Indie publisher panel (Indie Developer Day, Seattle 2018)
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Indie publisher panel (Indie Developer Day, Seattle 2018)

August 18, 2019

SARAH THOMSON: OK, so I’m back
here with two pretty fantastic guests. This is Mike and Ryan, and I’ll
have them introduce themselves, but essentially
these guys are coming from what I like to call
indie boutique publishers. Sounds fancy? Whether or not you agree
with that, you can debate, but these two folks have been
in the industry for a while, and I think they’re
going to have a lot of really great
insights and gems of wisdom that we’re going to share
in the next half an hour. So if you don’t mind,
guys, pick and choose who would like to intro
maybe your studio, what your background is, and sort
of the vision of what you’re doing. RYAN HOLOWATY: Sure. Do you want me to start? MIKE GORDON: You can go first. RYAN HOLOWATY: Cool. There’s going to be a
lot of that, I think. Yeah, so, I’m Ryan. I’m from Noodlecake Studios. We are in the middle of Canada. It’s called Saskatoon. Probably most of you
have never heard of it. If you’re flying from
Vancouver to Toronto, just jump out of
the plane halfway and you’ll land in Saskatoon. So yeah, we started out in about
2011 as a first-party studio making iPhone games,
and we kind of pivoted into publishing a little
bit when Android came out. The quick TLDR story
is we developed some software
in-house that allowed us to run native
Objective-C code on Android, figured a bunch of
our indie friends would probably want to
capitalize on this because none of them were even supporting
Android at the time because it was such
a new platform. So we used that
and decided instead of doing a tech license or
something, because Unity was, you know, looming– we knew these cross-platform
tools were on their way– we decided to make a
publishing company out of it. And the catch was, we
would take your game, port it for you for
free, and then we would just take a
cut of the rev share, market it, do all
that sort of stuff. So our Android catalog
is actually quite massive because we’ve been
doing this for a while. Things just kind of
continued to move along, and we started getting
developers coming to us who said, hey, you
can market and publish these games better than we
could on any platform, so why don’t you take
the whole thing? And then so we kind
of moved into a more traditional publishing
role, as well still making our own first-party games at
the time that we kind of used to then snowball and
cross-promote our games. So every time we
launch new games, it goes out to all of our
users across all of the games that we have in our
catalog, which on Android I think is over 100 and some
at this point, probably, now. It’s getting quite big. We still do some one-off
publishing deals, but they’re kind of more for the
higher-end indies, if you will. So the Snowman team, we did
the “Alto” series for them. We recently took over
the Capybara contract for “Sword and Sworcery.” We’ve worked with Cyan on
“Myst” and things like that. So we kind of do some
of these bigger ones. But for the most part
now we’re cross-platform publishing and moving into Steam
and console space now, too, so we’re kind of
running the gamut. MIKE GORDON: Cool. That was awesome. Yeah. So I’m Mike. I’m the CEO of Iron Horse Games. Iron Horse has been around
for about two years. We mostly focus on
publishing idle games. Iron Horse, if you’re
curious, is one person, and he’s standing here on stage. I’ve put out 11 or 12
games since December. We’re doing pretty
heavy user acquisition across the portfolio
at this point. I mostly focus on small-
and medium-size teams, one-person teams
like Ben there, who’s one of the teams I work with. Ben’s the very
talented developer behind “Swarm Simulator,” if
you guys have played that. It’s a great game. Prior to that, I was the
vice president of publishing at Kongregate for
about four years, focusing on their mobile
publishing business. Yeah, that’s the
long and short of it. SARAH THOMSON: Great. Thanks, guys. Maybe you can speak a little bit
about what’s your journey been like so far as a publisher. It’s very different than– working for a big company
is very different than being purely an indie
developer, so any thoughts you’d like to share on what
that journey’s been like so far? MIKE GORDON: Yeah. So “challenging” is
probably one word for it. I think this was mentioned
in the previous talk that Sarah did. The marketplace shifts
radically and you need to respond to it quickly. So started about
two-plus years ago. And in that time, I have changed
my business model fundamentally three times and successfully
dodged a couple of bullets. So hopefully, I’ve got a couple
more of those left in me. As challenging as it is, I think
one of the things that’s great about it is you can help small-
and medium-sized developers actually grow. I’ve had a lot of
