The lovely folks at Unity asked me to keynote their Mexico City conference, and asked me to focus on topics that would benefit independent game developers. I ended up trying to summarize the most important lessons that I’ve learned, in retrospect, from 7 years of co-managing Spry Fox with my partner Daniel Cook. It wasn’t easy to write. I cut several things that seemed wise but also very possibly a product of survival bias. What remains are, I hope, a few kernels of truth that might benefit other folks who are just starting out.
When Christian Nutt asked me to write an article for Gamasutra on the topic of publishers, I wasn’t sure what to do. Spry Fox is relatively committed to self-publishing our games and I haven’t kept up with developments in the publishing space. So after writing and discarding a few half-hearted introductions to this article, I decided that the most useful and honest thing that I could do is simply explain why, with one aging exception, Spry Fox has avoided working with publishers.
An important thing to bear in mind, if you’re not familiar with our company, is that we are primarily focused on developing F2P games that we hope to maintain and evolve for years to come. We haven’t been trying to secure a slot on XBLA and we haven’t been trying to sell boxed product. We view everything through the lens of “will this partnership enable us to make a better game, to learn important lessons and to eventually become more independent.”
So, that said: I’ve met a few really interesting publishers in the past couple years; folks who seems smart, motivated and knowledgeable about things that I wish I knew more about. We haven’t done any deals. Why? It always comes down to three issues:
This article was originally published in Game Developer Magazine. It was the seventh in a series of business columns that I am writing for GDM.
One of the most frustrating things a game developer will ever hear is “that [PERCEIVED GENRE] game isn’t worth [PRICE]—I can get [OTHER GAME] for [LOWER PRICE].”
It’s frustrating for a whole bunch of reasons. Your game might not be very similar to the games to which it is being compared, or might offer more content or replayability. Heck, you might simply think your game is “better” and deserves a higher price. But it doesn’t matter. The comparisons are being made and now you’re getting 2-star reviews calling your game good but your company “greedy.”
If that sounds familiar, congratulations: You are part of the very large and growing club of developers who underestimated the power of relativity. No, not E=MC2. I’m talking about the fundamental human tendency to compare everything in our lives to something else we’re familiar with. An organic apple seems ludicrously overpriced to you at $1.99 because conventional apples sell for $0.79, but that same apple would have seemed cheap if your grocery store only carried the organic variety and if organic mangos appeared nearby for $5.99 each. It’s all relative.
This article was originally published in Game Developer Magazine. It was the sixth in a series of business columns that I am writing for GDM.
Back when I worked for Xbox LIVE, I frequently commented on the dangers of what I called “developer tunnel vision.” Nearly all of the devs I spoke with were not paying attention to a diverse set of industry news sources. What’s more, they were focused on at most couple of similar platforms, and were ignoring the rest of the market. (Back then, everyone was talking about XBLA/PSN; today it’s Steam/iOS; tomorrow it will be something else.)
At the time, this seemed completely insane to me—even suicidal. Didn’t these devs understand how quickly things change in our industry? How quickly their current efforts could be rendered irrelevant by shifts in the marketplace, or by strategy shifts made by the platforms? Developer tunnel vision…it was so obviously reckless and short-sighted!
This article was originally published in Game Developer Magazine. It was the fifth in a series of business columns that I am writing for GDM.
The first successful f2p games — aka “games whose primary revenue source were in-game purchases” — hit the market over a decade ago. Now they’re everywhere. They account for 8 of the top 10 grossing games on iOS as I write this. Rumor has it that all the major consoles will support f2p games in the next generation. Even our industry’s most prominent, respected developers (i.e. Popcap, Valve, etc) have begun to embrace the model.
And yet there are still many game developers in the West who have mixed feelings about f2p, worrying that it is “evil” or that it perverts gameplay. But f2p is just a tool, and like any other powerful tool it can be used to create beautiful things or it can be used to create ugly things.
This article was originally published in Game Developer Magazine. It was the fourth in a series of business columns that I am writing for GDM.
Some lessons are harder to learn than others. One of the toughest lessons you may ever learn is that granting someone a generous share of the revenue from your game in exchange for a service (assistance with development; publishing; etc) does not mean that you can assume your incentives are properly aligned.
Say that you give a publisher 50% of the revenue from your game in order to promote the game, to handle customer service, etc. Or perhaps you’ve agreed to develop a game in tandem with a few other individuals and split the future revenue equally. In either case, you’re making an important assumption: that a significant percentage of future profits will ensure that all parties will do their “best” to make the game a success. And sometimes, that’s exactly what happens. But not always, unfortunately.
This article was originally published in Game Developer Magazine. It was the third in a series of business columns that I am writing for GDM.
What would the typical publishing executive do if someone came to them and said, “We’ve taken open source, 8-bit art and created a f2p, nethack-inspired MMO with permadeath. You can attain the maximum character level in just 30 minutes of play. The game currently has no means of generating revenue and can only accommodate 60 concurrent players per server. Will you work with us on it?”
That’s essentially the question posed to Spry Fox one year ago by Alex and Rob, co-creators of Wild Shadow Studios, when they presented us with an early build of Realm of the Mad God (RotMG). And I can guess what others might have said to them, because when we subsequently described the project to contacts of ours, the reaction was inevitably one of skepticism. Permadeath? In 2011? How the heck are you going to retain users? And surely you mean 600 concurrent players per server, not 60?!
As you may have already heard, Spry Fox has partnered with Playdom and Playdom is now the publisher of Triple Town on Facebook. This is something that Danc and I are very excited about!
You might be wondering why a studio as focused on independence as ours would choose to work with a publisher. Here, in no particular order, are the reasons:
Our games have reached millions of users, but never concurrently. We have constantly worried about our ability to scale without major service interruptions or other related problems. Our fans are our lifeblood and we do not want to let them down. Playdom, unlike us, has grown and managed many games with massive concurrent user populations. We are grateful for the opportunity to learn from them and lean on them.
The social gaming market is the most hyper-competitive environment that we have ever worked in. Successful games are cloned with lightning speed and the clones frequently outperform the original. Yes, we could raise a bunch of capital and use it to spend our way to higher user counts, but raising capital takes time and, having never managed a major user acquisition campaign, it is safe to assume that we’d probably spend our marketing dollars inefficiently. Playdom, on the other hand, is in a position to not only cross promote Triple Town to its many existing players, but to help us advertise the game in an effective manner.
Playdom, unlike many other publishers, offered us a fair deal pure and simple. They did not treat us like creative-but-helpless indies to be mercilessly exploited. They treated us with respect. It was also clear from day one that they were totally in love with the game. We’re pretty sure that some of the execs at Playdom play Triple Town much, much more than we do!
We want to create great original games. We do not wish to spend our time creating a massive company with a huge operational arm, with all the overhead that entails. So, we will retain complete creative control of Triple Town on Facebook while Playdom takes care of the many important operational and marketing responsibilities that Spry Fox is not well positioned to manage.
Playdom has made some very advanced tools available for us which will make it substantially easier to analyze activity on Triple Town, to connect with our players, to do AB tests, etc. We could theoretically have built and/or acquired all this from third parties but even in a best case scenario, it would have been neither easy nor cheap, and we would not have had Playdom’s advice as we leverage those tools and grow Triple Town in general. We are not so egotistical as to think we have nothing to learn from one of the biggest players in this market.
So that’s the story. As always, you can expect to hear updates from us as to how it goes. 🙂