It’s not often the people that design your video games get a chance to speak in depth about the games they are creating. Talking Shop will be a column on Game Muse that gives people behind the scenes a chance to explain what they are doing and how they do it.
When the folks at Compulsion Studios intimated to me last month that they had a major announcement planned for their game Contrast it was natural to assume they were going to announce a release date.
I was way off on that one.
Compulsion ended up announcing a major deal with publisher Focus Home Interactive, that would send their game to multiple platforms. Contrast is now set to release on Xbox360, PS3 Steam.
“Multiple platforms is a big deal for us,” said Contrast lead developer Guillaume Provost. “It means we get to reach a much wider audience. There’s still a lot of gamers out there that only play on consoles, and at its heart, Contrast was a console-friendly game from the beginning.
If you’ve been following my coverage of Contrast on Game Muse, I first wrote about them after they were accepted on Steam, then again when it showed up at PAX and Game Developers Conference this year. This deal is interesting considering the number of game Kickstarter projects that are out there.
A lot of Indies choose crowdsourcing as a way to avoid dealing with a publisher in the first place. There are plenty of reasons for this. Publishers act as gatekeepers, because they hold the purse strings and the connections. Developers need publishers to put their game on major platforms like Playstation and Xbox, but they also risk giving up some control over their game.
Creative differences between publisher and developer can make negotiations tricky. Some game developers don’t like to be held hostage by a publishers money so they bypass the process by turning to Kickstarter.
This is an uncertain time in the game industry with AAA game sales down and many studios shrinking. It is an environment where plenty of Indie Studios are cropping up, but it is also one where publishers are more discerning about the games they back.
This backdrop makes the Contrast deal intriguing because it is an Indie game that succeeded going the traditional route. While a wide release doesn’t guarantee success, a lot of gamers will now get the opportunity to find out just how good Contrast is.
Compulsion Studios already got approval to release Contrast on Steam last year, but Provost thought the game could be successful on consoles early on in the process.
“We always planned on getting the game on the consoles,” Provost said. “With Microsoft’s policies now allowing us to self-publish on their platform, we originally intended to take the game out on Steam and use revenue generated from the PC version to bring the game to PSN, and eventually the MAC if there was enough demand for it.”
Plans changed quickly at Game Developers Conference this year. Compulsion was on pace to release the game in May, when the deal with Focus became possible.
“We started speaking with Focus at GDC this year; after we’d had a great referral from another developer working with them,” Provost said. “We wanted a strong partner based in Europe, because we felt we hadn’t been able to reach out to the public as much with our European fans.”
A month later, Compulsion Studios pulled the trigger on the deal. As a result, the date when Contrast would hit the shelves was pushed back to accommodate a multi-platform release.
“One of the big things about shipping on multiple platforms, is that it is easier to build a campaign around a single launch for all those awesome versions of Contrast,” Provost said. “We had a lot of internal debate on this, because we know our Steam fans have been very, very patient with us already, and we really didn’t want to alienate anyone. But, seeing as we’re going to put the extra months to make the game it will be a much better experience for all. I think everyone is going to come out a winner.”
Negotiating a deal with a publisher can be tricky for an indie developer, especially ones that have never dealt with a publisher before. Provost said he didn’t have much experience in marketing, but sought a lot of advice.
Two key parts of the Contrast deal were Ami Blair and Cord Smith. Blair in particular helped launch franchise games like ICO and Crash Bandicoot. Provost said that while she was at Sony and Microsoft she would interview publishers to make sure they would provide the best possible marketing support for their games.
Smith is a consultant and shareholder at Compulsion Studios. “When I started Compulsion, the very first thing I did was to rope Cord into the team,” Provost said. “Cord spent a year helping to craft Contrast and ensuring it was different, inspired, and yet not a fringe piece of art people would only go see in museums.”
When negotiating a deal, both developer and publishers are concerned with four major issues: funding, profit, reach and creative control. Funding deals with money of course, but it is more than that. Sometimes developers are looking to find a publisher that will bankroll a partially finished game.
“Funding is if you need money to make the game or complete it, and how much. It’s also how much the publisher will spend to advertise or communicate about your game.”
For some developers this can be a Catch-22. They need money to work on a game, but they also need enough of a product to sell to a prospective publisher. The more “game” a developer can show in the form of a playable demos, gameplay footage or concept art, the more leverage a developer has.
Compulsion had a lot more leverage in negotiating their deal because they had a game that was ready for release and already secured a platform. It was a much easier leap for a publisher to step in and say all they needed to do was make sure the game came out on other platforms.
The profit split is how much money a developer is actually going to see once a game starts selling. This is the part where having a fleshed out game idea becomes crucial. A publisher has leverage to withhold profits depending on the level of risk a game poses to the bottom line.
“In deals where developers get early funding, they don’t see a dime until the publisher is raking in the dough,” Provost said. “That’s because most games don’t make their money back, so from an economic standpoint, publishers need to weigh their investment risks across multiple games, and really rake it in when a project does well.”
The other consideration to make, is just how much control that a publisher can exert over the developer. Creative control in particular was a sticking point for Provost and Focus provided the right balance between ‘give and take’ as far as what the game looks like. “They provide feedback; and we take the feedback very seriously. Not because they’re our publisher, but because they actually play the game, and because the feedback is sensible,” Provost said. “FOCUS is very respectful of our creative vision, otherwise, we wouldn’t have signed with them.
Reach is how much pull a publisher has with different brands and that is where Focus stood out. There were other publishers that could put Contrast on multiple platforms, but Focus had enough pull in the industry to market Contrast properly on first party platforms like Sony and Microsoft.
The decision to trust a publisher can be one of those make or break moments for a game. It’s one thing to finish a title, but it’s another thing entirely to make sure people play it. This is an interesting time considering there are now more ways than ever to release games to the public. How developers and publishers interact as we move toward next generation consoles will help decide the types of games we see in the future.