Reverb Publishing interview with CEO Doug Kennedy
by Vito Gesualdi & Traci Behringer
These last few months have been a definite boon for the video game industry, with over a dozen triple-A titles helping part American citizens from their hard earned cash (and leftover holiday giftcards). Looking over the release schedule, it's hard to not notice a trend: a fifth Elder Scrolls title, the eighth Call of Duty, a sequel to the thirteenth Final Fantasy. Though the technology behind games is getting ever more powerful, the big publishers have been less and less willing to throw their support behind new IPs. After all, when you're sinking millions of dollars into a game's production, it's much more comforting to chase the guaranteed return on a new Halo, much like how the high production cost of 3D movies means we'll likely never see the technology applied to anything more complicated than Pocahontas 20XX.
This is why small digital developers are so crucial to the industry right now. Much like the darling indie filmmakers who work outside of the soulless Hollywood money machine, these bite-sized studios are often the ones pioneering fresh new ideas, rather than simply contributing to the glut of hyper-violent war shooters and uninspired God of War clones. Unfortunately, such developers are usually forced to rely on the aforementioned big publishers, who in addition to taking a large portion of the profits for themselves, often fail to properly promote these digital titles, too busy planning the major ad campaigns for their own brand cornerstones.
Reverb CEO Doug Kennedy with his special lightgun-enabled Galaga machine
This is what makes Reverb Publishing's model so interesting, a publisher which not only ensures that their clients maintain ownership of their IPs, but also promises to give each title the promotion it needs to succeed without claiming all the money for themselves. I recently talked with Reverb Publishing CEO Doug Kennedy to get a better idea of his company's model, and find out why he wants to turn the tables of the industry and put the developers back in power.
GameZone: How are you doing?
Doug: I've dusted off my soapbox, I'm all excited to talk about developers!
GameZone: You're going to be like Steve Ballmer? Developers, developers, developers?
Doug: I've been a big fan of developers for the past 15 years since I've been in the industry, and I'm tired of them getting checked in the closets and being pushed down by publishers, so we’re taking a new approach.
GameZone: So what exactly is Reverb Publishing?
Doug: Before I got into the video game space, I was in the music industry and working with the guys at Red Octane and Harmonix; we thought doing a game like Guitar Hero would be a great idea, and obviously it turned out pretty well! So we [Reverb Communications] handled all of the sales, marketing and public relations for Guitar Hero I and Guitar Hero II for Red Octane. We continued to work with Harmonix (...) and Reverb handled Rock Bands 1, 2 and 3, Beatles Rock Band, AC/DC, Green Day and Dance Central.
Reverb Communications got their start doing the marketing for Guitar Hero
But back in about 2008, 2009, we started to see a huge trend; working with so many developers, we noticed that the digital marketplace was really exploding, but what we also noticed was that a lot of developers had not made money on iOS and had not made money on some of the digital platforms, and it wasn’t that they were making bad games — they just didn’t have the chops to get through the PR, the marketing, the first party, so we started a very different and unique publisher called Reverb Publishing, with its focus 100 percent on digital publishing services.
The model is very different; we don’t even like using the word “publisher,” because it comes with a negative connotation, the way developers view publishers. We really throw our model on its ear. We guarantee that every deal that we sign, we allow the developers to keep their IP. Number two: Everything we do with them guarantees that they make the lion’s share of the revenue on every game we publish with them.
We saw other companies saying that they were digital publishers, but what were they really doing? They were writing some press releases and doing a marketing program. We took a very different approach: We went out and we secured our publishing licenses with the major platforms, we hired producers and brought the producers in-house, we pulled the best public relations and the best marketing people out of Reverb Communications, and we said “Look, let’s make this real simple for developers; let’s give them the means to be able to focus 100 percent on their efforts on building the best possible game, and let’s go ahead and handle all of the rest of the elements that are in place to get the game to market.” And so you add all that together with them making the most money, them owning the IP and them taking the games. It’s a win-win for everybody.
GameZone: And you guys throw your weight behind getting it noticed and making sure that it gets those sales?
Doug: Well, it’s much deeper than that. Like I said, we have a producer on board, so we handle all the production issues. We work directly with the Sonys and the Microsofts, the Steams of the world to make sure that we go through certification and lot checks and QA testing and ESRB and all the things that developers [usually] have to apply a lot of time to, where, if that time were better spent, better directed towards building a better game, they wouldn’t be worried about that. Now, normal and traditional publishers, the big guys — that’s the way they approach games, but the difference is they’ll take 90 percent of the game's revenue and promise a 10 percent backend that the developer never gets to see, and that’s not how we run our business.
My attitude is: If a developer is worrying about money or worrying about passing and going through certification or QA, they’re not worrying about building a good game. We want them to not be worrying about making money or paying bills or how they manage their portfolio; we want them worrying about building good games.
