5 Things Big Publishers Don’t Understand About Small Games

by danhon

5 Things Big Publishers Don’t Understand About Small Games
Sean Murray, Hello Games

I’m Sean Murray, one quarter of Hello Games. We’re a tiny studio. Four friends. A young startup, we’ve just released a game called Joe Danger on PSN. We’re bedroom developers and bedroom publishers. We published our game as well as developed it.

[Joe Danger video]

We’re obviously people who really enjoy games, it’s what we’ve always wanted to do. We’ve worked at EA, Sumo, Kuju, Climax. So why would we want to publish as well? That’s the boring part of localisation, certification, marketing.

there’s a couple of routes to get a game on XBLA or PSN. You can go through Sony and get on PSN or go through Microsoft and get on XBLA. Or you can go through a third party. Capcom, etc. put out games on both.


We’re self-published, we say, but it gets confusing. There’s lots of detail. Bought out by Microsoft and self-funded. Some through Sony and funded. It’s confusing. Some people have self published and self-funded projects, though.

So there’s 5 things that we think are really important for success on PSN and XBLA. They’re really important in general, across the board, and on digital download.

* Self-publishing: the most successful games are going that route on digital download, unlike retail
* Maintain ownership
* Make yourown game
* Connect with grass roots
* Risk everything

More important, more prominent with digital download, because it’s a new market and frontier.

I’m a programmer. I’m ill-equipped to do talks and things in general. In general, I’m ill-equipped to talk. So starting off with all of this, we had no idea how to publish. We had no idea what we were doing. I do rely on numbers. I started to put together a massive database of all games released on PSN and XBLA, and metacritic and gamasutra links, confirmed sales figures, whether first party or not, etc. Generally no real sales figures, but some have been released, and it’s easy on certain titles to see how many people have played, how many people are on leaderboards, sometimes that’s reliable and sometimes not. I collected all of that, verified it with Gamasutra, who also collect it, there’s about 500 titles in total. Then threw it away for about 300 of those titles. I don’t think that those it was reliable, tried to verify those as I could. But there’s definitely lies in there and I can’t help that. Most of this is a best guess at what titles are doing. Overall with this, this is big enough numbers where the trends are true.

1. Small studios are making on digital download than big publishers.
Self-publishing is more successful than going with third party on digital download. By and large. Because I’m a programmer, I don’t believe anything until I see numebrs and graphs.

So: XBLA sales. 25k 47%, 25-100k 23%, 200k+ 17%, 100-200k 13%.

Take out third party, and it’s pretty much the same. Third party are doing alright, right? But that’s not quite true. What third party are doing is releasing, re-releasing titles. They’re releasing old stuff. So many copies of Pac Man, Galaga. Those things are doing well and skewing the numbers. It’s actually new IP, that a small indie like me is worried about. When we bring it to a publisher, that’s what we pitch. We can’t pitch a remake. Some remakes are fine, but we’re not re-releasing old titles.

For new IP:

Up to 25k 77%, 25-100k 11%, 100-200k+ 12%

That’s not a good place to be. Particularly because a publisher’s budget is quite high. They’d not make profit on any title that didn’t sell 25k copies. Publisher budget is developer man-month, external producer, marketing, in-house QA, middle-management. It’s instantly more expensive. There’s management structure, all of those things.

For Hello Games, it’s (beans and toast) x 4 people x 365 x 2 years. Those living expenses. We work in a very small office, 4 of us, a Tesco shop every 2 weeks. Cereal, lunch, dinners, ready meals, a fridge, a freezer, a microwave. So literally for us it’s our bread and butter expenses. But I would say 4 people eating beans is not a good idea.

So I think the thing I’d say is it’s important to take ownership.

2. Take ownership.

Be the face of your title. Make the game you want to make. You have to stand out. It’s more difficult. It’s riskier than anywhere else. Bigger publishers are trying to apply methodology to download as it’s the new frontier, but that’s difficult to do. I mailed a bunch of friends who work in games and asked them to name me 10 titles on XBLA and PSN:

1. Braid
2. Flower
3. Spolosion Man
4. Geometry Wars
5. Pixeljunk Shooter
6. Trials
7. N+
8. Shadow Complex
9. The Maw
10. Castle Crashers

With all of these titles, there’s a few things tying them together. Good sales. Good metacritic. Also you know the developer. I know Behemoth, I don’t know Microsoft. They know Twisted Pixel. There’s a difference. I wouldn’t say that Shadow Complex is self-published. But technically, I guess it is. Splosion Man probably isn’t. Etc. These are definitely titles owned by the developers.

Self-pubished metacritic ratings. 40% 75+, 65 30%, 75 30%. 75%+ is average.

So why lower quality? Publishers should be producing better games, they’re more established, better marketing, they know reviewers. So why is that? I don’t know. I have theories.

