Game developers and and the publishers they work for are often at odds. Both understand that the stakes are high. Both feel that at the top, there's only room for great. But there are always arguments and misunderstandings as both sides struggle to develop a great product together.
"Great" means different things to different people. Both sides are committed to high standards and a great product. For publishers, "great" usually means profitable. For developers, "great" is about achieving an artistic vision. And the resulting struggle over these two goals results in friction between the two groups. That friction is exacerbated by issues of ownership, public opinion, marketing, content risk, and more.
I've worked on greenlight committees for two large video game publishers, watching multi-million dollar franchises come and go. I've run operations for Double Fine, one of the most popular indie game studios in the country, creating new interfaces and game concepts from the ground up.
Here are four common disagreements that blow up relationships between developers and publishers in the video game industry and how to solve them.
1. Ownership and IP: Empower developers with ownership of ideas
Ownership is an increasingly contentious issue. Publishers believe that owning the IP of a game will help generate revenue. Devs often believe that the publishers already own too much in the creative process, and push back harder when they feel they are losing ownership of their idea.
"Publishers who want to own IP have likely never seen the kind of game that results from a fully motivated dev with control over their creative vision"
The debate over IP is based on a fundamental misunderstanding by the publishing industry. Publishers believe that if they own the IP of a particular game, they will be able to turn a higher profit. However, the bulk of the profit that a publisher gets is from revenue, not IP. And in order to maximize that revenue, publishers need to make sure that a developer is truly motivated to make the best product possible.
Publishers who want to own IP have likely never seen the kind of game that results from a fully motivated dev with control over their creative vision. The kind of massive success that spurs on the indie community and changes the dynamic of mainstream games. The kind of success that publishers are constantly trying to replicate and recreate. Giving a game developer control over their own IP allows for better work to be done, better games to be made, and more revenue to come in.
Ownership is important. Developers and publishers can both agree on that. But if publishers want their devs to feel motivated, they need to ensure that they feel a sense of empowered ownership of their ideas. In the video game industry, this may mean that publishers have to give up ownership of IP to their game devs.
2. Public opinion and audience: Look to the future, not to the past
Developers and publishers both care deeply about their audience, but for publishers, data on public opinion often comes too late.
Greenlight committees work off of data from past games, focus groups, and from their individual experiences. A game with crafting elements becomes popular, and so committee members attempt to build more games with crafting. A game with sketch-like art becomes popular, and publishers push their developers to include this kind of art in their games. Although it may be true that these elements have a foothold, this data comes too late. Many of these "safe and profitable" elements will already have lost popularity by the time the publisher can release a game. Publishers working off of traditional opinion data will always be behind the curve.
"If you keep looking back for what worked in the past, you'll always be one step behind. Trust your creatives to look to the future"
Developers, on the other hand, are able to create new methods that project to future audiences and game trends. Successful indie games rapidly gain audience because of their creative, unusual, and unprecedented elements. Being immersed in indie fields means that devs see the run of the gamut when it comes to the newest ideas. Increasingly, they can also acquire data that their game can and will find an audience-- they see audience acquisition in campaigns on Kickstarter and Patreon, in early releases and previews. This data projects forward, showing elements that will do well in the future, rather than the lagging data publishers receive about what has done well in the past.
The advice, "Trust your creatives" is hard to hear from a business perspective. Perhaps the best advice is "Trust that you've hired the right creatives, and suss out their ideas with forward-projecting data." If you keep looking back for what worked in the past, you'll always be one step behind. Trust your creatives to look to the future, and use new methods and platforms to check for potential audience acquisition.
3. Crowdfunding: Identify the advantages, but don't take advantage
Developers have understood for years the value of platforms like Patreon and Kickstarter. Not only do crowdfunding platforms allow for audience-based funds, but they also offer unique advantages in early audience acquisition, market testing, funding, marketing, and community. This has been particularly true in the indie game community. And now, mainstream game publishers are getting on board as well. Some publishers even look for games funded on Kickstarter, since they can then confirm the game has an audience before working with the developer.
It's important, as these systems evolve, for publishers to recognize the potential advantages of marketing a campaign early. However, businesses must also recognize the parts of these platforms that are not sustainable when integrated with large publishing platforms. Traditional crowdfunding supports developers who aren't already working with large publishers or backers. Sony saw significant backlash when they tried to crowdfund Shenmue 3, because backers weren't informed that they were contributing to an "interest" campaign-- Sony didn't need their money to develop the game, only the confirmation of their interest.
"Although the relationship between developers and publishers can be very strained... Recognizing what the other brings to the table is the first step in reconciliation"
As crowdfunding evolves, publishers must recognize the potential advantages it offers while also respecting its culture and origins. Crowdfunding is largely used by creatives and new businesses. Established publishers must find ways to use similar online systems of audience prediction while including audiences in a respectful way.
4. Marketing and Promotion: Recognize value when you see it
A lot of this article is focused on things publishers can do differently, but marketing is a field where I've seen developers fail more often than not. Many game devs want to believe that if they make a good enough game, it will sell itself. And while it is true that the core vision of the game does a lot to sell and trend it, focusing on very small details over marketing can hurt a game's success in the long run. I have seen devs the day before launch, hyperfocused on a single late-game bug that only a handful of players will ever see. It's frustrating for me to watch a developer work on something that will help two or three players, when they could be taking marketing actions to add thousands of players to their user base.
This section is advice for developers. Do what you do best: make your game. Fix your bugs. But recognize the potential value in a few high-yield marketing actions, and make time for them. And if you can't make time, then hire someone or work with a publisher to do the marketing for you. Marketing is essential.
There's a larger lesson to be had here as well, which is one of value recognition in a more general sense. Although the relationship between developers and publishers can be very strained, each brings high value to the process of creation. Recognizing what the other brings to the table is the first step in reconciliation.
There's only room for great. The few who are able to get there can recognize what they have, on the creative side and the business side. The few who can get there work together to achieve greatness.
Justin is the CEO of Fig, a community publisher, where fans help fund games and earn returns from their sales. Justin previously served as the Chief Operating Officer of Double Fine Productions, Inc. where he established a new independent publishing label called "Double Fine Presents".