Insights on Indie Game Publishing from Modus Games

Modus Games' Kael Barend discussed the importance of finding the right publisher for any developer, shared the key factors the company typically looks for in the titles it publishes, and shed light on the support developers can anticipate from Modus Games.

Image credit: Modus Games/ Reply Game Studios, Soulstice


Hi! My Name is Kael (like Kale) and I work at Modus Games as the Business Development Manager. After graduating from UC Berkeley with a degree in history and education I actually did a few miscellaneous jobs in adjacent industries like board games and games journalism. My original plan was to go into teaching, but I’ve always had a lifelong passion for gaming (much to my parent’s chagrin) and wanted to follow that career path before settling on something else.

Prior to Modus, I was writing game reviews for Gaming Cypher, helping review various games released at the time. Afterward, I started a position at Fantasy Flight Games as a board game design intern. At FFG, I worked on several prototypes and helped support development for game lines like Arkham Horror, X-Wing, and Keyforge. That later led to me to being a board game developer at Floodgate Games where I helped design the rulesets for titles like the board game Holi.

While at Floodgate, I just happened to see an opening for the position of Game Evaluator at Modus on LinkedIn and applied! Having lived in chilly Minnesota I was certainly ready for a break and an opportunity to do something new. Early on the Modus role was very focused on evaluating titles submitted to us and building out an internal playtest group, but it quickly transformed into the scouting and bizdev role I currently occupy. Several of the titles we’re currently publishing are ones I directly sought for us, including Afterimage which was released this year.

Image credit: Modus Games/Rain Games, Teslagrad 2

Modus Games

Modus Games is the publishing arm of Maximum Games. We’re based in Walnut Creek in California, fairly close to cities like Oakland, Concord, and San Francisco across the bay. Maximum Games has been around since 2009 and you might know us for physical editions of games like Five Nights at Freddy's or Among Us. This continues to be a big part of our business today. Well, given that manufacturing and distributing physical items is a fairly intensive process. It was the case that we’d built out a large and talented staff of marketing, PR, sales, and more. It was thus an obvious next step to bring these services to game publishing, which we began in 2018. Since then we’ve published over 20 different games across a number of genres.

In 2021, we joined the Zordix group, and our CEO, Christina Seelye, became the new head of what’s now Maximum Entertainment. We now have several publishers and developers under our umbrella, including Mane 6 (Them’s Fightin Herds) and Merge Games (Smalland: Survive the Wilds). Because of this, we’re able to provide in-house porting, animation, and art as well as coding support.

Modus has a number of departments headed by experienced game industry veterans. These include Sales, Marketing, Art Services, QA, PR, HR, Production, Tech Support, and Distribution. The great thing about Modus's publishing is that we’re able to provide a lot more support than most other publishers. We position ourselves as providing AAA publishing to a boutique catalog of games every year. In addition to normal points like localization and QA, we can also create real-world physical/collector’s editions and provide frequent internal playtests with our group of 2000 players.

Image credit: Modus Games/The Balance Inc, Override: Mech City Brawl

Modus Games’ Projects

We’ve been steadily increasing the scope and scale of what titles we publish. We started with some fairly small-scale titles like Extinction, Ninjin, and Override (developed in-house), but quickly hit the ground running the next year with the very successful Trine 4. To this date, it’s still one of our most successful titles, eclipsed only by the adorable battle royale game Super Animal Royale. A title that still has a thriving community that we support through constant seasonal updates.

A title that I had the most direct involvement in was In Sound Mind, a fantastic survival horror game that feels like Half-Life 2 mixed with Alan Wake. At the time I was the main person managing playtests for the title, and we did a lot. In Sound Mind received frequent playtests, sometimes multiple times a month. After each test, we read through hundreds of points of feedback and condensed those into easy-to-read reports that the devs could peruse to find the most valuable feedback. I like to think this feedback helped improve the overall quality of the game, now rated 10/10 Overwhelmingly Positive on Steam.

Image credit: Modus Games/ We Create Stuff, In Sound Mind

Publisher-Developer Partnerships

It's very important for any developer to find the right publisher. Indeed, for most developers, it’s almost mandatory to ensure any sort of visibility in this crowded market. Self-publishing is really only a good option for self-sufficient and very large teams, but even that doesn’t guarantee a successful launch. There are just too many games now, and players are spoiled both for choice and for free or cheap titles.

Publishers provide a lot of services that most developers just aren’t set up to manage themselves. Trying to outsource these duties piecemeal is possible, but often proves more expensive and time-consuming. It also can’t ensure the same consistent level of expertise. To have a good launch and strong residual sales you at least need to consider the following points that most publishers are able to provide. I’m also including a few methods you can utilize to research potential partners.

  • Strong marketing and connections to streamers and game journalists

    - Check Metacritic for the number of reviews a publisher’s titles received. Regardless of the score, the more scores you see, the more buy-in the publisher is able to exert.

  • Quality and user experience testing to identify bugs and other issues

    - Comb through the Steam reviews or forums for keywords like bugs, or buggy.

  • Experienced sales team members who can negotiate deals for Game Pass, Humble Bundles, etc. And or working with platform holders (Sony, Nintendo, etc.) for their support and coverage

    - See how many platforms the publisher’s titles have launched on and what digital stores they’re available on, more is better.

