Power play: Developers, not publishers, are now pulling the strings, says Giordano Contestabile

Former PopCap man on the digital revolution

Power play: Developers, not publishers, are now pulling the strings, says Giordano Contestabile

Remember when publishers ruled the waves? Giordano Contestabile of independent games partner Tilting Point does.

Speaking of the changing nature of the publishing business at Develop in Brighton, Contestabile – formerly of PopCap – said the days when publishers "had all the power" and were "able to dictate all the terms" are over.

"Very rarely did developers have the financial and creative control that they needed," said Contestabile of the pre-digital era.

"This is important for a developer because it means you have control of your destiny. You have control of your games and your IP, and you also get all the money. You want to make games you're proud of and reflect your creative vision, but this was hard in the past, because the publishers would sometimes dilute that vision to make money.

"It wouldn't necessarily always result in a bad game, but it still meant it wasn't a game that reflected your vision."

Game changer

Things have, however, have changed Contestabile argued, with the balance of power having shifted in favour of the developer.

"You have much more options now – you don't need to take the kind of deals you had to take until a couple of years ago," he continued.

Developers don't need to take the kind of deals they had to take until a couple of years ago.
Giordano Contestabile

"There's no physical product to shift, and the platforms themselves will talk to you and are much more open. They allow small independent developers to go direct to market."

Developers, too, have to change if they are to take advantage of this new situation, with Thomas Was Alone creator Mike Bithell once again cited as an example to follow.

"Mike is amazing in the way that he uses his personality to reflect his games to his audience. He is the face of his games – he is his games - and that's because of Twitter and YouTube and all those channels."

Contestabile also added that, though developers now have more control over their businesses, that doesn't mean connecting with consumers is any easier.

"Going alone is daunting – production values of top games is improving, and those games cost a lot more to make," he continued.

"The competition not only is of a higher quality, there is just more competition. The velocity is growing as more people discover the market is there and that it's now much easier to get a game to market."

Perfect partner

But what about publishers who don't want to go it alone? What should they look for in a publisher?

Contestabile drew out a check list of must haves; full or partial financing, control of the IP, creative control over the games, product management and production support, platform relationship management, marketing and use acquisition budget and execution, and ongoing live operations funding.

In short, you "want a publisher to pay for something, because otherwise they're just doing PR. "

He continued, "You should always be in control of the IP – you created it, it's your right to be in control of it, and the market is such that there's no reason for you not to be. I believe the best relationships are relationships with mutual respect."

And what about funding?

On Kickstarter, Contestabile commented that if you "made a game in the 1980s or 1990s that was successful, that's the best case - you can't fail." Venture capitalists, he added, are also often equally hard to please.

"There are very few VCs who really understand games – I can count them on one hand – and VC funding in games tends to come and go in waves. Some of the time it's very easy, some of the time it's very hard, but most of the time it's not your fault – it depends on what other games companies have been doing. VCs are very risk averse."

He concluded, "Really look for a partner that has the same values and goals as you – not just who has money. Look at who they know, who they work with."

With a fine eye for detail, Keith Andrew is fuelled by strong coffee, Kylie Minogue and the shapely curve of a san serif font.