Every game needs a publisher, whether you do it yourself or hire another company for that role. Publishing is a skilled task, a necessary step for any game to find success. But what criteria determine whether a developer needs an external publishing partner (someone to finance, market, and distribute their game), or not?
It has never been easier to self-publish via the App Store or Google Play, but uploading your app is just the beginning. What about the marketing and PR savvy, media contacts, social media skills, and customer response utility needed to acquire and retain thousands (or millions) of users globally with proper localisation?
Analysis shows most of the top 50 free games on iOS use publishers. Sure, there are Cinderella stories from self-publishing mobile developers (Geometry Dash, Alto’s Adventure, and the stylish Tiny Wings are noteworthy) but are these exceptional anomalies, or could self-publishing actually be the best route to market for some developers? If you are going to self-publish, what’s the smartest way to go about it?
A closer examination of the history of game publishing may hold some answers.
In the beginning
Before the internet, game distribution required physical media. Basement coders created cool games and shared with friends via cassettes tapes, shareware, floppy disks, or CDs. Game devs even sent out demos as a kind of early version of freemium publishing. You could sell your work out of your car trunk, or if you were lucky, a local computer store, or catalog. If you wanted to reach a bigger audience, you mailed a copy of your game to a software publisher and hoped for the best.
It really wasn’t until the arrival of Steam and later on Apple’s App Store that independent publishers had the means to reach the gamer market en masse. Combined with the standardization of devices, payment methods, and trust in these platforms, users were finally given a storefront that placed every title on the same virtual shelf. Investors were keen to back potential winners and, if the pros wouldn’t, crowdfunding could pave the way and help to grow an embedded audience before a game even launched.
Today, mobile has furthered transformed the distribution paradigm for game developers as it’s now exponentially harder for indie devs to compete. As the app market became more open, the capital and skills required to compete for top rankings increased. This served to restrict the top end of the market to those with deep pockets, which begs the question: While any mobile developer can publish their own game, should they?
Why publishers still matter today
In practice, it’s fairly easy to publish indie games (arguably easier on Google Play than the App Store), but it’s a highly competitive space, with hundreds of new titles launched daily. And top titles spend a lot on their marketing. How much exactly?
Well, Liftoff’s 2017 Mobile Gaming Apps Report found the average cost to acquire a mobile gaming user via install is $4.07. If you’re using a freemium model, you can plan on investing $50.69 total to get them to first purchase.
To put that in perspective, the top 10 grossing iPhone games on the App Store at the time of writing, which are all free to install, average 29,544 downloads per day. So, in order to compete, you can plan on spending $1,497,585 daily just to get those users to the point where they make their first purchase.
Where does all this expense come from? Advertising, public relations, celebrity endorsements, brand partnerships, data acquisition, and establishing and maintaining social media and gaming communities, for starters. Add to that the ongoing expense of maintaining and updating for OS upgrades and the launch of new devices, all the while supporting localisation and the unique requirements of certain geographies, not to mention the necessity of sourcing the right advertising partners, which are geographically specific, if you plan to use an ad monetization strategy.
Of course, a creative, well-constructed game, backed by marketing, social media, and support that resonates with users can (and sometimes does) overcome the barriers sometimes imposed by the need for cash.
That said, leading mobile game publishers such as EA, King, Supercell, and Miniclip have the expertise, marketing muscle, localisation infrastructure, media, and influencer connections to take a world of effort off developers’ plates. This lets developers focus on continually producing and maintaining great quality gaming experiences for their users.
Whether you can self-publish your mobile game and try to compete on the global stage really depends on your circumstances. One thing is certain: If you are going to work with an outside publisher, you’d better do your homework ahead of time.
So what should you look for in a publisher?
The checklist for choosing an ideal publishing partner for your mobile game starts with identifying where you are at with your app. If you are still in the conceptualization stage of your game (and perhaps seeking capital to fund development), think about finding a publisher that’s also an investor (or at least has strong connections to investors).
In any case, always take the time to study potential publishers’ portfolios before approaching them. Have they successfully taken other games in your genre to market? Do they have the geographical reach and experience for the markets you want to target? Is their portfolio compatible with the marketing research you’ve done for your game in terms of monetisation strategy or regional splash? What commitment level can you expect in terms of marketing spend, and what will you have to give up to get the publisher to throw its full weight behind your game?
You understand that a percentage of sales will go the publisher in order to gain the opportunity of global scale, but have you thought about the potential impacts on your creative process? Top publishers may have deep-rooted beliefs about what it takes to make a game successful, so you can expect a lot of feedback and direction on the design, flow, and mechanics of your game. If you want the big publishers to work with you, you’ll have to be prepared to diligently listen to and act on that advice.
In the end, the most crucial thing to understand is what you are and are not good at. What talent do you have in-house? If your experience is mainly in developing games but you have limited experience with the business side of things, you should definitely consider a publisher if you want to scale. But if you want to remain small and maintain full control, self-publishing may be a good option.
Johannes Heinze is managing director, International at AppLovin, a leading mobile marketing platform that helps the world’s largest brands reach over two billion consumers globally with relevant content.