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Are Game Publishers a Necessary Evil, Or Just Necessary? 173

An editorial at GameSetWatch examines whether game publishers really deserve all the flak they get from gamers and developers alike. While some questionable decisions can certainly be laid at their feet, they're also responsible for making a lot of good game projects happen. Quoting: "The trouble comes when the money and the creativity appear to be at odds. ... Developers and publishers often have a curious relationship. The best analogy I can think of is that of parent and child. The publisher or parent thinks it knows best, because it's been there before (shipped more games), and because 'it's my money, so you'll live by my rules.' The developer — or child — is rebellious, and thinks it has all the answers. In many ways, it does know more than the parent, and is closer to what's innovative, but maybe hasn't figured out how to hone that energy yet."
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Are Game Publishers a Necessary Evil, Or Just Necessary?

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  • Publishers (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Canazza ( 1428553 ) on Friday October 23, 2009 @06:17AM (#29844005)

    Films, books, music and games all have publishers that push for them to complete for deadlines, yet I've never heard of an artist (painter, sculpter, whatever) pushed for a deadline due to their sponsors money issues, Certainly for public displays marking an event, but they're generally given generous amounts of time in the first place prior to starting.

    Maybe someone will burst my bubble and reveal that all artists are pushed by publishers, it's just that we never hear about it, but if not, what is so different about a painting or sculpture as a labour of love than a game or film as the same?

  • by Canazza ( 1428553 ) on Friday October 23, 2009 @06:20AM (#29844019)

    this is why Steam is such a panacea for indie gaming. It's essentially a publisher you can go to once you've finished your game and go 'lookie what I did, sell this for me please', and a similar thing for XLBA. The only problem is that they don't pony up any cash for you mid-development.

  • Innovative? (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 23, 2009 @06:21AM (#29844023)


    I'll have whatever the writer is smoking.

  • Third option (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Fr05t ( 69968 ) on Friday October 23, 2009 @06:23AM (#29844029)

    Just Evil.

  • Like anything else (Score:3, Insightful)

    by phanboy_iv ( 1006659 ) on Friday October 23, 2009 @06:37AM (#29844093)
    ...sometimes a good thing and sometimes a bad thing. Publishers can obtain and manage capital, and if they deal fairly and wisely with the devs they fund it's a good thing.

    If, on the other hand, we have something like Activision/Kotick, well, that's pretty indefensible.

    A publishing house that has degenerated to the point where it cares exclusively for ensuring its own well-being is an evil one. There has to be a symbiotic relationship, not a lethal parasitic one.
  • Re:Publishers (Score:3, Insightful)

    by ivucica ( 1001089 ) on Friday October 23, 2009 @07:15AM (#29844247) Homepage
    Games, films etc. are made to make money, not to just satisfy artistic desires. Sculptures and paintings can only sell because of some perceived originality or artistic value; they don't have continued entertainment value (and by continued I mean longer than 10min). Sponsor thanks the artist, publisher invests into the creator.
  • NEITHER! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Hurricane78 ( 562437 ) <deleted&slashdot,org> on Friday October 23, 2009 @07:21AM (#29844271)

    I am a game designer, and I don't see any point at all to game "publishers". Everybody can rent a server for a couple of dollars, and offer his game there. People can pay with paypal. It's also really easy to offer other payment options (e.g. with web shops). Then you can pay a marketing company to do advertisements for you. Put videos on YouTube, make a nice game site, maybe some local real-world ads. And a ton of viral marketing.

    What more do you need nowadays?

    Sure, you can always also put it in web shops, like Amazon, eBay, Steam, etc. But only as a second thought, because it has a big price attached to it most of the time, and you have to check its profitability first.
    That's why I never ever go to actual game "publishers". With them, you are very unlikely to be profitable at all. Because they take giant profit margins of the actual retail price. And on top of that complete insult, they also want and assume all kinds of rights, and may actually damage your business. (e.g. Don't be surprised it they loudly think about suing you for still selling the game yourself on other channels!!)

    So I call the title of TFA "game publisher FUD". Plain and simple.
    If you so much as think about contacting a game publisher, you already have done your first error. Don't make the second one.

  • by timmarhy ( 659436 ) on Friday October 23, 2009 @07:23AM (#29844285)
    uhuh. dude you have no fucking idea. sure for a website taking a few 100 meg a day from a few visitors. it gets a hell of a lot more complex when your content is pumping gigs an hour. not only that who is going to fund your team of developers?
  • by 91degrees ( 207121 ) on Friday October 23, 2009 @07:33AM (#29844337) Journal
    Yeah. The only other things a publisher can do is get shelf space in high street stores, advertising space in computer magazines, mentions in the mainstream press, show at E3 and fund development for a year, as well as hire professional web designers who know about promotion and page layout to sort out the website.
  • Re:NEITHER! (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 23, 2009 @07:58AM (#29844469)

    Well the primary reason developers go to publishers is to secure funding to develop the product. Unless you have access to vast amounts of capital or are making a small indie game how do you plan to fund development? Venture capital? It's just as cut throat as a publisher. Even indie games can cost a huge amout of money to produce. Also don't underestimate the value of a propperly organised traditional marketing campaign. Viral is great when it works, but I suspect we never hear about a great many viral campaigns because they simply fail badly.

