Indie vs. Retail Publishing: Who Wins

Indie vs. Retail Publishing: Who Wins

The Worms series of turn-based arcade strategy games commands a large fan base, even if some might argue that the concept has become a little long in the tooth (although a sabre-toothed worm is a cool animal to imagine). If you’re a fan of these wriggling warlike invertebrates, though, you’ll have to get your fix online from now on. At the end of August, Worms developer, Team17, ditched the third parties that published their games at retail, and has moved on to a wholly digital means of distribution.

“We have no ambitions to return to retail publishing,” Team17 co-founder Martyn Brown told MCV on August 30.

He’s not the only one. Telltale Games, the developer behind Tales of Monkey Island and the upcoming Jurassic Park and Back to the Future games, is another studio that has turned to digital distribution for its publishing independence. Telltale Games is doubly interesting for its distribution schedule, which works primarily through the release of “Episodes”–games that are released gradually through smaller installments. Telltale Games’ CEO Dan Connors likewise remarked back in 2007 that he enjoys the creative freedom digital distribution affords him.

Are Team17 and Telltale Games’ new business plans indicative of a push away from large third-party publishers? Does this mean a slow but certain transition for the big guys who bring smaller studios’ games to retail?

In his interview with ShackNews, Connors remarks that one of the nicest things about self-publishing is that he and his team can actually work on games instead of “sitting around creating a document to pitch to your upper management so they’ll greenlight some money” for an episodic distribution. That’s not a surprise; creators and their publishers have warred against each other since the distribution of creative works first began. One side has a vision to realize, and the other has to decide if other people are going to care enough about that vision to pay money for it.

Neither side is wrong, but both sides have to make a decision about what’s best for that particular vision. Both Team17 and Telltale Games would rather self-publish their works online than dance with publishing behemoths like UbiSoft. That’s admirable: Connors is right when he says a lot of time and energy goes into the publication process, and that energy should be going to the creative process. The trade-off is a smaller audience and narrower distribution. After all, brick-and-mortar based game retail is still king.

Self-publication is popular in the book industry, and the benefits and downsides are similar. If an author doesn’t want to deal with the hassles of third-party publication, he or she can hop on Lulu and print up his or her own book. Maybe only mom will see it, and maybe it’ll sell a healthy number of copies. Either way, if the author understands that the book won’t be on the shelf of every Barnes & Noble in the country, self-publication can be very rewarding. But meanwhile, HarperCollins isn’t hurting for submissions from hungry writers.

The games industry is only just gaining wider access to self-publication, and studios are going through the same learning process as an author. In some instances, self-publication is the way to go. But for wider distribution and marketing, other developers are going to want to stick with the behemoths. Either way, options are good.

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for 1UP.com, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is About.com’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

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