Interview: founder of Swiss game publisher Stray Fawn talks preconceptions and the indie likeability factor
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Interview: founder of Swiss game publisher Stray Fawn talks preconceptions and the indie likeability factor

Translation: Katherine Martin

It’s been a year since Zurich-based game studio Stray Fawn expanded into publishing. Technically, it’s neither the first nor the only company of its kind in Switzerland. And yet, it kind of is. In this interview, studio founder Philomena Schwab explains exactly what publishers do, why they often have a bad reputation and how they make games stand out from the crowd.

«Whenever there’s a clash of creative opinions or money’s involved, there’s potential for conflict.» Philomena Schwab has gained a wealth of experience in the 14 months since her studio Stray Fawn expanded into publishing. Since its foundation in March 2023, it’s signed three games. At the same time, the studio’s continuing to work on its own games – Dungeon Clawler and The Wandering Village – under Philomena’s direction. The success of the latter is what made the move into publishing possible, she explains. I paid the studio a visit at the Swiss Game Hub so I could meet the driving force behind the company.

Make successful games first, publish games later

Forbes 30 Under 30entrepreneur Philomena’s dream of becoming a publisher didn’t just materialise recently. «I’d wanted to become a publisher for a long time, but my business partner rightly felt that we had to focus on our main business first in order to keep it stable.» By making Niche, Nimbatus and, most importantly, The Wandering Village, this feat was eventually achieved.

Philomena Schwab at Zurich’s Swiss Game Hub, where more than 60 game developers are based.
Philomena Schwab at Zurich’s Swiss Game Hub, where more than 60 game developers are based.
Source: Christian Walker

The game’s concept – an urban development simulator on the back of a dinosaur-like creature – went down very well in Early Access. Then came a deal with Microsoft, securing its inclusion in Game Pass and allowing the studio to put enough money aside to try something new. In other words, taking the plunge into game publishing. «My business partner said, ’here’s 300,000 francs, show me what you can achieve with it’». Buoyed by the trust of her team, Philomena selected three games: Earth of Oryn, Airborne Empire and Flotsam. All of her choices were city builders. Partly because the studio had a penchant for them, and partly because they were able to put their existing press and marketing contacts in the sector to good use.

The focus wasn’t to lay the foundation to build an image as a recognised publisher. Many publishers, including Annapurna, Devolver or Raw Fury, are figureheads for a certain type of game. Annapurna’s titles are often indie games with a narrative core, Devolver often focuses on adult humour and irony, while Raw Fury has a love for the quirky and unusual.

Earth of Oryn is one of three games that Stray Fawn Publishing will be releasing.
Earth of Oryn is one of three games that Stray Fawn Publishing will be releasing.
Source: Christian Walker

Instead, Philomena sees strengthening relationships with the press, influencers and platform holders as the main goal. However, it’s difficult to do this when you only release a new game every three years, she says. You’re more visible as a publisher and can benefit from publisher sales on Steam, for example. The dominant PC platform prominently advertises these. «Unfortunately, you can only get in on that if you have more than ten games in your range. At the rate we’re going, that’d take us another 30 years,» Philomena laughs. Risk management has to be done too. «Our games have been profitable so far, but you’ll eventually have a flop. That’s just the way it is.» Philomena points out that at a time when the industry’s being hit by mass redundancies, it’s important to protect yourself.

I always say that I’d like to have as many legs as Onbu.
Philomena Schwab

Onbu is the good-natured, six-legged giant creature from The Wandering Village.

Money alone isn’t enough

It took a long time for Switzerland to get its first official publisher. Although there were early examples, such as Playables and Etter Studio, these tended to support smaller projects. Things only really seemed to pick up speed when Stray Fawn came on the scene. Before that, another attempt was made in the form of Ibex Games in 2018. Several game studios, a few members of the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK) and Philomena Schwab were involved. Due to a lack of funding, however, the project fizzled out before it could get off the ground.

It was only with The Wandering Village’s success that expanding into publishing became possible.
It was only with The Wandering Village’s success that expanding into publishing became possible.
Source: Christian Walker

It was astonishing that in one of the world’s richest countries, nobody was trying their hand at investing in the sector. Philomena saw a lack of know-how as the reason why. In fact, Straw Fawn initially had to gain some expertise of its own. One of the first lessons the company learned was to only sign games with a working demo. This is the best way to assess the potential of a game, and drastically reduces risk. «If, at its core, a game isn’t good, then no amount of marketing will help,» Philomena says. «Every game is different. Even our three city-building simulations work very differently.» Philomena’s goal is for each of the studio’s three games to be put on at least 100,000 wish lists on Steam. This would put them in a category with the most popular games, meaning a lot of visibility.

Steam wish lists are one of the most important metrics for game studios and publishers. «It’s the best way to calculate how much money a game generates,» she says, even if the result fluctuates dramatically. When a game is launched, everyone who has it on their wish list is notified automatically. Gaining visibility through certain events is also reserved for games with a certain number of wish list entries. 10,000 is the magic number that many indie studios try to reach.

Although Philomena’s preference would be to sign Swiss studios, Airborne Empire, Flotsam and Earth of Oryn are all international titles. While she’s regularly been receiving pitches since going into publishing, Switzerland is still underrepresented. Every few weeks, she fights her way through a pile of new games – even though the budget’s been used up for now.

