October 22, 2009 12:00 AM | Simon Carless
[In an editorial originally published in Game Developer magazine magazine's October 2009 issue, editor-in-chief Brandon Sheffield considers whether the "evil" part of "necessary evil" really applies to game publishers, specifically discussing U.S.-based publishing processes.]
Publishers. Are they a necessary evil? Developers seem to portray them that way at times, and even the "necessary" part goes away in the indie and online spheres, where a developer can self-release. But evil? I'm not sure.
It's often been said that publishers are only out to make a buck, and the larger they get, the more that can be true. Take, for instance, this quote from an interview I did with Sierra stalwart Mark Hood about his time at Vivendi in the early 2000s:
"It basically became sitting down on a panel with eight people, probably three of whom were from the game industry, and the other five were either from a cosmetics company or hair color or water and power company, and they would be approving our games. It was like the same questions would come up every time. 'Well, how is this like Diablo? Tell me how this is like Diablo.' 'Well, it's not like Diablo. It's not at all like Diablo. It's completely different.' 'Oh, well, no. You need to give us a game like Diablo.'"
The situation has hopefully changed since the Activision merger, but in that scenario, the game is seen in terms of numbers. How much will this make us? The larger a company, the more likely it is that your executives will think this way, whether they came from another game company, or a restaurant chain.
Bury Me With My Money
Someone has to think about the money, and I'm sure you don't want it to be you, who would rather just get on making a good game. The trouble comes when the money and the creativity appear to be at odds. I'm optimistic, and feel there are ways that the money issues and creativity can fall in line to create something excellent that also makes its money. Somebody greenlit Halo, and Call of Duty, and Resident Evil 4's three restarts.
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. I could take this analogy further, with talk of advice, feedback loops, and misunderstandings, but ultimately, publishers have the money and the marketing, while developers have the creative spirit and know-how.
Because I Said So
What makes a good publisher then? It seems to vary based on your market. In the case of the iPhone, I've heard developers say that having a publisher is largely useful for marketing. Some might say they take a good game and promote it. Others might say they take a game that would've sold anyway, and exploit it. It all depends on how your deal went, I suppose.
For MMOs, a publisher is most likely to be the one serving your game, taking care of customer service to some extent, and performing marketing. In general, a third-party publisher isn't going to do much to your game aside from localize it.
It gets more complicated in the console arena, of course, and that's where the back-and-forth parental relationship can come into play. Ultimately, a publisher is only as good as its employees. Some of external producers at the publisher can actually really help focus your work. In a recent Game Developer postmortem, Sucker Punch mentions that marketing helped the studio trim the fat.
Publishers sometimes do know where the money is, and money allows you to make more games. What's unfortunate is when they can't see past GTA and Guitar Hero to see an actual new idea, forgetting that GTA and Guitar Hero were, at one time, new ideas, or at least clever new amalgams of old ones.
I do think publishers can definitely help make a game better. On top of marketing and feedback, publishers often also offer external QA, take care of any legal issues that may come up, and pay the bills. But that's only if they're willing to take a little risk, and actually trust the developers they're working with. Incidentally, since both companies should really be doing some proper due diligence on each other, trusting each other shouldn't be part of the "risk" bit.
As a developer, your job becomes knowing how to give publishers what they want (more guns!), while also making the game you want (time travel!). As publishers, the risk assessment work should mostly be done at the top end. After that, there needs to be a lot of monitoring -- after all they should get the game they pay for -- but also a lot of trust.
If you're trying to make a risky game with new ideas, it's best to wrap the concepts in the familiar. Making new IP is always going to be a battle. But if you stay strong, and both parties really listen to each other, it can be a battle that winds up getting you a better-playing and better-selling game.