    That said the deals publishers offer are stacked in their favour and they retain huge control of a product. The hold the purse strings and almost all of the control.

    The core problem is huge team sizes, very limited sales windows and generally limited shelf life of a product (there are exceptions) in brick and mortar retail outlets which drives up the risk and cost of producing games. Lets leave out the whole debate on weather or how much used games sales hurt developers.

    Publishers aren't evil, they are just a business that is extracting maximum profit from market conditions. Some of them can be a developers greatest allie and some of them can ruin a developer. I don't think you can tar them all with the one brush.

  • by jonwil ( 467024 ) on Friday October 23, 2009 @08:22AM (#29844631)

    The problem is the large publishers like EA and Activision and Atari (many of which also have in-house development shops) and the fact that said large publishers wont publish anything thats in any way new or different.

    What the games industry needs is publishers that are similar to what Fox Searchlight and similar studios are to the movie industry (i.e. someone willing to do smaller indy games).

    And we need publishers (and retailers) that realize that not all games need graphics that push a GeForce 9800GT to its limits, audio that is best heard on a 8.2 channel speaker setup and 5-year development times.

  • Re:Publishers (Score:3, Insightful)

    by alen ( 225700 ) on Friday October 23, 2009 @08:28AM (#29844693)

    are you naive? Do you really think the Catholic Church went to Michaelangelo and said here is a bunch of money, take all the time you need and just send a message when you're done? and if you never finish it then just keep the money?

    No, they said we need a sculpture for so and so church to be done by this deadline for some event where it will be prensented.

    I work in a part of NYC with a bunch of art galleries. there are bills to pay to keep the business going and that means you always have to have a supply of art to sell. Just like in the old days when Michaelangelo or Da Vinci had to pay their students who worked for them, buy the materials, pay the mortgage, pay the living expenses, etc.

  • Re:Publishers (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Targon ( 17348 ) on Friday October 23, 2009 @08:45AM (#29844829)

    A big issue is the costs involved with game development, and the advertising side of it. You also have to expect that when it comes to books, there ARE pressures placed on authors to release the next book in a series. Do you REALLY think that the seventh Harry Potter book didn't have the publisher asking for updates and pushing for it to be done so they could print and sell it?

    Now, in the development of computer games, you really have two types of development models.

    The first is when you have an independent developer with its own money that can get the job done from start to finish. In that case, the publishers only need to do some very basic work when it comes to the product development, like putting in the normal copyright stuff, publisher logos, etc. In these cases, the publisher only has to do advertising for the product to generate enough hype to properly sell the product. It should be noted that this CAN cost a lot of money. TV advertising is VERY VERY VERY expensive, and advertising in movie theaters and such also can be expensive. The production costs for the advertisements for TV ads as well can not be discounted. So, how many millions of dollars can they REALLY spend to hype a game before the advertising costs exceed expected revenue?

    Then you have the case where a publisher has to INVEST in the development of a title. This becomes more essential as the development cost of an all original game with engine takes four to five years, and all the programming, sound, and other development work, plus voice actors(every game has voice acting in it now for the most part), licenses for the software used for in-game cut scenes, etc. How many millions of dollars does it really take to make a game these days? How many start-ups can afford the risk of spending $10 million or more for a game that may not sell more than 10000 copies in a worst-case scenario? With this situation, the publisher DOES have to invest a bit to help the developer get the title out, in the same way that book publishers will give an advance on royalties to an author to help the author make it a full-time investment(rather than writing while working a regular day-job to pay the bills).

    The big thing is when a publisher really tries to hype a given book or product vs. these books that come out that are very good, but that no one has heard of. You will notice that you don't see books advertised very often, considering how many books are published each year. That shows the level of investment from the publisher. And, books have what, 1-4 people who do the writing, vs. how many people are needed for game development.

    So, a better comparison would be the film industry, where you have hundreds, if not thousands of people who contribute to getting a movie out the door. The thing is, film is a mature industry, so it is easier to see up front and early when a movie will be well done, or if it will be horrible. You hear from the film industry about movies that get started in production, but then die as well(if you look into it). You hear about budgets and costs in movie development. And you hear about the studios running into money issues when they release too many bad or mediocre moves in a year, and they lose money in a given year. The difference is that movie studios DO have systems in place for how things are done, and people with experience that can be called in to help fix problems with projects that are having problems.

