What is a video game publisher?
Put simply, a video game publisher is a parent organisation or a larger company that releases games.
While these companies do not play a major role in game development, they do pretty much everything else: funding, marketing and distribution, just to name a few.
In exchange for these services, publishing companies receive a portion of profits from the game.
Video game publishers have a huge impact on the final success of a game.
You almost always need a publisher in order to make your game big.
Not only do these large publishing companies have resources, they also have a wide customer base.
In other words, the size of these companies makes it easier to run businesses and makes businesses more competitive.
The costs involved in game publishing
One of the reasons why game developers need publishers is the sheer cost of developing and publishing a game. You may be wondering what these costs entail- it seems simple enough to just code a game and list it on the App Store, doesn’t it?
The economics of game publishing
In reality, game publishing is a multifaceted process. And each aspect of this process requires a large sum of money. To give you an idea of how much money is needed, here is a (non exhaustive) breakdown of the game publishing process.
Game development is so much more than just gameplay programming.
Take, for instance, Genshin Impact.
Gameplay aside, much work goes into designing the scenic backgrounds, characters and even their costumes and weapons.
It also takes another group of people to come up with the perfect music and sound effects for every move that you make.
Game development is costly.
To develop a game, one needs to pay for programmers, designers, artists, musicians, producers and game testers, all of which play indispensable roles in the team.
Some video games are released on consoles: Nintendo Switch, Xbox and PlayStation to name a few.
In order to release a game on a console, publishers have to pay a fee to the console manufacturer for putting the game on their system.
Unfortunately, that’s not all.
Licensing also includes paying for the use of intellectual properties.
Any story, character, music, design or personality that you wish to incorporate in your game falls under copyright.
Using any of these adds on to the cost of game development.
A game can only sell well when many people know about it. A large aspect of marketing involves trying to sell the game, and this means more costs incurred.
In order to reach a wider audience, publishers would have to pay for digital & print advertisements, banner advertisements, displays, commercials and even advertising partners.
To make a game even more popular, more is required.
Such even include celebrity endorsements, brand partnerships, maintaining gaming communities.
Again, more money is needed for these.
Such advertisements may not seem crucial as they bear no impact on the quality of the game. It seems a little like icing on a cake.
All these make the cake pretty, but has no effect on the taste of the cake.
But this icing is what helps sell the cake. After all, who would buy a nameless, unadorned cake?
Similarly, advertisements are necessary in order for the game to be able to compete and sell well in the market.
This also means that the immense costs of advertisements are unavoidable.
Retention of Customers
It is one thing to get people to play your game, and another to get them to continue playing it even after some time.
To prevent gamers from losing interest, a publisher would also need to constantly gather feedback in order to improve the game.
More money is required for data acquisition, bug fixes and game upgrades.
Difference between video game developers and publishers
The terms ‘game developers’ and ‘game publishers’ have been used pretty often in the above scenarios. But what exactly is the difference between the two?
Game developers create the game.
They create the concepts and mechanics for the games, come up with a storyline and decide on the feel of the game.
In short, they are responsible for the creative aspects, such as gameplay programming and artwork to implement their vision of the game.
Indie games, or independent video games, are created by individual game developers or small game development companies that typically have fewer than 30 people.
On the other hand, there are also AAA (pronounced triple-A) games, which are created by large game development companies with hundreds of employees.
How, then, do video games get from game developers into the hands of gamers?
The process of developing and publishing a game is extremely costly.
Game developers, especially indie game developers, don’t always have the resources to create, deliver and support a game all by themselves.
Thus, game developers need to work with another group called game publishers to ensure that their game is visible to the gaming community.
This way, game developers can focus on creating the game while game publishers manage all other matters.
Game publishers are not only the financial benefactors, but also help manufacture, market, publish and distribute games.
In summary, while game publishers do not play a role in game creation, they are the ones responsible for bringing the games to customers.
The exact job scope of video game publishers
One of the main roles of publishers is to finance the process of publishing a game, from development to advertisements to the actual publishing of the game. This is a necessity for most game developers, who are unable to fork out the huge production costs by themselves.
Apart from financing the game, game publishers also bear the brunt of possible losses from publishing the games.
Many current generation console games do not make profits.
According to the Electronic Entertainment Design and Research Institute, only 4% of games produced will turn a profit, and only 20% of the games in stores are profitable. This is largely because the gaming industry is filled with similar games, different only in terms of setting and characters.
Game publishers, which are typically large companies, are better able to weather these potential losses as compared to developers.
Game publishers also market games so that they are better known to the gaming community. After all, a game that sells well brings more profit to the publishing company!
