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Publishing deals are often viewed as the end game for small game studios. But how do you do a game publishing deal right?
It’s different for console, mobile, and PC games. There’s no school for this, and the new rules of digital gaming have changed the relationship between developers and publishers. We assembled an expert panel to talk about the subject at our GamesBeat 2016 event in Los Angeles last week. Their advice? Finding a publisher is like dating.
The speakers included Mark Stanley, the vice president of internal development and diversification at GameStop. He oversees the continued growth of the company’s used games business, as well as new diversification opportunities, such as indie game development and publishing with the company’s new game publishing label GameTrust.
He was joined by Walter Driver, the CEO of Scopely, which just raised $55 million to expand and execute on its publishing strategy. Scopely has investments in development studios and works regularly with seven studios that employ more than 300 people.
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David Jaffe is a game director and game designer at Bartlet Jones Supernatural Detective Agency, a game studio. He has helped teams make games for the last 20 years and has worked on titles including Mickey Mania, Twisted Metal 2, Twisted Metal: Black.
Moderating the session was Ophir Lupu, the head of games at United Talent Agency. He represents many of the world’s most respected and successful game creators and development studios, including Ken Levine, Boss Key Productions, Big Huge Games, Casey Hudson, Giant Sparrow, Patrice Dèsilets, and others. He has been in that position for five years. Before that, he headed the video game division at CAA, where he worked since 2000.
Here’s an edited transcript of their conversation.
Ophir Lupu: I run the games group at United Talent Agency where I represent game developers like Mr. Jaffe here and many others. We help facilitate publishing deals, capital raises, and other deals on behalf of game developers.
David Jaffe: I’m a game director at the Bartlet Jones Supernatural Detective Agency. We’re doing a game right now called Drawn to Death with Sony.
Mark Stanley: I’m responsible for new ventures and diversification at GameStop. We recently launched our indie publishing initiative called GameTrust. We launched our first game, Song of the Deep, with Insomniac, and soon we’ll be launching DeFormers with Ready at Dawn.
Walter Driver: I’m CEO of Scopely, a Los Angeles-based publisher of free-to-play mobile games. We have about 500 people across 10 studios that we have first-, second-, and third-party relationships with. Our big games in the last two months have been Yahtzee with Buddies and Walking Dead: Road to Survival.
Lupu: Talking about publishing deals, let’s start with getting the deal, signing the deal, and then executing. The publisher-developer relationship isn’t just about signing a deal. There’s a lot of interesting dynamics that take place between both groups. Let’s start with the approach. How do you, as a developer, look at pitching, and as a publisher, look at receiving pitches?
When you’re a developer, how do you think about your audience you’re selling to, selling that vision? And on the publisher side, you’ve seen lots of pitches every day, every conference. People want to build the things they want to build. What are the criteria by which you analyze how those things come in to you, and how do you ultimately determine the very few things you do sign?
Jaffe: I worked for a publisher for about 17 years, so I sat on the other side of the table for a number of pitches as well. That’s influenced my views on how to put together a pitch that’s compelling. For me, it’s probably the equivalent of—I’m really bad at analogies, as we’ll all discover together. But it is kind of like going on a date with someone you’ve just met. You can dress up and put your best foot forward, but ultimately there will come a point where you have to reveal the real you. Would you rather do that up front and save yourself a lot of heartache and hopes that they really like you, what you’re selling?
For me there’s a tendency to want to dress it up, to be what you think someone is looking for. But as a receiver of pitches and as someone who’s done a lot of pitches, it’s about genuineness and passion for what you’re putting out into the world. If somebody bites, ideally it’s because there’s a love connection there, and you enter into a partnership where you make this thing together.
It’s important to go into a pitch and not be desperate, which is hard sometimes when you’re trying to get that—we were pitching to a lot of people, and it never occurred to me to go to Sony for a lot of reasons, but there were times when I was waiting for a call, and people never called back. There’s a knee-jerk initial inclination to wonder what you should have done different. But I think it’s always a pretty easy thing to say, let the idea and the game design and the team be the core. If people want that they want it. If they don’t, they don’t. It helps the pitch not come off as quite so needy, and it helps you find a partner that’s genuinely connected, as opposed to just someone who’s going to write a check.
Stanley: Authenticity and passion are what drives us. We really aim to learn about and get to know the development team themselves first, before we even talk about a project. That chemistry is integral, especially as we’re starting out. We have a lot to risk, but we’re investing very heavily. That will be number one.
Second, once you get to that post-first-date status, it’s learning about that passion for the actual project and the goals of the developer. A lot of developers are very happy to remain focused on one project. They want to keep that single focus. Others want to become a two- or three-project team. We want to understand that up front so we can be part of that long-term success. Then we know that project one will lead to project two and so forth.
