Who was there: In a session titled "Developer + Publisher = Partnership," three speakers were on hand to discuss their experience working for PC strategy games publisher Paradox Interactive (Magicka, Mount & Blade). Those three were Paradox CEO Fredrik Wester, VP of publishing Susana Meza Graham, and Shams Jorjani, described by Wester as the company's multitalented "corporate paladin."
What they talked about: The session was a wide-reaching discussion about developer-publisher relations that covered everything from marketing philosophies to game budgets. However, the crux of the presentation was the importance of trust between publisher and developer.
"You have contracts that stipulate most things, but 99 percent of the time you make a game it's a trust business. The contract is just there for when the s*** hits the fan," said Jorjani. He went on to stress that trust begins with a developer doing its homework before jumping into a publishing deal. Developers have to know the track record of a publisher, which means examining previous marketing efforts and actually going out and talking with other development teams who have worked with a certain publisher in the past. "But it's also important to know yourself," said Jorjani. "You need to be humble, and you need to be able to talk about your limitations."
Jorjani also suggested that the most effective publishing deals are the ones that start with long-term relationships in mind. Developers learn a great deal about themselves and the publisher relationship after the first game is shipped, and it's when they begin work on a second and third game in a publishing deal that they can best apply lessons learned earlier. Using a video game metaphor, Jorjani likened this learning period to the XP you earn in a role-playing game. Rather than reset your character, you instead convert that XP into new skills and abilities that you never had before.
Meza Graham focused her discussion on the marketing end of a publishing deal, jokingly referring to it as "the dark side" of the games industry. She carried on that theme of trust by talking about how important it is for the two parties in a developer-publisher relationship to work together in the overall marketing effort and for developers to know when to hand over control to the publisher and when to take part themselves. "When you do sign with a publisher, decide that you're going to trust the publisher to use their experience, what they've seen before with what works and doesn't work in the marketing area," said Meza Graham. "It's important that you relinquish control and let us do what we do best."
However, Meza Graham pointed out that relinquishing control to a publisher doesn't mean they're going to handle all the work. A developer does sometimes need to take an active role in marketing when the situation calls for it. After PC gaming blog Rock Paper Shotgun posted a "scathing impression" of the Paradox-published Ship Simulation Extremes, Meza Graham urged the developer to write a counter piece based on her experience with audiences reacting well to developers displaying a vocal sense of humor about their games. While developer VSTEP was initially reluctant to do so while working on the game's first patch, Meza Graham managed to convince them to pen a response, which she said went on to resonate very well with Rock Paper Shotgun's readers.
It's important for a developer to maintain strong ties with its power gamers, or vocal fans, according to Meza Graham. "The power gamers are the ones that are going to take a bullet for you. They're your army," she said. Even if a developer can't spare a lot of time to maintain an active relationship with its fans online, even five minutes a day of community interaction can add up to a lot of time over a one to two year development cycle. "You are your game's asset, basically. Show that you're passionate, show that you're proud."
But according to Wester, "marketing isn't everything; there still has to be a game behind it." To argue this point, he offered up an anecdote about a sales meeting he once attended for Atari, which was distributing Hearts of Iron 2 in North America at the time. Shortly before taking the stage to explain the $75,000 marketing spend Wester's team put together for Hearts of Iron 2, someone representing The Matrix Online took the stage to discuss how they were spending their comparatively massive $7 million marketing budget. That figure blew Wester away, so he frantically made a last-minute overhaul to his PowerPoint presentation by erasing all the details and speaking in more general terms. But ultimately, according to Wester, his game sold 75,000 copies at North American retail while The Matrix Online pulled in just 25,000.
Shifting the subject toward the more nuts-and-bolts side of game development, Jorjani offered up the argument that the linchpin behind a successful developer-publisher relationship is maintaining a limited scope. According to Jorjani, this lets developers focus on their unique gameplay mechanics and selling points. Developers can iterate more frequently on a smaller feature set, throw out what doesn't work, and more easily refine what does. The benefits extend to the publishing side of things, as well. Jorjani suggested that working on a big-budget game is a lot like drinking a tall glass of water. "You start getting nervous and look for an exit strategy," he said. "That's when friction occurs between publishers and developers. That's where you start losing trust."
Quote: "We know that publishers have failed milestones because of the hairdo of the main character. I've seen this myself." - Jorjani
Takeaway: Despite being a self-proclaimed "niche" publisher of PC strategy games, Paradox has adapted a business philosophy with universal applications: be sure you know and trust the company you're about to do business with if you want to maximize your chances of success.