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So You Want a Publisher? – Zach Lehman

As a consultant I offer many different services, but indie game developers often contact me for the same reason: they want to snag a publisher.

I start these conversations the same way: why do you want a publisher?  It’s surprising how many waver at the question.

Prior to writing this post I did my own research, where I found several great resources, including a wonderful 3-part write-up from Akupara Games’ CEO David Logan.  I’ll be linking them throughout my post when it’s relevant, and I’ll include a list of links at the end of the post.

Section 1: Publisher basics

What is a publisher?

You can’t really answer why you want a publisher without understanding what it means to have a publisher.  Most developers don’t fully understand the role a publisher serves, often equating publishers to funding, getting console access, or other keywords like QA or localization.  The problem is two-fold:

  1. Publishers offer more services than what developers usually assume,
  2. and developers don’t often have an accurate estimate of the true value of each service a publisher provides.

This is the part where I really can’t phrase it better than David.  Learn what a publisher can do by reading the Distribution, Development, Marketing, and Community sections here then come back and we can continue.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Done?  Great.  I promise this write-up won’t just be a how-to on navigating the Akupara website.  In the future I might talk to my publisher partners and get them to do some deep dives into how they handle things like QA and localization.  For now, we’re already headed into “info overload” territory with the length of this post, so I’m going to stick to the basics on this topic.

The cost of a publisher

Each of the four main categories of services listed on David’s blog post (distribution/development/marketing/community) usually have teams of staff working to ensure success.

Those are full-time employees with (hopefully) competitive salaries.  In order to pay those salaries, publishers are accepting the risk of a games’ potential failure by offering their services up front with only the promise of a back-end royalty.

Publishers not only have to recoup their investments; they need to make a profit in order to grow and to offset their commercial failures.  No publisher has a 100% success rate – games are a risky business for everyone.  In order to succeed, publishers will try to offset their risk as much as possible.  Here’s some of the most common ways they offset risk:

  • Require that all revenue go towards paying off their investment until they break even.  If they spend $100,000 on Marketing and Community, the first $100,000 you make from the sale of the game will go toward repaying publisher’s debt.
  • Collect a chonky-sized royalty.  I’ve seen royalty splits as low as 20/80 and as high as 80/20.  The more services you require, the higher % they’ll demand.  (That number takes a leap towards 70/30 if you require investment.)  Usually during the contract review stage you can negotiate a change in the royalty split once the debt has been paid.
  • Establish a recoup rate on the debt – If a publisher invests $100K on Marketing and Community, with a 50% recoup rate, they will collect the first $200K of your revenue because 50% of every dollar goes towards paying off the publisher debt and the other 50% is considered the publisher’s profit.  (always fight this as much as you can – I picked 50% here for easy math).
  • Ask for IP rights (don’t agree to this) or ask for right of first refusal (this is much more reasonable).  Right of first refusal means that when you go to make your next game, the publisher has the right to publish that game before you can pick a different publisher.
  • Ask for all ancillary rights.  This can include the exclusive rights to sell or license soundtracks, branded t-shirts, Funko Pop figures, theme park rides (yes, it’s happened), books, movies, etc.
  • Ask for a certain level of oversight and decision-making power in the game to ensure it aligns with their view of the market (be careful with this for obvious reasons).

Another way that publishers try to offset risk is by looking for teams that are likely to make several games.  Finding a new developer client and growing that working relationship is costly for a publisher, so they look for developers who are thinking long-term and won’t fold two months after they release their first game.  It’s about investing in the team as much as it’s about investing in a single game.

How long does it take to sign with a publisher?

Everyone seems to know that in order to sign with a publisher you must pitch to them, but rarely do people discuss what comes after.  Publishers don’t walk around with wads of cash in their pockets, and pitching isn’t part of a game show (yet).  Every publisher varies on their process – and most publishers change their process to best match any given situation – but you should expect 2-3 months of conversations on average.  Generally, you have first contact (the pitch), then 1-3 phone conferences, then a face-to-face meet (or two), then contract drafting.  Drafting contracts should be handled by lawyers (yes, hire a game attorney for this) and can sometimes go back and forth for months.  Sometimes your deal can be streamlined (especially if you can make use of events like GDC for meeting), but it’s always better to be prepared for a longer-than-average scenario and just assume it will take 3-4 months.  That timer is starting from the day you pitch to the publisher.  My longest publisher signing took roughly 9 months from start to finish.

