As someone who decided to pass up on the Vita physical release of Retro City Rampage when VBlank self-published the game, I remember tweeting Shahid Kamal (ex Sony) with the suggestion that “it would be cool to do limited releases of some of the bigger indie games. Where Sony limits supply – like Amiibos…”. Of course, I wasn’t the only one to think of such a grand idea, as Josh Fairhurst (of Limited Run Games) beat me to it by a mere 6 months prior – in December 2014.
Most entrepreneurs will tell you that ideas (within themselves) are practically worthless, and it’s the extent to how well they’re executed that separates successful businessmen from try-hard wannabes. But with Apple proving with its iPhone that no idea is ever perfectly conceived, and that all processes have to be fine-tuned and iterated upon, thus it happens to be the case with Limited Run Games.
As a publishing offshoot of Mighty Rabbit Studios, when Limited Run Games first started out, its main priorities centred on publishing physical copies of its parent company’s Breach & Clear and Saturday Morning RPG games. And it wasn’t until 29 October 2015 when all 1500 physical copies of its Breach & Clear “sold out in 108 minutes” that the company decided to look further afield – by honing in on the notion that an endeavour which focuses on producing limited quantities of digitally available titles is a perfectly viable strategy.
As a Vita “fan-boy” myself, I’m glad that someone took the initiative to occupy the niche collector space. And in the face of such an uncertain business model, when Limited Run Games risked “at least $20,000” of their own money to explore uncharted waters, their willingness to embrace such a risk is to be commended. Indeed, even if Limited Run Games had “failed”, it’s re-assuring to know that their “failure” (like all failures) would never have been permanent, but a mere life-lesson in disguise. Better to be the man in the arena, than some heckler whose “unexamined life isn’t worth living”.
And so it’s the case with Josh Fairhurst – one half of Limited Run Games – who was kind enough to be interviewed, and whose Xenodrifter title releases in a few weeks. It’s also nice to know that as his company goes from strength to strength, that Sony has sought to get involved, with the company endorsing (and teaming up with) Limited Run Games for the release of Cosmic Star Heroine later this Summer. See… it only took Sony a year to realise that it’s a good idea to publish “limited run games”. And on that note, it’s time for the interview. Enjoy!
Limited Run Games is a publishing offshoot of Mighty Rabbit Studios. What was the reason for having a separate publishing company to Mighty Rabbit Studios, as opposed to publishing all of your and your licensed partners games in-house as part of Mighty Rabbit Studios?
I didn’t want to take credit for any of our third-party developer’s releases. Publishing them all under Mighty Rabbit would create confusion that I wanted to avoid. Developers work incredibly hard on their games so I believe they deserve all the credit they can get.
How did you get the idea, and what was the inspiration for making limited run print copies of digital only titles?
I’ve been collecting physical games since I was a kid. I still have all my original NES games and I’ll never part with them. Game collecting is an important part of my identity and always will be. I hate that games are moving towards an all-digital future and I’ll do anything I can to fight back. I’ve also been developing games for several years now – all of my releases were digital only and that really pained me.
Digital games can disappear at any moment. Preservation and legacy are an afterthought in the digital era. I hate that as much as I hate the approaching all-digital future. Limited Run is me fighting back and preserving digital games in a physical form – it’s my attempt to push back at that all-digital future.
I got the idea, in part, after seeing the success of Retro City Rampage (self-published by vBlank) on PS4. If you dig up the CheapAssGamer thread on that release, you can actually see the where I essentially came up with Limited Run.
What is the process of gaining approval from software publishers and developers, and what hurdles do you have to overcome when producing physical print runs of games that are only available digitally? What is the process from initial certification to final print run?
Getting developers on board is the biggest hurdle. It’s not much work but it means having to go back to a game that a developer may have already moved on from. These are games that have made millions of dollars digitally and we’re practically begging them to go back and work on them again to make $100,000 more. It’s silly, but some developers don’t see that as worth the time – literally four hours of work to earn $100,000. It’s ridiculous, but that has been our biggest hurdle. Lots of really great games will never hit disc because of this silly little hurdle.
