Publishing: The Good, the Bad, and the Necessary
What We Publish, and Why
The Captain of Kitfox, Tanya X. Short, explains the Kitfox publishing approach, including a few tips for people hoping to find a publisher. Spoilers: maybe don’t!
Note: Kitfox is not accepting any pitches to publish any more games until at least 2020, maybe longer. Please do not send us your games. (We’re sure they’re lovely though.)
Why We Publish
I don’t recommend everyone should have a publisher. Even though I am one.
Kitfox started as (and will hopefully always be) a developer, primarily. We decided to self-publish our first games for several reasons:
- we wanted our name/brand to be the only one on it
- we could survive without additional funds
- we didn’t want to pay a percentage to someone else
- I was afraid a publisher wouldn’t fulfill their end of the deal
- we could find & pay for our own localization and quality assurance
- we could do most of the promotion ourselves or learn from trying
Self-publishing is scary, but if those apply to you, I would say self-publishing is probably your best option too. That extra percentage of revenue and focused branding can help you survive to ship the next game. Plus, the more you learn about promotion first-hand, the better-equipped you are to negotiate the next time.
Since Kitfox doesn’t offer development funds, people approach us primarily for marketing help. Some developers can’t (or won’t) put resources towards promotion, marketing, and finding their audience. Sometimes a game only has one full-time developer and they have no time for promotion (sometimes estimated at 3–6 months per year). Sometimes marketing is such a completely alien skillset that the difficulty curve is insurmountable.
But… people come to us for that expertise now because we self-published to begin with. After learning the ropes with Shattered Planet and Moon Hunters, when one of our co-founder’s side-projects seemed commercially viable, we decided we could take that on too, which would become The Shrouded Isle. Our success with all three led to conversations with friends about how we promoted our games, and how little inclination they had to handle it themselves, which led to us agreeing to publish Six Ages and later Dwarf Fortress… and two more unannounced titles.
How We Publish
Our deals are fairly basic. For the games that are developers’ livelihoods, this is our standard approach:
- Kitfox spends money (with dev approval) on promotions, for example attending PAX, and maybe some contractors to help with launching, like trailer editors, localization, etc.
- When the game launches, Kitfox recoups that money at 80% from sales revenue (dev gets 20%), after platform cuts (i.e. Steam’s 30%)
- After Kitfox is paid back, we take 20% and the dev takes 80%. This is lower than most (the standard seems to be a 70/30 split), but there are a very small number of publishers taking less.
But sometimes people ask, “How do you pick which games to publish?” So far, the answer has been easy, if a bit strange and idiosyncratic. It’s always been:
- Friends of mine who I trust
- Whose games seem likely to make back the money we put into promoting
- AND that appeal to players of our previous games*
- …OR it’s a side-project of a co-founder, in which case anything kinda goes
*This is a tricky one, because even our own games at Kitfox are quite varied. The audiences of Boyfriend Dungeon and Lucifer Within Us may or may not overlap. At least I can say all of our games are system-driven (as opposed to completely linear), in new settings/worlds, with some element of role-playing.
But if you’re considering signing with a publisher, chances are that you’re not personal friends with them, and you’ve already spent lots of your time and money on it, so you’re obviously certain of the market success and appeal. Your approach will probably have to be different.
Managing Your Publisher
As a publisher myself, my top advice for developers seeking publishers:
- Do you actually need one? Are you really, really sure?
- Okay, then why? What is it EXACTLY you need? Why are you doing this?
- Keep that list in mind at all times, during negotiations. Make sure your needs are explicitly in your contract, as much as possible.
- Don’t let their successes blind you. Dig deep to find the lesser-known published titles in their catalog — the ones that didn’t do so great. Ask them (and yourself) why those ones performed so differently, and what they learned from the experience. Would you be OK if your game performed similarly?
- Don’t let them take ownership of your IP.
- Push for lower than 100% recoup of their expenses, to help yourself survive in the days/weeks/months after launch.
- For various other concrete advice, plus an explanation of ‘recoup’ and other things, a Finji link (we think similarly).
In some ways, the publisher-developer dynamics can actually encourage ‘unfair’ or ‘evil’ behavior. The publisher often has more money, more time, and those resources give them more options, like changing their staff or changing their mind about how high a priority your project is. So it is in your best interests to build a contract that specifies your needs must be met.
Kitfox Publishing: In Progress
We haven’t actually launched an externally-developed game yet, so it’s possible this is all a failed experiment. But I feel confident in Kitfox being able to help Six Ages, Dwarf Fortress, and our other published games even though we couldn’t provide development funds. I know what their developers need, and I know we’re providing that fairly. Any good publisher would want similar assurances that your needs are being met.
If you do partner with a publisher, my fingers are crossed for you, that they do everything you need, and more. There’s good ones out there. Good luck.
P.S. Maybe keep an eye out on our Twitter for an announcement next week…?