Alternatives to a publisher

When I ask clients if they’ve considered alternatives to publishing, the (almost) ONLY response they give has something to do with Kickstarter.  I cry inside every time.  You must go back to what knowing what you need.  If you need to get your foot in the door with a hardware platform, or you need to find influencers, or you need QA or marketing – there’s a company for that.  Publishers are great, but they aren’t always the right or most efficient solution.  Know what you need, then evaluate ALL the ways in which you can have your needs serviced.

Whether you’re convinced you need a publisher or you’re struggling to figure out what your needs are (or you’re worried about not knowing what to need), you’ll have to start somewhere.  Don’t let the conversation die without going deeper!  I know many developers who put their heads down and continued working on their game, saving these questions for “some day in the future” (usually 2-3 weeks before they run out of money).

I’ll be compiling a list of highly rated companies for each of the four main categories of services in a future post, but for now let’s stick to publishers.

Section 2: So, how do you get a publisher?

Start with a self-evaluation

Do some soul-searching and figure out – on a deeper level – what your game needs in order to be commercially successful.  Filling out this list will also correctly frame your mindset for communications with publishers.


Define your needs

  • What external services do you need to be successful?  Funding? Marketing?  Make a list.

Define your development timeline

  • What work have you put into the project to date?
  • Where are you today? What features are done?
  • What work is left to do to release the game?  Define what is R&D vs. known development.
    • Be HONEST with yourself! Remember that we aren’t building pitch documents yet – this is simply a self-evaluation.  These steps are critical to write down!
  • How long do you estimate it taking?

Define your market

  • What platform(s) do you want your game to ship on? Clarify which platforms are actively being developed and tested on, which are approved but you haven’t started development, and which are on your “wishlist”.
  • What is your demographic? What is your target audience?  (Pro tip: the answer is not “everyone”).  Gender, age, income level, region, language, and player trends all play a part in demographics.  I’m linking Newzoo’s “8 Gamer Personas” here as a starting point.
  • Research your competition. Do as many games as you can that are like yours (I usually do between 50-60 game comparisons for a client’s game, keeping it to within the last 3-5 years depending on the type of game I’m referencing)

Define your business model

  • How will you make money (subscription, in-app transactions, up-front charge, etc.)?
  • After having completely defined your market, how much money do you [realistically] estimate making?
  • What’s your long-term goal(s) as a team/company?
  • Knowing your larger goals and roughly how much work you must do to finish your game, does your realistic revenue estimate line up with those goals? If not, what can you change to either lower your budget or increase revenue opportunity (or both)?

Define your ideal publisher / partner(s)

  • Now that you know your needs, your market, and your timeline, you can research which publishers (or alternative companies) match your situation and personality. Make a list of those publishers/alternative companies.

Soul-searching complete – now let’s reach out!

Hold your horses, partner.

From this point onward I’m going to assume you want to find a publisher.  If you’ve made a list of alternative companies, that’s great too, and for the most part everything below will be helpful for those companies as well (but probably not as necessary).

Now that you can answer why you need a publisher; you can start building materials for them.  When building these materials, remember three rules:

  1. Your goal is to get the publisher to understand who you are, what you’re selling, what they stand to gain, and what you need from them
  2. The publisher is 3x busier than you think
  3. The publisher is going to constantly be asking themselves two questions: “Will people buy this game?” and “Can this team make this game?”

So, what materials matter?

  1. Pitch deck
  2. Promotional video or GIF(s)
  3. Game demo
  4. Introduction email (or an in-person meet & greet scenario)

I’m going to do the pitch deck last because it’s the most involved answer (and we’re building suspense!).

Promotional video or gif(s)

The promotional video or gif(s) are meant to explain as much about the game’s core features as possible in a short time – usually in 1 minute or less for a video, or in a couple ~10 second segments for gifs.  They should show core gameplay, art style, personality and the other “most important” and “unique” elements of the game.  You don’t need to doctor this content with flashy After Effects-style editing unless you’re showing the content directly to consumers.  Publishers don’t want to see your company logo intro and they don’t want to read a ton of words in a video – just get right to showing them the important bits and try to make this content as short as possible (people usually tend to make their clips about twice as long as necessary).

