Should iOS Game Developers Opt for Publishers, or Go At It Alone?

The way we play games has undergone a drastic change since the arcade classics first came home, but here’s a curious thought: The means by which modern games are developed actually echoes those ancient days of garage development. Granted, scruffy teenagers no longer weld cheap TVs to circuit boards and ship them off, but there is a resurgence in the hunger to create games, a drive that has guided tiny development teams to success on the App Store.

But even though iOS game development is well-suited for small, independent teams, there are still plenty of publishers that are well-fed thanks to the mobile gaming boom. If an aspiring developer decides that he or she wants to make a game for iOS, a choice needs to be made: ‘Publisher, or indie?’

The easy answer is ‘make your product, do your research, and then make a decision based on your needs.’ The harder answer is ‘Listen to your heart, youngster.’

Going with a Publisher–Why ‘Surrender?’

Taken as a whole, game publishers aren’t the monsters that the Internet collective sometimes makes them out to be. The majority of publishers, even the bigger guys, are still keenly interested in helping developers realize their dreams, and will help tune up the final product so that it’ll bring in as much coin as possible.

DotEmu’s iOS port of the SNK Playmore arcade game, Metal Slug 3.

French company DotEmu distributes and publishes games for PC, Android, and iOS. Its co-founder, Romain Tisserand, believes that iOS game publishers provide an invaluable service for developers: They lend the necessary muscle to push new games onto the App Store’s top sales charts.

‘The iOS market has become very competitive, and teaming up with a serious publisher is definitely the best way to be featured on the App Store and maximize revenue stream from a game,’ Tisserand says. ‘Also, it’s good to have some ‘˜fresh people’ review your game. It’s an interesting experience since they highlight features and problems you might not have thought about.’

Tisserand adds that publishers do a lot of the heavy lifting as far as marketing goes, including ‘creating and translating marketing assets like screenshots and trailers, handling PR, and making potential customers aware of the product by pitching the game to distribution networks.’

DotEmu and Bulkypix also published the iOS version of Another World.

‘Technically speaking, this is all stuff developers could obviously take care of themselves,’ Tisserand admits, ‘but I think they’re better off focusing on what they do best: making great games!’

Doling Out Criticism: Someone’s Gotta Do It

Nobody likes criticism– especially the kind that tears apart someone’s work and adds a bonus jab about their mother’s perceived weight– but it’s important for any creator to endure criticism so that he or she can improve and flourish. Levi Buchanan, a former IGN editor and current Senior Manager of Developer Relations at Chillingo, thinks that game developers, like book writers, can benefit from a good editor.

‘[Editors] offer honest, critical perspectives and ideas that are wholly in the best interest of the author because they have enormous respect for the creative process,’ he says. ‘We are that trusted partner, interested only in making the best possible entertainment, because at the end of the day, we all got into this the games business to– and I know this might sound a little sentimental, but it’s so true– to create fun and make people smile.’

One of Chillingo’s biggest publishing successes, Cut The Rope.

Some iOS game enthusiasts might feel a little skeptical about Buchanan’s view; after all, Chillingo is owned by EA, one of the biggest and hungriest game publishers in the industry. EA has been at the center of accusations about Moai platform, so I’ve seen both sides of the coin.

‘The old-school publishing model of funding big budget game development, mass marketing and creation and distribution of physical product isn’t applicable to mobile, so a lot of the traditional strongholds of publishers don’t matter.’

Wolf Toss by Zipline Games.

Having said all that, Hooper admits that the right publisher for the right game can be hugely advantageous for helping developers attract players. But at the same time, the hunt for a publisher can derail an unfinished project, which is dangerous.

‘Finding the right publisher and the right deal can take a lot of effort that distracts a developer,’ Hooper says. ‘There is something to be said for channeling that same effort into completing your game, getting it into the market and then tuning and optimizing it. If the game is great, publishers will come to you.”

Negotiate Well

Should game developers go it alone, or should they solicit help from the people who know how to distribute and promote games? It’s not a question with a definitive answer, nor is there a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ response. However, Hooper brings up an intriguing point: If a game is done and it looks promising, then a developer is already in a position to negotiate with a publisher. This is extremely important, as developers won’t automatically need to surrender to deals they’re not comfortable with just to secure some funding and support.

If nothing else, nobody can complain about a lack of options. Game developers can go it alone, or lean on a publisher for support. They can work out of a garage, or a well-lit building. They can even pitch their ideas to the public and secure funding via services like Kickstarter. It’s an exciting time to be making games, and to be playing them as well.