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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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  • Terrible analogy (Score:3, Interesting)

    by abionnnn ( 758579 ) on Friday October 23, 2009 @06:15AM (#29843997)
    In a way, you may or may not need a publisher depending on what you're developing. A lot of the generic titles that the "industry" keeps pumping out require a publisher for marketing such a mediocre game. But then you get the unconventional games whose development is actually hampered by having a publisher breathe down your neck and make games easier for the general public.
  • by lapsed ( 1610061 ) on Friday October 23, 2009 @06:25AM (#29844043)
    Book publishers edit, ship, manage the printing of, and distribute books. They also balance the riskiness of publishing each individual book across their portfolio of books. In the same way, movie studios are good at financing and distribution, but a big part of what they do is invest in multiple pictures, so that even if one movie bombs there are always others.
    Something -- regardless of what it's called -- has to be able to hold a portfolio of games. To make informed investments, that entity is probably going to have to understand the industry. That knowledge is likely to be valuable and applicable high-level marketing and strategy decisions, and *rightly or wrongly* the investment will only be made if that knowledge can be applied, or if the investor has some power of the developers.
    Workers in other very capital-intensive creative industries -- film and television, for example -- tend to be stratified into two economic classes. People in the upper classes eventually get money and are then able to call the shots. There's no reason why the same thing can't happen in gaming. But money will, for the most part, determine who has the power.
  • Re:Father and Child? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by vxvxvxvx ( 745287 ) on Friday October 23, 2009 @06:37AM (#29844097)

    More like a car design engineer who creates a seriously hot car designed to carry a family of 4. Then due to the $300k price tag and low-price brand is forced to cut corners to get to $30k, removing most of what made the car awesome in the first place.

    If the car designer disagrees and still wants to build that $300k family car, he should quit and start up a new auto company to do just that.

  • Kinda depends (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Sycraft-fu ( 314770 ) on Friday October 23, 2009 @06:47AM (#29844131)

    Publishers can do good and bad, and have done both. Likewise developers can do well one their own, or poorly. Overall I'd say publishers are useful.

    One of the biggest things they do is provide resources to get games developed that otherwise might not be able to be made. If you are a small games studio, you probably don't have the money to work on a large scale title for a couple years with no money coming in, and additionally buy other things you may need (like if you need to hire an outside composer, because you don't have one). Well, a publisher can provide that. You sell them your idea, they pony up the money for you to make it a reality.

    Another useful thing they do is setting deadlines. If they are stupid about it sure it can be a problem, but when it gets down to it this needs to be done. You can't work on a game forever. Technology changes, you have to get it out in a reasonable timeline. While developers might get all wrapped up in their project and just want it to go on forever, publishers can be more objective and set goals. A game that isn't everything you want, but it fun and actually on the market is much better than a "perfect" game that never exists.

    Also even if a game studio totally develops a game in house, self funded and everything, they may choose to sell it to a publisher. Reason is that when a game is released there is still stuff to be done. It has to be marketed, it has to be distributed, etc. A game studio doesn't always have the staff/resources for that, so they hand it off to someone else.

    An example of a situation where a publisher was really needed was Duke Nukem Forever. While it technically had a publisher (Take Two), they weren't in the typical arrangement of funding it. As such 3D Realms could basically do what they pleased, they were footing the bill. What happened was a decade of unfocused running around and now a canceled game because they ran out of money.

    Now an example where a game was fine without a publisher would be Galactic Civilizations 2. Stardock decided that since they'd been screwed over by a publisher on GC1, they'd just self publish. The game came out in a reasonable amount of time, with a low budget, and sold well on account of being a rocking title.

    Overall, publishers are probalby useful. In part just because it creates something of a division between the creative and business sides of a game. You'll notice that even large integrated game houses often function in the developer/publisher setting. EA owns a lot of game companies, and if they wanted to they could simply make it all "EA". They would be the developers, publishers, and so on. However they don't seem to do that. They have separate internal game studios, with their own headquarters and so on that develop the game, and the EA publishes it. Even their EA label stuff is that way. EA Sports is a subsidiary in Vancouver (with it's own CEO and so on), whereas EA itself is in Redwood.

    My guess is they do it that way because it works better. The development subsidiaries are just "developers" and just worry about making the game. EA itself then worries about funding, marketing, and so on.