conversations with developers where they’ve actually
tried to dissuade me from signing their games
and working on them. I’ve had conversations
where developers have said, are you sure you want
to invest in this game? Like, you think it’s really
going to do this well? And the answer, nine
times out of 10, is yes. At least it’s going to
do well enough to be worth the effort to put it out. And in many of the
cases, it’s well enough to generate a significant
amount of revenue for myself and the developers. So it’s been challenging,
but if you can adapt quickly to the changing marketplace
on iOS and on Google Play, you can capture
a lot of success. RYAN HOLOWATY: Yeah,
I mean, I can kind of piggyback on that answer. He’s right– you’ve
got to be lean and you’ve got to
be able to move. For us, our publishing is we do
the user acquisition marketing side of things,
too, but we’re also more of a technical publisher. Teams will come to us
with, you know, partially finished projects, and it
can range from 25% to 85%– it doesn’t really matter. Kind of depends on when
they decide they want to reach out to a publisher. So we take on games of
all sorts and sizes, and how those deals
work really depends on what they’re looking for. And so one of the
big things is, yeah, like being very quickly
able to adapt to the market. Because again, Unity didn’t
exist back in the day when we started this, and now
it does and it’s everywhere, and that totally crushed the
whole porting side of things. But we saw that coming,
so we had to adjust. You know, the fall of
the bottom of pricing was a huge thing we
had to adjust for, because back in the day when
only four games came out a month, you could charge $5
for that game and it was great. But now, it’s like everyone’s
releasing 100 games a week, so, you know, how do you acquire
users through different means than just looking
for feature placement on the stores and
things like that? So yeah, you got to be
able to move and adapt, and I think we’ve been good
at doing that at the office. And still, a part
of us just– well, we like to stick
to our roots when it comes to games and the
games we’re working with, so if it’s something we
think is fun and cool, we’ll probably figure out a way
to work with you, too, on it. So it doesn’t
necessarily have to fall into a single type of genre. SARAH THOMSON: Great. I think if I don’t ask this,
someone will probably ask this during the Q&A. So
what are you looking for in games and indie
games, specifically, that catch your attention? How do you– how, as an
indie game developer, do you create a
really effective pitch to drum up interest around
a publisher such as yourself or any of the other
publishers out there? RYAN HOLOWATY:
Yeah, so for us, we see a lot of pitches every day. I would say we’re probably
in the range between 10 and 15 pitches of games a day
that, throughout the week, we’re tallying up
to over 100 pitches we see very wildly
range in quality. But to stand out, I
mean, you’re probably not as clever as you think you are– I’ll tell you that right
away, because we see a lot. So the big thing for us is
when we’re looking for games, I mean, we obviously are
looking for something that is going to catch us– something, is it interesting? Is it different? You know, if it’s very
generic, run-of-the-mill, we’ve seen it a million times. It’s probably not going
to do that much for us. So if it is a genre of
something that exists already, try to put a unique spin on
it, something that might not be something we’ve seen before. Or if it is, just make
sure it’s damn good, because a lot of people just
stick to a Unity template and that’s it, and that’s
not going to help you either, because we’ve
literally been pitched Unity templates before us as
potential publishing games. So it’s a pretty wide smattering
of things that we work with. But if you can hook us
with something unique, something interesting,
and you are going to sell it just
as much as the game is. So are you a
competent developer? Do you know your stuff? Do you know, you know, the
roadmap for your games? Do you know the cost
to get some things done if you need funding? Having your stuff
together is just as important as the game
itself, because we’ll vet you as a developer,
and if we think we can’t work with
you on something, then we’ll dump the game even
if the game itself is cool, so. MIKE GORDON: Yeah, to
piggyback off what you said, one of the first
checks that I do when I’m talking
to a developer is if we have a shared sense
of what success is going to look like on the title. I think a lot of
developers haven’t either thought about that or they think
about themselves as artists as opposed to businessmen. You can be an artist,
you can put the game out as an art project– you just can’t come to
me to publish that game, because I won’t publish. RYAN HOLOWATY: But we might. MIKE GORDON: Yeah. You should talk to Noodlecake. But don’t talk to me. The reality of the
