, development support, marketing, and community building. While publishers may offer some of these services, many will not provide all of them. Each publisher will specialize in various areas, so as you read, consider which are most important to you, and let that guide you if you choose to seek out a publisher.

What do Publishers Get?

Publishers are a business too, and have various ways of recouping their costs and making money. In exchange for their assistance, publishers will often receive a revenue share of your game on each platform they work with.

Gross Income vs. Net Income

Revenue share agreements will specify between sharing Gross Income or Net Income.

  • We recommend going with Gross Income whenever possible.
  • Net Income allows publishers to pay themselves back first for whatever expenses they deem necessary
  • For instance a publisher may try to deduct expenses like marketing, or localization costs, before paying out the developer
  • Gross Income will be the split payment after the distributor’s share (Valve, Nintendo, etc.), but won’t include other miscellaneous expenses incurred

Share Percentages

  • The more effort and cost required from the publisher, the larger of a percentage they’ll ask for.
  • Especially in the case of lending money, publishers will usually have a higher rev-share percentage they receive pre-recoupment, and then drop down to a more standard rate after that.
  • The rev-share amount may be different per each platform, for instance if a publisher handles all the porting costs and management for Nintendo Switch — they may receive a larger percentage on that platform.

Other Elements

  • Occasionally publishers will ask for things such as IP ownership.
  • Our opinion is to never sell IP, unless it is an insanely fantastic deal (lots of $$$).
  • A publisher may also ask for right of first refusal for future platforms
  • Think carefully if you want to commit to terms like these, and whether they would have a long-term positive or negative impact for your project.

Distribution

Getting your game to various platforms is a lot of work with all of the various rules and procedures for each. Mobile platforms tend to be the most straight-forward, but consoles in particular involve a fairly lengthy process. A publisher can handle the entire process from getting approvals, uploading the products, writing the store copy, creating the proper graphics and videos, to actually getting the product approved.

Ratings

You will often need a rating for the various regions around the world you’re releasing.

The publisher can handle the management and cost for these regions, which include:

  • ESRB (America)
  • PEGI (Europe)
  • CERO (Japan)
  • USK (Germany)

Partner Relationships — Distributors

Another part of the process is leveraging opportunities to get your game featured at events, blogs written, social posts about your game, or having your trailer posted to a distributor’s YouTube channel.

  • Publishers have pre-existing relationships with platforms and account managers to get your game opportunities easier
  • This will help your game stand out from the pack
  • Oftentimes distributors want juicy details to share — such as a release date announcement, or the first showing of a trailer.
  • Guacamelee! 2 recently partnered with PlayStation’s YouTube channel, for their release date announcement

It is important for publishers to build fantastic relationships with distributors, so that they can more easily receive these opportunities. The best opportunity is getting featured in the storefront by a distributor, which directly brings your game extra sales.

  • Ask potential publishers how they have worked with distributors to feature their games and what potential opportunities they would push for your game

Partner Relationships — Other

It’s also important that your publisher has good relationships with other partners as well, such as hardware manufacturers like Alienware who can provide sponsored machines for events, or Limited Run Games who can create physical editions of your product.

  • Logitech featured The Metronomicon when introducing their new G560 lightsync PC gaming speakers.
  • Limited Run Games partnered with Thumper to make physical Switch and PlayStation 4 versions of the game, as well as limited T-Shirts.

By leveraging these partnerships the publisher is able to find other opportunities to make your game money or get awareness, past just the initial digital sales.

Development

Regardless of where your game development is at, publishers can assist you. Keep in mind that different publishers might be looking for games in different development stages.

Advising

Publishers will be able to advise your team on the design of your game, from art, to audio, and everything in between.

  • They will be able to identify traits and features of your game that could be pushed further, to increase sales and exposure, such as adding daily missions or overall achievements to increase replayability and player retention.

Financing

Some publishers are able to provide financing to assist with your team’s development costs.