Game demo

For most in-person meetings, you’ll be playing the demo for the publisher, but you should build the demo for the worst-case scenario: one person forwards your demo to a busy, distracted, key decision-maker with no additional context.  That person plays the game for 5-10 minutes to “get the gist of it” (and the timer likely started the second he saw the link).

Your demo should be 10-15 minutes long and you’ll want to make sure that the core mechanics and unique-ness is demonstrated immediately.  Don’t make them play for 10 minutes to get to the “good parts”.  Dive right into it!  Make sure your controls aren’t overly complicated.

The goal is to showcase how you’ve implemented your ideas.  If you’re able to polish the demo to a consumer level, this shows your ability to take a paper idea and execute on it in a way that consumers will enjoy.  That’s your best-case scenario because it proves to the publisher that you can, in fact, make the game.  If you’re not able to reach that polish – maybe you’re asking for funds to pay specific artists to reach that final polish – that’s okay too.  Simply make that clear to the publisher and be prepared to go into detail on how you will reach that level of polish.  That kind of detail is great to highlight in a few words up front, then explain in appendices in your pitch deck for their later reference if they want to look.

Introduction email

This one is easy because your goal is to keep it as short as possible.  For an email, it’s simple.  Going back to David’s post on Akupara, he references indie developer Space Lizard Studio with a snapshot of their email introduction:

I love how concise this email is – it includes relevant links to the other materials mentioned above as well as key details and references to well-known experiences.  Within 1 minute of opening this email, a publisher would know exactly what the game is about, how it looks, and where to get more information.

An in-person, elevator pitch scenario

If you’re meeting someone in a bar, elevator, game conference, or other public space (RIP COVID-19), the intent is the same as the email.  As TinyBuild suggests, give them the key information in 2-3 sentences and ask them for their email or business card so you can email them more information.

Pitch deck

Finally, the pitch deck.  This is your first opportunity to eloquently use a combination of words and images to explain the important bits of your game.  Pitch decks are often as unique as the games themselves, but there are some key elements that really need to be in your deck.

No one has boiled down “What publishers look for” better than Brian Upton at GDC 2017.  He says that every publisher asks themselves two questions:

  1. Will people buy this game?
  2. Can this team make this game?

Every slide you make should be answering one or both of those questions.

The next “rule”: try to stick to 10 slides if you can (appendices not included).  There isn’t one single publisher on this planet that wants to click through 30+ slides for a single game.  Remember – they’re busy.

Last rule: Work in whatever program you want, but send a PDF to publishers.  Everyone can open Adobe Reader, but not everyone has immediate access to PowerPoint (especially on mobile).

Pitch deck flow & “required” slides

Now let’s get gritty.  A majority of what you put in the pitch deck will directly pull from the “soul-searching” I talked about earlier.  You wrote all that down, right?  Right!?

The 9 slides listed below are key elements found in every good pitch deck, so don’t leave home without them.  In addition, unique games might have unique things to talk about – I generally reserve anywhere between 1-3 slides for this “unusual” info.

  1.   Game Title + Company Info + Visual Reinforcement (attention-getter)
  2.   Hook + Basic Game Details
  3.   Core Pillars/Features
  4.   Gameplay Loop
  5.   Game Market
  6.   Game Competition
  7.   Game Timeline
  8.   Game Needs
  9.   Team

For any of the above 9 slides, if you can’t describe it in one slide, you’re probably trying to push too much information through the pipes (or you’re not explaining it well enough).

Word count per slide

You want to put enough words on the slide that people who aren’t in the room can understand what you’re saying, but you also want to use as few words as possible.  It’s an eternal battle.  One way I work through this is to think about how each of your slides are meant to act as little conversation platforms.  Give them just enough information so that they can form a specific question or two per slide.

Section 3: Example Time - Let's pitch a fake game!

Defining our fake game

I asked my clients (as well as Reddit) what specific genres or game types they’d like to see in an example pitch deck.  They gave me a lot of crazy ideas, so I’m going to combine a few of them and have some fun with it.

My fake game is going to be called GreatGame and my fake company is Cool Co.  I’m not an artist, so my art won’t make sense.  Your pitch deck should be full of artwork from your game to help drive home the art style on every slide without having to explain it in words.