  • Re:Terrible analogy (Score:4, Interesting)

    by ivucica ( 1001089 ) on Friday October 23, 2009 @07:12AM (#29844237) Homepage
    By not having a publisher, you don't have a way to reach the audience. In short -- without publisher, you can usually shove your unconventional game up your you-know-what, since it won't have audience and won't sell. Without a publisher, the distributors (online and offline) tend to send you away. Guess how I know what a difference a publisher makes.
  • Re:Publishers (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 23, 2009 @07:13AM (#29844241)

    I guess it is because most works of art don't require massive up-front investment and most artists get paid based on what their works actually raised, rather than receiving a fixed sum regardless of the commercial performance of the result (unless they are on a grant, which is not a commercial arrangement). They don't have "publishers" so much as "agents".

    Also, most artists probably earn and cost a lot less than the average game developer. A $40k recoverable advance would allow a novelist to complete a novel at home, but the same amount of money would probably pay for about three months of a single developer once office space, equipment and overheads are factored in - and it wouldn't be recoverable.

    If you could hire a group of developers who were happy to not be paid at all for two years, and who would then receive an amount that could vary from $0 to $riches, and who would supply all the equipment and pay for any technology licensing required themselves, then yes, you can do without publishers. Otherwise you have to realize that the very high risk involved in developing games means the targeted returns (and control) of the publisher will have to be high.

  • by SilasMortimer ( 1612867 ) <> on Friday October 23, 2009 @11:30AM (#29846543) Journal
    Something I forgot to mention: I recently heard a quote that made me think.

    A banker can rob a farmer and no one pays attention. But if the farmer tries to rob a banker, dozens of police are immediately on the scene.
  • by jroysdon ( 201893 ) on Friday October 23, 2009 @11:58AM (#29846869)

    Have to nit-pick a few things: Prince of Persia was published by Br0derbund (ref 1 []) and The Secret of Monkey Island by LucasArts (ref 2 []), hardly any different than the current crop of game publishers such as EA, etc. Sierra Online was another of the great publishers of their day (before they were bought and turned into what we despise, but that's what happens when the original owners sell out), but then they started from the ground up as developers - and I think that's the key to "getting it."

    Developers really do have a choice, though. In the old days it was publishing under the Shareware method or fronting money yourself to get into game shops (yeah right). Today, it's the do-it-yourself model that the 2D Boy [] folks who made World of Goo used thanks to the internet and Paypal. Oh, and it's even better than that, because they can publish independently for PC/Mac/Linux and then try their hand at publishing via Nintendo WiiWare at the same time. There is minimal risk other than hard work with no profit.

    The folks that always bought the published box titles will continue to do so. The folks who went the Shareware method have found OSS and won't drift to the non-free side often (myself, I wait 2-3 years to get a Wii title for $15-20).

    I, like you, despise WalMart. As a small business owner, I get it, but as a person trying to keep expenses down, I still go to McDonald's/Burger King and partake of the dollar menu. When we "splurge" it is going to In-n-Out Burger [] (privately owned burger chain in California who treats employees good and just does it right). I actually would go to In-n-Out more and pay double for the burger if I wasn't feeding a family of 6 while on the go to football games and such and they were closer and not 40 minutes out of the way from home/games.

    But I do think really hard before shopping at WalMart, and usually it comes down to not being able to find what I want somewhere else, and not being willing to drive all over town to 2-3 stores to make 4-5 purchases. If I can, I go to WinCo [], who again, treats their employees right (interesting how they can be profitable and have an Employee Pension Plan with a Foods Employee Stock Ownership Trust - try that, WalMart).

    But that's just it, I make conscious decisions to prefer companies that are doing the right thing over companies that don't. The problem is that most American's do not do this, and they "vote" with their dollars the wrong way. If people really cared about people (cared about the employees of WalMart, for instance), we could change WalMart in less than a month with a boycott demanding they offer real health care plans, refuse to allow (let alone promote) their employees to be on government assistance by paying a real wage, give all workers who want to work 40 hours those hours. One month of a well-organized protest and people helping people coming to WalMart to understand why WalMart in its present form is bad and where they can shop for nearly as cheap, but without the economic hurt to their communities, and things could be turned around.

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