  • This can allow developers to fully focus on creating the game, instead of having to work other jobs to support themselves part-time.
  • Searching for financing may limit the publishers interested in taking your game on, or may make certain terms in the contract harder to get, however finding financing can make your game development smoother and faster.

Porting

Publishers will have or partner with teams who can help bring your title to additional platforms.

  • This allows you as the developer to focus on developing the overall game, instead of splitting focus with porting.
  • For Desert Child Akupara Games is current working with the developer, Oscar Brittain, and while he focuses on the Steam version, we are porting it to Switch, PS4, and Xbox One.

Oftentimes indie games will launch first on PC, with the intention to port to consoles if they’re successful. Even though it’s a more risky upfront cost, Akupara Games actually prefers all platforms to launch at once, as having multiple launches often means less press for each subsequent release, and combining them together helps create more noise, as there are then articles for every platform. Multiple releases also means additional costs and efforts for marketing

  • There are examples of the former working though, for example Terraria launched successfully on PC, and then was picked up by publisher 505 Games who brought it to consoles.

QA

Publishers can provide QA testing for bugs, device testing on a multitude of low and high-end devices, and assist with the requirements your title needs to pass to get through certification.

  • For example, publishers can provide extensive mobile testing across dozens of devices to find the minimum specs and platforms to release the game on.
  • Events can be a key way to discover bugs and issues. When you attend events, work with your publisher to monitor and track player interactions so that you can record where they get stuck.

Talent

Publishers work with lots of indie developers, so they can assist you with finding the right talent to fill your team’s needs.

  • Sometimes publishers will even dedicate resources from their internal team to assist with your game.
  • Akupara Games used our composers for an original soundtrack, and programmer to help recreate Keep in Mind in Unity (originally Game Maker Studio), for the release of Keep in Mind: Remastered.

Localization

Localization isn’t just translating the words in a game, but can also mean tweaking details for various regions to be more culturally appropriate.

  • For example, in certain regions of the world, like in China, talk of death is taboo.
  • This could also mean changing up key landmarks, flags, or references to make more sense and become more accessible.
  • In Stardew Valley not only did they localize the languages, but the artwork as well such as portraits, and the UI HUD.
  • Publishers will have localization expertise to make your game translatable and fun for all languages and cultures

Marketing

Generally when developers think of needing a publisher, marketing and publicity are the first things that comes to mind. A good publisher will have a wide array of marketing and promotional tools at their disposal for bringing awareness and praise to your title.

Media Outreach

One of the more traditional ways to get exposure for your title is through media outreach.

  • This includes reaching out to journalists, bloggers, and other game-related press outlets about your title.
  • Publishers will have established networks of contacts who they’ve worked with over the years, making these outreach efforts more efficient and effective.
  • The ideal goal with press outreach is to get interviews, reviews, and articles on your game; a publisher’s connections will make outreach easier and more successful.

Media Buying

Another aspect of traditional marketing is media buying and ad placement. Publishers will often have teams that can plan social media and display ads to reach key audiences.

  • Media Buying can be done with any level of budget and digital ads often have immediate measures of success whether you are looking to build awareness of your game or increase downloads or sales.

Influencer Outreach

The goal is for influential Twitch streamers and YouTube content creators will talk about your game to their audiences.

  • This is a major driver for sales, where a few large influencers can sway a product from “unknown” status to trending title.
  • For example, One Hand Clapping is a game that was created by USC students which was then picked up by YouTubers PewDiePie, Markiplier, and JackSepticEye that received millions of views and have translated to over 75,000 downloads on itch.io
  • Similar to media, publishers will have established relationships with influencers.
  • Some publishers create exclusive influencer programs, where influencers can get special perks from that publisher.
  • Akupara Games has recently started our influencer program — which allows us to thank these influencers with early access to our games, and opportunities for in-game avatars or voice overs.

Trailers

A trailer is a great way to showcase the gameplay, or tease content of your game in a short and engaging video.