    Now, do you see how generally independent game developers have it a lot harder? Who do you go to when you run into problems and don't have the expertise in-house to deal with them? Even companies like EA, which have a lot of expertise don't seem to have management understand how to make use of the talent they have available to them to help the smaller developers gain the experience and expertise needed to stand on their own.

    And of course, game technology is still advancing at an insane rate. Due to how much better(faster, better quality graphi

  • by Voyager529 ( 1363959 ) <voyager529@ya h o o.com> on Friday October 23, 2009 @08:47AM (#29844849)

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    Selling leather handbags on Slashdot? Seems like this AC is a perfect example. If he had a publisher, he'd have known that Slashdot isn't the place for him.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 23, 2009 @09:37AM (#29845263)

    Steam is fine IF you have money to complete your project. They aren't a publisher and do no provide completing funding.

  • by SilasMortimer ( 1612867 ) <pandarsson@gmail.com> on Friday October 23, 2009 @09:41AM (#29845323) Journal
    This, to me, is where our watered down version of capitalism fails. Now, I'm a capitalist, but I'm not one of these fanatics who call socialism evil. Socialism works if done correctly and capitalism works if done correctly. To admit the biggest failings of both systems, socialist economies tend to be too focused on a limited number of industries which might make it more difficult to withstand tough economic times, while capitalist economies tend to spread too thin among all manner of industry, perhaps creating problems with quality specializations and therefore affecting the overall view of products from those companies.

    However, as I said, they both have their place. And they're not mutually exclusive. You can have both in balance or in moderation.

    Anyway, pardon me for digressing. Going back to my original point, our version of capitalism in the US is corrupt, plain and simple. And it's not because of over-regulation. Regulation can indeed stifle competition, but it can also encourage it. And this is perpetuated by both major parties. This is a subject where we are firmly entrenched on the Right. There are Democrats who speak out for moderation, but they aren't exactly vehement about it and most of them aren't generally willing to crusade for it.

    However - and this is coming from a very unabashed liberal - our "Right" actually fails to achieve or even try to achieve the traditional outlook on economy. The supposed champion of capitalism in this country, the Republican party, has very little interest in promoting true capitalism. On the contrary, they regulate it more than the Democrats do.

    Our legislation and tax practices are heavily stacked against the small businessman in favor of the corporations. This is deliberate and our government has every reason to continue this trend, particularly because the poor and the middle class show no interest in challenging it.

    Think of this: an entrepreneur might open a small business in a poor area. The owner is local, the employees are local and the business is tailored to the needs of that community. The money made generally stays within that area and if the business is successful, ultimately proves to be a great benefit for the other members of that community. At the same time, it is greatly in the owner's best interest to deal honestly and provide quality service and goods. They simply cannot afford to screw up. And yet, these businesses are the most common targets of the IRS and local agencies like the various health departments. It makes sense for them to. The big businesses not only can hire professional accountants to keep everything kosher, they can keep lawyers on hand to help them cover their butts when the tax laws become inconvenient. The small businessman is prone to mistakes. He or she must do everything themselves unless they have a family member who can figure it out. The health department can find all sorts of reasons to fine a small business. A small business in the food industry can have an industrial sink that's an inch too narrow according to arbitrary city or state guidelines and not only receives a fine, but is given a short amount of time to remedy the situation before the inspector returns and gives them another fine.

    But the small businessmen are a feisty bunch. They'll fight through all of this and, with luck and struggle, make it to the point where they can consider making a small profit. The economy of the neighborhood inches up. More potential small businessmen are encouraged to give it a try. The local economy seems on its way to a small renaissance.

    And this is what Wal-Mart and McDonald's have been watching and waiting for. Up pops the Megalomart to take advantage of a slightly more affluent community that is still just poor enough to go for the incredible bargains on low quality goods in order to keep making it. The myth that the politicians and pundits have drummed into our head is that these monoliths create more jobs, so the small businesses be
  • by Talgrath ( 1061686 ) on Friday October 23, 2009 @10:53AM (#29846131)

    The Original DOOM and Wolfenstein had only a handful of guys making them. Seeing as how software development tools are far less primitive than they were twenty years ago when these games came out, I don't understand how they can spend millions developing today's games. Except for the graphics I don't see any difference in today's games, except that they just aren't as fun.

    If you don't like today's games, then why did you just write about a page on it? While I will admit that badly run publishers can kill great games by under budgeting or pushing the game out the door too soon, well-run publishers produce a lot of great games that people find to be fun. If you're not having fun anymore then I'm terribly sorry to hear that, but video games today have a larger audience than ever; do you honestly think people are buying these games out of charity to the companies? They're buying them because they are having fun with them; this isn't just due to the developers but also due to the publishers.