* Publishers not spotting good titles
* Develoment interference
* Develoeprs losing ownership
* Low previous sales means low budgets
* Publishers overwhelming tiny studios
* XBLA/PSN are the poor giner step-children for publishers

3. Make the game you want to make

We definitely did that. Download is populated by core gamers looking for something creative and unique. It’s what we wanted, what we loved. I think it’s really important to stand out to make your own game. Digital download is populated by core gamers. For me, that’s great, they’re my kind of people. I understand what they want, I’m one of those people.

That maybe isn’t true with publishers. I encountered this thing. When we pitched to publishers, it was around late 2008 and people remember Uno. It was the first title to sell over 1m on download. It was the first big title. You’d go in and they’d say: card games, puzzle games, etc. After those numbers, you’d see a whole slew of titles. Sudoku, jigsaw, crosswords. But that’s the worst experience. That sold well, so what’s like that, but not exactly like that. 31% of all XBLA titles are “casual”. From the figures that I have, they account for very little of the actual market. The reason for the Uno effect is that it was given away free with the console arcade version of the 360 – it started to do well, and word of mouth spreads, but no other title is going to have that.

So here’s a chart that you can see – these are all the publishers we went to and pitched to. 2K, Majesco, Capcom, Bandai, etc.

Publisher quotes:

“Name me one popular game with motorbikes”
“Collecting giant coins feels unrealistic to me”
“I can see this working as a Facebook app”
“We want games that are less about fun right now”
“We love the theme, but with a different game”
“We believe iPhone will be largely unsupported”
“Can Joe be a monkey? We like monkeys”

We didn’t listen to any of that. A year of negative comments. We had the game pretty playable. For people who know us, they’ll have seen it years ago, really good, even then. Just one or two levels, but you could see what it ocould be.

We got really, really good reviews:

“It feels ike the best Nintendo games” – 95% IGN
“Game of the year” – 99% Gamesdomain

But they picked out that it wasn’t a first party game. We would ahve reviewers mail us. I know nothing about you, it seems different to what I was expecting. It has a personality.

“If you like videogames, basically, you’ll like this” – Eurogamer

4. Connect with grass roots

When the market is small, sell your game one copy at a time. You can’t afford banner ads. Print ads. You can’t afford any of that. You have to sell it one copy at a time. You have to really go out and talk to the community and build up this army of supporters. The Behemoth are the classic example of this. Castle Crashers was sold like this for five years before it came out. They talked to people. This is pictures of indie games developers workspaces. This is the ultimate power, the ultimate strength of an indie developer. A small studio. We went to Pax, GDC, Eurogamer Expo. We did all of these things. What we found interesting was watching people come in and how people come around to the different stands and how they take in different games. Probably the most interesting thing for me was when we chose our booth at Pax. There’s huge, huge stands from Activision, EA, Microsoft, Sony, all the biggest, biggest games. They’ll have 2-3 games playable at each stand. The only other people are all the indie developers, all around the edges. In front of us, Mafia 2. Shanked on one side, Scrap Metal on the other. You watch people coming in. It’s the worst place to play a game. You pick up, mash and put down. Indie developers – people would break off and talk. We’d talk to people. They’d leave with information to go out and spread. It was really worthwhile to indies. Why aren’t the other games – why aren’t they important that this is the right format for them to be in. There’s no point going to Red Dead Redemption and playing for 5 minutes. But there’s a whole point of playing Joe Danger for 5 minutes.

5. Risk Everything

Download games need word of mouth. Playing safe is the riskiest thing you can do. If something was a good idea, it’d get in over a tickbox feature. The titles on XBLA and PSN have that. Flower is risky. Pixeljunk Shooters is risky. These are hard titles to pitch in the traditional sense. Can’t imagine pitching Castle Crashers. It’s because games on download – the thing about them – you are 100% relying on word of mouth. There’s never been any paid for advertising. People who’ve heard about it is via word of mouth. I’ve banged on about this for ages. What I used to do at EA was work on skyscrapers. This is traditional games publishing. It’s well defined. People have got a good way of doing it now. Studios building bigger and bigger skyscrapers. They have very well laid out schematics, they execute on that as best they can. This is how I’d want things pitched. A defined plan, execute on that, come back in a year. That’s what I’d want if someone were building a house for me.

Digital download is different. You can’t make a skyscraper. You need to make a small house. You need to make the most with the budget, something really interesting, kind of risky. Something that is instantly catches your attention, is different, gets talked about. They see it and know they want to play it. Something much better than a skyscraper. I think we did that. It made development fun.

Joe Danger – broken even on release day. 100% x 10 ROI. Sold 50k copies in Week One. Expected to have a really good return on investment. That’s fantastic. We’re now hiring and going off to build skyscrapers.


No QA? No, we paid for everything.

Why PSN? The only way we could self-publish. XBLA is a bit of a slaughterhouse for smaller developers.