Navigating The Treacherous Waters of Developer/Publishing Relations

The publishers behind Tunic and Röki give insight into today’s publishing concerns.

“My first question is: why? I mean that literally. Why?”

That’s what Finji Co-founder and CEO Rebekah Saltsman would ask anyone looking to jump into the turbulent waters of indie publishing. Publishers provide a wide array of services, from offering financial support and making industry connections, to showing games at events and securing advertisement. The role these companies play in the industry, and in the indie market especially, is crucial to many game makers – which places publishers in a powerful position.

This power can lead to serious problems, as numerous recent headlines involving high-profile publishers prove, but most indie publishers earnestly hope to help developers follow their vision. Publishing success can be grueling. Accomplished publishers are continuously ensuring healthy team dynamics while simultaneously contending with expectations, money, and time.

So, ‘why?’ really is the question. Finji and United Label, publishers behind games like Tunic and Röki, were willing to dive in and talk about why they do what they do, share their thoughts on today’s publishing concerns, and give us a little peek at their upcoming projects.

Taking the Publishing Plunge

So, how does an indie publisher even get started, let alone hit a goldmine of success? It’s no surprise that there isn’t really a prescribed trail to follow. For Saltsman – the genuine and straight-talking CEO who formed the developer/publisher hybrid Finji with her spouse Adam – the road to publishing was inescapably intertwined with her own personal journey.

“Right around the time we got married, Adam quit his job and went indie – this was back before indie really existed – and I had to have a ‘real’ job that covered health insurance. […] I started picking up more and more of the business side of our iOS company and our advertising company. Publishing sort of fell into our laps. We were already publishing on iOS but very casually.” That was the beginning of the pair’s publishing partnership, as well as the groundwork for Finji. Its actual creation, which would happen later and involve merging their two companies, was inspired by the couple’s growing family.

Image courtesy of Finji

“Adam had all of these horrible, horrible names for what eventually became Finji,” Saltsman emphatically recounts. “While I was holding our little son, [Adam] turned around and said, ‘Finji!'” Don’t worry, he didn’t have a stroke. The nonsense word is a shortened version of their son’s name, Finnegan. Though she agreed it was perfect, Saltsman remembers objecting, “we have to steal our son’s nickname!”

Name-stealing aside, it fit their vision for the company. They’d already decided to place a crown in their logo to symbolize their elder son, Kingsley. So, with both sons represented, Finji became a deeply personal, family-centered enterprise.

In contrast, founding United Label was a calculated business decision. The indie publisher was conceived earlier this year in the offices of CI Games, a Polish company known for its triple-A franchises. Though it seems like an unusual move, Denis Ferrier, Head of Business Development at CI Games, and his team felt that branching out into the indie market made perfect sense.

“We created United Label to try to create a new vision with the developers and to help them to bring their vision to the market,” Ferrier explains, “because the market needs it.” Just like that, a new indie publisher was born, but it’s certainly not alone. Poland is quickly gaining a reputation for its quality video games, especially in the indie scene. But even though United Label was only created back in January, the publisher is far from inexperienced.

“You don’t have a lot of indie publishers in the market,” Ferrier points out, “who already have almost 20 years of experience in the video game business. We are using the resources, the knowledge, and the experience of CI Games for indie development.” And he is serious about United Label leveraging its company background to its advantage. With an extraordinary turnaround time for a new publisher, United Label has already announced two fantastic-looking games due out this year. We’ve already had some hands-on time with Röki, a stunning and sinister-feeling narrative adventure rooted in Scandinavian folklore. Releasing alongside it is Eldest Souls, a grim souls-like adventure with a heart of pixel.

With Great Power

Starting a new company and committing to publishing is really only the beginning. Moving forward, these companies face issues; some that challenge their teams personally, some that touch the industry as a whole, and some that are even making today’s headlines.

While Saltsman describes navigating the legal mess of merging several businesses together into Finji as “awful,” she speaks at length about her next, less expected, obstacle. “When we went live with [Finji],” says Saltsman, “all of the articles read: ‘Adam Saltsman’s new company that he is running with his wife.’ Some of them mention my name, and some of them don’t. That was the challenge,” she summarizes, “to build this up to a point where, one, my name was as recognizable, but also to prove that the thing we were building, we built together.”

As for United Label, Ferrier admits the newly formed publisher’s real test has yet to come. “We haven’t launched anything yet,” he acknowledges. “We obviously want to be one of the key indie publishers globally, and that’s what we are trying to do. But you know, it’s a lot of work. It’s a long-term vision.”

Though every publisher has unique struggles, each company also has to grapple with balancing power dynamics with its partners. Stories certainly abound in the industry of difficulties between publishers and developers concerning how profit is shared or who owns the work, stories which weighed on Ferrier’s mind when creating United Label.

“Historically,” he states, “the developer is the developer, and the publisher is the bad guy — with the marketing and the lawyer.” In hopes of raising the standard, he insists that he and his team are “trying to make sure that we are fighting against that historical idea.” He also remarks, “the struggle is trying to remove this old battle between the developer and the publisher because it’s not positive for the industry.”