situation is I’m looking to help you
grow a business, and if we don’t share that at
the start of our relationship, then it’s over before it starts. I think the other
important point is you should think
about the game and how you pitch
and present the game, the way that I think
about it and how I’m going to take it to
places like Google and Apple. So if you were to come
to me and you’re like, hey, I’ve got a game,
it’s like “Clash of Clans” but they’re pandas, that’s
not going to cut it. What I’m really looking for is
something that’s going to kind of move the genre
forward in a way that’s– introduces some complexity
that doesn’t exist there now, and then usually a
presentation or art style that’s slightly different
or unique that you haven’t really seen in
that genre before, or that’s really well executed. I think when I’m trying to
tick those boxes myself, I’m not trying to tick them
because those are things that are inherently
interesting to me, although they are interesting. I’m ticking them
because it helps to differentiate the
title to Apple and Google for featuring
purposes and support and to just get their attention
to get feedback on the game. So think about that when you’re
pitching games to publishers, too. It’s really important. RYAN HOLOWATY: Yeah, like we had
a game called “Chameleon Run” that we published years back,
and that game is basically– you’ve seen the genre
before 100 million times. It’s an auto-runner with a
color-switching mechanic. But the developer who made it
understood how to push that genre forward in
such a unique way. His controls are beyond tight,
the onboarding was amazing, he had a great visual
style, and just kind of pushed it into a way that
was like, you’ve seen it, but not like this. And it was great and it
was one of those games that, when we got pitched
the demo of that game, it was just a couple,
like, demo levels. And we got it over a lunch hour
and we were at a restaurant, and a couple of the
guys started playing it. One guy went to the washroom,
stayed in the washroom, and beat the entire demo
while he was in the washroom. We all went back to the
office and we knew right away that there was
something there, right? There was a hook to that game. It ended up winning an Apple
Design Award, you know, has been Editor’s
Choice on Google Play. You know, it was a
huge smash for a game that essentially at its core,
still just an auto-runner. But they pushed
the genre forward, so that’s definitely something
that we look forward to. SARAH THOMSON: That’s actually
me and Flipflop Solitaire. Yeah. I’ve played a whole
lot of that game. Very basic concept, but,
like, just so well done. Yeah. Talk to me about how
you look at success. Success is a very
broad term, and success is something that means
a lot of different things to different people, so talk to
me about how that looks for you and perhaps maybe
how indies should be looking at success on mobile. RYAN HOLOWATY: You know,
for us, success definitely– I mean, there’s the
monetary aspect of it is, like, the easy one–
to just say, oh, is it going to make money
for us and the developer? I mean, that’s obviously
the starting point that people are
looking at, but what kind of money that makes
definitely can vary. Success to one developer
might be totally different to another one,
depending on their needs. Is this a full-time
gig that you’re doing? Is it an evening
and weekend project? We’ve had some
devs who, you know, they just wanted to make
their development money back. We’ve had others
who this was like, I might lose my house situation. Don’t be that developer, please. MIKE GORDON: Please
don’t be that developer. RYAN HOLOWATY: But
there are people, there are devs out
there like that. So you know, there’s
nothing wrong with being what I like to
call a blue-collar indie dev. Like, you don’t have to set
the world on fire with one game and make a million
dollars and retire. It’s not probably
going to happen. So, you know, if you make
enough to make your next game, that’s success to me. MIKE GORDON: Yeah,
for me success– it’s kind of three
different definitions there. I mean, the first for
me and the most obvious is being able to generate
enough revenue to reinvest back into the business and grow
the business, both for myself and for the developers. So that’s– over the
last six or so months, we’ve been doing some pretty
heavy marketing and that’s all bootstrapped, so that’s off
of revenues that have been generated off the game that
have been reinvested in the game that led to larger revenues that
let me reinvest, blah, blah, blah. And then fund new games
as well, so that’s a market success for me. I think, you know,
dovetailing with what I was saying before about
developers approaching me and not really seeing
what I see in their games, I think it’s particularly
satisfying for me when we blow the doors off on