The process for certification is actually no different than digital. Most disc titles operate functionally the same as their digital counterpart since the game is usually installed from the disc to the hard drive.
With the frequency of physical releases for games (particularly indie titles) having curtailed quite considerably over the last few years, why do you think game publishers are so hesitant to offer a physical alternative even though the resurgent interest in vinyl proves that there exists a sizeable amount of people who prefer collecting physical media as opposed to downloading digital content? Why do you think the idea of releasing low quantity print runs of games hasn’t been explored more fully – particularly with platforms like Sony Vita – and isn’t an industry-wide practice when companies such as Nintendo and NISA (in controlling the quality and quantity of their limited editions) have proven that there is a certain desirable cache associated with products that have their physical releases conform to stringent company imposed regulation(s)?
I think the bigger companies look at a release that could only generate $100,000 and scoff. I guess they’re used to pulling in millions and doing small runs like the ones we do just wouldn’t be profitable for their bottom line. I’m willing to bet companies are taking note of what we’re doing, though, and hatching plans to do something similar. I’d be shocked if no one else tried to compete.
Limited Run Games is beginning to get increased exposure in the games community and has been able to secure future releases such as Volume and Cosmic Star Heroine. However, with Retro City Rampage having been self-published by Vblank, how confident are you that smaller developers and bigger publishers won’t just appropriate your idea for their own use? What steps are you taking to incentivise game creators / publishers to work with you so as to secure high profile releases?
We can’t stop other people from stepping in and doing their own thing but we can build ourselves up as the market leader and de facto choice. There is a reason Humble Bundle is so well-regarded versus other bundle sites. We can be the Humble Bundle of this space – we will be – creators will hopefully pursue a release with us versus others because we have an established market and several past successes. There are no unknowns when working with us. We’re taking steps right now to sign the best titles out there and to establish relationships with the top developers and publishers. We don’t want to leave anything but scraps for competitors.
That said, as a compulsive collector myself – I understand that there is room for others in this space. I’m going to buy any limited release I can get my hands on. I don’t think competitors would stop each other from being successful. There just can’t be too much saturation or customers will become torn about where to spend their money. I think, dollars to doughnuts, customers who have already been buying Limited Run releases will always pick us over a competitor because they’ve already started collecting our releases and won’t want to compromise a full set. I know that’s how I’d feel.
With the cost of licensing content for physical release, how do you ensure that the model of producing limited physical print runs is both financially viable and a sustainable business model from the perspective of both yourselves and the original developer / publisher?
We have to make sure that we print the right number of games. It’s a delicate balance. They have to be limited in just the right capacity – not too many, not too few. If our releases become too easy to get, demand will fall – if they’re too hard to get, we’re missing out on sales. There is a really fine balance in gauging numbers. I think we’ve been OK so far but this could get tricky as we build up our following. We obviously don’t want to lose out on revenue for ourselves or our customers.
On the other end of the spectrum, and assuming that game companies start bombarding you with requests to publish their digitally distributed games, what factors determine as to which games you produce physical copies of? Given that you’re limiting the frequency of physical releases to around 12 per year, how will you cope with the increased demand, and stop top-tier game companies from walking away and partnering with alternative options if their products don’t fall in line with your plans?
We don’t plan to let any amazing games walk away – we’ll shuffle the schedule around and figure out how we can pull it off. If we have to release three games in a month, we will. We don’t want to saturate the market because we understand people have limited funds, but if a good game is knocking on our door – we think fans will appreciate that we have to stretch to three releases sometimes. If things get busier than that, we’ll just have to figure out how to make it work!
What has the fan response been like and has the demand been stronger for physical releases on Vita or PS4? Why do you think this is?
The response has been phenomenal. People are fed up with digital only releases as much as I am. When Saturday Morning RPG went up, we thought that demand for PS4 was higher so we printed way more PS4 than Vita for Oddworld. When Oddworld came out, it seemed like demand was higher for Vita. Futuridium proved that demand seems to actually be pretty equal but people will gravitate towards whatever has the lower print run.