It is also important for a publisher to create, build and nurture its own brand. This would help the game stand out among the rest- some games merely tap on others’ brands, using films, books and celebrities. It is the publisher’s job to create a unique brand and following in order to sell the game.
Game publishers are also responsible for the logistics behind publishing a game. This includes manufacturing whatever is needed to carry the game, storing them and creating and distributing inventories.
It also includes a whole process of game distribution- getting in touch with wholesalers, selling the games to them, who then sell the games to retailers. At the same time, publishers also have to get the inventory levels right in order to facilitate sales.
An incredible amount of work goes into getting these video games from developers into the hands of gamers, emphasising the importance of game publishers.
Why do video game developers need publishers?
While video game developers don’t necessarily need publishers to sell their games, publishers would help bring their games to greater heights.
Video game developers specialise in the creative elements of game development.
Developers often lack the time, capital and expertise to ensure that their games sell well.
As such, many would prefer to focus on programming and designing the game, leaving the business aspect of the process to a third party.
Do mobile games need publishers these days?
You may be wondering if this is still a concern in this age of product proliferation.
Given the multitude of games available on platforms such as App Store and Google Play, it seems pretty easy to just create a game and put it online.
The availability of so countless, easy-to-access mobile games have transformed the paradigm of game development and publishing.
While it is easy enough to publish a mobile game, there’s a catch to it.
With such an open market, everyone will be faced with tougher competition.
Large, renowned publishers spend lots of money to market their games.
This, along with the wide customer base they already have, makes their games stand out among the rest.
With these publishers guarding access to the top rankings, people who develop and publish mobile games by themselves have little to no chance of reaping profits from their games.
This is why mobile games, too, need publishers.
Publishing companies have marketing expertise, localisation infrastructure and influencer connections.
All of them are key elements for a game’s success.
Can you self publish a game instead of going through a publisher?
It is still very possible to self publish a game.
However, one cannot underestimate what it means to self publish.
When you self publish, you are essentially multitasking in many different fields.
Think computer science, design, communication and business, just to name a few.
But on the bright side, self publishing would be a good experience for those who want to learn more about structuring a business.
Check out this article on “A beginner’s guide to bringing a game to market” for more insights on self publishing!
When should you self publish, when should you go through a publisher?
While self publishing is a terribly tough journey, it is still a good idea to do so if you are looking for a rich experience.
Self publishing provides plenty of opportunity for one to learn about the overall business of releasing a game.
You’ll have the chance to dabble in the different industries related to game publishing.
Besides, you’ll feel a great sense of achievement should you do a good job!
However, there are also others who prefer to just focus on the single aspect of game development.
For those whose passion lies in creating games, they would prefer to leave the business aspects of the process to a publisher.
After all, this brings the advantage of business expertise, which could also mean a higher chance of your game selling well.
It may also be a good idea to publish through a publisher if you want to avoid the hassle of sourcing for funding.
After all, a publisher is essentially a financial partner.
Pros and cons of self publishing & going through a game publisher
Whether you choose to self publish or publish through a publisher, there are pros and cons for each.
Pros: Self Publishing
One of the main reasons people choose to self publish is because they receive a larger share of profits from the game.
When you self publish, your game will not be tied to any company, and you will not have to split your profits with a third party.
Another reason to self publish is the fact that you’ll have the freedom to direct your own game.
When you self publish, you will not be faced with restrictions nor external directions from the publishing company.
With this freedom, you will be able to implement your personal touch and crazy ideas without the fear of being rejected by a boss who is unwilling to support them.
Creating a game that is uniquely yours can be immensely satisfying!
Besides, when you self publish, you will also be able to do everything at your own pace.
There is no rushing to meet deadlines, no pressures to perfect a game before its fixed release date.
This also means that you will have more time to experiment with and try out different ideas.
Cons: Self Publishing
With all these pros of self publishing, it seems as though self publishing is indeed the way to go.
However, self publishing is definitely not as rosy as it seems.
To get a better understanding of all the pains behind self publishing, check out this article on “Publishing your first game in 40 not so easy steps”.
In summary, a game developer-cum-publisher has to go through the processes of coding, designing, marketing, publishing, researching, testing, licensing and meeting certification requirements all by himself.
On top of this herculean task of assuming multiple roles all at once, you’ll also have to manage your budget and ensure that you have the money needed to tide you through this arduous journey.
Besides, in order to do a good job throughout the whole process, a game developer-cum-publisher would need to have the expertise to deal with all aspects of the process.
More often than not, this involves picking up new skills along the way, and this would require even more time, effort and money.
Furthermore, if you are publishing for the first time, people generally do not know who you are.
When you self publish, you often do not have a fanbase nor an existing pool of customers.
