When developers take control from publishers

The video game market is changing. A few years ago making a game was an expensive business, too expensive for most development teams to pay up front. So developers went to a big publisher to get some money to create the game, the publisher would then publish the game and take a large cut of the profits. The major problem with this (apart from publishers taking the majority of the spoils and developers often going bust) was that publishers didn’t really care about games the same way developers did. Publishers care about money and if they weren’t sure that your game was going to sell a ton of units there was no incentive to publish it. This lead to the great FPS flood of the 7th generation of consoles. FPS games sold well, so these games would often land publisher deals, games that looked like they showed a spark of something new and innovative were often left behind.

Fortunately the “Publisher rapes developer” model is being challenged. I’m not saying the state of the industry is perfect. I mean is anyone happy with how Microsoft continue to mock Rare fans by forcing them to work on Kinect Sport games? It’s almost like being a really talented singer being forced by a contract you signed to with to lick a hammer to sell records. How about EA selling games at £45 a pop that have been engineered to make you lose unless you fork out for extra weaponry to use online. But still the tide is turning. Indie developers can use tools that have low entry costs such as Unity or UDK or even develop their own tools if they are so inclined. They can then publish the games created with these tools to a variety of different distribution systems such as Steam, GameTap, Android Market etc without falling foul of EA.

Micheael Cusack demonstrates exactly how gamers feel about Microsoft and Rare. Microsoft purchased Rate from Nintendo (which was one of the few great Publisher-Developer relationships)

I am well aware of how the disruptive nature of new technology challenging business models didn’t really work out well for the little man in music industry.  I still worry that the publishers of old will still find a way to take advantage of small time developers to fill their coffers. Microsoft and Sony are both opening the doors to their new consoles indie developers, but binding them by rules. We are seeing distribution systems such as iTunes pushing and pushing the in-app purchase model on  developers. It shouldn’t be this way! Developers should be calling the shots of how the distribution model works. Systems such as in app purchasing force developers to develop their games in a certain manner. How do we get the player to buy an extra life or that weird chocolate sprinkle candy that destroys all the candy it touches? That’s all well and fine if that is how the developer wants to create their game, but how can we ever call something an art if its creation is based around the way we are going to sell it? All is not lost. There are developers who are publishing games on their terms. Taking advantage of the new business models that they want to and ignoring the ones that will harm their games. I’m sure there are loads of indie developers out there working out cool ways to publish their games and we will see them come to the forefront soon. At the same time we are seeing a rise in new hardware that the publishers of old don’t have control over. Here are a few things I find interesting:

Telltale games: Episodic Content

Telltale’s “The Walking Dead” was very story character driven and seen as pushing the boundaries of ‘What is a game’. Image Source: Wikipedia

A lot of media comes in an episodic format; you can buy books, comics, movies and TV shows by the episode. You can even skip an episode if you wish! I find it very odd that games, up until recently wanted you to part with £50 for a full experience, but only let you get as far as you could. If the level 1 boss keeps killing you then good luck getting the rest of that £50’s worth of entertainment. Can you imagine not being able to read book 2 of Harry Potter if you didn’t understand a word at the end of book 1?

I can understand this to some extend as game design often doesn’t lend itself to letting people skip ahead, but I still think it’s odd that few developers allow to buy games in episodic chunks. Sony tried it with the brilliant Siren: Blood Curse, but quickly backtracked when it didn’t look like an instant win.

One developer who has seemingly mastered episode content is Telltale games. Telltale is an independent developer, founded by ex LucasArts employees who are specialists in adventure games. They acquired the rights to work with well know Intellectual Property such as Sam and Max, Money Island, Homestar Runner and produced high quality adventure games based off them (with the exception of their Jurassic Park game, not quite sure what went wrong there).

Instead of reaching out for the usual major publishing agreement they decided to release their games in episodes on content delivery systems. This gives their games a wide audience as the games are released on a wide array of different platforms. As well as having their games available for download without DRM restrictions Telltale pop their games on Steam, Gametap, PSN, Live, Wii Shop. Depending on the content system you can download individual episodes or grab a season pass which allows you to get all the episodes for cheap.

Telltale usually release a new episode in a game bi-monthly, so far so good as they haven’t missed a deadline.

Double Fine: Releasing games they want

Double Fine is an independent developer founded by  LucasArts legend Tim Shafer. I don’t know what it is about Lucas Arts, but I guess now it seems many of their mid 90s employees are doing incredible things. Double Fine look to publishers for the traditional publisher-developer funding model, but not wishing to be stuck doing games they don’t enjoy developing branch out to other funding models when needed.

Spacebase DF-9 was a prototype idea chosen by gamers who donated to charity. It took $400,000 in two weeks on Steam Greenlight

They are most known for crowed sourcing funding for their new adventure game coming out in 2014 called Broken Age. Unable to get a publisher to take the risk of putting money up front for a 90s style adventure game they asked the players to pay. Tim’s fame on works such as Grim Fandango got him the funded he needed.

The most interesting development model they took was to create a bunch of prototype games that they would like to develop further. They got players to donate money (minimum of $1, which went to charity) to vote on the prototype ideas they liked the most. These ideas were developed in to small prototypes which a donator got to download and play. The most successful of these prototypes would then go on to become fully fledged games. While this model might not pull in money to fund the games creation  (as it went to charity) it did raise awareness of the games and asked the audience directly what they would like to play; this resulted in a $400,000 take in sales when one of the games developed using this stratergy hit Steam Greenlight.

Steam Machine, Ouya and friends: consoles and cool tech for Everyone

You no longer have to shell out for a console to enjoy great accessory. The Oculus Rift is a cheap VR headset available for PC/MAC/Linux. We’ll see devices such as Steam Machines work with them and developers not paying for the privilege of releasing games for them. Image Source: Wikipedia

Perhaps it is a little naughty to put these on the list as these are innovations taken by hardware manufacturers and publishers. The Steam Machine, Ouya are both examples of hardware devices that have low entry requirements to develop for. There are lots of these consoles coming out, and lots of interesting accessory such as the Oculus Rift (a VR headset created by crowed sourced funding) heading to them. I think what I’m trying to get at here is the fact that content management systems aren’t the only thing opening up for indie developers. We are seeing a lot of new hardware that has very low entry requirements for as options for them to develop for. It was reported that on the 360 Microsoft charged $40,000 to developers to patch there titles, as an indie developer would you like to sign up to that kind of cost? This charge was eventually dropped, but surely only because Microsoft could see these hardware alternatives that are much more cost friendly to the up and coming indie game developer.

So what does the future even hold for publishers? We’ve seen the big wigs hold on in the music industry. This must be because they have the ability to market music better than the individual does. But do games have the same need? The trump card for the music industry is getting bands played on the radio or a TV performance. What is the video game equivalent of the radio then? If it’s the Let’s Players, then the publishers are in for a shock. Perhaps this explains why Sony and Microsoft’s were so desperate for Twitch TV on their consoles.

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