  • Publishers often have video editors who can create top-notch trailers, or they can advise your team to create these materials. They know what makes a successful trailer and can guide steps like storyboarding and editing.
  • There are articles based on the top game trailers that come out every year such as Gaming Trend’s Best Game Trailers of E3 2018.
  • Akupara Games loves making buzzworthy trailers using everything from gameplay footage, to animation, and even live actors like in the trailer for The Metronomicon.

Community

Social media and community management are important aspects to any successful game launch. A publisher can help you determine which social platforms your game studio and title should be present on and which kind of content you should be showcasing on each of the channels.

Community Management

A publisher can teach you how to properly engage with your community to retain users.

  • Often this means promptly answering questions and providing regular updates about the game.
  • A publisher is able to leverage their existing communities and introduce them to your title, which will further grow your audience.
  • The more engagement there is about your game, the more visible it is to others outside of your community as well.

Social Media
Social media can be a tough medium to navigate through. It is a valuable tool for digital marketing since you can reach hundreds if not thousands of people if a post goes viral, but it also can be a platform for negative sentiment that you have to manage. Proper knowledge of what is appropriate to post on each platform, valuable and engaging content, and responding can elevate the visibility of a game.

  • Facebook prefers users to stay on their platforms and users tend to enjoy video and photo over text content. This is where big announcements should be made.
  • Instagram is a large hub for photos and great to show off concept art, development, and screenshots.
  • Twitter is where updates big and small should be made. It is also the best platform to directly engage with users on.

With social media, it is important to note that it should not be just about advertising your game for sales, but a big emphasis should be on building and engaging your audience and answering questions or comments to develop a better sense of community.

Events

Game trade shows, conventions, and events are a great way to bring awareness to your game, but you need a proper plan in place.

  • Often the major takeaways of conventions are receiving player feedback, bringing press by to see the game in person, and building your mailing list.
  • A good publisher will book you a solid press schedule, and set up ways to grow your mailing list — with easy signups and giveaways which will incentivize attendees.
  • Events can be expensive if representing a single title, but often publishers will have pre-existing space that they will use to showcase your title
  • A publisher can also take care of the booth set up, getting the swag manufactured, and arrange for the development team’s accommodations including flight, hotel, badges, and meals.
  • Presentation is everything, and your publisher should try to find ways to best showcase your title, to be attractive to attendees walking by.
  • Recently we showcased Desert Child on a custom-built arcade machine at E3. This allowed us with a relatively small budget to still create a unique presentation which stood out.
  • The Walking Dead at E3 had zombie actors that effectively spooked a lot of people walking by, which was great for the awareness of the booth as well as social media buzz of people taking pictures and videos with the zombies.

When a Publisher Isn’t the Right Fit

Retaining full revenue, creative control, and IP ownership is a huge perk for not having a publisher. These are the most common reasons you wouldn’t want to use a publisher, and would be better off yourself.

Your Team has the Necessary Skills

The point when you don’t need a publisher, is when you’re able to accomplish what they can offer on your own. To successfully pull off self-publishing, you should be setup with the following:

  • A large and engaged audience — which may come from conventions, past games you’ve developed, or even came naturally from social posts you make. You want to make sure you have a following already to make sure your game is as visible as possible.
  • Social posts you create get get picked up, shared, and talked about frequently.
  • Established press and influencer connections, or large press and influencers that approach you on their own to write about your game. You will want to be able to reach out and follow up frequently. It is also a good idea to meet in person when possible to keep a strong relationship.

Your Team has the Necessary Financing

An alternative would be if you have the financial backing to where you could partner with teams to fill in the gaps for the services you can’t provide. Common services you can partner with for would be:

  • Marketing
  • Porting
  • Localization
  • QA

Of course, if you go through the entire pitch process and do not find a publisher that is the right fit for you, that doesn’t mean your game won’t succeed. Often a game with a small release on one platform can gain momentum and become more attractive to publishers later.

Stay tuned for our next article on game publishing — “How do You Find the Best Game Publisher for Yourself?”

If you have any lingering questions, or feel I missed something, let us know on our social media @AkuparaGames on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Discord!