Let’s start with the basic details so you get an idea on paper what our game looks like (hint: this is starting to look a lot like an intro email!)

Basic Game Details:

  • Top-down Action-Adventure RPG
  • Single player
  • Farm animals have gotten smart and taken over the world (Planet of the Apes style), and players need to steal farm equipment and farm-related resources to survive.
  • Artsy, Painterly, Minimalistic 3D art style
  • Made with Whatever Engine
  • Target platforms are PC, Xbox, PS4, Switch
  • Focus on building relationships through dialogue and gameplay choices
  • Focus on strategy in choosing next path + choosing which activities to perform in a limited time
  • Focus on intense, swarm-based, wave-based combat with hundreds of enemies that players must fight or sneak around

Core Gameplay Loop:

  • Pick Path – Similar to Overland.  Players use strategic decision-making between moving from one place to another, reinforced with rich story nodes.
  • Prep Location – Build defenses like a base defense game or scavenge as much as you can carry before enemies arrive.
  • Action – Players decide to reinforce their position and fight the swarm when it arrives, or they might decide to travel lightly and sneak past the swarm, which might break into an all-out escape if caught.

Core Features:

  • Impactful Relationships – Heaven’s Vault mixed with Dragon Age / Mass Effect “motivation system”.  Personalities and moods directly affect game outcomes.
  • Strategic Prepping – With limited prep time before the chaos, do you rush to gather resources or hunker down to fight?
  • Intense Action – Rushed by enemies of all types, work with your team to evade or defeat them.

Doing our soul searching

My soul-searching example is a lot of text.  So I put it in PDF format for you here so your eyes don’t bug out.  This is your last warning before you click the PDF – it’s a lot of words and no memes!

Slide review

Here’s the slides to download:  PDF  PPTX

Below I’m also going to post a picture of each slide so we can review them one at a time.  But first, a couple reminders:

  1. With each slide, you must be answering one or both key questions – “Will people buy this game?” and “Can this team make this game?
  2. This game is fake.  The data is fake.  The numbers are fake.  Don’t look at the metrics and assume that’s where YOU should be with your game.  The numbers on every slide are nearly random (except the product comparison slide’s numbers, those are actually estimated (and still probably wrong)).
  3. Because the game is fake, the art on this deck is placeholder or stock images or ripped from Google.  Use your own game art instead!
  4. Pitch decks are unique to the game and the team.  This isn’t a silver bullet example – I’m just trying to show you how to talk about some of the key info publishers are looking for.  Publishers are unique in their own ways too.  Some publishers might be looking for this exact pitch deck, while others probably dislike it.  It doesn’t matter what you’re building – you won’t win over everyone.
  5. I didn’t do a bunch of appendix slides because that would take way too long.  If you still need help after slide 10, just email me.
  6. This is not geared towards mobile (WHERES THE KPI?!?!?)
  7. When you get to slide 9, remember reminder #2.

Here we go!

Slide 1 – Title

What question does it answer?  Both.  (A little bit.)

The title slide is the first slide the viewer will see when they open the deck.  It has to grab their attention and focus by being clean + flashy and setting the visual standard for the rest of the deck.  Replace my color image with your game art.

Also just an FYI if you missed it in the previous section – I asked my clients (and the general public) what type of game I should make for this example pitch deck, and they responded with all different kinds of responses.  I decided to mash them all together into one Frankengame just for funsies, and to my honest surprise, I think I want to play this game.

Slide 2 – Hook + Game Details

What question does it answer?  Will people buy this game?

Imagine if you enjoyed fishing, and I told you I had an amazing fishing story.  I got you pumped up about it, then I detailed all the people that were on the boat with me (none of whom you know), and I detailed the weather that day, and I detailed the type of bait I used.  You’d be annoyed.  Get to the fish!  What happened?!  Was it a SHARK?!

At least I think that analogy makes sense – I don’t fish.

The point is, at first glance, a publisher cares most about the game itself.  They want to go down a mental checklist of easy red flags – ‘is this game VR?  My company doesn’t do VR games, no matter how cool the game seems.  Don’t make me go through 6 slides to figure out it’s VR.’