Why do you focus exclusively on Sony platforms (like Vita and PS4) as opposed to Microsoft, Nintendo, or even PC? What about consoles that still have third party games being released for them and have niche appeal or are considered retro (like Wii U and Dreamcast)?
We’re focusing on Sony because they’re open to small print runs – the other platform holders are not. On PC there is a different market for collecting. It’s hard to explain but what drives me as a console collector doesn’t necessarily drive PC collectors. Consoles and handhelds have an official library that always has a beginning and an end – there is a finite collection. You can collect everything on a given platform – you can’t do that on PC. There is also a gatekeeper in the platform holder whom can say “no, you can’t release this or that and you can only do it at this quantity”. It raises the barrier to entry which makes console and handheld releases far more appealing to collectors. On PC, any dev can burn their game to a disc and say “It’s limited to this one copy” – but who cares? In twenty years, no collector will be seeking that one disc to complete his PC collection – because he can’t actually complete his PC collection. PC collectors are just a whole different market. IndieBox is doing a phenomenal job on that side.
Even though your efforts are largely concerned with indie games, have you considered working with major publishers for physical releases of their digitally distributed titles? What difficulties prevent you from pursuing this path?
Yes. Larger publishers won’t relinquish manufacturing or publishing duties to us so the deals end up being structured as distribution deals rather than traditional publishing deals. These are expensive. We’re pursuing one right now and will probably need to take out a loan to pay for it.
In future, will your efforts to manufacture physical copies of digital games extend to localising and publishing games that have been previously unavailable in the West (ie much like what GaijinWorks does with Japanese games)? What about ensuring that the games which you publish are suitable for non-English speaking audiences? Will you incorporate language options such as German and French etc? How would you do this?
We’re going to leave localization and publishing to outfits that are more fit for it than us. If we ever start having an excess of funds, I could see maybe pursuing localization but honestly, it’s just more safe for us to continue down the path we’re on.
Would you consider porting games across to different platforms and doing physical print runs for the platform that the game was ported across to (ie like bringing over PC classics such as Stardew Valley and Undertale to PSN and doing physical print runs of the games on PS4 and Vita)? What obstacles would you need to overcome to achieve this?
We’ve been doing porting work through Mighty Rabbit and hope that some connections we’ve earned through Limited Run will bring us work like that. There aren’t really obstacles to that, outside of getting devs on board. Their games need to be fit for the platform, though. The Vita is, unfortunately, fairly underpowered in this day and age. It basically has the guts of a less powerful iPad 2. Impressive in 2010, but lacking today. Many games just couldn’t run on it unless they were rebuilt from the ground up for it – which just isn’t financially feasible in most cases.
Much like GOG does on PC, would you ever consider re-releasing games that are now out of print and not available digitally – like doing a physical release of Squaresoft’s / Square Enix’s PS1 classic Einhander? What about releasing a physical compilation of old Lucasarts point and click adventure games? How easy do you think this will be?
Licensing would be the biggest hurdle, but that is actually something we want to pursue. I’d love to work out deals with publishers to reprint a limited run of out-of-print PS1 and PS2 games. Sony still allows publishers to manufacture those so it wouldn’t be incredibly difficult for the publisher. We just have to convince them that it is worthwhile.
What is the one digital release that you would have most liked to have done physical print runs of, yet weren’t granted permission to do so? How would you have done things differently to secure its physical release, and what lessons have you learnt going forward?
Unfortunately, I think it’s bad form for me to mention which developers have refused to work with us. There is a big one with a highly requested title and it really pains me to know that it won’t happen. It’s a game that really deserves a physical release and we were told they had no intention to ever return to the game to work on it for further distribution. I think from a preservation standpoint this is really shortsighted. People will have to pirate their game to play it on PS4 and Vita in 2030. It’s ridiculous that that should be the fate of an award-winning game. Sadly, that’s the way the news goes.