Image courtesy of ROTU Entertainment

Let's talk about publishing for indie developers

Unreal Evangelist Team |
April 2, 2021
To self-publish or not, that is the question. Being an indie game developer means having a lot of freedom to make choices, but one of the more challenging choices to make is whether to launch a game on your own or with the help of a publisher. 

Either approach can be valid if it is right for you and your project as developing games and distributing them around the world has never been easier. It’s often not difficult to launch your game in multiple regions but, truth be told, the landscape has never been more competitive: teams from every corner of the world are releasing amazing games nearly every day across many platforms and having a solid publishing plan will help you compete.

As part of Unreal Indies Week 2021, you can gain some insight and learn from different-sized indie developers across the US, India, and Malaysia as they outline their specific approaches to publishing below.
 

ROTU Entertainment’s Jason Park


ROTU Entertainment is an immersive entertainment studio based in Boston, Massachusetts. The team is composed of talented developers from companies like Valve, Capcom, and more, who have helped develop esteemed games such as Hot Dogs, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, and République.

The developer is working on Rhythm of the Universe: Ionia, the first game in a VR series that’s telling a message about conservation. “At ROTU, we strive to find ways to use our creativity to raise awareness of real-world problems,” CEO Jason Parks told us. 

On the notion of whether developers should self-publish or find a publisher, Parks stated, “If you have a mission and a vision, think about self-publishing because you're going to be able to really jumpstart and find the resources you need to make your game successful.” He added, “It's worked for us, and we're so happy we went down the self-publishing route.”

To obtain funding, Parks stated, “All of our projects have been funded by non-profits or have been directly related to a non-profit.” He added, “Also, our project was funded by strategic European and American investors who really saw the vision and mission we had and the direction we wanted to take. So, keep in mind that you can find strategic investment out there if you have a vision and mission that people believe in.”

For more information on ROTU and Rhythm of the Universe, check out their official website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube channels. 


Nodding Head Games’ Shreyash Pai and Ian Maude 


Nodding Heads Games is a team of passionate developers based out of Pune, India. The studio recently released its debut title Raji: An Ancient Epic, which is an action-adventure game set in a fantastical version of medieval India.

To be able to find the funding to achieve their lofty visions for the game, the team sought out a publisher. “Our decision to work with the publisher was the only viable option for us due to high-development costs,” Nodding Heads Games 3D Environment Artist Shreyash Pai told us. The road to finding a publisher did present challenges on the game’s path towards success. “We put all of our savings into the project prior to finding a publisher. We tried Kickstarter, but unfortunately didn’t find success there. [Co-founder] Shruti [Ghosh] had to sell her apartment to keep the project funded, but because of that, we were able to secure an Unreal Dev Grant.” He added, “What that grant did was give us a second life. It bought critical time before we closed the deal with [publisher] Super.com.”

Providing advice they gleaned through their experience, Pai shared, “Indies out there, if you're listening to this, agreements can take anywhere from six months and beyond to close, because you're negotiating and your lawyers are going through it. And, for us, even that was a learning step.” 

Nodding Heads Games Co-founder Ian Maude advised, “Be prepared for difficult times and don't give up,” adding, “You've got to be realistic with your expectations, of what you can actually do as a team, and as an individual, and what you're wanting to say. Also, don't just look at this as a project. Look at this as a commercial venture, because at the end of the day, you need to sell this.” 

Raji: An Ancient Epic is out now on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PC, and Xbox One. For more information on the game, check out https://rajithegame.com/.
 

Cellar Vault Games


Cellar Vault Games is a small indie game developer based in Malaysia. They recently released and self-published 7PM, which is the first installment in their horror-anthology series Short Creepy Tales

Their video-game development journey derived from their work in school. “So the TLDR version of our story is that we started as a college final year project, figuring out how to make a horror game,” Cellar Vault Games Art Lead Eshan Jayatilaka told us, adding, “And the place that we are right now is basically that we wanted a bit more room for creative control over the story that we were making, and we weren't completely sure what the final form would take.”

In their case, starting out, self-publishing was the most accessible avenue. “We didn't really know anyone in publishing who we thought would take us seriously. We just had this idea, and we had an art resource and a design resource, and at the time, a tech resource. And we just tried to figure out what would work in that gameplay format,” Jayatilaka explained.

“When we finished 7PM, it was actually more a question of ‘okay, what do we know and who do we know?’ And at the time, we just didn't really have a dedicated person to handle the publishing, awareness, and marketing so we just did that ourselves,” Jayatilaka concluded.

Short Creepy Tales: 7PM is available now on Steam and itch.io. You can follow Cellar Vault Games on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Things you should keep in mind

As we’ve seen through the experience of these different teams, there are many aspects that you should consider before making a decision on whether to self-publish.

One of the biggest pros of self-publishing is that you get 100% of the earnings, minus the platform fees.

It doesn’t matter if your game is a hit or not, if you are self-publishing, you are making all the calls. You can decide what your next move is going to be. This means whether to keep improving the experience, acquiring users, spending money to market your content, or to put a pause on everything and go on vacation. It’s your call. Self-publishing also means you decide when is the best time to release your game, which allows you to organize your resources around that date.

Total independence isn’t free, though. Since you are in charge of making every decision, it means you are also probably in charge of turning those decisions into actions. For example, this includes doing a thorough QA of the game, localizing it to different languages, marketing your game, building a community around it, talking to the press, negotiating with the different platform stakeholders to feature your game across their stores, and properly supporting your players. If you can’t do it or don’t want to, you could always outsource these tasks to a third party and cover the costs. This means all the efforts and expenses associated with funding, developing, testing, marketing, and releasing the game are entirely on you.

If this seems daunting, don’t panic! Thousands of teams choose this route and have had wonderful results. You just need to understand that a lot of work needs to be done so you can either learn new skills while developing your game or find a partner or a service provider that can help you.

Working with a publisher means you might be able to rely on their experience to assist you in the development phase and then handle some or perhaps all of that launch work that needs to be done for you. Most of them have specialized in different genres and have built communities around them that could help you get to your target audience faster.

On many occasions, signing with a publisher means that they’ll share the risk with you and will provide resources, consulting services, and often even funding or a minimum guarantee that will allow you to work more comfortably. Of course, this is a business, so it won’t be free. You need to establish the terms and conditions of this investment. What is your publisher committing to? What are you committing to? What are the exchange terms? Is the agreement limited in time, platform, or region? You will need to get answers to these questions.

Publishers often work with several teams at a time and this means they have a stronger relationship with the digital storefronts and the press. They can potentially get you a better deal than the one you could get on your own if you don’t have a strong network, but you need to understand that you will likely be competing for their attention with other projects they are investing in.

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