Working with Big Publishers: Pipedream or Reality

Working with Big Publishers is not a pipedream, but to accomplish it, you have to learn to think like they do. That means, among other things, proactively addressing risk management. It all starts with your Company Background document, which should be sent as a follow up to every meeting, and alongside every pitch or request for proposal that you do. Most Background documents stop with the basics, when and where the company was founded, some info on key team leads, and a softology/development history. Why not take that opportunity to proactively address in individual sections a lot of the other risk factors publishers consider when selecting teams to work with, such as:

Security, both information security and physical security. Some quick examples:

  • Do you restrict internet access or have the ability to track it?
  • If you have more than one team, can you provide a segregated space within your offices exclusive to your client’s project? And how is access control to that space handled?
  • How is Smartphone usage within your space restricted or managed? We know of developers who failed due diligence visits because they allowed those publishers to view and take camera grabs of a competitor’s product.
  • Do you have documented security policies and a training plan in place for them?
  • Have all of your employees and key sub-contractors signed confidentiality agreements?
  • Do you have an incident response plan in the event of a breach and are your team members conversant in it?

Insurance

  • Do you only have General Liability or do you also carry Product Liability and Errors & Omissions or Professional Liability coverage?

Software Licensing Compliance

  • What third party tools do you use and how many paid licenses for each tool?

Financial Stability

  • No one wants to engage a team on the verge of bankruptcy. We don’t suggest you include your financial statements in your background document by any means, but you should speak in general terms about your financial health and performance as a company, then be prepared to give your audited financial statements if requested during subsequent due diligence.

Human Resources

  • Software development is a collaborative process. Total experience in the industry is less of a reliable metric than time together as a team. Highlight that, and talk about both your retention and turnover rate.
  • How much redundancy do you have in key positions, how much cross training have you done to prepare to manage negative contingencies?

Production Risks

  • How do you manage quality assurance?
  • What developmental methodologies do you use?
  • What about version control and how easily you can drop builds?
  • How experienced are your project managers/producers?
  • What is your record of on time and on budget delivery?
  • What project management tools do you use and do they provide real time access for your customer?

Frequently asked Questions: Work for Hire and Outsourcing

Does where my studio is located matter?

Yes, geography can play a role in the decision. Some jobs require working onsite at the publisher’s location, or the location of one of their wholly owned development studios. On others, some training onsite with the publisher may be required before returning to your studio to work on the remainder of a project, so things like Work Visas can come into play. When this is not required, publishers still lean toward studios that are easy for them to visit to monitor what is going on.

What other criteria enter into their decision?

When it comes to Work for Hire, the number one thing most publishers look for is Creativity. Who has the best concept for the game and ideas that set the game apart from the “me too” category. There are lots of “me too” mechanics in the world, but publishers are not inspired by nor can they market well pure clones of other games. Define what differentiates this game from others in market, don’t leave it for the bizdev and marketing folks to guess at, you should articulate and be able to defend the strengths of your design. The second gateway is experience in that genre. You can have the most original game idea in the world, but your developmental history needs to inspire confidence that you can execute on that idea. The final gateway is price. Publishers will pay a premium for the best team with the best idea when it is a property they really want to push, but you will also find instances where they have a commitment to a licensor to make another product but they have already lost confidence in the licenses ability to drive sales, so they look to reduce costs to simply fulfill their obligations.

On Outsourcing, specialized expertise is important to winning business. As internal game production costs and team sizes skyrocket, there are more external needs than ever before, but only in disciplines and skill sets where the publisher is resource constrained, and that varies from publisher to publisher and project to project. The key is staying uppermost in their minds with respect to your strongest skill sets, because when these kinds of needs come up, they are often also already a burning issue that can negatively impact other aspects of the internal production. It would be great if we could get them before they are on fire, but advance planning isn’t always the best the larger an organization gets. So when these opportunities do come up, speed is of the essence in winning their trust and closing the deal as well, not just in production. Many, though not all, will go with the first viable solution they find, so turn around tests quickly and professionally. How you communicate, proactively manage issues, and the attitude you display sets the expectation in the buyer’s mind for what the entire working relationship would look like. Again, you are lowering the risk profile in their mind and that is increasing your chance of winning the business.

 

Pitching your OIP

OIP is indeed one of the best ways to showcase your studio in the best possible light, not only to place that game, but also to place your team firmly on the radar of the buyers. You can only place a game once, but the relationship building you do when shopping that game can lead to multiple opportunities if it is handled correctly. The first and most important lesson around that is if you want respect, show respect,

Undoubtedly placing your game is the center of your world, a significant portion, if not the totality of your time and attention goes into it, but that is NOT the case for the buyers you approach with it. Respect the fact that these good folks are inundated with pitches, most will walk out of GC Paris having been shown at least fifty games, and are expected to report back to their teams post show on what they have seen. If you want to win their respect, make their jobs easier when it comes to your title.

  • Don’t waste their time with titles that are clearly inappropriate for them. Yes, there are times where that is a blurry line, but you would be surprised how many developers don’t even do the homework on the buyers they are meeting with. They just show up and hope for the best.
  • Don’t hand out materials at the show, but have everything neatly organized on your file server and send them the link to it along with your thank you note after the meeting. All of your follow ups should be done within five business days after the end of the show or you risk missing their internal post show meetings, which usually occur within two weeks
  • Use trackable links so you know if and when the customer downloads them and don’t have to do unnecessary follow ups about whether they have received them or not.
  • Name the files on your server in an obvious fashion, so no one needs to guess or open them to find out what they contain. Studio Name, Project Name, Content, such as Infinite Interactive Puzzle Quest Budget Breakdown. Include everything you have from screenshot folders and gameplay videos to the GDD/TDD on the file server, but know that if the publisher is not hooked by the pitch/game proposal, they won’t dig down to the supporting documentation. But if they are, you have already saved them a follow up by proactively providing everything you have toward an actionable package.
  • We work in a visual industry so wherever possible, don’t tell, show. Even the most in demand independent development studios typically prototype their next original projects. A paper concept only sell to a major is virtually impossible these days. One note of caution on distributing early builds though: Always send build notes/explanations which clearly spell out what is and is not finished within the build. You don’t want a pre-alpha being evaluated as a vertical slice in committee.
  • When you see that a publisher has downloaded your materials once, it means nothing yet. If you see multiple downloads within an organization, it is a pretty good indicator that they are at least discussing your title. If you haven’t heard from them in a couple of weeks, it is appropriate to say, “Hey, I saw you downloaded our material, did you have any questions we can address while you are evaluating it.” Keep with polite follow ups every 2-3 weeks until you can get the feedback you need, but no more frequently than that. Wherever possible, have new information to share when you are following up that shows you are continuing to advance your design of the title regardless. If the buyer gives you a different timeframe to expect a response, just put a tickler on your calendar and let them have that time unmolested by you. If a title has momentum with them, they will pick up the pace of the conversation accordingly.

 

Reputation and Relationships Matter Most of All

Interactive Entertainment is a global business serving billions of people, but on the inside it is more small and incestuous than Hollywood. Relationships matter tremendously, and your reputation needs to be proactively managed and jealously protected. People move from company to company, and they talk incessantly about the good and bad experiences they have had. You won’t be right 100% of the time, but if you are honest and forthcoming about your mistakes and help others by sharing your experience in a positive way, your reputation will grow and so will your business.

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