GameDaily chatted with Jonas Antonsson about publisher-developer relationships, the state of the indie market, and Raw Fury's admiration for Epic pushing the industry towards 'healthier terms.'
Raw Fury has been calling itself the “(un)publisher” for a little over five years now, and in that time, the indie label has brought to market some incredible games like Dandara, Bad North, and Mosaic, to name just a few. The Stockholm, Sweden-based company ultimately wants to help developers “find success, be happy, and stay independent.”
To that end, when Fortnite and Unreal Engine creator Epic Games unveiled its new publishing program last week, Raw Fury founder Jonas Antonsson couldn’t help but notice that Epic’s developer-friendly terms were strikingly similar to what Raw Fury has been offering. It was an immensely gratifying moment, Antonsson told GameDaily.
“To put it bluntly, Epic is using the same basic terms we’ve been working with for five years. When I started Raw Fury, I wanted us to be a catalyst in changing the relationship between publishers and developers, with an emphasis on human relationships, fairness, trust and putting the art first,” he said. “So when I originally wrote up our agreement and terms, I did it from a standpoint of what I would have felt to be fair and respectful when I was running a development studio. I also wanted to create something that didn’t have to be negotiated, and to this day all our developers have signed essentially the same deal (there have been small quality of life changes throughout the years but the basic terms stay the same).”
Raw Fury never tries to take ownership of a developer’s intellectual property, the label pays devs once a month in order to ensure their costs are covered, and the label pays for any necessary external services and marketing. Antonsson believes that Epic embracing a similar developer-first attitude is going to help shift the entire industry towards fairer terms.
“We never apply our own internal costs towards any game. We recover at a 100% rate before revenues are split and then we split 50/50 with the developers. So the only way for us to make money is if the developers are making money,” he continued. “This also pushes us automatically to think long term about all our games, which is what we want and like to do. We want to work with developers over a longer term and we look at a launch of a game as only the beginning.
“As you can see, the terms Epic has adopted are almost identical to ours and this makes us incredibly happy because not only has Epic validated that what we have been doing is great, but now they are pressuring the AAA part of the industry towards adapting healthier terms. So, to put it simply, I couldn’t be happier and I would want to hug Tim, when hugs are socially acceptable again.”
With development tools like Unity and Unreal freely available, there’s been a democratization of game making in recent years, and consequently more indie labels have popped up to handle the flood of developers making games who need some publishing assistance. Alex Nichiporchik, CEO of tinyBuild, previously remarked to GameDaily that indie publishing has become a “Groupon-like business model where anyone can replicate it and inflate the market.” He reiterated his feelings to GameDaily today: “I still believe one-off publishing -- aka indie publishing -- is dead.”
Antonsson, however, does not buy into this argument. “I completely disagree and would think this is a projection based on something not working internally, with a need to look for an ‘answer’ externally. This certainly is very far from our reality,” he commented.
That reality, he said, is one in which the industry always has more room for talent. In fact, while Garnett Lee, who came to Raw Fury from Amazon this February, acknowledged that big blockbusters like Fortnite do create a sort of “talent vacuum,” around more artistic endeavors, the general belief at Raw Fury is of the “rising tide lifting all boats” kind, Antonsson stressed.
“There will always be room for more artistic, unique and thoughtful approaches. Just like we see with movies, TV, or music... mass produced entertainment and the more refined forms of art can always coexist, and it is usually those more refined forms that then push where the mass produced entertainment will go over time. It is a beautiful symbiotic relationship and it will always exist,” he said.
Some of the top indie darlings have a way of becoming mainstream. Minecraft is now a worldwide phenomenon and is even used in classrooms. Monument Valley was featured in an episode of Netflix’s House of Cards. And as we’ve seen with others like Ori and the Blind Forest or No Man’s Sky, the potential for an indie title to dominate an industry event or prop up a platform has never been greater. This type of success rarely happens without careful planning. Antonsson advises developers to think about audience building right from the start of a project. With discoverability having become the top challenge for any indie, developers can’t leave audience building until the end.
“Don’t be afraid, build your voice, find your audience, show and tell. I think the team behind the game Backbone, which we signed, is a case study in how developers can do this on their own. They were awesome before we ever signed them. And then if you happen to sign with a publisher, you already have this built in and can continue to build your voice with the help of the publisher. We love seeing this and it will never be a bad thing. Start building your audience now,” he said.
Of course, this is something that an indie label like Raw Fury can assist with, but the company has been fairly selective so far, signing fewer than two dozen titles in the five years since it formed. For developers seeking Raw Fury’s help, Antonsson said that there is no one type of game that fits the mold. Essentially, it’s more about whether the Raw Fury team is passionate about your game.
