In 2008, Vivendi, the parent company of Sierra Entertainment, merged with game publisher Activision. The result was a new, monolithic corporation called Activision Blizzard, that was now home to some of the biggest games in the world, like Call of Duty and World of Warcraft. At the time, Sierra had a number of upcoming games on its slate, including an exciting heavy-metal adventure from Double Fine, the studio of game design legend Tim Schafer. The game was called Brutal Legend, and it starred Jack Black in the lead role. It was also one of many games to be canceled following the merger. What followed was a protracted process in which EA signed on to publish the game instead, only for Activision to sue Double Fine, followed by Double Fine filing a countersuit. During the toughest moments of game development, those last desperate months when the small details finally come together, Schafer and his team were distracted by legal matters.
Brutal Legend eventually launched in 2009, but the troubled publishing experience left a lasting impression on Double Fine. Nearly a decade later, the studio now operates its own publishing label, Double Fine Presents, where it helps smaller studios with everything from funding to marketing support to production. Its upcoming lineup includes the Pokemon-like Ooblets and co-op adventure Knights & Bikes. The label was born out of a desire to make sure other creators didn’t have to go through the same stressful publisher-developer relationship. “We wanted to take the good things that we experienced with publishers and make sure we weren’t doing the bad things,” says Greg Rice, Double Fine’s vice president of business.
Double Fine Presents is part of a steadily growing wave of boutique indie game publishers that are changing this dynamic. The trend started with Devolver Digital, a sort of punk-rock label for games, that published titles like Hotline Miami and Downwell, and provided developers help without taking a big cut of sales or trying to take ownership of their game. Other publishers soon launched, with a similar creator-centric focus. Double Fine was followed by Annapurna Interactive, and today, Skybound, the entertainment company from Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman, is launching its own indie games label as well.
Each offers something slightly different, but they all have the same overarching goal in mind: to make sure developers can focus on making games without having to worry too much about the business side of things. “I think every artist would like some help,” says Devolver co-founder Mike Wilson, “if that help doesn’t come with all of these terrible controls.”
In early 2016, Monument Valley lead designer Ken Wong left the studio Ustwo because he wanted to head back home to Australia and start something new. But creating a new game development studio from scratch isn’t exactly easy, and he ran into an immediate problem. “I needed money,” he says. Given his pedigree, a number of publishers had reached out to him, but he was wary of working with a big company. Annapurna stood out to him, though, largely because he was a fan of the company’s films. The more they talked, the more he realized their creative visions aligned. “There’s a shared sense of values,” says Kamina Vincent, a producer at Wong’s new studio Mountains. “How they’re approaching gaming is in line with how we want to approach gaming.”
That said, the small team still entered the deal with some trepidation. “In my mind, I thought they would feel a lot more ownership over the project and want more control,” Wong says. “It really hasn’t been like that with Annapurna. It’s our game, and they’re helping us along.” In February, the studio released the charming romance Florence for the iPhone. In addition to helping fund the project, Annapurna also helped with some of the less creative aspects of releasing a game: interfacing with Apple, setting up booths for trade shows and other events, making the game’s trailer, and even helping provide feedback on early versions of the game.
While plenty of Hollywood studios have attempted to get into games, Annapurna has managed to carve out a niche, publishing a number of high-profile, artistic games from well-known creators. In addition to Florence, the label has also published the haunting short story collection What Remains of Edith Finch and the beautiful puzzle game Gorogoa. For the most part, Annapurna’s stable of games are titles that don’t neatly fit into a genre but instead offer something distinct. For Wong, being aligned with a group with that kind of vision is part of the appeal. “That’s part of the value that Annapurna brings,” he explains. “I think that they can see a future where [gaming] is more part of popular culture.”
As more and more indie games are released, and platforms like Steam and the App Store become increasingly flooded, publishers have grown in popularity. The aid publishers can provide can often help a game become more visible and reach a wider audience. At the same time, according to Devolver’s Wilson, game developers are also savvier now than they’ve ever been. They share information and talk about relationships they’ve had with publishers. This, in turn, has forced indie labels to become more friendly to creators. “Indies today are much more collaborative than competitive,” he says. “They all want to help each other, and they’re cheering for each other for the most part. When I first started, nobody knew what a good deal was.”
Because of this, publishers need to offer something unique. In a world where creators can simply self-publish their games on various digital stores, a publisher needs a reason to exist beyond just funding. For the likes of Devolver and Double Fine, it’s a proven history of success, while Annapurna offers a unique level of prestige. For the new Skybound Games label, the value proposition is slightly different: a chance to expand your reach beyond just video games. While the publisher offers the typical services like funding and help with retail distribution, one of the hallmarks of Skybound is its cross-media approach, as exemplified by The Walking Dead’s successful growth from comic to blockbuster TV show to award-winning video game.
The first two titles signed to Skybound Games are the survival game The Long Dark and the adorable life sim Slime Rancher. Both games are already available to purchase and have seen success — The Long Dark has sold more than 2 million copies to date, for instance — but Skybound is offering a chance to expand their reach. “You gain the ability to take an [intellectual property] and open the doors to other media, whether it be TV, comics, books,” says Ian Howe, head of the new division, citing partnerships Skybound already has with the likes of Amazon Prime and Simon & Schuster. “We have a very wide reach in our ability to move the audience that we’ve already built to those new properties.”
Historically, the relationship between smaller developers and publishers has been viewed as antagonistic. The developers just want to make their game, but the publishers are worried about money. This new wave of boutique publishers is changing that perspective. Instead of simply providing cash and deadlines, these labels are seen more as development partners, and it’s winning over even some of the more skeptical game developers. “We started off being a lot more afraid of them,” says Wong. “I think at the time I didn’t really know what I needed besides funding. But now I understand what a publisher should be for, which is they’re creative partners.”