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David Braben: Look for publishers with development experience

Frontier CEO shares advice and why his company left working with publishers behind during Investment Summit Online

When seeking a publisher for their game, it's understandable that developers might want to cast as wide a net as possible.

But during our recent Investment Summit Online, Frontier Developments CEO David Braben urged studios to look carefully at the games in a potential publisher's portfolio and research whether there is any development experience on the publishing team.

He shared his advice during a session entitled 'New Frontiers: From self-published to third-party publisher.' You can watch the full session in the video below.

"Looking at the publishers we've worked with where it's worked out well, it's with the publishers who have quite a lot of development experience," said Braben.

The Frontier CEO attributes this to the fact that development is the most challenging part of bringing a game to market. It's impossible, he said, to know how well a game will turn out from the very beginning -- designs on paper don't necessarily translate perfectly to real life.

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David Braben, Frontier Developments

"Fun is a complicated process," Braben said. "Just about every game I've been involved with, we've been through a phase of, 'Ah, this isn't quite what we hoped for. How do we make it better? How do we make it richer, more interesting?'

"But there are some publishers where there is an [attitude] of, 'This is the design document, thou shalt stick to it or else.' That's not a good idea, it has to be the baby of the person who's creating it. They have to be able to take it all the way from concept to delivery."

Going back to the notion of two-way trust, Braben says there has to be "the oversight of the bigger picture" from the publisher, someone from an external perspective judging whether a game will be good or whether it needs to transform into something different.

"It's a co-operative venture, and the more people we've interfaced with that are from a development background, that's always worked a lot better," he said.

"One of the challenges with a lot of the publishers we've worked with is quite a lot of their people you interface with have come up from a marketing background -- which is fine, because they understand the marketing side. But they don't necessarily understand the ugly development process it takes to get there. Some of the best games I've worked on have looked plug ugly for quite a lot of their development period, and that's because once you make something look beautiful, you then have this mindset that you can't tweak it because then a lot of the beauty would have to be recreated.

"[Some publishers] understand the marketing side but don't necessarily understand the ugly development process it takes to get there"

"If something's in programmer art, it looks very rudimentary but you can also afford to throw it away easily, and that's valuable because you can change things -- whether it's jump distances, or how something is rendered, or that sort of thing. It's an important part of the creative process to be able to break things and remake them.

"If you've come from a development background and been through that process, you can be sympathetic when you see that process from the other side of the table... It's a difficult process to make sure something is as good as it can be, so it needs flexibility on both sides. That's the important thing. Look for development experience in the publisher."

Braben told developers to consider the financial side of working with a publisher as well. While he praised Microsoft for consistently paying on time, he said Frontier has worked with a number of publishers that would delay payments and then only pay a fraction of what was owed.

For anyone running a studio, worrying about where your payroll is coming from "distracts from the development process," so developers should seek a publisher that's financially sound as well.

Watching live at the time, Hipster Whale's Matt Hall submitted a question for Braben: Will Frontier continue to work with publishers or has it left that behind completely?

"Never say never, but we've left it behind to be honest," said David. "The freedom we've got now to do what we're doing is immensely valuable. With the sort of games we're doing, we're not being held back. We're working with other companies through our own third-party publishing, which is an extremely exciting opportunity for the future. But I think we've pretty much left that behind."

You can watch the full interview with Braben below:

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