Driver: We’re totally focused on running live services in mobile free-to-play, so it’s a little different than talking about traditional publishing. There are completely different relationships between console and mobile free-to-play. The free-to-play stuff, we’re building a relationship where we’ll be operationally intertwined, doing stuff together as essentially one team for marketing, CRM, in-game segmentation, analytics and project management for years to come.
The individual project is totally secondary to looking at, who are these people? What are the risk factors around them as people? Do we trust them? Do we like them? Do we trust that they like and work well with each other? If they’ve worked well as a team in the past, that’s a huge de-risking factor in terms of their relationships and their ability to lead a team. Have they made stuff in the past that we like and admire, that’s technically sound? Have they been able to operate a live service? Can they run live events and update stuff over the air? A lot of that is stuff that game-makers from a console background don’t have.
If they get through all of those, what are we going to do together? We get into talking about the project. It’s about them communicating to us that they’re going to be a great long-term partner, that they want to work deeply with us for a long time. In free-to-play, it’s not a transactional relationship. It’s a long-term partnership. You need people you can count on to work through tough problems. That’s the number one thing we look for in partners. We figure out what the project is together.
Coming in with a pitch that you’re super passionate to totally finish, pitching us hard on one project, is going to be very off-putting as opposed to just getting to know us first, building a relationship, and gradually talking about what we can do together. Making it more of a collaborative conversation, because operating a game is going to be very collaborative. We like to see passion, but we also like to come in earlier in the process before just getting a finished product and saying thumbs-up or thumbs-down.
Lupu: We’ll keep the analogy going. You’ve dated successfully, and to Walter’s point you’re getting married. The first few months, first few milestones are obviously—you might know some people on the other end of the relationship. They might know you. Maybe you have some history together. But really, you’re leading a studio. You’re leading a publishing organization with producers who are trying to make sure the game is in check from early on.
What are those two or three super key elements that you try to focus your respective teams on to ensure that—the worst thing that happens in deals like this is a sort of tribalism sets in. A lot of times you’ll see a developer second-guess a publisher. A publisher can incorrectly focus feedback on the developer that isn’t necessarily the most productive. How do you deal with that, especially early on? Sometimes these are two- or three-year-long journeys. In free-to-play, if you’re talking about something successful, it’s a really long time. How do you focus your teams on making sure that the early days of the marriage lead to something long and prosperous?
Jaffe: Whether it’s tweeting or blogging or direct outreach, I’ve always been very customer-centric, even back in the PlayStation days, when we didn’t have as many ways to reach out to people about the games we were making. To me it’s always been about making the customer happy. Step one is fulfilling a creative, commercial vision, and then, can you make the customer happy?
When we start a project, all the way to the end—I can’t say the publisher is the number one customer, because that’s not correct. They’re certainly the number one customer at the beginning, though. That part of our role is that we want to make sure making the game is a good experience for the publisher. They look back at their time with us, whether or not the game is successful and they do another deal with us, and they say, “That was a good group of people to work with.” That’s part of our milestone checklist.
It just means, practically, that you pick your battles. Sometimes the publisher does something that we’re not too cool with. But we usually just talk about it. Maybe because I come from publishing to begin with, I’ve never looked at it as the big bad publisher. I was always in those meetings where decisions needed to get made that the developer on the receiving end might take that way, but it was never an actual malicious decision, or an idiotic decision, even though maybe it could have felt that way. Bringing that awareness to the table with the desire to—part of my job is to make these people happy about the fact that they’ve done a deal with us. For the first six or seven months you make sure to pick up your socks off the bedroom floor.
Stanley: For us at GameTrust the goal was to simplify game development. Having been at Sony eight years before coming on board at GameStop, I saw the good and the bad of big publishers. I worked with hundreds of developers and finally saw an opportunity here to simplify the process.
Our first project with a developer, really, is the dating. We consider that first launch the marriage. Then we can continue on project by project. But it really is making sure we keep it simple. If we’re in the process of discussing a potential project—we like to come in almost at the napkin stage, when things are just being concepted.
When we go down the path and talk about a deal, we want to make it simple. We’re looking for developers who want to make great games. We trust them to do that. They trust us to take all the other BS that comes with publishing – the marketing, promotion, retail merchandising – and be able to collaborate along the way without any unilateral decisions being taken. That’s proven to be successful for us so far.
It goes back to the beginning, that we want to keep it simple. We can’t have 20-page term sheets, because every decision you make on a product will have to involve a large team. We’re allergic to that stuff. Going back to simplicity has been the key for us to start a project and make sure any ideas that come along the way, in the development of the project or the IP—that it’s easy to make a decision. The deal itself needs to be fair to begin with.