GameZone: I definitely see the benefit, especially to developers, to have somebody who can figure all these elements out for them, and also aren't interested in grabbing all the ownership rights or taking all of the money. But isn't it hard for you to resist that temptation? To say “we could be taking more of the revenues from this game," knowing a lot of the other publishers would happily take that money?
Doug: Yeah, and I totally see your point in that. Here’s our mindset: For far too long, developers have had the shit kicked out of them, and they’ve been beaten down by publishers, and so whether it be publishers that either take their IPs, or don’t give enough money, or just give them enough breadcrumbs to survive to get to the next game where they beg for another contract, it’s a bad model that’s killing this industry.
The way I view it, if you got rid of every publisher in this industry, you would still have video games coming to the consumers, but if you got rid of every developer, there would be no more video games, and so my point is that we’ve got to understand that these guys are the passionate people behind the game creation, the guys who come up with the ideas; they don’t need to be pushed into a closet and told to hand the code through the door and keep their mouth shut anymore.
I understand where some of the big publishers say “Look, we’re doing a whole hell of a lot to get this game to market,” but we really look at it from a holistic standpoint. I know what I’m putting forth, and I know what I’m doing in terms of the added value I bring in getting the game to market, but the developers are the ones creating it. I should be paid, but not at the level the developers are paid; the developers are doing the work.
GameZone: That’s a pretty noble standpoint to have, a different approach; do you think it’s working? You guys obviously have a big hit in Dungeon Defenders.
Doug: Look, I can absolutely comment on Dungeon Defenders, but I think once again the point about Dungeon Defenders, I think the most important aspect is [that] we had a long-term relationship with the developer, and it would be foolish of me to stand here and keep credit for that game and say, “the magic sauce of Reverb Publishing is the reason this game succeeded.” I think I used this on another interview a week or so ago, I kind of view ourselves kind of like a concert; I’m the guy who sets up the stage, puts the microphone on the stage, I make sure the sound system works, I open the doors and let the audience in, and the developers, they’re the artist. They walk up on the stage and they perform, and that’s really all. Nobody takes notice of the roadie that’s behind the scenes making things happen, and that’s kind of where we sit.
Dungeon Defenders is one of the most notable games published by Reverb
We don’t need the attention; it’s not about us — it’s about a great development team (...) companies like Lukewarm — we just signed a contract with a game called Primal Carnage, which is a dinosaur versus humans game. Take a look on YouTube; we got 300,000 hits when we put the trailer up. It’s an unbelievable dinosaur game, and so it’s games like those that we’re really trying to take from an independent standpoint, getting the audience and the consumers to know they’re coming.
GameZone: Do you ever worry that another publisher is going to come in and try and kind of steal [these developers] away from the Reverb model?
Doug: It’s gonna happen. Once again, it would go against the grain of what we’re trying to do if I tried to lock these guys down and say “you’re not allowed to go work with anybody else.” I expect at some point these guys will walk away, but ultimately, they’re going to come back to us, and we found that with the Trendy guys. Initially when I started working with them, they had a game called Cell Factor, which got taken over by Ubisoft. They worked on a game called Monster Madness, which ultimately got published by Southpeak Interactive, and I helped get their company sold to Ignition Entertainment. After all of those deals, where are they? They’re back working with Reverb Publishing.
So my point is that I’m not never gonna hamstring somebody from wanting to go look and see if the grass is greener, but ultimately the way the big publishers run their business, it’s gonna force those types of developers to come back to work with companies like ours. Big publishers understand the retail model, they understand how to build IPs up and then ultimately bleed them dry, and they don’t really handle these independent developers they way that they need to be handled. The independence can either be a big fish in a smaller pond or a small fish in an enormous ocean.
GameZone: It seems like the indie gaming movement is something that can benefit from something like Reverb’s model.
Doug: That’s pretty much who we are working with. I won’t say that there aren’t some larger developers we’ve been in works with, most notably 2XL, who are former Rainbow Studio guys, and they’ve done 20 racing games, and all the offroad titles we’re publishing on PSN and XBLA in March. We have Jeremy McGrath offer-up coming, and these guys are as seasoned and professional as you’re going to find in terms of developers, but I think they just like the model that we have because, once again, it’s about giving these guys time and attention, not doing a weekly call for a half hour with some inexperienced public relations and marketing team, but having this seasoned professional agent on the phone with them five, six, seven days a week, making sure that we’re crossing the Ts and dotting the Is. And that’s the level of attention that they want.
GameZone: And that they need, especially because [with] a lot of these smaller guys, you don’t even hear about half the stuff they’re making because there’s nobody out there pushing what they’re doing.
Doug: Yeah, and let me tell you the worst case scenario here is that you got a development team that spends 12 to 18 months building the game. You have a 12 to 18 month project that gets a month and a half of support from these big publishers.
