What Happens After An Indie Says No To Publishers

A few weeks ago, a gaming GIF made its way to the top of Reddit. "I rejected 12 offers from major publishers," the title, a quick showcase of gameplay from psychological horror adventure DARQ, read.

According to developer Wlad Marhulets, the publishers that initially reached out were fairly blunt: accept their help, or your game will be a guaranteed failure.

This story has been republished to mark DARQ's release on Steam this week.

It's not the first time DARQ has gone semi-viral on social media. The game's grim, dark artstyle, as well as the shifts in player perspective, are well suited for short clips and GIFs on Reddit and Twitter. That look and style is partially why the game first took off a few years ago, back when indies needed a bit of a social media presence to get through Steam's Greenlight program.

In a conversation over email, Marhulets explained to Kotaku Australia that he first began development in November 2015. He wasn't an experienced developer, instead plying his trade in the film industry as a composer. "At the time, I had no idea about making games and thought it would be a cool hobby to get into," he said.

"Having spent a month trying to learn basic coding / animation / modelling, I put together a short demo, which was 2-3 minutes long. I had a lot of fun making it and at that point I had no intention of developing it further, or making it into a full commercial project. I had no skills to make it into an actual game, nor did I have the time."

Marhulets' time off was coming to a close, and the composer was preparing to return to his old job in the movie industry. But having seen his work, a friend convinced him to go through the Greenlight process.

To his surprise, DARQ shot up the Greenlight charts. The resulting interest - almost 100 press articles were written about the game at the time - encouraged publishers to come calling, which is where things got tricky.

"I was getting a ton of new emails every day, and many of those were emails from publishers asking me for a meeting or a phone call," Marhulets said. "I spent next 6 months trying to negotiate a deal with some of them."

Two major elements ended up driving Marhulets away from the table. The first was that some, but not all, publishers kept emphasising that the game simply couldn't be made without their help. "I honestly didn't know what I was doing at the time, so what they were saying was not entirely unfounded," he said. "Given my lack of experience, I'm also not surprised that some of them were trying to take advantage of me."

The position is partially understandable - first time developers are liable to be pretty naive about the development process, and the business model of publishers is designed to simplify that by taking things off the developer's plate in exchange for a cut of the game's profits.

And in all the conversations that Marhulets had, the one common thread was that Marhulets would receive a cut of net revenue. "As a developer, you have no control over the publisher's expenses," he explained.

"Hypothetically though, it could also be a $50,000 fee the publisher paid their web designer friend to make a new website for your game. I don't believe this is a common practice, but I did hear enough horror stories from other developers to make me cautious."

That lack of visibility was ultimately what encouraged Marhulets to go it alone, although the lack of leverage he would have had as a first-time developer wouldn't have helped either.

I rejected 12 offers from major publishers to make my first game DARQ the way I dreamed it to be. They told me "you can't make it without us" and wanted up to 80% cut & IP. from r/gaming

Development on DARQ continued, and after the Greenlight process was shut down Marhulets continued to promote the game through various GIFs and short clips. We covered it a couple of years ago, back when the game was originally scheduled to release in 2018, although the side-scroller is now aiming for a 2019 launch.

Marhulets estimates that, once all is said and done, he'll have spent around 10,000 hours in development. "Most of the actual development took place in the last two years," he said. "Almost all the work I had done in the first year of development did not end up in the actual game."

"Even though some [of those hours] were filled with suffering, struggle, financial hardship, fear, questioning my life choices, anxiety and sleep deprivation, these have been the happiest and most rewarding hours of my life."

I asked what advice he would give to other devs in the same position, and how much added stress not having a publisher has contributed. He said that while publisher support would have allowed him to delegate a lot of skills that he was forced to teach himself - like animation, texturing, modelling, things that would have been covered by another staffer - the experience was invaluable. It was personally rewarding, but more importantly, it also meant that he got better bang for his buck from the contractors that were hired to work on DARQ, because Marhulets was able to ask better questions and provide better feedback.

And while he's not against the idea of having publishers on board - he's had many positive conversations over the last couple of years, and recently after DARQ gained the attention of Reddit - Marhulets noted that developers still need to foster their own communities and supplement their marketing to cut through.

"Signing with a publisher doesn't automatically solve all developer's problems. You would still have to learn to effectively market your game and grow a community around it. You would still have to learn how game distribution works. You would still have to learn how to talk about your game at events. And many other things."

DARQ is scheduled for release on August 15.