  • Localization in multiple languages, and a plan to release in these regions

    - On Steam, you can view the number of languages a publisher’s titles have received in the lower right box.

  • Investment funding or minimum guarantees (money given regardless of the success of a title) to help de-risk what might end up being an unsuccessful launch

    - There’s not much you can do to determine this factor sadly, short of contacting the developers whose titles the publisher has launched.

Image credit: Modus Games/ Modus Studios Brazil, Override 2: Super Mech League

Modus Games' Criteria for Game Developer Submissions

We have a submission form on our website I suggest readers review. In it, there are several points that we typically look for in the titles that we publish.

We like to see some sort of pitch deck that lays out the key details of your title (screenshots, budget, timelines, scope, price, team composition, gameplay mechanics, unique selling points, etc.). In addition, we like to play the games we consider. Crafting an effective demo for publishers is the single most important way to pitch your game. If pitching to publishers you should keep the following in mind: 

  • Try to showcase something close to your anticipated final visual appearance of the game early in the playthrough. It need not be the entire demo, but at least one section of the demo should showcase your art, the rest can be grey-box.
  • Gameplay is king. Make sure your controls feel tight, the core systems are interesting, and that it feels novel and unique.
  • A vertical slice is a term that the demo should show some small aspect of each of the core design pillars of your game. If you’re pitching a roguelike deck builder, for example, you should be able to fight battles, build decks, and experience how the roguelike element impacts gameplay between runs.

Image credit: Modus Games/Aurogon Shanghai, Afterimage

What Developers Can Expect from Modus Games

Each title is unique and often comes to us at a different stage in development, so the level of initial support differs. However, most developers can expect initial conversations with their producer and brand manager to help build out both a production timeline and marketing strategy. We also love to get playtests underway as soon as possible so we can get actionable feedback from our partners. In these early stages, we often begin with an initial cash infusion and support building out our partner’s teams if needed.

QA typically gets involved midway through development, around the alpha-beta stage (after the prototype), helping identify bugs that can be solved early on. This is about the stage where the script for the title should be fairly far along, we typically begin translating to between 10-12 languages. Porting to other platforms will also begin towards the later stages of beta and afterward, typically taking between 3-5 months depending on complexity.

As the title is nearing completion, we’ll also begin early pitching the game to partners at Sony, Epic, etc. We have longstanding relationships with platform holders, allowing us to get titles featured on social media campaigns, blogs, in videos, etc. We’ll also be sharing the title with our streamer partners and networks, as well as with games journalism sites like IGN or Kotaku. In the lead-up to the launch, we’ll be attending trade shows like PAX, Tokyo Game Show, and Gamescom, and showing the game there. Finally, as the release nears QA will go into overdrive, attempting to identify any and all issues before launch.

Image credit: Modus Games/314 Arts, Projekt Z: Beyond Order

Current Trends in Gaming

One major trend we’ve seen is a tightening of purses. Gamers are now far more discerning with what they want to spend their money on. Players want to know they’re getting a good deal on their investment and are looking for a few things: complexity/depth, replayability, co-op functionality, and unique twists on popular genres. This trend has been fairly consistent – think how survival games have dominated Steam for years – but I think many developers have had trouble identifying it. Very often we see titles with a unique idea that just doesn’t appeal to the interests of modern gamers because of a weak genre.

Hot tags include strategy, survival, crafting, player vs. enemy, open-world, roguelikes, automation, city builder, and shooters. Certain up-and-coming genres and mechanics include extraction shooters, auto battlers, monster catchers/breeding games, life sims, titles with large numbers of units on screen, voxels, and vampire survivor likes. Developers should put an emphasis on trying to put their unique spin on these types of titles, perhaps combining them in new ways.

There are also several weaker genres I would recommend developers avoid, particularly anything with a very low complexity ceiling. Be wary of walking simulators, gameplay-light but narrative-heavy titles (like visual novels), puzzle games, 3D/2D platformers, horror games (particularly non-survival horror), arcade games – anything with a focus on time trials or scores. Think about how you can create a title that could be someone’s lifestyle game. Provide enough content, variety, and depth that players will keep coming back for more.

Image credit: Modus Games/Polychroma Games, Until Then

Modus Games' Future Plans

We’ve announced a few very exciting titles, and we have a few that I can’t quite share quite yet. Let me share some of my favs!

Projekt Z is our upcoming AAA-quality zombie FPS game. This title follows survivors of a raid on a German secret weapons base as the island becomes infested with zombies. Players will need to build and protect a hideout, recruit companions, explore and scavenge for resources, and craft ammo and weapons. We expect players to spend a lot of time experimenting with these deep systems as they tackle an expansive campaign and include wave survival mode.

My personal favorite title we’re publishing is called Until Then. This title breaks a lot of the genre rules I mentioned above, but because it’s a top-of-class narrative game we’re really looking forward to publishing it. This title follows a Filipino high school student as he meets friends, makes relationships, and generally tries to slack off. The writing is perfect, everyone feels real and believable. It also features a ton of minigames for everything from plugging in a USB stick to browsing a mock Facebook feed and browsing all the weird news articles that appear in it. Oh and did I mention that there are weird supernatural events and Stranger Things vibes?

Also, keep an eye out for our physical editions of games! Most come with cool collectibles and other merch.

Kael Barend, Business Development Manager at Modus Games

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