We examine the challenges small and independent studios when turning their game into a physical product.
There’s something inexplicably satisfying about holding a video game in your hands. Despite the increasing digitisation of the games industry, physical games remain a prominent part of the industry’s landscape.
Indeed, physical sales actually outsold digital for the first 10 months after the launch of the PlayStation 5, according to Game Sales Data analysis. Meanwhile, the rise of indie-focused distributors like Limited Run Games and iam8bit can facilitate the physical release of interesting, idiosyncratic games created by smaller developers.
But there’s a lot to bear in mind before jumping in head first, from finding a suitable publishing partner to navigating the various challenges presented by releasing a physical product during the pandemic.
Retro 2D run-and-gunner Huntdown was created by developers Easy Trigger as a love letter to the Eighties, channelling the spirit of classic films like The Terminator. It’s perhaps only fitting, then, that it be made available physically, with a ‘premium’ retail edition containing a manual and pins alongside a collectors edition containing various nostalgic nuggets like a cassette soundtrack and a GI Joe-style action figure.
Huntdown released digitally in May 2020, to critical acclaim. Around this time, Easy Trigger started discussing a physical release with Clear River Games and Coffee Stain Studios, subsidiaries of Embracer Group (which also acquired Easy Trigger in August 2021). Easy Trigger provided assets and art direction for Huntdown’s physical version, collaborating closely with Clear River Games.
Making some of Huntdown’s more bespoke collectibles a reality proved tricky, however. Take the action figure; produced in collaboration with Californian distributors Innex, Easy Trigger produced mock-ups and concept art for the ‘John Sawyer’ figurine, as well as designing packaging and giving feedback. Gustafsson estimates that finalising the action figure took around six months - quite the time investment, and that’s before you get to the production cost.
“The initial cost to start-up the whole process, making the moulds, that is extremely expensive,” he explains. “We had to choose just one character.”
Andre Bronzoni, senior global brand manager at 505 Games, explains that the logistics of creating physical games varies depending on the type or genre of game in question, noting as an example that console gamers are traditionally more interested in physical media than the PC crowd. Publishers like 505 utilise their relationships with retailers, manufacturers and distributors to bring physical versions to life, while helping developers come up with release plans.
“That’s what publishers do best: try to actually make those things happen,” Bronzoni says. “The developer needs to focus, as much as they can, on developing the game.”
Bronzoni advises developers interested in releasing physical editions to do their research. “See what your users are talking about right now,” he says. “If they are really interested [in having] something physical, start from there.”
For Bronzoni, it’s important for developers to bring something new to the table with physical releases - although he acknowledges the logistical and operational complexity that particularly ambitious ideas can bring. For example, a piece of merchandise like a pin, or even software like DLC, can be bundled into physical releases, making them more enticing to players and retailers alike.
“That way, the appetite is right there, you just need to actually start presenting that to partners, retailers and distributors,” Bronzoni continues.
By releasing digitally first, developers can also gather data and statistics, like Metacritic scores, to showcase to potential retail and distribution partners. This post-launch approach can also be practical; for Gustafsson, developing a physical version of Huntdown in tandem with its development “would never have been doable” for such a small team. Not that demand was impacted, mind you.
For Syrenne McNulty, production manager for games at iam8bit, a standard game manufacturing cycle begins with the ‘discovery phase’, where developers send builds over to iam8bit so the team get a feel for the game, before artists are sourced to produce assets for a physical product. McNulty has insight into both sides of this equation, having worked as a producer on puzzle game Manifold Garden, which was published physically in Western markets and Asia by iam8bit and Playism, respectively.
Iam8bit produced two versions of the game: one for mass retail and a ‘boutique’ version containing a pop-up card. In addition, a vinyl version of composer Laryssa Okada’s soundtrack features a pop-up paper sculpture spanning the entire gatefold when opened, produced in collaboration with papercraft artist Rosston Meyer.
