Be humble, be honest, do the work – Interview with Jónas Antonsson
When I first met Jónas Antonsson, introduced to me through a mutual friend, I was sceptical about the company he had just started. Yet another indie publisher?
Raw Fury started with three aluminis from Paradox Interactive. With your current focus on publishing independent games in mind, what are the most important things you’ve learned from your previous experience in the world of Triple-A?
That it is much more fun to both play and work with small independent games. Short and simple. Games are inherently experiences and they can affect us deeply. They are a bit of magic delivered through the interaction of graphics, narrative and code. It turns out that small independent developers are much better suited to make new magic.
All of us have been working with games for many years. We've founded, funded and operated development studios, game news sites and consultancy companies. We've designed games, produced them, promoted them, published them and written about them. So collectively we have touched upon every aspect of what it takes to both make a game and get it into the hands of players. This is important. Especially since we understand what it is to be on the development side. We understand the struggle, the turmoil that comes with emotional work and how your time and focus - those precious resources - are always under attack. We believe we know how to build up partnerships that are based on fairness, trust and mutual respect and are suited to ensure that the magic is magnified, instead of being snuffed out. We hope we're right.
During the last years more and more indie studios started to act as a publisher for other independent game developers. Raw Fury calls itself an (un)publisher, a label that seems to be popular with a few publishers that have started to work with indies. Where do you see yourself in a world where publishing no longer has, or still has – depending on the point of view – a bad reputation?
If others are adopting the (Un)Publisher label, we're happy! We came up with it because the label “Publisher” is both very ambiguous - the companies that operate under it offer a wide range of services and terms - and pretty negative. Let's face it, traditionally publishers have built in ways to ensure that they operate under a different set of risk factors than the developers that sign with them. And some of those ways have not really been very beneficial to the developers. So the deals haven't been fair or built in a way to ensure that both parties are mutually aligned. This can quite simply fuck up the development process and kill the magic. Publishers have also had a tendency to start meddling with the development process. Sometimes forcefully (requiring developers to implement their requests, or meeting certain requirements to unlock further payments, etc) and that can also fuck up the magic. These deals and models are based on a lot of history and legacy. Sometimes they are archaic in nature and haven't really been adopted to meet new realities. Simply put - a lot of publishing efforts, terms, behaviors, or services make sense in certain cases, but are being applied even when they don't.
We're a supporting act. We take risk with the developers we work with. We're not in the forefront. We're here to help and the only way we are successful and survive, is if the games we help out with are successful. We don't ask for IP, we don't impose milestones, schedules, features or anything that messes with the development process. We do not black-box our efforts, work, or anything really. We collaborate. We trust. And we needed a new paradigm to explain that sometimes you have to undo a thing before you can redo it. So we unpublish.
We're also a pure-bread unpublisher, meaning that we don't do any development on our own. We are 100% focused on the publishing efforts for the game developers we work with. There is no portfolio strategy and we only decide to help out if we ourselves are super fans of the game, that we have the bandwidth needed to treat it equally well as the games we have already taken on, and if we feel we can add value.
You’re based in Stockholm and have two people working remotely in San Francisco with an 8 hour time-zone difference. Are you mostly working asynchronously? What tools are you using to work together?
We use the Google tools (Mail, Calendar, Drive), Trello and Slack. That's mostly it. We only care about results so there is literally no requirement to register time or sit somewhere for 8 hours straight. We work from home, synchronize as needed but trust each other to deliver, irrelevant to how and when that happens. We help each other out. We also make sure we all get paid the same salary, so there's no need to think about those things. And we make sure everyone has the best tools and environment needed at home, to be effective at their work. That's also way cheaper than an office.
The Let’s Play videos of content creators on YouTube and Twitch were really important to the success of Kingdom, the first game you published. What was your strategy when reaching out to this community?
