Indie game publishers are the new indie rock labels

In 2008, Vivendi, the parent company of Sierra Entertainment, merged with the game producer Activision. The result was a new monolithic corporation called Activision Blizzard, which now housed some of the largest games in the world, such as Call of Duty and World of Warcra ft. At the time, Sierra had a series of upcoming games on his list, including an exciting heavy metal adventure from Double Fine, the study of game design legend Tim Schafer. The game was called Brutal Legend and starred Jack Black in the title role. It was also one of the many games canceled after the merger. What followed was a lengthy process in which EA signed to publish the game in its place, only for Activision to sue Double Fine, followed by Double Fine filing a counterclaim. During the most difficult moments of the development of the game, those last desperate months when the small details finally come together, Schafer and his team were distracted by legal issues.

Brutal Legend was finally launched in 2009, but the problematic editorial experience left a lasting impression on Double Fine. Almost a decade later, the studio now operates its own publication label, Double Fine Presents, where it helps smaller studios with everything from financing to marketing support to production. His next line-up includes the Pokemon -like Ooblets and the Cooperative Adventure Knights & Bikes . The label was born from the desire to make sure that other creators did not have to go through the same stressful relationship between publisher and developer. "We wanted to take the good things we experienced with the publishers and make sure we were not doing the wrong things," says Greg Rice, vice president of business at Double Fine.

Double Fine Presents is part of a constantly growing wave of indie publishers of independent games that are changing this dynamic. The trend began with Devolver Digital, a kind of punk-rock label for games, which published titles like Hotline Miami and Downwell and provided help to developers without taking a big cut sales or trying to take possession of your game. Soon other editors were launched, with a similar approach centered on the creator. Double Fine was followed by Annapurna Interactive, and today, Skybound, the entertainment company of the creator Walking Dead Robert Kirkman, is also launching its own label of indie games.

Everyone offers something slightly different, but they all have the same general goal in mind: make sure that developers can focus on making games without having to worry too much for the commercial side of things. "I think every artist would like some help," says the co-founder of Devolver, Mike Wilson, "if that help does not come with all these terrible controls."






Florence.
Photo by James Bareham / The Verge

At the beginning of 2016, Monument Valley the main designer Ken Wong left the Ustwo studio because he wanted to return to his home in Australia and start something new. But creating a new game development studio from scratch is not exactly easy, and you found an immediate problem. "I needed money," he says. Given his pedigree, several editors had communicated with him, but he was afraid to work with a large company. Annapurna stood out to him, largely because he was a fan of the company's films. The more they spoke, the more he realized that his creative visions aligned. "There is a shared sense of values," says Kamina Vincent, producer of the new Wong Mountains study. "How they approach the games is in line with the way we want to approach the games"

] That said, the small team still entered into the agreement with some trepidation. "In my opinion, I thought that they would feel much more owners of the project and would want to have more control," says Wong. "It really has not been like that with Annapurna, it's our game, and they're helping us." In February, the studio launched the charming romance Florence for the iPhone. In addition to helping fund the project, Annapurna also helped with some of the less creative aspects of launching a game: interacting with Apple, setting up stalls for fairs and other events, advancing the game and even helping to provide feedback on previous versions. of the game.

While many Hollywood studios have tried to enter the games, Annapurna has managed to carve out a niche by publishing a series of high-profile art games by well-known creators. In addition to Florence the label has also published the disturbing collection of short stories What remains of Edith Finch and the beautiful puzzle game Gorogoa . For the most part, the stable of the Annapurna games are titles that do not fit perfectly in one genre, but offer something different. For Wong, being aligned with a group with that kind of vision is part of the appeal. "It's part of the value Annapurna brings," he explains. "I think you can see a future where [gaming] is more part of popular culture."

As more and more independent games are released, and platforms such as Steam and App Store are increasingly flooded, publishers have grown in popularity. The help editors can provide can often help make a game more visible and reach a wider audience. At the same time, according to Devolver & # 39; s Wilson, game developers are also smarter than ever. They share information and talk about the relationships they have had with the editors. This, in turn, has forced independent labels to be more friendly with the creators. "The Indies of today are much more collaborating than competitive," he says. "Everyone wants to help each other, and they encourage each other for the most part." When I first started, nobody knew what good business it was "



  The Long Dark


The Long Dark.

Because of this, publishers must offer something unique. In a world where creators can self-publish their games in several digital stores, a publisher needs a reason to exist beyond financing. For the likes of Devolver and Double Fine, it's a proven success story, while Annapurna offers a unique level of prestige. For the new Skybound game label, the value proposition is slightly different: an opportunity to expand its reach beyond video games. While the editor offers typical services such as financing and help with retail distribution, one of the hallmarks of Skybound is its cross-sectional approach, as evidenced by The Walking Dead & # 39; s growth Successful comic to best-selling television program to award-winning videogame.

The first two titles signed for Skybound Games are the survival game The Long Dark and the adorable life sim Slime Rancher . Both games are now available for purchase and have been successful: The Long Dark has sold more than 2 million copies to date, for example, but Skybound offers the opportunity to expand its reach. "He gets the ability to take a [intellectual property] and opens the doors to other media, be it TV, comics, books," says Ian Howe, head of the new division, citing partnerships that Skybound already has with companies like Amazon Prime. and Simon & Schuster. "We have a broad scope in our ability to move the audience we have already built to those new properties."

Historically, the relationship between smaller developers and publishers has been seen as antagonistic. Developers just want to make their game, but editors worry about money. This new wave of boutique publishers is changing that perspective. Instead of simply providing cash and deadlines, these labels are considered more as development partners, and are convincing even some of the most skeptical game developers. "We started to be much more afraid of them," says Wong. "I think at the time I really did not know what I needed besides financing, but now I understand what a publisher should be for, that they are creative partners."