“The biggest challenge for us was coming up with creative [ideas],” Manifold Garden creator William Chyr says. “We could’ve just put out a cartridge, but we wanted the work itself to be a talking point.”
Due to the pandemic, feedback on vinyl sleeves and paper sculptures was done remotely via email, photos and video calls - a particularly challenging and time-consuming approach for these experimental designs.
“We were doing something new, which means there wasn’t a reliable digital template,” McNulty says.
Chyr adds: “We definitely spent a lot of time doing the creative side of things when we could have had [iam8bit] find us the artists.”
In a retail environment, smaller developers need to jostle with AAA blockbusters for shelf-space. This can be particularly tricky for certain types of independent games: Manifold Garden is a minimalistic and meditative experience, for example, without prominent characters that can be displayed on its cover. Chyr recalls conversations with retail-focused publishers who rejected the game because of this.
“They were like, ‘This is not something I can sell at a point-of-sale, I need characters, an immediate storyline’,” he says. “Manifold Garden is a hard pitch.”
Iam8bit ensured that its packaging was recognisable on retail shelves, with abstract art both highlighting the repeating nature of the game’s geometry and making it stand out from the crowd. The name of the game is printed in large block capitals on the spine – “You can’t miss it,” McNulty notes – while screenshots, laurels, sales text and review quotes on the back attempt to actively convey information while retaining the game’s minimalist aesthetic. A more stripped-back approach is taken for the versions sold through iam8bit’s website for dedicated fans, removing screenshots and presenting a different cover.
While Gustafsson doesn’t view Huntdown’s physical version as competing with AAA titles – observing that most people looking to buy the game physically will seek it out regardless – he does feel its cover accurately conveys the experience within.
“The game needs to be recognisable and have its identity, more than it has to shine more than another game on the shelf,” he advises.
Overall, Chyr views Manifold Garden’s physical release primarily as a passion project rather than an economical one. “In my first conversation with [iam8bit co-owner Jon Gibson], he said ‘You’re going to find better deals elsewhere if you’re just looking at revenue’. But the reason why we ended up going with iam8bit was they were interested in making something weird. If you were just making a Switch cartridge or PS5 disc, there are lots of people who can do that, but we wanted something different.”
Gustafsson feels similarly. “Making a physical edition, it's expensive, and we don’t earn that much on every single sale,” he says, noting the sales cuts taken by production partners. “It’s more profitable to sell digital copies, but the passion of making a physical [game] is totally worth it.”
For Bronzoni, physical releases of independent games remain an appealing prospect, benefiting publishers commercially while giving developers something they can be proud of. He also points to the marketing opportunities they can offer to smaller developers.
“It’s not going to be only on the storefronts that we already know like PlayStation Network, Xbox Live and Steam, but also in physical stores,” he says. “Everything’s shifting digitally and when you have your brand displayed in another store – it’s just cool to see.”
Releasing physical versions of games can also give developers footholds into physically-driven consumer markets such as Japan.
“Consumer preference in Japan is still very tied to physical media in a mainstream way that it is just not in the west,” McNulty says, noting that publishing Manifold Garden in that region necessitated releasing physical and digital versions simultaneously.
“With iam8bit, we can go for the superfans,” Chyr says. “With Playism, that’s part of the standard package, to have a physical edition.”
However, it’s worth acknowledging the pandemic-shaped elephant in the room. COVID-19 has resulted in delays to the development, manufacturing and distribution of games, merchandise and certain next-generation consoles.
For iam8bit, the turnaround time for manufacturing a game in pre-pandemic times was about three-to-four months, according to McNulty. Paper and cardboard shortages have impacted the creation of cover sheets and vinyls, while the time taken to ship components from Asia has ballooned from 20 days to up to 50 days.
Despite these delays, 505 Games’ Bronzoni feels there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
“COVID was bad in many different ways for the gaming industry, but we learned how to work around the pandemic,” he says. “Now, everything looks like we’re getting on track.”
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