“It’s really important for us as we communicate with our team,” comments Saltsman when speaking about Finji’s policies on working with its internal and external partners, “that we are maintaining the fact that we are on the same page, that we are building the same thing. Also, we want to hang out together and be friends outside of building something together. You only have one life. To allow ego or anything like that to get in the way of building a meaningful relationship with people that you create beautiful things with… why?”

Questions like this have surfaced with renewed intensity after the last few weeks’ deluge of difficult news, which included allegations that Chucklefish utilized unpaid community contributors, some as young as sixteen, to help develop Starbound almost a decade ago. Chucklefish released a statement to Screen Rant declaring, among other things, that contributors “were under no obligation to create content, work to deadlines or put in any particular number of hours. Everyone was credited or remunerated as per their agreement.”

Damon Reece, the first of the contributors to come forward against Chucklefish and a credited writer on Starbound, responds on Twitter, “this response isn’t even *close* to good enough. When I directed a team for the first time our game made like $100 but I made sure everyone who worked on it got an equal cut.” Though this was not an issue between a publisher and its developer partner – Starbound was Chucklefish’s first game developed in-house – the situation highlights just how relevant Saltsman and Ferrier’s remarks are right now and how crucial it is for a publisher to be mindful of its role in the industry.

The Games We Made Along the Way

After reflecting on these issues and struggles, the publishers turn towards what makes it all worth it: the games. They excitedly talk up their upcoming titles, revealing along the way their unique perspective on game-making and some great little-known facts about developers.

The beginning of Finji’s partnership with Tunic creator Andrew Shouldice was inauspicious, to say the least. The gorgeous game, almost a love letter to the Zelda series, stars a plucky fox ready to take on the world with a sword. But while Tunic has recently captured gamers’ hearts, it seems Shouldice and his project didn’t make a strong first impression on Finji’s Co-founders. “Actually,” Saltsman admits, “we blew him off.” The couple was attending GDC and were already running late for a meeting when the developer approached them with, “a computer or iPhone or something in his hands, that had this little fox (that didn’t look like it does now) running around.” However, they did encourage Shouldice to send them an email with more details. “He did, thank goodness,” Saltsman says with a sigh of relief, “then we just kept in contact with him and would play things as they came through.”

Despite the rocky start, Saltsman explains they developed, “a very light mentorship and friendship for years.” However, Finji didn’t officially get involved with Tunic until years later, shortly after Night in the Woods launched in 2017. They met up with Shouldice at Train Jam for a “bi-annual check-in to see how he was doing.” Saltsman recalls the developer, “appeared to be feeling really overwhelmed.” She and her husband privately debated whether offering to publish Tunic would help or further complicate things for Shouldice. Ultimately, they sent their friend an email assuring him, “We can just take the game to all the shows. You never have to do it again.”

He took them up on their offer and the Finji team set about getting the indie to the biggest shows in gaming. They moved fast and Tunic made its E3 debut in 2018 during the Microsoft conference. It seemed to go off without a hitch – a testament to the Finji team’s skill and hard work – but, it turns out there was at least one comical snafu behind Tunic’s moment on the big stage.

“So,” Saltsman admits, “we forgot to tell Andrew that they were actually going to talk about him on stage.” She hurriedly explains, “There was so much other stuff! E3 prep, and stage prep, is not a small thing. It’s four months of wild requests. There are hard assets, and you have to proof stuff, and there’s script stuff, and there’s meetings, and it is a production.”

At this point, the Finji team was handling everything for gaming shows, allowing the developer to focus on his game. “We got a call,” Saltsman explains, “that there was a problem with the script the week before – and that was news to us, that there was a script.” She and her team ultimately became responsible for writing it, which included a section on the developer himself, “but we had all this other prep,” notes Saltsman, “and we just kind of forgot that this was happening. Then we were sitting in the theatre and [that section] pops up at the 90-minute mark.” Saltsman laughingly recalls, “Andrew started looking up and down the row at us, and that’s when [we] realized we didn’t tell him!”

With so many indies hitting the market, indie publishers are becoming even more vital. Seriously, just look on any platform’s ‘new releases’ page. You could drown in the scores of indie games that pop up and great gems that get lost in the shuffle. With all this noise to contend with, Finji and United Label are eager to focus the limelight on their projects, giving the games a chance to shine.

“It’s only the beginning,” says Ferrier, “2020 will be a really strong year for United Label.” The company’s next games, Tails of Iron and Horae, are already announced for release next year. “The most important thing is,” Ferrier concludes, “we really strongly hope people enjoy our games!” Follow them at @UtdLabelGames to learn even more about these games and what this publisher is all about.

Similarly, Saltsman’s only request is that people “follow our work.” If you’re interested in doing just that, check out @FinjiCo. The publisher has yet to announce Tunic’s release date, but they do have some exciting projects for 2019, like Wilmot’s Warehouse – which hit PC and Switch August 29 – and the post-apocalyptic, turn-based survival they’ve been developing, Overland. We counted Overland as one of the five best indies coming in September, so be sure to check it out.

So why does Saltsman devote her life to indie publishing? “We make beautiful things and we would love for people to play them.”

Contributor

Jill decided to ditch her life behind a desk to follow a dream and write about video games. She’s previously written for Game Informer, and always has time for a good indie.

Jill Grodt

Contributor Jill decided to ditch her life behind a desk to follow a dream and write about video games. She's previously written for Game Informer, and always has time for a good indie.