When we build a program, 30 percent of our program takes place in the 6 to 12 months prior to the title going up on PSN, Steam or XBLA. Seventy percent of our programs happen post-launch with the supported DLC, community programs, social media, Twitter feeds. It’s just a different mentality, and it’s not one that big publishers will ever understand anytime soon.
GameZone: You guys are obviously singing the praises of the digital download space. What is it about digital downloads that you think is really the new market to focus on?
Doug: Look, retailers have done an excellent job of really killing off any opportunity for small companies to come to market. You’ve got price protection, returns, co-op, MDF, a minimum of 50,000 unit orders by Sony and Microsoft to get the disk space games to market, and all the sudden, your ballooning budgets are going to the millions.
I really blame it on the retailers; retailers are limited on space, limited on creativity, and they don’t want to have anything to do with any new IPs … unless it’s coming from a massive AAA publisher that’s going to put a $5 million television campaign behind it, and our creativity and innovation in this industry is not going to come from Guitar Hero 17. All respect to Activision and the Activision World, but nobody wants to see another aged rock artist marked out on the video game space to talk about Guitar Hero 17; they want to hear what the guys at Super Meat Boy are doing, what Dungeon Defenders and Trendy guys are doing, and that’s where the innovations are really being driven in this industry. That’s where Reverb Publishing comes in. We’re 100 percent behind these development teams.
Doug points to Super Meat Boy creators Team Meat as developers worth getting excited about
GameZone: And do you think that this innovation that you guys are pushing, is this going to be the new kind of future for games, that we’re getting away from the big name, stagnant publishers that can only make a couple of blockbuster hits and we’re going to see this kind of burgeoning movement for these smaller developer-driven titles?
Doug: Yeah, I think it is, and I kind of view these big publishers like the venture capital model. You know, for a long time, the VC model worked really well, and when the money was flowing, things were great. They’d invest in ten companies, one would succeed, two would break even and the rest would fail and they’d call themselves successful business people. From my standpoint, that’s kind of how these big publishers operate. They stick their toes in the water of social games, they try to get into handheld, they’re looking at iOS; they’re doing all these things but not really doing them well.
Every single title that we work on, we have to succeed with because it’s not about dusting something off, it’s about really figuring out “Can we launch and game and title that’s going to have an impact on the developer?” If we fail, that developer could potentially go out of business, so the attention, the time, the resources and the professional understanding about how to take a game to market really comes to play when we work with that development team.
GameZone: Where do you see the future of the game industry, and do you think Reverb will be a part of it?
Doug: Well, I’ve been part of the gaming industry now for 15 years. I love this industry, and I hope I’m a part of it moving forward. I’d love to think that Reverb Communications as an agency and Reverb Publishing as a publishing house is going to be a part of it. We like to think of ourselves as kind of leaders and so now it’s a little bit about leading our developers, but also listening to them and finding out what’s important to them.
GameZone: I’m gonna give you your soapbox moment: I’m a small developer trying to figure out what to do with my game. Why do I bring it to Reverb?
Doug: If you take a look back over the last five years; there are a lot of really, really good games that have come to market but haven’t gotten the attention that they needed. We take a look at games that we feel should have been AAA titles from a digital standpoint, but unfortunately the developer knew development but didn’t know PR.
We’re not going to take your IP, we’re not going to take the lion’s share. I don’t understand development, but I know PR and marketing and how to do advertising. We know how to do production. Let us be the experts on our side of the fence, you be the experts on your side of the fence, and we’re going to make you a rock star in this industry.
GameZone: I can hear the passion, I really do hear it.
Doug: I want to see nothing more than to see the tables turned in this industry where the publishers are having to talk with their tails between their legs and go to these developers that have the power, the money, the libraries and intellectual properties and these publishers going “Look, let us help you go to retail here, we’re going to put a 15 percent deal on the table for you.”
Doug is gunning for the big publishers & their stale retail models
GameZone: You’re really talking about empowering developers, which is what the industry really needs at this point.
Doug: Well, like I said, you wipe every publisher off the face of the planet, and you’re still going to have video games.
GameZone: What you guys are proposing is the dream where the creators are the ones being rewarded.
Doug: It’s happened a little bit; the big guys have that power in the movie industry, the musicians have that power all day long in the music space, and when did that power really shift? When Apple and iTunes came out. It really shifted when it went digital and record stores became less important, and I think we’re seeing that right now with the Best Buys and Walmarts and the Electronic Arts of the world; as the power of those retail locations start to diminish, and the digital aspects with Steam, PSN and XBLA start to take off and become more prevalent, the developers will less and less need those publishers.
GameZone: It’s going to be an interesting paradigm shift, to be sure.
Doug: I am so excited for it, I can’t even tell you. I hope we’re in the mix, and I hope developers can see the value we’re bringing to the table.