Game Design Game Development Marketing/Business

Should You Work with a Publisher or Self-Publish? #NotGDC

Adam Saltsman is the creator of Canabalt and founder of Finji, which is behind the Overland screenshots you may have seen him post on Twitter.

He’ll be giving a talk today at GDC called “Deciding What to Make: A Greenlight Process for Commercial Indies”.

People who attend will learn how to improve their ability to decide what game to make.

If you think success in indie game development is purely random, that game development is like throwing spaghetti at a wall and hoping something sticks, it sounds like this talk will share some ideas to be more deliberate about it.

For those of us at #NotGDC and unable to attend, we’ll have to wait until his talk is in the GDC Vault and/or for him to upload the slides somewhere later.

But for now, you can read his blog post Publishers and You, a stream-of-conscious indie game development business lesson you can get without shelling out the money for a plane ticket or hotel room or conference pass.

Saltsman’s article gave some good advice about generally working with others, publisher or not:

So: what are your needs, and how can you address them? What parts do you want to work on? What parts DON’T you want to work on? If you can figure this stuff out, you will be in much, much better shape when you start talking to anyone anywhere about helping you ship.

If you don’t want to “do marketing”, that’s fine, but someone better do it because it’s key. And if you follow Seth Godin, you know that your game IS part of the marketing, so whoever does the marketing better be working with you from the start.

I want to focus on the part where he talks about the importance of marketing for self-publishing indies:

I’ve seen other devs call this the “non-game-dev” part of a project, and that’s sort of true but sort of misleading too, and on commercial projects i think it’s counter-productive. If you’re making a commercial game, helping the game find its audience is a part of making it. Sorry.

I’ve written before that indie developers have always needed to treat their businesses like businesses, partly in response to how many people think that running a game development business is just making games and hoping people buy what you made after the fact.

If that’s your business strategy, then yeah, your success in the industry is effectively random, and your goal is to put out as many games as possible before you run out of money.

It’s kind of like a less deliberate version of what Dan Cook wrote about in his article Minimum Sustainable Success.

When Cook wrote about a basic budget an indie might create, he said:

These numbers should look scary. They suggest that the vast majority of indie developers are ripe for financial ruin and are operating primarily on hope instead of any rational financial strategy. I think that’s accurate.


But he also concludes “The big lesson is that your exposure to luck is something you can manage.” I would highly recommend reading his article for more details, but one thing he mentions is reducing the risk of any on game release with relatively cheap prototypes to nail the game design down before spending a lot of money on development.

Some people specialize in helping you identify what the market wants. You could become one of those people, or you could pay someone to do it for you, and it’s up to you as a developer to determine which is appropriate for your business. Saltsman argues that to make that determination, look at the needs of your project and not to blanket best practices or a vague sense that you need marketing.