We are often asked, even at industry events, what a publisher for PC and console games actually does. To be fair, if you’re new to game development or simply haven’t interacted with publishers very much, it can be a little unclear. In reality, while a publisher can do many things, there are several core services that you can expect should you decide to sign with Kwalee or any other publisher.
That’s where this article comes in: a write-up of the various services a video game publisher offers to developers. Note that every publisher and contract will be different, so while we’ve tried to make this as comprehensive as possible, you shouldn’t take this as a set of guaranteed services offered by every publisher in every instance.
Summary: What Does a Video Game Publisher do?
The quick, over-simplified answer is that a publisher does everything that isn’t literally making the video game. Think for a second, and you’ll realise that there’s a lot of work involved here!
A game publisher will help with marketing, including managing or supporting social media, organising events and showcases, planning out different beats (like announcement, release date reveal, and launch), and audience targeting. Publishers will usually have contacts at platforms like Steam, Epic, Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo, to help manage releases in each store.
Publishers will assign the developers to a producer, who’ll help keep the project on track, assess milestones, and help with things like localisation and testing. Plus, of course, the publisher offers funding so developers can afford to focus on making the game full-time. This also means that publishers can take on a lot of the risk (and video games are a risky business!) because they’ll generally make their money back once the game is released rather than while it’s being made.
Why Do You Need a Game Publisher?
Some devs do decide to self-publish. There have certainly been some huge successes – Stardew Valley, Vampire Survivors, and Undertale, to name a few – but they tend to be exceptions that prove the rule. In our experience, many devs are surprised at how much work it takes to make a game sell, and without a publisher to do it for you, that’s all work that’ll get in the way of making the game itself.
And this is all assuming things go well – if you come across licensing or legal issues, for example, you could be in real trouble. About 14,000 video game studios in China have shut down because of licensing issues, and studios elsewhere in the world can be similarly fragile.
This isn’t meant to be all doom and gloom, but when issues arise, it can be helpful to have expert backing. Signing with a publisher lets you leave all that work to someone else and focus on making the game – and even then, you’ll usually get support from experienced producers to help with the game itself.
Nowadays, the issue with games marketing isn’t so much being available, as standing out – 30 games launched on Steam every day in 2021, and nearly 30% of them sold less than 100 units. In short, good marketing is essential if you’re to turn your game from a passion project to a commercial success.
Marketing is a huge part of a publisher’s remit. This normally starts as soon as (or even before) the game is signed, where the publisher will identify the best angle and target market.
From there, the whole campaign, from announcement to launch and beyond, needs to be planned out and then executed – entering into showcases, leveraging press contacts for previews, working with influencers to play and promote the game, and running digital ads. And let’s not forget that each beat needs a trailer, artwork, and marketing copy!
All this is, as you can imagine, a huge amount of work, and publishers normally have a whole team of people to handle marketing for your game.
At Kwalee, we pride ourselves on providing a personal touch to every aspect of a game’s marketing, ensuring that it is custom-tailored to its genre, tone, content, and atmosphere to capture the attention of the target audience, maximise your game’s wishlists, sales, and overall profitability.
Funding and Risk
Video games (even small ones) can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to make and bring to market. Most people don’t have that kind of money lying around, and a standard loan from a bank is likely to come with difficult strings attached. Even then, there’s the sad fact that many games don’t ever make a profit.
A publisher will fund the development, marketing, and distribution of the game and in return, will take a share of the profits. Depending on the contract, they might take most or all of the revenue (‘recoup’) until the costs of development have been covered.
This system not only gives the developer the money they need but also shifts the risk onto the publisher – even if the game doesn’t make a profit, the developer’s still been paid for the time they spent working on it.
Physical and Digital Distribution
While Steam and Epic make it relatively easy to release a game to a wide audience, consoles can be a different matter. On a basic level, having experts to guide you through the complex and ever-changing process of certification is extremely valuable. Furthermore, publishers can pitch your game intelligently, leveraging contacts to secure better deals, and get answers to questions far faster than most developers on the ‘outside’ could.
When it comes to physical distribution, there’s a whole extra layer of complexity and cost involved. In fact, it’s so big that there are many companies who solely deal with physical distribution, working with publishers to get disks and cartridges onto shelves worldwide.
Developers have managed to do many incredible things without publishers, but physical distribution is something we’d say is effectively impossible without a publisher.
Social media is both a powerful marketing tool and a way to keep in touch with your players. Building and managing communities on Discord and Twitch while keeping the world informed on Twitter and TikTok is now all but essential for a successful game.