a game with a one-man shop. I mean, for me, I can always– I can see that potential, and
that’s why I’m signing the game and working with that developer. But when the developer
kind of realizes that and they’re able to invest
in growing their business, that’s great, too. One of the developers
I work with, Sebastian Davies
from Grumpy Rhino, has been able to open an
office in London solely off of the revenues we’ve
generated off of his titles. So that’s been totally great. I mean, that’s a
real mark of success. And then something much
more mundane and practical is, I came from
really large companies before this, where I spent
most of my time managing people and in meetings. A daily reminder of the success
that Iron Horse has had for me is that I have like one
meeting a week and that’s it. I don’t really do calls. I just work and then I hang
out with my two-year-old son, and it is awesome. SARAH THOMSON: Jealous, because
that sounds pretty awesome. MIKE GORDON: It is. SARAH THOMSON: OK,
so there’s two things that I want to
follow up with you on that kind of teased
out of what you were just talking about. So one thing that was
mentioned is sustainability. So building off that
idea of success like, OK, it’s one thing to launch
a game that does well, but how, especially,
as a smaller studio, indie developers– how do you
create that sustainability? That’s like, you know, the
million-dollar question, right? MIKE GORDON: Sure. For me, as a publisher,
being a publisher, the reason that you’re
publishing games is it distributes your risk
across a number of titles. So it’s inherently
much more stable than being an independent dev. Plus we get snapshots of the
market on a regular basis– like, however fast
you’re shipping titles, it’s nowhere near how fast the
two of us are shipping titles. So literally, you know,
at least once a quarter– most times it’s multiple
times in a quarter– we’re seeing what the current snapshot
of iOS and Android looks like, how difficult
it is to get features, what CPIs look like with
different genres of games and art styles. So that’s an advantage
of publishing that a lot of indie
developers don’t have. One of the hybrid approaches
that we’ve been trying out at Iron Horse is to
partner developers that have had success
with new developers that we’re onboarding
for a portion of the revenue on the new game. And the idea there is the
new developer benefits from the experience of
the older developer, they get more attention
than I can really give them, being a single man
publisher, and it also helps stabilize them financially
a little bit between launches. And it’s not a massive
commitment, right? They’re really playing
builds, giving feedback on art style and execution,
game balancing, monetization, stuff like that. Similar to what I do, it
gives them a little bit more of a cash flow between
launches, and they also get exposed to some
of the stuff that I get exposed to, so they have
the added benefit of seeing information on retention,
how ads are performing, monetization. RYAN HOLOWATY: Yeah. I would say, too, if
you’re looking for, like, just as an indie
to sustain success, I think you really
need to identify what it is you’re trying to
create and how long that’s supposed to take. If you’re just making,
like, one-off quick arcade games and that
kind of thing, you need to set your scope
properly, because scope creep is one of the worst
things in our industry and can cost you a lot
of money, and then you’re not going to make that back if
your launch doesn’t go well. So understanding how you need
to release those kind of games– if you’re going to be a
quick, rapid-fire, making a couple of games a
year type of studio, or are you a
two-year-long investment kind of studio or
something above that? And then on that
situation, you need to understand how to
build your community, how to do your user
acquisition, and how to make that game
profitable, because you’re spending a hell of a lot
more money on that one than you are on the small one. So you really need to
understand what your business is and what you are
trying to achieve, because you can’t
sustain one model by using a different
model, and the models are changing all the time. So just ensure that
you’re keeping track with the marketplace–
what’s hot, what isn’t. You know, if you’re
looking to, like I said, pump out a lot of games, be on
top of what’s being featured. You know, look at what
Apple and Google like to put front and
center, because they’re showcasing your game to help
represent their platform. So if it’s something
that is totally counter to what they’re doing, you
know, you’re not playing ball with the platforms,
and sometimes you got to play
ball to get noticed. SARAH THOMSON:
One last question. There was also a
mention around– Mike, you’ve been
talking a lot about UA. There’s also community-building,
which is so important, and I think a lot of
really small indie studios struggle with building