Get them interested with the hook (making them chuckle is always a big win if you can pull it off).  Make sure your hook can be explained in 1-2 sentences (if you’re in-person, this should take 30 seconds).  Also give them the basic game details that everyone should be rattling off.  Sometimes this is regurgitated information (since you should put these basic details in your intro email), but sometimes that email gets forwarded or you are showing the pitch deck to someone who hasn’t emailed with you previously.

In this slide, I’d replace that huge light blue circle with game art.

Slide 3 – Core Features

What question does it answer?  Will people buy this game?

Again, getting to the point.  This slide is a bit text-heavy for my liking, but it’s fine enough.  There are three clearly stated “core features” or “gameplay pillars” as some call it.  I’m using lots of heavy references to other games, which may also be a bit too heavily used over the next couple slides (I may be at risk of losing the identity of THIS game by referencing other games too frequently).

Again, that image in the background should be your game art.

Slide 4 – Game Loop

What question does it answer?  Will people buy this game?

This slide feels really flat in its design.  I’d find a way to incorporate game art to bring more color pop.  Character cutouts that hang from the corners are always fun and could work here.  The core loop is clearly explained though, which is our goal.  When talking about a gameplay loop, you need to describe the cycle that the player will go through over and over and over.  It’s best explained in small, discernible chunks so people can keep all parts of the loop in their head at once as they’re trying to visualize.  Remember, you know the game 5000% better than they do.

Slide 5 – Demographics

What question does it answer?  Will people buy this game?

I’m using Newzoo’s personas, but do your research.  There’s lots of other ways to define your demographics.  Newzoo is a respected and widely used company for game insights and trends, but they don’t have a monopoly on how you think about your customers.  Additionally, don’t be afraid if your demographic is too narrow.  The narrower your demographic, the more you can cater to it, which increases the chance that those within your demographic will not only buy the game but will love it as well.  Casting too wide a net might result in an overly accessible – but dull – game that no one gets excited about.  It’s a balance and it will be unique to your game.  Ideally, you do this before you’re into production, since you can cater to demographics with things like art style, game mechanics, camera angles, distribution platforms, etc.

Also, replace my buildings with your art!  (Do I really need to say it at this point?)

Slide 6 – Product Comparison

What question does it answer?  Will people buy this game?

This slide sucks.  Here’s why:

  1. I’m referencing 5 “pillar” games (good), but those games are each so different from one another that I have no clue what my game is when looking at these examples (bad).
  2. Orcs Must Die! 2 was released in 2012, and Invisible Inc. was released in May 2015.  You shouldn’t be including data that’s older than 3 years.  The markets change too frequently and too fundamentally for you to ever include these titles in your market research.
  3. I’m using SteamSpy to collect user data and comparing it against Boxlieter numbers (good).  Overland is likely an anomaly since it’s being highlighted on Apple Arcade right now and it seems like a mobile or console-first title (purely speculation, I’ve only played it on mobile and it feels like it’d be a great console game).

This slide sucks because of my 5 examples, none of them make sense when put alongside my game, one of them is an anomaly, and two of them are too outdated to be reliable.  Heaven’s Vault is the only game I’d realistically keep on this slide.

Did I make this slide suck on purpose so that I could talk about these common mistakes?  Probably.

Slide 7 – Dev Timeline

What question does it answer?  Can this team make this game?

So you’ve convinced them the game is awesome.  Now it’s time to convince them you know what you’re doing.

In almost 100% of the pitch decks I’ve reviewed, their timeline slide looks like an arrow going from left to right with keywords like “open beta” somewhere on the arrow.  This format is fine, and can be done really effectively, but often the literal formatting of the slide is such that you’re squishing all the relevant info.  Also, everyone knows an open beta comes before release.  Does it really have to be constrained to an arrow?

You don’t need to get into crazy details so just show them the big milestones.  Give them a snapshot into each major development category in your game.  It doesn’t have to be an exhaustive list – you’re trying to balance the right amount of information with the fact that they’ll spend 20 seconds on this slide.

You’re also building little conversation platforms with each slide – they may be struggling through a UX issue on another title that week and if you have UX listed as a category they might ask what your UX planning/development looks like.  You could turn that into a conversational win if you have a plan that – best case – might be applicable to their problem and – worst case – you sound like you know what you’re talking about.  Don’t over-explain in your slides – give them opportunities to ask the questions they care about.

