Rebekah Saltsman loves making games. Enough so that even though she and her husband Adam have a successful indie publishing business in Finji, they still want to make time and space for their own projects where they can. Even in spite of an industry that’s growing increasingly complex, busy, and wildly, wildly expensive.

For instance, in 2019 they released post-apocalyptic strategy game Overland across mobile, PC, and console, all while juggling the publishing of Wilmot’s Warehouse, various platform releases of Night in the Woods, and presumably hashing out the terms that would see them publishing Chicory: A Colorful Tale — announced early the following year. And now, in 2021, with Chicory out the door, Tunic on its way in March, and I Was a Teenage Exocolonist and a project from The Glory Society in the works, Finji is quietly staffing up and getting to work on another internal project that we’ll see…eventually.

Balancing the two sides of its business can be challenging, Saltsman tells IGN. Especially because even though they love publishing, all the time they spend doing publishing with Finji is time not spent working on their own games. And it’s a lot of time, too, because of how hands-on Finji is with design mentorship and support to its studio partners during development. So Finji is choosy about its projects, she says.

But still, it’s those publishing projects that help Finji remain relevant and sustainable – meaning no crunch and a good work-life balance for its team – between the games it makes itself.

“In order to be sustainable, you have to be relevant,” Saltsman says. “At least that’s how we view it. And a lot of the publishing stuff helps modulate relevancy year after year. A lot of indies launch a game and then disappear for three years, and then come back and launch a game. And from the outside, from a public standpoint, that’s just not a big deal because it’s hard to develop fan bases anyways.

Five years ago, I [could] make a game for a million dollars. And that was crazy then. [Now] I’m like, ‘I can’t make this for under four [million]’.

“But from a bizdev or publishing side of things, it’s actually really hard to disappear for two years, and then come back to the industry again, and be like, ‘Hi, guys, I got a game.’ Because you’ve missed all of these small gradual shifts that have happened. And at some point, the game industry took a hard U-turn and is now heading in a different direction…it’s completely changed three times over since you last launched. So, publishing means that we’re never out of touch.”

Saltsman’s efforts to stay in touch span both understanding what genres, mechanics, and ideas are “in,” but also recognizing other, broader industry trends. For instance, she says that one of the biggest challenges facing the indie space right now, developers and publishers alike, is how wildly expensive everything’s gotten.

“Our budgets are ridiculous now,” she says. “Five years ago, I’m like, ‘Oh, I can make a game for a million dollars.’ And that was crazy then. And [now] I’m like, ‘I can’t make this for under four [million]’, which is crazy because it’s so much money, and then you do the math on how many units that is.”

She says that this is exacerbated by the fact that small games have an unspoken “cap” on how much they can charge, simply because their games are indie. They can charge $10-$20, generally, but depending on how much platforms take, the folks on the other end only see 70% of that, not to mention all the other cuts involved. And if they spent millions making it, it’s tough to earn that back and make a profit even for the most successful indies – which are few and far between.

“The number of indies that hit 100,000 copies is still a very, very, very small fraction. So, that’s what we’re bumping up against. Things take forever to make. And it’s really, really, really hard to cut graphical corners or polish corners. We don’t have 15 environment artists to fill up this beautiful, lush world. So, how can we do it?”

Aside from increasing expenses, Saltsman describes another ongoing trend she’s observed over the years: the expansion and contraction of the industry in repeating cycles. As new hardware comes out and games with massive budgets are funded, but then over time those budgets shrink because no one is trying to fill up a platform store and more AAA games have launched to sell systems.

The number of indies that hit 100,000 copies is still a very, very, very small fraction.

She’s usually delighted to see new funding for indies especially at times like now, but says that even with recent efforts toward transparency, there’s a lot of predatory indie publishing contracts out there that demand IP rights, take large percentages of revenue, or otherwise screw over indie developers. Some small developers are happy to take those deals if it’s the only way to get their game funded or sometimes even seen in the crowded indie space.

“Just with publishing in general, I think a lot of people see the dollars that it could make and not the work that it takes,” she says. “So, my cautionary tale for anyone who wants to be a publisher is: a lot of crappy publishers have existed. And if you don’t do your homework, you are going to be one of those crappy publishers who exists. You don’t want to be that person. So do your homework and do right by the people that are entrusting you with their life’s work…They took years to make it and you just can’t treat that callously. You have to respect the craft. If people do it right and respect the creators, and the work it took to make it, those are the publishers that I think are going to continue to exist and do really well.”

Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.

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