Over the past eight or so years, we’ve all seen a worrying increase in the number of Western game development studios going bankrupt. We’re told this is due to the economic climate and that modern games cost more to make. Much of that is misdirection and plain old-fashioned bullshit.
I should know. I’ve been in the games industry for over a decade. While I’ve spent the bulk of that time working in development, as a designer, I also had a decent spell in publishing too.
In short, I’ve been on both sides of the fence.
In the previous console generation, the size of development teams was far smaller. Because of that, budgets were, too. One major platform, the PlayStation 2, dominated the market with an immense install base. All of that meant you had great profit margins.
By “you,” I mean the large game publishers.
The orgy of cash publishers enjoyed in the PS2 era made the majority of the management in games publishing complacent. A lot of people at the publishing companies made it into positions they wouldn’t normally have achieved. They were carried there by those large profits. Basically, they failed upwards.
These days, the market is much more fractured in terms of platforms. Games cost even more to make. And something has had to give.
Unfortunately, due to the fact that we have a large number of idiots in publishing management, this means that when they’re unable to manage budgets properly—most often the result of their own interference inflating costs—they hit the panic button and shut down the studio that just tried to make a game for them.
You also have insidious shit like Metacritic score targets written into contracts. That practice is done entirely to deny developers royalties if a game sells. And that’s not to mention the fact that, even if you make something that sells hugely and reviews brilliantly, you’re still likely to get screwed (just ask Infinity Ward).
Making this all even worse, game development is misunderstood and misrepresented to the gaming public. Design as a profession is generally thought to be all about ideas (except that it’s not). Singular geniuses supposedly drive the medium forward (actually, they don’t). The lone hero myth in game design—the one that associates one game with one game designer—is there primarily to benefit publishers. Not only does it produce a potent singular PR narrative but it also keeps those who do make games from receiving any meaningful credit or visibility for what they actually do.
Publishers control the narrative of how games are made. So when a large studio goes under, it’s assumed that’s down to the studio making bad creative decisions. Over the past few years, this meme has become worryingly widespread, especially as multiple studios have gone bankrupt.
Previously, the worst idiots in game publishing could make catastrophic fuck-ups, but the profit margins would protect them. These days, there is no profit margin buffer. Instead, publishers now resort to human shields.
"The lone hero myth in game design—the one that associates one game with one game designer—is there primarily to benefit publishers."
Ever notice that sometimes something seems broken across an entire game? Blame the developer, right? Well, not so fast. It might be the developer, but, trust me, those problems are very likely a result of top-down, high-level design requests from the publisher to the developer.
To give you an idea about how bad publisher influence can be, consider this: during production meetings, publishing execs often have someone—often the developer—“drive” a game so they can see how it is coming together. The publishing people all watch and then make passive, aesthetic appraisals of active, functional aspects of a game. This is because the bulk of execs can’t and don’t want to play or understand how games work. They don’t want to play. This would be akin to editors in literary publishing being unable to read or write.
The relative ignorance of people in game publishing has been called out before. As Gabe Newell put it, gamers/consumers have a much better understanding of games than the management at publishers. It’s entirely and utterly true.
I’ve seen that much of this inability by publishers to play games stems from a general insecurity towards the medium of gaming itself. Gaming often has much of its innate worth ignored, in favor of something with more glamor: film.
Having film as a touchstone for gaming is very much a thing that comes from publishers. It’s harmful to games, but this is what many of them want.
"The publishing people all watch and then make passive, aesthetic appraisals of active, functional aspects of a game. This is because the bulk of execs can’t and don’t want to play or understand how games work."
Not only does the framing of games as film excuse this habit of making high-level decisions based on aesthetics instead of in interactivity, but it also affords a modicum of prestige via an association with a medium that’s more established. This is what goes through their heads, but, in reality, this is absolutely killing games and developers dead.
The kind of ruinous top-down publisher decisions that I’m talking about often involve how a game looks and flows. The design changes that result tend to involve the creation of rigid and extended animations, ill-placed cutscenes and, at its worst, the functional simplification of core mechanics in favor of something that looks nicer to watch. The game that we all wind up with usually plays far worse because of those requested changes.
Games are not films, obviously. In terms of their inherent architecture, they are very different. With a film you can add on top of what was already there. Add a scene here; cut a scene there. Edit the movie differently. In games, the initial architecture of the game limits what can or can’t be added after that. This is why you hear stories of Shigeru Miyamato at Nintendo “flipping the table” and starting a game that was well into development from scratch, again. While that may sound crazy, it actually shows that Nintendo understands how games are made. It shows that, in fact, restarting a project will be cheaper and make a better game than adding features onto something that turns into some kind of Franken-mess.
From what I’ve seen and heard, imbecilic publishers tend to vastly underestimate the budget actually needed to create a game of proper scope. So you often end up with a situation where a publisher’s additional requests simply won’t fit well with a game that’s been made to budget. Their changes won’t fit what the game fundamentally is in an architectural sense. Much of what breaks games is very often down to these after-the-fact changes that don’t fit within the context of how the game has been constructed.
So you have these ignorant and insidiously-motivated top-down design requests that ruin a game. When the game tanks—invariably due to said top-down design requests—the publisher puts the blame on the developer (who is often contractually bound to say nothing). The developer goes under and the publisher continues on unscathed, ready to do the same again to another studio.
The problem with this setup is that it doesn’t get rid of those who screw up in publishing. It also ruins games, as well as developers, that would have been otherwise good or even great.
"When the game tanks—invariably due to said top-down design requests—the publisher puts the blame on the developer (who is often contractually bound to say nothing). The developer goes under and the publisher continues on unscathed, ready to do the same again to another studio."
If you were thinking that this is only the case for a few publishers, you’d be sorely mistaken. There is a huge amount of movement between the publishers and, ultimately, they’re all basically the same in terms of workforce. Even those that have run a publisher into the ground find jobs again at another publisher.
Given all of what I’ve just written, what does the future hold for gaming?
We know that big budget games currently need to sell millions to just make their money back. And the next generation of games will have to leverage the increased potency of the new console hardware. The result is a dangerous mix where these kinds of big-budget games could become unsustainable with the current “talent” at publishers.
Admittedly, you have the wonderful rise of indies who publish their own games. There is also a general realization among larger developers that following the same budgetary roads so many have been going down in recent years is foolish. It’s therefore likely that publishers, as we know them now, will soon no longer be relevant. (We’re already seeing a botched transfer of some people from publishing into development. They can obviously sense what’s coming.)
If publishers do survive then they need to be managed by people that aren’t inept.
The creation of a big game must involve an informed, sympathetic and symbiotic relationship between a developer and their publishing investor. That’s the only way for a game to become a true success, but it’s not what is happening now.
What we have now is insidiously-hidden, unsustainable exploitation.