I’m easily impressed by well-presented projects and want to say yes to a lot of games. Our game designers, who help me with the evaluation, however, are rightly very critical. I hardly get anything through.
Philomena Schwab

Even if their projects don’t get the green light, the studios value receiving detailed feedback. «And it increases the chance of the studio wanting to work with us in the future,» Philomena says.

What does a publisher actually do?

Typical contracts stipulate that the publisher fully or partially finances the project. In return, it takes 70-100 per cent of all income generated by the game until it’s made enough to cover costs. After that, it receives another 30-50 per cent, with the bulk of profits going to the studio from that point on. Stray Fawn, on the other hand, has struck more accommodating deals. The extent of the publisher’s involvement varies from game to game. As far as Airborne Empire is concerned, Stray Fawn is only responsible for marketing, so it only receives a small percentage of the income generated by the game. However, advertising and communicating with the press and influencers only form one part of the job. Publishers also build community, help with scheduling and budgeting and organise localisation and QA testing, as well as any platform deals.

Stray Fawn has a clear vision when it comes to design, voicing it to other studios when necessary. Even so, it grants studios plenty of freedom.
Stray Fawn has a clear vision when it comes to design, voicing it to other studios when necessary. Even so, it grants studios plenty of freedom.
Source: Christian Walker

Stray Fawn primarily focuses on Steam, the most popular platform for indie games alongside Nintendo Switch. This despite the fact it’s becoming increasingly difficult to stand out from the crowd there. Last year alone, almost 15,000 games were released on Steam. Consequently, Philomena says doing exclusive deals with Epic is still of interest. However, because most of the gaming community would rather have games on Steam, this often results in a huge outcry. But this isn’t a dealbreaker for Philomena: «You have to communicate clearly. You can’t promise a Steam code first and then switch to Epic. It’s better to know the platform before you announce the game. Otherwise, all the hype is followed by outrage – and that’s usually really unpleasant.» Smear campaigns against developers are unfortunately not uncommon.

Social media is still essential for publicising a game. Especially TikTok, where Stray Fawn is most active. The studio’s published several posts about its game The Wandering Village, each of which has been viewed almost a million times. However, even there, the honeymoon period has already been and gone. «TikTok is moving into the advertising phase. In the beginning, they needed as many users as possible and the traffic was free. Now, everything’s starting to cost money.» That’s why Philomena continues to advertise on Instagram, X, Reddit and Facebook. «I’m already waiting for the next platform,» says the 34-year-old with a laugh.

Since we can’t embed TikTok videos, here’s a YouTube short as an example of Stray Fawn’s social media campaigns.

The most important element is, and will continue to be, the actual game. With this in mind, Stray Fawn’s also responsible for feedback and quality assurance. It’s here that publishers get the most blowback. Though publishers often want paid additional content, season passes or live service, this isn’t the case for studios – often to the detriment of the finished product. Unsurprisingly, this frequently means collaboration is seen as both a blessing and a curse. Philomena hasn’t been confronted with this preconceived notion yet, but the issue generates fiery debate within her team.

We’ve made a name for ourselves on the back of our studio, which is why we give our partners plenty of time. The damage to our reputation is worse if a game is released on time but unfinished.
Philomena Schwab

Developers still benefit from the likeability factor, but that doesn’t mean Stray Fawn lets them get away with everything. According to Philomena, people lacking experience in game development often have a particularly idealistic attitude to scheduling. Her team has already had to dish out slaps on the wrist for this. On another occasion, Stray Fawn was dissatisfied with a game’s art style, so quickly drafted up its own designs. In both cases, the feedback was well received.

A risky business

According to Philomena, 95 per cent of all games don’t recoup their investment. This shows that no single marketing measure can guarantee success. There has to be a hook. «A game either has to have something special to make it stand out or it has to jump on an existing trend and then really deliver.» Without this kind of hook, it’s difficult to market a game. That’s why it’s so important to have a demo. Stray Fawn signed Earth of Oryn and Airborne Empire without having played one. The former had already gone into Early Access after a successful Kickstarter campaign, while the latter was the sequel to indie hit Airborne Kingdom. There’s always a level of risk, but that’s part of being a publisher.

Not everyone is as good at handling that risk. The last few months are proof of that. The crisis that’s struck the industry isn’t sparing publishers. If one goes bust, it takes a toll on contractually linked studios. Stray Fawn is lucky enough to be independent. While many companies were forced to shut down their computers for the last time in 2023, it was the most successful year of Philomena’s team’s careers to date. This was mostly down to the fact that game development is still their core business. The team’s marching determinedly towards the finish line with The Wandering Village, nearing a final release date. If that all goes to plan, Philomena will soon be able to grab her pen again and sign some new games. Preferably ones with a demo. Perhaps it’ll even be a game made by a developer from Switzerland.

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Being the game and gadget geek that I am, working at digitec and Galaxus makes me feel like a kid in a candy shop – but it does take its toll on my wallet. I enjoy tinkering with my PC in Tim Taylor fashion and talking about games on my podcast http://www.onemorelevel.ch. To satisfy my need for speed, I get on my full suspension mountain bike and set out to find some nice trails. My thirst for culture is quenched by deep conversations over a couple of cold ones at the mostly frustrating games of FC Winterthur. 


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