Indie vs Game Publisher: What’s Better for Your Game?

Mobile Apps


Posted on September 6, 2023

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So you have an idea for a game that could possibly go really viral in the market. You start by thinking that all you need to do is code for hours together till it comes to life, and then reality strikes.

How on earth do you make your game enter the market? Do you self publish it or would you rather go with a publisher?

First of all, let’s find out what does a game publisher do. A publisher is a classic company directly involved in publishing and releasing games. The key feature of game publishers is that they have an opportunity to release and distribute your product as widely as possible: from discs on store shelves to digital distribution. Often the publisher finances the development of the game and pays developers. Other functions of the publisher can include printing a guide to the game and designing the box with the game.

Real publishing companies have a very wide range of coverage up to partnering with publishers in other countries. As a rule, real publishers do not like experimental games and know well their audience needs. It’s not so important for publishers how unique and special your game is – it is important for them how well your game will sell. So the key difference between developer and publisher is that the developer creates the game whereas the publisher sells it. However, there are also different types of game developers:

  • First-party developers. These are companies that manufacture a video game console and create games exclusively for this console. Examples: Nintendo, Sony.
  • Second-party developers. Developers of this type sign contracts with specific platforms and create second party games exclusively for this platform. Examples: Insomniac Games (a second-party developer for Sony), Game Freak (for Nintendo), and Remedy Entertainment (for Microsoft).
  • Third-party developers. These are game studios that can work both independently and with publishers. However, the wishes of a publisher vs developer are of higher priority.
  • Independent (indie) developers. These are game developers that do not depend on any publishers. They self-publish their games via crowdfunding and other means.

We recently came across an interesting post by Steve Yap on Mugshot, where he lists down the 40 not so easy steps to publishing your own game. But he also ends it with a note on how satisfying it is to do it all your own and still make your game a hit amongst the others that are being backed by publishers.

The truth is, not every developer out there is ready to don different hats. Some just want to work on their gaming concept and then have someone well ‘experienced’ to take care of the rest.

But if you’re thinking that a publisher is easy to get – you’re absolutely wrong. There is a whole set of tasks that you need to complete before you actually get through one!

The publishing app industry believes in engaging only with developers they know or are recommended by someone in their circle. Almost 95% of game submissions by external developers get rejected by these publishers for similar reasons. A couple of other reasons as stated by Gamasutra, include:

  • There are entirely too many game submissions from too many developers, to keep track of for publishers.
  • Most publishers incur losses because external developers miss milestones, shipping dates, or their product simply doesn’t match up to the expectations from it.
  • The monetization model isn’t promising enough and might result in losses for the publisher.

So do game developers need publishers? The publisher covers all costs – and this is one of the key reasons why game developers enter into a contract with the publisher. At the same time, the publisher takes a share in the royalties of developers until the budget invested in the game is recaptured. What percentage do game publishers take? The size of the royalty is typically between 10 and 20%.

After the publisher has recaptured the costs, the team begins to receive the first deductions. At the same time, the publisher’s expenses for the game may not pay off if for some reason the community does not accept it. This is the financial risk of launching a new project on the market, which in this case is the responsibility of the publisher, not the developer. Because of this risk, development budgets are often cut to widen the gap and discourage sales. From a business point of view, this is a perfectly reasonable move. But the game itself and the quality of development may suffer.

Hence the situation arises: you’ve made a budget for a cool product, for an excellent game, brought the budget for approval to the publisher, and they rejected it. And then you have to rewrite the entire game in order to squeeze into the new budget. Here’s how games that have nothing to do with the original idea appear on the market.

Well-made games are usually sold, especially those that, thanks to the publisher, have support, PR, and marketing budgets. If a publisher not only cuts the costs but also invests in quality and marketing, then a project can achieve success.

But nevertheless, if you are choosing between going solo or the traditional publishing way, here are a few pros and cons you need to consider.

Publisher vs developer: Pros of choosing a publisher

Instant validation and hype

Of course, you think your app is one-of-a-kind and people are really going to enjoy playing the game. But then again, that’s what you think. When you go through a publisher, you get first-hand reviews on what’s going to work and what’s probably going to be a big flop. If your game gets accepted by a publisher in the first go, it is like an instant validation that it is set to create ripples in the industry. And then a publisher’s brand name always gives the much-deserved boost in the market.

Effective app store and media distribution

You can’t just have your game live on an app store and then wait for the users to pour in. You have to aggressively submit the game to gaming platforms and media companies that have a solid following. This is where having a known publisher helps – a few media features simply come your way for having published the game with them! Game testers provided by the publisher will also save your time. All you need to do in this case is to fix bugs on time as well as update and upload new versions to the server.

