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Chillingo works hard, but too many publishers have become monsters says Spilt Milk's Andrew John Smith

Who Needs Chillingo? to give power back to the developer
Chillingo works hard, but too many publishers have become monsters says Spilt Milk's Andrew John Smith

Sifting through the good and the bad, looking for that diamond in the rough might be the publisher's domain, but according to Spilt Milk Studio MD Andrew John Smith, the majority of developers are having to undertake an equally arduous search all of their own.

Their hunt, however, is for publishers who can bring genuine value to their titles, rather than those that - in his own words - have turned into "monsters".

As a result, Smith has become a notable backer of Who Needs Chillingo? - a new developer cooperative designed to support studios looking to self-publish - but, unlike the group's mantra, he isn't entirely sure that the 'publisher is dead' just yet.

We caught up with Smith to ask what publishers can do to appeal to developers in the digital age.

PocketGamer: How did your involvement in Who Needs Chillingo come about?

Andrew John Smith: Frankly I saw a tweet about it and thought, if nothing else, it'd be fun to join in. Any movement to help developers get a bit of the power back from publishers is a good one. We're the ones making the games they get rich off, after all.

Why was Chillingo chosen to adorn the cooperative's name?

I'm guessing here but I expect it's much more to do with its prevalence - namedropping can be good PR right? Chillingo has managed to get where it is today through talent, skill, and hard work. No doubt about it.

But it's also the most memorable name, so is an easy target for this kind of thing. It's cheeky, but then that's one of the nice things about being an independent dev studio - we don't have to ask anyone if it's 'on brand' to be cheeky.

What are the cooperative's goals?

As it turns out, it's a pretty serious movement to get more power and market reach to the smaller developers out there on iPhone, primarily by sharing and growing each other's social and media connections.

The name sounds pretty aggressive and combative - as if we all hate all publishers - but it's really more about trying to make do without them than it is belittling their businesses and contributions.

Is there no room at all for publishers in the smartphone space, or would you just like to see their role change?

In my experience there are two kinds of publishers, broadly speaking.

There are those who recognise that what they are doing is taking a promising, high quality product created by a talented group of people and getting the market to sit up and take notice of it through professional PR and marketing - distribution is less relevant in the digital age - along with shouldering all the costs that this sort of activity generates.

The second kind of publisher has become a monster. They've forgotten, or never realised, that it would be nowhere without the content that we the developers make, treats its clients as replaceable work-for-hire and, eventually, comes a-cropper.

I'd hope that the market will encourage the first kind and eventually see off the latter kind, because I truly believe that a good game well marketed will outsell a bad game well marketed.

The gamers' voice is strong these days so honestly if someone like ngmoco releases a bad game, it's pretty swiftly forgotten about - and the second kind of publisher will make bad games, believe me.

Don't you worry that many studios will simply disappear without trace if left alone?

I worry about this every day - I might be one of the unlucky ones to disappear!

The thing that I always fall back on is that without some idiot third-party breathing down my neck, who's only concern is hitting a milestone, or who doesn't understand the value of constant and focused support of a game once it has been released, I am free to do the right thing. I know what works, because I'm on the coalface.

I've experienced all the lessons first hand and am in a much better position than someone sat at a safe distance in making judgement calls.

For example, my upcoming iPhone game Hard Lines is going to be supported for months - if not years - after release. As long as people seem interested in it - and in an attempt to generate more interest - we've got plans to massively expand the game beyond launch.

Now I'm not promising 100 percent definitively that we'll be in a position to do so, but it'd take a huge and unexpected negative turn of events to change my perception of the 'right thing to do'.

Some editors argue that publishers act as a filter, helping sites like Pocket Gamer determine the wheat from the chaff when deciding what games to cover. Do you think there's any truth in that?

I'd agree, but only to a point. I think the market is so crazy that it'd be impossible for the writers on sites like this to manually pick games. There needs to be a filter, and publishers are certainly one way of filtering - but are they the best, the only one? Or are they just an outdated hangover from the traditional games market?

For a start, I'm not convinced that the launch period is the biggest most important time in a market like the App Store, yet it is where a lot of publishers still focus all their efforts.

Of course it's great to get your game off to a big start, and so coverage on big sites is great, but these games don't simply disappear after a week like they used to on shop shelves.

They're no less accessible to your market a year after launch than they are the weekend of their big promotion, and so if the game is good there should be many more ways for it to float to the top - all it takes is an article and a link to the store.

This is where the developer, and the media itself, needs to take some responsibility.

So I'm not going to be able to offer free drinks and grub at a swanky bar in London for the launch of my next game, but I'm much more free to help out in terms of website content - features, interviews, exclusive content etc - than if I had to triple check everything with a PR department and a bunch of executives in a different country.

The PR world does revolve around perks and mutual back scratching, which is no bad thing; it's just the game we all have to play. Unfortunately, it is an element missing from Game Dev Story.

What do you think you can offer developers that standard publishers can't?

Developers are right on the frontlines in all this. We're learning the hard, and fast, way about all the tricks, traps and nuances of the market, we've collectively got an amazing wealth of knowledge and we should share that as much as we can.

It's not some communist ideal, but it does mean we should be able to offer all the dodges, perks and contacts that a publisher would offer, and at the same time leave the developer to reap all the rewards. No share in profits, no designing-over-the-shoulder, just advice and wisdom. Pretty neat.

What do you think will happen to the developer-publisher relationship?

I honestly think what we're seeing is only the publishers that know what they're doing and act reasonably towards the people who make them rich - us, the developers - are surviving or doing well.

It doesn't take long for bad news to spread, and if someone gets shafted by a publisher, you can guarantee that they'll see a drop off in developer submissions to their portfolio.

That said we need to grow some balls, as developers. We're not in debt to publishers, they're not the gatekeepers, and we need to remember that our content is what fills their coffers. Any relationship entered into should be a mutually beneficial and respectful one.

This delicate balance is an industry-wide one, and can be ruined if too many developers bend over backwards for the sake of taking bad deals.

It's a market in and of itself, and market forces are at play. If the majority of people take bad deals, that's all the rest of us will be offered - which is ultimately bad for everyone involved on the business end, and most importantly, the gamer.

Thanks to Andrew for his time.

You can find out more about Andrew's studio, Spilt Milk Studio, on the firm's website, while more details on Who Needs Chillingo? can be found here.