One conversation platform that you may want to push towards while on this slide is which of the “Implementation Completed” circles are flagged as R&D and which are just about getting the work done.  I might even define it in the slide somehow with an asterisk or color scheme.  It’s very important that you’re clearly defining the things you know vs. the things you have to learn, because learning takes an undefinable amount of time.  If you flag certain topics as R&D, a publisher might be able to quickly say “oh we have someone that has done that task before, we can help you with that”.

Also, I like the rainbow timeline because it’s not a line.  Personal preference.

Slide 8 – Our Needs

What question does it answer?  Can this team make this game?

For funding – don’t be afraid of your amount.  I’ve had publishers tell me that their biggest red flag is a developer who under-prices their projects because they think it’s too expensive.  That’s begging to be an expensive failure down the road.  Figure out all the details on how much you need (remember, include 3 months of runway after release since Steam payments are basically net-60 days).  Some publishers fund between $5-50K, some fund between $50-350K, some fund between $1-2M, some fund between $2-10M, etc.  It’s specific to the publisher.  Instead of trying to “magic number” your budget down, look for publishers who fund within your range.

For all the other services, it’s fine if you don’t know much else beyond that, but you’re honestly doing yourself a disservice by not already knowing how these core pillars of game business work.  You won’t know if the publisher is doing it correctly (or doing it right for your game).  You won’t know if they’re over-charging you.  You won’t know if you could do a small amount of work on your end to make their lives easier or prepare your own roadmap better.  Be educated and profit from it.

Slide 9 – Our Team

What question does it answer?  Can this team make this game?

Yeah, yeah.  It was late and I was tired, so I popped off the first games and companies I could think of.  If your team was this stacked, you wouldn’t be needing a flashy pitch deck.  This slide is not meant to be a genital-measuring slide (that’s what the appendix is for) – this is about stating your team’s amount AND type of past experience.  Have any of you worked together on previous titles or at previous companies?  How long have you known each other?  Do you have previously shipped titles that are remotely similar to what you’re trying to show me in this pitch?  If you do have shipped title credits, what did you do on that title?  If you were a QA intern for Call of Duty and your role in this pitch deck is executive producer, there will be some uncomfortable questions in your very near future.

Slide 10 – Appendix

What question does it answer?  Can this team make this game?

I didn’t actually do these slides because that’s a lot of freaking work.  If you still need help, you’re already on my website so the ‘Contact Me’ button is probably lurking near your mouse somewhere.

The appendix is optional for most pitch decks, and it also follows a different set of rules from the rest of the pitch.

The goal of the first 9 slides was to hook the viewer and shove relevant info down their throats, making them excited about your game and your team.  The goal of the appendix is to provide those excited viewers with more detailed, specific information with which they can drill down.  You can even go below the suggested 30-point font, but the rule of “people are busy” still applies – don’t make them scan 30 extra slides to find that one bit of information they had a question about.  And actually, don’t make them scan 30 extra slides.  At some point if the publisher has a question they’ll just reach out and set up a call.

If you’re following the suggestion that every slide acts as a little conversation platform, you should be able to imagine what common questions you’ll get on each slide.  The appendix is a great place to pre-answer those questions with data.  “How did you figure out that Heaven’s Vault sold 40,000 copies? What’s your research method?”  Bam, make a slide on how you did your research and what games you researched.  “Can you elaborate on what you mean by ‘UX/Tutorials are 20%’?”  Sure, I have slides in the appendix that shows a Gantt chart for each category with the most relevant to-do’s on the slide (and the R&D tasks are clearly labeled, too!).

Doing an appendix correctly is a lot of extra work, but coming off as over-prepared is a good thing.  If you’re betting the farm on the success of your game, and your game requires the help of a publisher, why wouldn’t you do all you could to make it successful?

Section 4: Closing + References

Well, this has been fun for me.  Hopefully it has been of some help to you.  It was certainly too long – I suck at blogging.

If you have any questions, you can contact me through this website (click the menu in the top-right corner).  I’m happy to answer any questions and I’m available for contract if you need more in-depth support.  Good luck pitching!

And of course, my pitch deck examples: PDF  PPTX

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