Getting professional experts onboard

The most beneficial part about going with a publisher is that you’ll not be wrecking your head over the game alone. You will have a team of professionals on board who will assist you to optimize various aspects of your game to make it better for the target market.

Efficient planning

In addition to the general development roadmap, you also need to list the key milestones, not just the release date. It is better to set such milestones for each month and tie the payment for a certain stage of the work to them. Milestones are a good idea so that the entire project does not fail. But at the same time, such an approach is possible only with a very high level of trust for both parties.

No upfront financial costs (except royalties)

Ideally, a traditional publisher wouldn’t ask for any upfront costs if your game is accepted. Although there will be defined royalty rates at the time you sign the contract with them, based on the monetization model you have thought of for your game.

Publisher vs developerCons of going with a publisher

Incredibly slow process

Like we mentioned before, publishers are really busy people and they get so many submissions every day that yours could be lost in the volume. Looking for the ideal publisher for your game, then the right contacts, someone to introduce you to them, submitting the game, and waiting for their review can be a really long and slow process. Sometimes it takes publishers weeks (even months) to get back to a developer.

Loss of creative control

Once you sign up with a publisher, you partially lose the creative control over your game. Since they are a brand name and have a following of their own, they would try to incorporate different aspects that suit ‘their audience’ in your app, such as dictating what SDKs will be included in your game. And because their audience will also become a part of your target market, you will eventually end up agreeing to most of the suggestions made. This moves your game slightly away from what you initially wanted it to be.

Ineffective marketing efforts

Mostly after the initial media hype that the publisher can bag for you, you will realize that most lack a consistent marketing strategy for your game. You will actually end up working on marketing yourself or hiring another professional for the same. Most developers lose time here because they assume a publisher would also take care of the game’s marketing and consistent growth.

Pros of going solo

Complete creative control

The first and foremost thing about publishing your own game, is that you will have complete creative control over it – right from the start to the end. There will be no one’s audience that you will need to cater to and make changes in the game’s flow for. It’s your game and it remains 100% as you wanted it to be.

Sense of empowerment

Like Steve Yap mentioned at the end of his post – going solo and publishing your game has its own sense of empowerment. It gives you a different kind of a high to know how you built it right from the scratch and took it to the market all by yourself.

Better monetization for self

There is absolutely no royalty that you will need to pay to a publisher. What comes off from your game’s monetization model, remains entirely yours. This gives you the opportunity to further plan the growth of your game or even work on improving it further.

Ability to collaborate with multiple publishers

Once your game hits the market, not having a signed publisher, gives you the ability to partner or collaborate with multiple names in the industry. You could collaborate on a few features with another developer or a publisher, cash in on the hype, and then work with another person.

Cons of going solo

You will need to do it all yourself

Right from the conceptualisation of the game to coding, publishing the game, approaching media for features, strategizing, marketing, acquisition and retention strategies. That would require you to not just spend time reading up tips and tricks, but also testing and sometimes losing your budgets on it.

It takes time to validate your app in the market

Because people don’t know of your name, it becomes a challenge to validate your app in the market. You will need to introduce yourself a bit before expecting people to trust you and download your app. Like Steve mentioned, you will need to get yourself a registered company under whose name your app would get published.

You need to set aside a considerable budget

When you go solo, you will also have a lot of upfront costs that working with a publisher might not have resulted in. You would either spend time learning different aspects like graphic designing, UX, digital marketing, etc, for your game or look for professionals to do it for you. Similarly, even bagging a few media features might cost you an amount because you aren’t a known name in the industry. Besides, you become responsible also for testing and quality control, which also means extra costs. The budget for testing and QA ranges from $5 to $20K depending on the complexity of the game and the duration of testing.


Media distribution becomes difficult

Continuing on the point above, an indie developer finds it really hard to get media mentions for their game. The popular media websites pick up on what’s trending in the industry or have advertorials lined up with the publishers. It gets hard to find the right person to review your app or feature it in sync with your marketing deadlines.

So would you choose to be indie or go with a publisher?

To be honest, the choice is entirely yours. Each has its own set of pros and cons, that only you can gauge for yourself as well as your game. But here are some questions that you must definitely ask yourself before taking a call:

  • How defined and strong is your cash flow?
  • What does your project pipeline look like?
  • Do you have the bandwidth to take up everything related to publishing?
  • Do you think you’ll be able to justify all the roles required?
  • What does your experience or track record with app launches look like?
  • Are you aware of all the industry trends that would be required for your game?
  • How well placed are you in the gaming industry in terms of networking?

Irrespective of the path you choose, check out our email course on mobile app marketing to find out how to make your app hit virality! 

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