    In a way the publisher being a parent is a fairly decent analogy, just not quite right; the publisher wants you to do well so that they can benefit. I'd say it's more equivalent to the relationship between a manager and another employee; good managers want you to do well so they can benefit as well to make them look good and get the work done. Much like a manager, a publisher that doesn't put any restraint on a developer and just lets them do whatever they please they put out crap like Too Human, if they put too much restraint on a developer they get an underfunded wreck of a game. Some developers already have the proper focus to create something great others don't just like human beings; good managers are there to help their employees just like good publishers. When publishers just let developers create in a "free" environment we've generally gotten shitty games; Too Human, that X-Box game series that died after the first game came out (can't remember the name of it off the top of my head), Daikatana and others are examples of what happens when developers don't have proper focus and are basically just given money.

    As to what all the money goes to in development, an awful lot of it goes to paying employees; anyone who hasn't been sleeping under a rock for the past two decades or so knows that most development teams now encompass teams of dozens of highly talented people. The increase of personnel has largely been due to the fact that computer programming has grown even more complex (note that computer software has seen a similar increase) and that most games today have more content in them. More people creating means you need more office space and generally have more overhead etc etc. Finally, marketing has also become more necessary (though the costs have mostly stayed the same compared to inflation) and those fancy new tools for development cost money to make too.

    If you really don't like publishers just put your money where your mouth is (and maybe you already have, given that you claim you don't play new games because they aren't as fun) and don't buy any games put out by a publisher. Or if (as you may have just realized) most games you can play today have a publisher, then don't buy from Activision, EA, Ubisoft, Sega, Nintendo, Sony or Microsoft as those are the biggest publishers in America right now. But those of you reading this aren't going to do that, are you? You'll bitch about publishers whenever they nix a game you think you may have liked or drop a series you like, but ultimately you'll still go out and buy the best games out there. For all the supposed evil of publishers, they're funding, shipping and advertising most (if not all of) your favorite games and game series; bitch whine and moan as much as you like but in capitalism your vote is your money and an awful lot of people are voting "yes" for publishers.

  • Re:Kinda depends (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Backward Z ( 52442 ) on Friday October 23, 2009 @02:15PM (#29849013)

    I worked briefly as in-house game development staff in an entry level position at EA Redwood Shores. I, for one, using the example of EA, am of the opinion that the publisher would be willing to amputate a game's legs if it meant shipping on time.

    And that's not good for the developer.

    The studio I worked in, formerly just called "EARS - EA Redwood Shores" has been renamed "Visceral Games," but don't let that fool you into thinking it's anything like an independent studio. It is very EA there. It is seeped in EA there. The. Game. Must. Ship. It really amazed me how late in development they were still tooling with basic mechanics, making drastic changes to the jumping and fighting systems and then finding out it broke the level design...

    I mean, there are a lot of other problems at EA other than "it's the publisher," but the environment that pressure creates IMHO causes the game to suffer terribly. Everybody there thinks in "features." They get so compartmentalized in their thinking, the sound guy is ONLY worried about sound, the art guy is ONLY worried about art. We'd sit around talking about problems with the game design in such a way you'd think the designers were in a different office on the other side of the planet--not just down the hall. "Maybe they'll get to that, but we're not going to bring it up."

    Also, the publisher brings a lot of other baggage like dependence on focus groups. We ran focus groups for months and the feedback was taken very seriously. As a result of the focus groups, every objective point in the game had a blue glowy marker, making the only difference between our game and a Disney ride that in our game, you actually have to push a stick in the direction you want to go.

    But fuck, man! We're too busy to question it! They say, "Do this," and we're fucking ON it because it's the difference between four and six hours of sleep tonight. It amazes me the mental gymnastics that people do to justify the hours demanded of the position, for the sake of what's increasingly becoming more and more of a mediocre game the more time we spend overworking on it... "It's what you gotta do." There's this complete tunnel vision of get to the end and everything will be okay.

    I know I'm getting onto a slanderous tangent, but I gotta relate this: when I was in college, the studio head of the department I worked in and ultimately the guy who ended up hiring me came and spoke at an event at my school. The most palpable, salient statement I remember him saying was: "Once you accept that it really is all about the shareholder, it gets a lot easier."

    It still makes my skin crawl.

    The development subsidiaries are just "developers" and just worry about making the game. EA itself then worries about funding, marketing, and so on.

    I love this. I'm picturing a Dr. Strangelove-esque war room where instead of a world map, it's a huge EA logo and there's all these different people sitting around. Seated in the middle is "The Decider," who hands down deadlines from above. Around him sits all the different departments, or advisors. There's marketing, there's funding, there's HR, there's development, there's acquisitions, there's property management, and on and on and on. The point here is that development is only one seat at this table. Apt image. I like.

Make it myself? But I'm a physical organic chemist!