When Limited Run Games’ Josh Fairhurst made the decision to release his Vita title Breach and Clear on cartridge last October, it came from the desire to preserve something he created. What he didn’t expect was that fans of Sony’s oft-neglected handheld were apparently crazy over the prospect of new support for physical releases.
For Fairhurst and co-founder Douglas Bogart, the sale was a gamble. Limited Run, which takes after its name by offering one-time-only small batch prints of digital games, had yet to prove itself as an established physical game publisher. And Breach and Clear, which Fairhurst directed, wasn’t a huge critical success at its initial release in 2013.
Aside from providing a digital-only game with the legacy status of a boxed product, neither Fairhurst nor Bogart had any idea whether anyone would be interested. When Breach and Clear went up for sale, Limited Run sold out in under two hours.
“We did a low print run to kind of test the water and see how this game would do,” says Fairhurst, who had the initial idea for Limited Run after seeing Retro City Rampage’s developer put out a physical PS4 release that year.
“It was incredibly shocking to us,” he says. “We thought it was going to take weeks to sell out, and it sold out in no time at all.”
It seemed Limited Run could work as a concept — players did want to pay for limited edition physical releases of digital titles. And that a Vita game like Breach and Clear, which Fairhurst’s North Carolina-based Mighty Rabbit Studios had ported to PSN only a few months prior, could be so in demand was an even bigger revelation.
“At that point everybody was saying, ‘Oh, the Vita’s dead, nobody wants Vita games.’ Retail stores were eliminating Vita games from their stock,” Fairhurst says. “We didn’t really think we were going to have that level of success — within two hours those expectations were shattered.”
While Limited Run currently publishes physical editions of both PS4 and Vita games in pretty equal measure (some, like Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty and Octodad, were sold on both platforms) it’s the latter that are often higher in demand.
“A lot of times it’s our Vita games that are selling super fast,” Fairhurst says. “Vita fans are really hungry for more games and more physical releases, and nobody’s really serving them. So we’ve been able to kind of tap into that.”
Going by the company’s sales stats, the international price difference between a PS4 and a Vita makes a big difference.
“A lot of countries in South America, for example, are more Vita-prone,” Bogart says. “How much a PS4 costs versus how much a Vita costs is quite substantial, is what people have been telling me. So theyll buy more Vita games.”
“We’ve managed to really connect with Vita fans in a way that I don’t think any other publisher has,” he says. (Given Limited Run’s up-and-comer status, other game companies might do well to pay attention to the model.)
With a name like “Limited Run” it might be easy to confuse the company’s philosophy of preservation with something a little more commercial in mind. Until last week’s release of Shadow Complex Remastered on PS4, every title published has hovered between 2,000 and 3,000 copies for each console, but intentionally low-balling inventory to drive up demand or create scarcity isn’t its intention. (Shadow Complex had just shy of 7,000 copies available before it sold out.)
Instead, Fairhurst says it’s actually just a matter of logistics — since Limited Run has had a track record for publishing mostly small titles, maintaining a backstock could prove disastrous to the company, which typically fronts the manufacturing costs with Sony for developers in order to avoid making customers pre-order.
“If we had to keep going back to Sony to reorder things, eventually we’d get to a point where we’d have so much stock built up — that people aren’t buying anymore — that we would sink ourselves in unsold inventory like THQ did with uDraws,” he says.
More importantly, finishing a run and moving on to the next game means the publisher can get more titles out there, and there probably aren’t enough people to justify reprinting any one game anyway. Fairhurst uses Breach and Clear as an example.
“There’s just not that many people who would’ve said, ‘Hey I actually want this thing,’” he says. “It’s this weird necessary evil to allow us to preserve some of these smaller titles.”
Lifelong game collectors, Fairhurst and Bogart also don’t like the idea of the all-digital future, where companies can choose to pull games from online marketplaces whenever they want, or for whatever reason. The most notable example of this in recent memory is Konami infamously pulling P.T. from PSN after abruptly pulling the plug on Hideo Kojima’s Silent Hills reboot in 2014, but there are plenty of others.
“When [games] get removed, they’re gone forever, they disappear from the ether, Fairhurst says. “The only way to get them is if you had previously bought them you can download them again for a certain amount of time — in some cases it’s forever, but in some cases it’s not.”
He cites Scott Pilgrim Versus The World, Afterburner Climax, and a curious PS4 game few are likely to remember called Speakeasy.
“Speakeasy is a game that nobody knew about. It got really bad reviews, and it disappeared so quickly that nobody even knew it [was there],” Fairhurst says.
Speakeasy’s brief existence consisted of one month where it was available as a PS4 download before the developers were saddled with a lawsuit and the game was pulled.
“It’s gone forever,” Fairhurst says. “You can’t redownload it. The only way it exists is on the 300 PS4 consoles that actually bought it. And the game may have gotten bad review scores, but it’s lost forever now.”
“No one will ever get to know how bad it was,” Bogart says.
Game preservation and history, then, is one of Limited Run’s core tenets; Fairhurst says he’s kept all his old games over the years.
“I‘ve still got my copy of Ducktales that I used to play when I was three on my NES,” he says. “Having my games exist as actual physical products on a console is like a dream I’ve had as a kid. I used to draw fake covers for made-up games — it’s a special thing.”
The other aspect of Limited Run’s approach simply comes from wanting to help other developers out, especially in the case of games someone poured their heart into only to be ignored.
“Sometimes it’s two brothers making a game, and they barely made any money when it was released digitally,” Fairhurst says. “Or a guy and his wife whose game didn’t do well. And they’re pretty good games, they’re just games that nobody discovered that got in the lost in the shuffle.”
With situations like this, Limited Run starts to go beyond typical publishing.
“These kind of stories speak to us because we’ve been there are as developers,” Fairhurst says. “We’ve put our game out and had it completely ignored.”
When it comes to choosing prospective games to sign, it’s a matter of simply reaching out. Although a number of developers have gotten in touch as Limited Run has gained traction, Fairhurst and Bogart also go after companies responsible for games they love, as well — especially underappreciated ones. It usually makes for a quick agreement.
“Usually [when contacting developers] I just talk about my love for that game. I want them to know that I’m not just trying to do this for money, or capitalize on what they’ve spent their time making,” Fairhurst says. “I want them to know that I genuinely love the game they’ve made — I’m not contacting you because I want to make money off of your work.”
In fact, at this year’s E3, Sony told Limited Run that some of the developers they had published made substantially more money with the physical releases than they had digitally.
“I like to hear that because that means we helped them out,” Fairhurst says. “We helped them turn the profitability of their game around.”
In some cases, the Vita releases have made up the whole development cost for designers.
“It completely justifies the development of that port, and then some,” Fairhurst says. “That’s great.”
With the company showing no signs of slowing down, it’s a win for players too.
Photos via Vblank Entertainment, Epic Games