Driver: For us it’s a closely intertwined relationship when we’re operating a game. We try to eliminate all daylight between the two companies. There’s no chance for an us-versus-them thing when we have an entire team of producers, designers, analysts, data scientists, marketing people who are 100 percent dedicated to each of our partners. If we do a deal with one of our clients, we’re putting a team of 10 people on that team. They represent that team’s interests inside Scopely 100 percent of the time. Their whole future, compensation and everything, is predicated on that team’s success.
We make that clear to the studios as well. These people work for you. They unlock the power of our publishing platform and resources. They’re on your side. At the same time, they’re on our side. There’s less chance for friction. They spend a lot of time together, so there’s trust and visibility. We try to explain why we do what we do in advance, educating them about how our business works, before we even get started on the partnership.
The other big thing on the alignment front, where we focus in free-to-play—these are the metrics that are going to lead to a successful outcome. This is the financial model that will flow from those metrics. Does everyone agree that this is a great outcome we’d all be happy with? This is the retention profile, the monetization profile that we need on a per-user basis in the U.S. and Canada and Europe. Everyone can align around what we’re shooting for. The creative process becomes a lot easier, because everyone knows that they’re aiming at the same target.
We never have to say, “We don’t like what you’re doing here.” We know it’s a good idea because we’re watching the game in Australia or New Zealand or whatever. We’re 20 percent where we need to be on day 60 monetization, so we’ll do some work and figure it out. We just keep focusing people on the qualitative numbers. That’s a target we can navigate our way to collaboratively instead of getting into disagreements. That’s been very effective for us so far.
Lupu: That’s a good segue. There are obviously bumps along the way, either on the data side – you’re not getting the metrics you want – or even the production side. Either the creative feels like they need more time, or—how do you think about that? Because that’s going to happen at least once in production. Something is going to happen where you either have to invest more or cut content. How do you go about that? At what point are we chasing bad money with good? How do you know if a little more cash might make it work?
Driver: We obviously assume that nothing is going to happen on time and on budget. We try to build a little padding into everything we do for that purpose. But there’s a difference between a project that’s late because you’re finding opportunities to make it better and a project that’s late because the team is not executing on the plan you had, or the plan is evolving in a way that’s sort of whimsical. That happens sometimes. People are iterating on software before they really find out what they have.
For us it’s all about the metrics. That’s something that everyone can objectively agree on. If the average user is worth $3.43 by day 90 in the U.S., we don’t have a business, but if it’s worth $4.50 we do. You won’t be able to support the game for long if you don’t get to $4.50, so here are some ideas that might be able to get you there. Balancing we could do the game economy, store redesigns, whatever it is. If the team feels like they can get there, then it’s pretty easy to continue to invest. As soon as the team says, “We’re only 40 percent of the way to our goal and we’re out of time,” we have to open a conversation about whether we should be focusing our time elsewhere.
If the team is executing well and we like them, we’ll fund them to do something else. If it’s a relationship that we want to be in then we encourage everybody to have a dialogue about that. But it’s very metrics-oriented for us, because we can measure it all.
Stanley: We start with putting a lot of weight on pedigree and track record of quality for our partners. That said, we’re realistic. This is game development. We do expect that most things will not turn out exactly as we expected.
We have a policy of full transparency from day one, even down to our financial announcements and P&Ls. We approach the relationship very openly. There’s no number that we have that our publishing and development partners won’t see. That brings a different dynamic. A lot of the development partners we talk with have never seen a profitability number from a publisher. That should change.
When we run into those issues, it’s not a matter of the developer having that extra pressure around, “When are we going to tell them?” It’s really just, “Hey, we ran into this.” The next day we’ll collaboratively work through it. We have full trust that we both want a great game out there. We want full discoverability in a great title. So how do we get there together? It’s just evaluating whether it’s an opportunity issue or a performance issue, as Walter mentioned. Then you invest against it as it comes.
Jaffe: Most of the games I’ve worked on have gotten extensions numerous times. But I think it depends on the kind of developer you set out to be. If you want to be a developer that’s more workaday, a craftsman, we get shit done on time — it may not be DICE game of the year, but it’s dependable and marketable — you make good decisions and get that shit out. I think that’s a wonderful way to be. If you want to be that kind of developer there’s plenty of opportunity.
Most of what I’ve done, I’ve had the fortune to work with publishers – mainly Sony – that have been more about, “Hey, Jaffe, you guys have a very specific vision and we want to contribute to that vision.” And then especially if you’re doing more of a narrative or story-based game, that vision is never done, because you’re chasing two things. You’re chasing mechanics and you’re chasing production value and storytelling. Those things are huge jobs in and of themselves.