“We don’t have any sort of strategy and we don’t really care about genres and mechanics. We never follow trends or try to figure out what is popular or not,” he insisted. “We sign games based on how they make us feel. Do we lean in while playing? Do they sit with us and ask us to come back? We look for that magic. And we can see that magic even in very early prototypes. So maybe, to use something that sounds like a cringeworthy cliché, we sign games with our heart and games that we instantly love and care about.
“It is important because we want the developers we work with to truly feel like we are their fans and rooting for them. It has worked so far; every game that we have published so far, except one, has broken even - and that one soon will as well. And that will mean all of our published games are creating some sort of royalties for our developers. That is awesome! Of course, there is a difference between how much and what level of sustainability it creates for them, but we try our very best to figure out ways that they all have options and the ability to go on to the next great idea they have.”
At a time when many indies are facing even greater challenges thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, meaning they can’t attend events to network or show off their projects, labels like Raw Fury can play an ever greater role in guiding developers. There have been many virtual events in the wake of GDC’s postponement, and Raw Fury was also one of a handful of sponsors for the Wings Interactive GDC Relief Fund, but Antonsson is looking at the global crisis as an opportunity to reflect on humanity as a whole rather than proffer some “expert advice.”
“I hope we can focus on the future and positive paths we can take from here,” he noted. “And I mean that more as a human, rather than focusing on the games industry. This is a trying time - a horrible ordeal - which is why I think those of us that come out on the other side have an obligation to use this moment to become closer, be human, support each other, help each other and remember that when push comes to shove, we are all stuck on the same blue ball whizzing through space with a limited time to focus on things that truly matter. Games, as a part of art, can capture our collective aspirations, hopes, fears and dreams. We can help people find meaning, like books, music and any other form of art. So let’s do that.”
It’s an incredibly scary time for people across the globe right now, especially for the nurses, doctors and health professionals on the frontlines. For those of us complaining about being stuck at home, just remember, “Games can be and are a beautiful modern addition to the tools humanity has to express itself,” Antonsson said.
When the world regains some sense of normalcy again, Raw Fury wants to be there for the indie community, to help it navigate the uncharted waters of subscriptions, cloud gaming, brand-new consoles, and more.
“We follow everything. That is kind of our job when it comes to the relationship with our developers,” Antonsson explained. “So we look at all the new things happening and try to understand their impacts. We have great relationships with the platforms, but ultimately we always have to find what is best for our individual developers. And actually, we never move a muscle toward any sort of platform or deal without them being 100% on board with it.
“Having said that, I think both cloud and - what I like to call - ‘ethical subscription services’ will see a surge over the next 12-18 months. I like how Microsoft is doing things. And Apple, with their Arcade offering. I think those are great additions to the overall ecosystem and I think they can easily become very complementary to indie developers and publishers. [The] bottom line is that these services and offerings need people in charge that love games, respect the art and truly want to see developers succeed.”
Five years is not a long time. In the world of technology and games, it can feel like a lifetime. What Raw Fury has accomplished in half a decade, rising to the level of a boutique publisher like Devolver Digital, is certainly worth applauding. And it’s been a deeply personal journey for Antonsson, too.
“Fuck yeah, it has been a crazy ride so far. We don’t really make long term plans like many other companies do. We have our tenets and we follow them. The most important of those is ‘treat people like people.’ Sounds simple enough - right? But it is incredible that this simple fact has somehow been wiped out of a lot of our interactions with each other and how we treat each other. Through shit like saying ‘it’s nothing personal’, ‘act professionally’ or ‘act like an adult’. All of that is horrible advice in my opinion, and I could probably write a couple of books about why.
“...Raw Fury is an experiment, meant to be a catalyst: we have no management structure; we take heart over process; we allow people to choose how, when and where they ‘work’, and we are already seeing this have an impact around us. So I think we’ll just keep on trucking and we definitely won’t be going away any time soon. And on top of this we get to work with some of the most talented, kind, beautiful people on the planet. I suffer from massive anxiety, and what keeps it at bay the most is the knowledge that I have had this privilege over the last five years and no matter what the future holds, this has been one amazing fucking ride.”
The level of passion and sincerity that Antonsson and his team exhibit is raw, indeed. And, as Antonsson said at the start, if more of the industry adopts a Raw Fury-esque approach because of Epic’s big influence, that’s something plenty of indies will rally behind.
For more stories like this one delivered straight to your inbox, please subscribe to the GameDailyBiz Digest!/* =$comments; */?>