Comments

    Publishers are responsible for nearly every single shitty thing that has happened to the gaming landscape over the last few years (except the flood of asset flip garbage on Steam). Gaming developers want to make games, publishers only want to make money, which is why their business is working out how to sell the least product for the most profit. Signing with a publishers is selling your soul to the devil, so good on this guy for telling them to take a long walk off a short pier.

      Publishers are a large reason we have as many games as we do, because they put things in place that make it possible for developers to concentrate on making a good game. (How would you rate Devolver, just as a thought exercise?) The world isn't so black and white.

        I dunno man, I think we're seeing a lot of boring cookie cutter games these days. It's starting to be a rare thing to see something new and innovative.

          It's no different than any industry (from entertainment to automotive) really.

          New and Innovative are risky.

          Because the cost of game development is spiralling higher and becoming riskier. Developers are forced to fall back on tried and tested methods, so their games will sell and they can afford to pay the bills. Not everyone is a Kojima.

          To be fair it's not just publishers that cause that. Back when Doom hit and was popular (or even Wolfenstein if you want to go back further) lots of developers jumped on that bandwagon and released "doom-alikes". In some cases it was about money, but others because it was cool and Doom inspired the devs to try to create something similar.

          And with the sheer volume of games being released these days it's inevitable that we're going to see a lot of similar games coming out. Some steam stats (from Wikipedia), this is the number of games released on steam each year for the last few years:

          2018 9,050
          2017 7,049
          2016 4,207
          2015 2,964

          With 9000 games released in 2018 there will absolutely be a whole bunch that are similar. At the same time we're seeing a ton of variety as well, shooters, brawlers, RPGs, side-scrollers, story driven, action driven, puzzlers...

        You asking about Devolver makes me wonder just who the publishers were that he, very rightly it seems, turned down.
        Not so much a 'name and shame' as just genuine curiousity. Although, it would tarnish my view of Devolver if they were one of the ones that offered a shoddy deal.

        It's also a matter of who within a publisher.

        It is likely thay having different contacts within one publisher can produce wildly different results.

        Publishers that impede on creative to force standardisation create problems - eg EA neutering creativity by utilising an under resourced engine for all development.

        Ubisoft as a publisher impedes its own devs by adding too much time sink that is more fun to cheat past than deal with (ie getting perk points in Far Cry 5, or having to level up gear in AC to meet your level).

        However, Publishers can also produce amazing titles and give exposure we would have not otherwise seen.
        Dragon Age Origins may have crumbled without EAs marketing resources.

        Last edited 14/03/19 3:57 am

      hmm not sure I agree.
      Both Developers and Publishers want to make money.
      Developers are good at design, coding, functional testing and defect fixing.
      Publishers are good at supply chain, logistics, marketing, user acceptance testing, user experience bugs, finance (they have access to people who have money)

      Many successful developers become publishers. Many publishers become developers.
      I've known some really crummy publishers, and equally misbehaving developers.

      I think the point that could be made, is that when one is in a power position over another, invariably in business the risk is that predatory behaviour can kick in. It doesn't matter whether you're talking about a games publisher, a milk distributor or a fresh produce wholesaler. If that's your point, I agree, but it isn't unique to publishers.

    Publishers are a GREAT thing. What's not great has been the overbearing monetisation of the industry. From on-disc DLC to cosmetic "upgrades", the more cash that comes in, the more people negotiating for the publisher try and wrangle more cash for themselves and their mates.
    It seems to be like Real Estate.

    I feel like the problem is not publishers or developers it's the lack of proper contract negotiation and legal representation being imbalanced. It's like there is a job "void" that could be filled. Think of it like the agents that actors or writers have, but for game developers. Someone who understands both sides of the equation and negotiates a good deal from publishers on behalf of their developer clients.

    Another reason publishers can be so predatory is nobody is UNIONIZIED

    All the subsets of fim production have one, why not game development? Stop these publishers hiring and firing people at the drop of a hat

    Ohsnap, I saw the developer's early imgur clips ages ago and knew I'd want to pick this up sometime soon. Cheers for the reminder (I know it was listed in the 'this week in games' too, but I was distracted, dammit)!

    People saying publishers are a good thing are kind of missing that the old model of independent studios bartering to work on games is almost dead.

    We just have large developers (publishers who own multiple studios) and independents who can bypass publishers and sell directly thru digital publishing. Of course, there is a small middle ground supported by Publishers such as Devolver & Paradox, but those studios usually end up getting bought before long anyway.

    Good to see he had shown some balls and still getting the job done, happy to buy a copy directly.

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