I have found that mechanics-based games, you can strip away a lot of the periphery, because ultimately it’s that core of mechanics that you’re selling. That’s what’s going to excite someone. Whether Pokemon Go has six extra ways to catch Pokemon, if the core essence is working, the other stuff is either forgiven. But if you’re telling a story and suddenly you’re missing a chunk of your narrative, or you have weird animation every time your characters are moving through a hallway, that pulls you out of the experience. It’s a very different thing. Those kinds of games tend to see us going back to the publisher and saying, “Hey, check out what we discovered. We need a little more time.” The core stuff doesn’t seem to have those same issues. We tend to finish mechanics-based games more on time.
Lupu: So you’ve gone through dating. You got married. You had your honeymoon. There are bumps along the way. You’re about to have a child together and put a game out into the universe. What are the things people should know about, from the developer and publisher standpoints, that people don’t really know about the last stretch to release? Especially since we’re not in a fire-and-forget world anymore. What do people underestimate about that last stretch of the project in terms of marketing or making sure you’re all aligned?
Driver: In mobile free-to-play there’s no last stretch of the project. Even with global releases, nothing changes in the way that we’re operating. We tend to release in a very small country like Ireland, then South Africa, then Australia. We’ve probably done five “new releases” with a developer before we launch globally. At that point we may have already 100,000 people using a game every day. We’ll be running live events every day. Sometimes we’re in multiple languages before we globally release.
The thing for developers to understand when they’re working with us is that it’s going to get more intense, as far as pace and the number of users. We want to move fast and evolve the game for users as quickly as we can. We’re going to be very averse to launching a product globally until it’s already demonstrated to be working at the level we want.
In the evolving mobile ecosystem, we’re seeing the market get more mature. Customers are getting more sophisticated. They have products they like. Those products have been worked on for three or four years sometimes. They’re very deep and very well-optimized. If you’re rushing something to market in a year to get it out there—the era of MVP mobile products is totally over. Consumers will either not check it out, or they’ll look at it for one minute and never look at it again. They’ll certainly not tell their friends about it.
We try to make sure our products are ready for prime time and demonstrated to be so in our test markets before we launch globally. Then we throw resources at it and hopefully ramp the development team up, not down, which is the inverse of how things work more traditionally. We break that team into more and more pods. We may have five or six development tracks in a single game. We’ll be talking all day, every day from that point on. It’ll just accelerate.
Stanley: We have the fortune to be part of this mothership in GameStop, which allows us to think about those final launch days both in a physical sense and a digital sense. There are some challenges. The last stretch in development is always sweat, blood, and tears. But having that capability, that we own 60 or 70 percent market share at retail, allows us to be flexible. If we do need more time for optimization, we’re able to move that launch date without major consequences that perhaps a traditional publisher might face.
We want to be able to work on strategic planning. In the past I’ve seen a lot of marketing plans or conversations on strategy coming in 90 days before launching a game. That is way too late. We want to get that under the belt early, even in the concept stages. We have to have conversations about things like what kind of collectibles we want to do. What makes sense for that IP? We have to talk to factories that run on nine-month lead times. That physical aspect forces us to be way ahead, but that’s only an advantage when we start talking about digital distribution and the digital ecosystem.
That doesn’t change the fact that on the game side, you’ll always have that rush to market. We do have to back out those four to five weeks for stamping in different markets so we truly have a global launch, which we always want to do. We want to give every gamer in the world access to the same game on the same day, treating all gamers equally. These factors all come into play and force you into having these strategic conversations nine months to a year before launch.
Jaffe: When you’re talking about what people might not know, one thing I’ve found is that it is so easy to be a developer in the last months of your project and start blaming the publisher for not giving you the marketing or the PR that you want, the support you think you need or deserve. Always there’s a desire for more. That all comes at a cost, but you want as much of that stuff as you can get.
I’ve seen a number of teams, ones I’ve been on and ones I’ve been peripheral to, who don’t seem to get that your marketing and your support from the publisher toward the end is in direct relation to how good your game is. All the marketing in the world won’t help a game that doesn’t have a commercial hook and doesn’t have good execution. I don’t think a lot of developers get that. It’s very easy to fall into a mentality of, “We’re doing a game with Sony. Uncharted had this and that and the other. Why didn’t we have collector cups at Subway?” Well, it’s because Twisted Metal isn’t as potentially lucrative as Uncharted. Just fucking deal with it. That’s Sony’s choice to make.
The good news is, when you’re working with a publisher, they have a whole portfolio of games. That will support some smaller games that they know aren’t going to make a lot of money, because they have these massive games that will bring in a huge amount of money. That’s the up side. The negative is that they’re not going to be equal in how they support them.
I would say I’ve found developers that don’t seem to get that. It’s something I try to impart to my team as we closer to release. We’re not gonna get Super Bowl ads. It’s not gonna happen. That’s not the kind of game we have. We have a butthole you can shoot and you go in there and it teleports you to some other part of the level. That will not get a Super Bowl ad.
Lupu: On that note….
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