It takes a lot of time and effort to gain the trust of people and validate your games.
As such, despite the enormous input of developing and publishing your game, you may not get any returns.
Pros: Going through a Game Publisher
On the other hand, should you choose to publish through a publisher, you will be able to overcome all these problems.
These large publishing companies have experienced marketing professionals who can help with research, advertisements and most things beyond game development.
This makes it easier for you to focus on creating and designing your game, since the publisher will manage all other aspects of the process.
Besides, having professionals who know exactly what to do on board makes it more likely for your game to sell well.
Also, publishers are often stringent in their selection of games to publish.
They have many requirements that games have to fulfil before they agree to publish the game.
If your game is accepted by a publisher, it shows that the publisher sees potential in this game; this serves as a guide to ensure the quality of your game.
Lastly, publishers, especially renowned ones, already have a known brand name.
These companies have gained the trust of the gaming community, making games published under their names instantly more competitive.
By publishing under a publisher, you’ll be able to tap on their existing pool of customers, ensuring that there will be people playing your game.
Such instant validation increases the chances of earning more money from your game.
Cons: Going through a Game Publisher
Publishing through a publisher has its downsides as well.
Oftentimes, there is a power imbalance between game developers and game publishers, with publishers having the upper hand.
When left unchecked, game publishers could potentially dominate the whole decision-making process, leaving game developers with no say in decisions.
For example, there are instances where publishers go overboard with bundles and discounts as part of their marketing strategies.
Although this cheapens the game, game developers have little choice but to comply.
Secondly, going through a publisher means that you will be faced with a long and tedious approval process along the way.
This could be a problem especially when publishers take ages to approve milestones, and your income depends on hitting those milestones.
Besides, when approval takes such a long time, your game may not be released even after a long while.
Furthermore, publishing through a publisher entails sharing of ownership.
Not only do publishers get a share of profits, they also have partial ownership of the game.
This would mean a loss of freedom to a certain extent: you may have to revise your game according to what the publisher wants, and your game may eventually lose its individuality.
How to make the best out of a publishing deal?
Despite these drawbacks, the good news is that it is possible to land yourself a good publishing deal.
With awareness, carefully curated contract terms and some negotiation, these drawbacks can be overcome.
To overcome the power imbalance mentioned above, game developers should push for some degree of control in contracts.
It is important for game developers to have a say in how their games are marketed, and what kind of sales they are involved in.
This way, developers will be able to protect the value of their games.
It is also a good idea to make deadlines clear in the contract. This would give game developers the right to terminate the contract if their game isn’t approved or made available to customers after the deadline.
Game developers will not be stuck in limbo waiting for publishers to approve milestones; they have the right to remove their game and possibly take it to another publisher.
Another important thing to have control over is the ownership of your game intellectual property (IP).
Given that they are the ones funding the game, publishers will usually want some IP rights such as a license to use the game IP for other games.
However, it is important for game developers to be able to negotiate these terms, so that they will still have ownership over their game.
For instance, developers could push for a limit on how publishers use their game IP, allowing them to use it only for things related to that particular game.
Prominent Video Game Publishers
Here are the prominent video game publishers behind some of the most popular games today.
Tencent is a Chinese multinational technology conglomerate company.
It has services such as search engines, social network, music, e-commerce, artificial intelligence and of course, games.
In fact, Tencent Games is the largest video game publishing company in the world.
Tencent Games owns the whole League of Legends studio, Riot Games. The acquisition of this game immediately turned Tencent Games into a global esports superpower.
Tencent Games also has a 40% stake in Epic Games, the company behind Fortnite, one of the most popular games in the West.
Tencent has invested $15 million into launching the game in China, greatly increasing the game’s already humongous player base.
Nintendo is a Japanese multinational consumer electronics and video game company with the richest history in the gaming industry.
It originated as a card game company, and eventually started developing and distributing consoles.
Nintendo owns the Mario franchise, one of the gaming industry’s most successful and renowned franchises.
Its games (the Super Mario series, in particular) are even considered to be some of the greatest video games ever created!
Nintendo is also behind the latest social simulation video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons (2020).
It was the first game to reach 5 million digital sales within a month, with its high sales attributed to the Covid-19 stay home orders.
Xbox Game Studios
Previously known as Microsoft Studios, Microsoft Game Studios and Microsoft Games, Xbox Game Studios is an American Video Game Publisher and a division of technology company Microsoft.
Popular sandbox video game Minecraft is maintained by Mojang Studios, a part of Xbox Game Studios.
By its 11th anniversary in 2020, Minecraft sales had reached over 200 million copies with over 126 million monthly active players.