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According this source, publishers account for about half the cost of a game's price to consumers. Could there be an alternative means of distribution that allows people to pay game developers more directly without a publisher?

i.e.: something like peer-to-peer torrents be used for distribution, while using something like Paypal to pay for keys to unlock the games?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The $27 going to the publisher in that article includes the money that ends up with the developer. \$\endgroup\$ – Jack Aidley Oct 22 '18 at 7:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ Just out of curiousity, is it generally the case that the $27 are split 50/50 between the publisher and developer? \$\endgroup\$ – plu Oct 22 '18 at 21:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ I've never seen a contract personally but I do know it's more complex than that. Many games are funded by publisher money so most of the initial money goes to the publisher and then the formula shifts. For publishers who are less involved in funding production the shares will be different. \$\endgroup\$ – Jack Aidley Oct 23 '18 at 7:20
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The alternative is to not use a publisher and sell the game directly.

This isn't a novel concept; it's been done forever. "Shareware" distribution and subsequent direct-sales to interested consumers was a popular early example. More recently, one might have seen games sold directly to customers via a developer's own website.

The services publishers provide aren't really necessary for success (although they certain improve one's odds). In the past, publishers were basically one's only real option to get console platform access and retail distribution channels. But the difficulty (and importance) of those perks has waned somewhat. It's arguably more possible than ever to successful self-publish a game, or in other words, to be independent.

Today there are also useful compromises available, as well; options that provide some of what a publishing deal might as well as only some of the long-run cost.

For example, distribution via Steam is far more open than distribution to yesteryear's major retail outlets ever was. Valve provides basically no other services on top of what everybody gets on Steam by default, but what they ask from you in return is similarly much less.

And companies like Kickstarter provide a more direct, grassroots mechanism of raising funding. Kickstarter doesn't ask for recoupment, they simply take a portion of the money you raise.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I disagree with your statement that 'Valve provides basically no other services'. They provide in-channel promotion and community related tools (forums, user ratings, friend lists, leader boards, etc). Whether or not these things are valuable to a given developer & title will undoubtedly vary, but they are provided. \$\endgroup\$ – Pikalek Oct 22 '18 at 14:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ I see your point, but I’d argue that Steam the store provides that, not Valve the publisher. Plus the system is largely automated and nothing like the equivalent service you’d get from striking an actual publishing deal. Unless that deal was with Valve. I’ll try to clarify that. \$\endgroup\$ – user1430 Oct 22 '18 at 14:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ That makes sense - I wasn't making a distinction between the two, but I do agree that it's a distinction worth making. If you wanted to add an example of direct sales enablers, the Humble Widget helps devs sell directly, handling some stuff like taxes, etc, at a % rate much lower than what they pull for using their full store for distribution. I can also see not wanting to turn this into a list of resources though. \$\endgroup\$ – Pikalek Oct 22 '18 at 15:15
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Yes, you can sell your game directly. In this day and age there are plenty of ways to do that. Getting physical copies into a brick and mortar store can still be difficult without a publisher. But 80% of game sales are digital nowadays, so this isn't a problem. And digital distribution channels have very low entry barriers nowadays.

Smartphone app stores have almost no quality control. Steam now accepts every game if you can caugh up a mere $100 (which you get back after you sold $1000 worth of copies). And selling through your own website is also much easier than it was 10 years ago. Most of these channels will skim a bit of your revenue, usually around 30%. But that's still much less than it would cost to go through a publisher (and your publisher would likely pay about the same fees to the distribution system. Rumor has it that some publishers negotiated better deals with various platforms, but they are unlikely to be that much better).

However, there are still reasons why developers might choose to work with a publisher. Many game developers are skilled in the craftsmanship of game development, but not so much in the business side. They know how to design 3d models, but not how to cut a good trailer. They know how to guide AI agents through a navigation mesh, but not how to guide gamers to their social media presences. They know how to write an NPC dialog, but not how to write a press release. They know how to balance the attack power of their units, but not how to find the optimal launch price for their game.

But a good publisher can fill these gaps.

A good game is nothing without good marketing. So if half of your revenue goes to the publisher, but you sell three times* as many copies as you would without one, then your publisher increased your personal profit by 50%.

*your mileage may vary

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