Simple. Talk to people like they are people. And understand that the games we're making and they play, are - first and foremost - facilitators of the social interaction between a creator and her community. So, when you reach out, make sure you are talking to people who are likely to not just enjoy your particular game but are also likely to have a community that would support and enjoy content that is based on it. Try to ensure you are engaging in a win-win conversation and keep in mind that you are talking to fellow gamers and enthusiasts. You are talking to people, so refrain from the urge to sound like a business or corporation (impersonal) - because it isn't more professional. It's only more likely to lead to nothing.
To put it into practical terms, don't look at this as a “resource” (man, I hate that word). You have to watch YouTube and Twitch. You have to know these people. You should make a list of those that are most likely to enjoy what you are building, specifically. You should reach out to them - person to person - when it makes sense (like when you might potentially meet them somewhere, when you have something to share with them, etc). And make sure to focus on them and not just the awesome stuff you are doing. Follow up. Include them if they are interested. Talk to them. Listen to them. Build friendships - not business relationships. And, above all - do not be a douche. Be respectful of what they do and grateful for their passion - even when it leads to someone not enjoying your game.
It’s often useful to have press mentions and previews ahead of your launch to build up interest and awareness for a game. How does that translate to content creators? Does it make sense to do previews with YouTubers?
A: Absolutely - if the type of game you are making fits well with doing that. It is hard if your game is built around a linear story that has only one path (but it can be done). But again, keep in mind that you can't make anyone put up these kind of previews. In order to increase the likelihood of this, you need to have a game that fits well with a group of people you have already identified, followed and understood how they engage with their community. When you start asking for people to preview your game, you need to do it based on already established relationships – otherwise you'll see limited success. A lucky few will work on a game that gets “auto hype” – where it is essentially picked up by “everyone” automatically. That happens once in a blue moon. Don't count on such luck. Count on putting in the work. And always think about how to make a tide that raises all boats.
Again, to put it into practical terms, send out a build to your selected creators a few days ahead of launch. Make sure they have enough time to play, study and understand the game. Ask them to start releasing content at a specific point in time, at the earliest. Make sure that point in time isn't too far from the actual release date. A couple of days might be enough. Try to do be personal and approachable. Do something special, if you can.
Content creators don’t necessarily attend the same industry events as the press does. In your experience, which are the best events to meet YouTubers and Twitchers in person?
You'll usually find them where you'd find gamers gathering. So PAX, Gamescom, EGX and other similar events are good bets. Additionally there are events like TwitchCon.
Recently prices of independent games have gone up a bit, and some developers have become more critical and outspoken against the practice of heavy discounts on stores like Steam. What do you think is a reasonable pricing strategy for independent developers?
Think like a gamer. Try to ask yourself what you would feel to be a fair price for a game. Ask your friends (the ones that are more likely to give you an honest answer, than something that you would rather want to hear). We do not dislike discounts and sales at all and think that they can be a very important ingredient to create a long tail for a game. Along with updating it regularly and engaging with the community. Understanding how these three things can go together, can lead to a very long life for a small indie game. And that's what we personally like. We're not fans of “Fire and Forget” and we'd rather like to engage long-term with the community and help the developers realize the full potential of what they've created (if that is what they also want to do).
What advice would you give to self-publishing developers to survive in a market that has become more and more saturated?
Be humble, be honest, do the work. All of it. You don't need partners but you should consider them if you aren't willing or able to do all of the work. Don't buy into the “build it and they will come” mantra. Remember that it isn't just about you, the magician - it's about them, the players, the content creators, the fans. See how the thing you are creating can affect other people and potentially allow them to express themselves. Even self-identify. Find and develop passion for every aspect of what you are doing. You are not only making a game - you are delivering and handing it to other people to play with. Love that as much as everything else in the process and you'll be able to take it on with the same vigor as the creative aspect. And always remember, there's a person on the other end of that email, forum post, Facebook message or Skype call. And that person wants to be heard just as much as you do.