a community, building that loyalty, not
only around your games but around your
studio, your brand. Talk to me a little bit
about that and your approach. MIKE GORDON: Sure. Community-building I leave up
to very capable developers. So if you’re curious about how
to build up an active community and engage with them,
you should talk to Ben. We were actually just
talking about that at lunch. And he does an
exemplary job wading through the trenches
with the players who have a lot of really
pointed feedback about Ben’s game and Ben generally. So you should– it’s great. As far as marketing
and user acquisition, I think there’s a lot of
mystique around it, right? Folks think it’s some
impenetrable thing that you need years of experience to do. My general rule of
thumb is you should baby step when you first start
with any user acquisition and largely ignore what
marketing companies are telling you. The only thing
that really matters as far as you’re
concerned is, did you generate an equal
amount of money or a greater amount of
money from the users that you acquired
than what you spent? That’s it. Like, there’s nothing–
they’re going to try and say, oh, actually retention, because
retention is really strongly correlated, blah, blah. Just ignore all that. It’s like, did that
user give you more money than you spent on it? Done. It’s a really
simple math problem. I think from there,
you can start doing things that are really
interesting, which is, oh, did we have an increased
organic impact on one platform over another? I mean, I without shame spend
a ton of money on Google Play, and one of the reasons I do
it is because the ROI’s great because CPIs are
manageable on Google Play, but also there’s a huge organic
coefficient to my spend. So I do it and I do it a lot,
and I try and maximize that on that platform. I think you don’t
get to a place where you’re spending six figures
on a platform overnight– I certainly didn’t. We started spending, I don’t
know, $5,000 in a month or $3,000 in a month. And you get a really strong
signal about what’s working. So you start small, build
up on your learnings, and then scale your
spend appropriately based on the money that you
get paid out from platforms, which is what I did. RYAN HOLOWATY: Yeah,
and I would also say know the game you’re
working on and who the players are going to be. So, I mean, obviously you’re all
working on something different. You might still be making
some sort of premium title, you might be making
a free-to-play title. It doesn’t really
matter, but how you approach marketing
those games in the community is definitely going
to be different. You know, if you’re in the
free-to-play space, you know, like Mike said,
the ratio is easy. Yeah. It’s the way we do it,
too, is if you spend too much on a user,
then stop doing that, because you’re never
going to make money. But you know, if you’re
doing a premium game, that doesn’t really adhere,
because a $5 premium game, you’re never going to get the
rates to make that worth it. But then you have to
take a different road– you know, get on Discord
or something and start building a community
there about your game. Get on whatever forums
or wherever people talk about similar games that yours
is, and start drumming up interest that way. Use things like
preregistration and other ways to help, like, drive
engagement, especially for a paid game, because
you need those users there to know when it’s out,
because it’s a lot harder sell when it’s a paid
game versus a free game. And then, you know, if you
can’t do any of that stuff– he maybe doesn’t do as
much of that community engagement– we help
with some of that a bit. Again, it’s better
to really have the developers talking about
their game than a salesman. It feels a little greasier if
it’s a sales guy just pitching a game versus an actual hey,
I made this, kind of thing. But we’ll work with you
on how to set that up. And yeah, it’s just
important to know where the people are going to be. Maybe you want to get your
game featured on Polygon. You’re probably not
going to, but you know, I can at least open
the doors for you and we can work on
that kind of stuff. So it’s things like that, like
understanding what your game is and being realistic about
that and not just thinking that you’re going to
set the world on fire with every single game, because
again, that’s not the case. There’s a lot of
games that come out and not a lot make money, so. SARAH THOMSON: My personal
favorite is Reddit. Free tool. And that’s actually how I’ve
discovered a couple of games, and recommended folks to apply
for Indie Corner Featuring. That’s a little
self-promotion there. OK, awesome. Thanks, guys.

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  1. Hello, Sir I Just Started to publish my game on PlayStore. So, my question is how can I get more users on Play Store to play my Game.

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