Following the publication of last week's "We Need Better Video Game Publishers," written by an anonymous developer, we asked our buddy Anonymous Publisher to write a rebuttal. Here it is.
You would probably expect that, as someone who has provided Kotaku with an inside look at the publisher perspective in the past, I would be predisposed to disagree with last week’s article “We Need Better Video Game Publishers." And while a heated debate to death with the “Anonymous Game Developer” would certainly be interesting to read (and I hope to meet him or her sometime in the future), the truth is that I don’t entirely disagree with their viewpoint. There are many things wrong with the game industry, and certainly publishers have their part to play. But to blame it entirely on them isn’t just wrong, it’s a little naïve.
Let’s get the simple stuff out of the way first. There are plenty of points in the article that I agree with. Yes, the PlayStation 2 era was fantastic for game development. We had a clear winner for that console generation (although Microsoft and Nintendo have more than made up some ground since then). All publishers could afford to make top-tier games, even the smaller ones like Atlus and Majesco. It was easier to make money back then, and as a result people were able to hold onto their jobs and rise quicker than they might have in a more challenging economic climate. Those same people were later able to slap just about anything onto a DS cart (preferably licensed, but not always) and make a little bit of money, so no one felt a huge amount of pressure to survive. That has all changed.
And yes, the market today is fractured. This normally would be of little concern to a publisher, since porting costs per platform are next to nothing. BUT. These new platforms (Facebook, iOS, Android, the resurgence of PC) do not require publishers for success. You want your game on the Xbox Live Arcade? You’ll need a publisher (and some will literally let YOU pay THEM for the privilege). You want to release on the latest iPhone? There’s no gatekeeper… that market is all yours. A publisher could help with the marketing, but trust me, your budget title is getting an associate brand manager at best, and about $50k max to play with. So developers are going out there on their own. It’s a tough market to turn a significant profit (which is part of the publisher paradigm), as you can see by EA’s apparent closure of Playfish. The almost complete radio silence from the other publishers on the social/mobile front should tell you one thing: they’re not making enough money in the space, so they’re getting out.
Finally, I do agree that those who work and fail in publishing find work relatively easily elsewhere. Making a game is a team effort, so I often find that people are quick to take credit for successes and blame the rest of the team (or management!) for the failures. This isn’t unique to publishers, or even to games.
So I agree: there are idiots who are working in publishing right now. I’ve worked for them and with them. But as someone who has also seen both sides of the fence, let me tell you… there are idiots everywhere.
"Let me tell you… there are idiots everywhere."
Let’s start with the beginning of the developer/publisher relationship: the pitch. A small team representing the developer walks into the conference room with a Powerpoint, some concept art, and maybe a prototype or pre-vis, and they begin their spiel. If it’s a good pitch, they’ll attempt to prove that they have a great concept, a great team, and it’s the perfect time to make this particular game.
Eventually they’ll get to the budget, at which point they’ll begin to lie.
They’ll claim that they know exactly how much this game will cost to make. They don’t. They may have made similar games, but not this one, with this exact team and set of challenges. Unfortunately, they have to project an air of confidence to get the deal signed, so they can’t speak to the truth: “We have a really rough idea of what this might cost, subject to change on what we learn in the pre-production phase.”
No one says this.
When the actuals tend to creep above the forecasts, is it because, as the author says, “imbecilic publishers tend to vastly underestimate the budget”? No. The budget comes from the developer and is validated by all management involved, publisher and developer alike. Creeping costs are common with all new product development; to lay the blame at the feet of the publisher strikes me as a bit inappropriate. And if the publisher makes a request (which is their right, as a client and the sole source of funding for the project), it is the responsibility of the developer to lay out the financial impacts of responding to that request. Too often the first a publisher will hear of money problems is when it’s too late, and the trust is broken. At that point, the publisher is keeping the developer solvent until the game ships, and you can imagine the impact this type of working relationship has on the quality of the final product.
Once you’re in full production, the developer often visits the publisher regularly for status updates. During these reviews one of the devs will “drive” the game (as the article describes), but to be honest, the execs would love to play the game if they could. Unfortunately, most builds are Potemkin villages… they work perfectly as long as you stick to a prescribed path, but as soon as you do something unexpected, they break horribly. Ask a developer to hand over the controller, and nine times out of ten, they’ll do so grudgingly at best. The execs haven’t played through a tutorial, or learned the basics, and as a result they will make the game look and feel like garbage. Is the game not good? Maybe, but more likely it’s just not ready for what is essentially a playtest.
The Good Ones
So who are the shining lights in this bleak industry? The author mentions that Nintendo “understands how games are made.” I suspect that that the author fails to understand how Nintendo makes games:
1) Nintendo will often fund prototypes for only three months at a time. If the game isn’t progressing well, they’ll cancel development and move on. Because they’re Nintendo, as a developer you take the risk. No one would do that for Activision.
2) All publishers pay a cut to first party on every game they sell. As a first party publisher, your profit margin (and thus, the amount of money and time you’re willing to spend) is much higher as all profits go directly to you.
3) Nintendo turns a profit on (most of) their consoles (as do Microsoft and Sony, at least at the moment). This gives them much more financial flexibility to work on their flagship titles.
Why does Valve spend years and years on their titles? Because with Steam, they live above the store, so to speak. They’re private and have alternate forms of income keeping them solvent. No publicly traded company has this freedom.
Speaking of Activision, everyone gives them crap for derivative sequelitis, but Skylanders is absolutely amazing. They moved into a brand new space and dominated it with a quality product, and all we hear about online is how the new Call of Duty is just like the old one. They’re funding new experiments with the profits of their established franchises, which is EXACTLY what a successful business should do.
"They’re funding new experiments with the profits of their established franchises, which is EXACTLY what a successful business should do."
And yes, Assassin’s Creed comes out once a year, but it was only a few years ago that Ubisoft took a chance on a parkour game set during the Crusades. If I pitched that in most sane environments, I would have been laughed out the door. They took a chance, and it paid off. They also took a chance on a bunch of other titles no one else played (Child of Eden anyone?), but Assassin’s Creed more than made up for it. That’s what publishers do: they take a handful of risks while they rely on the profits from their flagship and catalog titles.
But these are internally-developed publisher titles, which I noticed weren't mentioned in the article. The truth of the matter is this: it’s harder than ever to be an independent developer out there. Publishers are much more comfortable building up internal teams to handle the most expensive projects. 2K may experiment by giving Spec Ops to Yager, but Bioshock is going to stay internal for a long time to come. The amount of contracted work is diminishing, and all it takes is one big failure to shut down your studio for good.
So yes, we need better publishers. We need better developers too. Hell, let’s get some good licensors as well in there who understand how games are made, and retailers who know how to push all types of product. We need everyone to be better, because the market is getting tougher. The Facebook bubble is popping, and the mobile space is more crowded than ever. For every success story you hear, there are many, many more that fail. Publishers provide a source of income and stability for a team to work through a project, and no one is forcing anyone to take their money. If you don’t need them, great! Publish your work on Steam and I’ll pick it up when it’s under 10 bucks. But if you still have a desire to work on a huge title, on a console, that funding has to come from somewhere.
And you’d be naïve to think that millions of dollars won’t come with strings attached.