Community and social media managers can help to build these communities, creating an environment where fans and newcomers can find out more about the game, offer helpful feedback, and ultimately become ambassadors, spreading the word about your masterpiece far and wide.
But (you can see the theme emerging!) all of this takes time and expertise. Community and social media managers are some of the busiest people in the industry and work tirelessly to keep communities well-moderated and social media questions answered. Plus, as any mod will tell you, there’s a big difference between being part of a community and running a community.
English is the most widely-spoken language in the world, but having your game available in multiple languages not only makes it accessible to even more people but also makes it easier to sell! Some platforms also require localisation into certain languages if you’re to sell your game through them.
Publishers are well-equipped to guide you through the (sometimes fiddly) process of preparing your game for localisation, managing timelines, and implementing it properly. Most publishers already have relationships with localisation companies, which helps you get a better price and smoother service.
Analysis and Playtesting
Games are complicated things, and making them is as much a case of fixing bugs as it is actually creating something new. QA (quality assurance) is utterly essential, and good publishers will have in-house QA teams who’ll work with you and your producer to find, analyse, prioritise, and fix issues as they come up. Kwalee has a team of over 70 expert testers who work with our developers throughout development, so there are no surprises down the road.
Somewhat related is data analysis: Kwalee has an unusually large data analytics team for a publisher, and this helps us make intelligent decisions about marketing, features, and the like. All of this can add up to a game that’s more likely to be a commercial success.
Ad Monetisation and User Acquisition
These are more common in mobile game development, but as Kwalee publishes mobile, PC, and console games, we’ll mention them here. Working with ad networks and getting the best return on investment for every penny spent is a bit of a dark art, and Kwalee has experienced teams who can help you do just that.
Our UA and monetisation teams also regulate retention and conversion strategies in free-to-play and live-service mobile games.
With a publisher, you can focus on making the game while they handle complex performance marketing strategies.
Legal and Licensing
Last but certainly not least, a publisher can provide legal advice and support for your game and studio.
That means you’re less likely to get in hot water with other companies and will have expert advice if anything does go wrong. On the flip side, it means greater protection from people trying to steal your IP.
How to Find a Game Publisher to Work With
There are a few ways you can do this:
Think about similar games to yours. Who published them? If you’re working in a relatively niche genre (i.e. 4X strategy, visual novels), you’re also more likely to find publishers who specialise solely in that genre. Initial research like this can get you a list of places to pitch to.
At Kwalee, we don’t specialise in any particular genre – we feel that helps us bring broad expertise to every project and lets us look closely at all games, so long as they’re high quality.
Regardless of specialisation, you should look at a publisher’s portfolio: read the reviews, see if you can get a sense of how well they performed commercially (hint: lots of Steam reviews usually mean lots of sales!), and check gaming sites to see what kind of reputation they have.
If you ask someone how they got into games, chances are they’ll say they knew someone who knew someone who knew someone… and so on. That’s the simple power of networking. Publishers like us spend a lot of time attending events and conferences to network with other folks.
We do this because we want people to know that we’re there to help them publish their games – something many game developers want in the end. So if you’re not spending time around these events, talking to people, listening to advice, and playing games with us, you’re potentially missing out on some fantastic opportunities!
Our VP of Marketing published an article on what you need to know about game conferences.
When you research and network, you will eventually find people who may refer certain game publishers to you. So if you’re eyeing a particular game publisher to work with, see how people respond when you bring up the name.
Meet with other developers, and see if they’re willing to give you an honest account of working with a game publisher. Word-of-mouth recommendations are a great way to tell if a publisher is reputable and reliable.
And that’s what a game publisher does!
When considering the collaboration with a game publisher, it’s essential for developers to conduct thorough research and select a publisher that aligns with your specific needs and goals. In our case at Kwalee, we warmly welcome creative game pitches.
If you’re interested in publishing your game, don’t hesitate to reach out to us! You can submit your game or pitch using our indie game submission form, and we will evaluate it based on the criteria discussed throughout this article.
As an award-winning game publisher, we know what it takes to turn your game into a big hit. Upload your game prototype on our official Publishing Portal (if it’s a mobile game) or send it to our publishing scouts (if it’s a PC and console game). We’ll analyse your game and get in touch with you about your results. Meanwhile, catch us on our social media (TikTok | Twitter | YouTube | Instagram | LinkedIn) to get the latest on our gamedev efforts.