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Ending the Cycle of Abuse in Publisher-Developer Relationships

Jessica Curry is merely the most recent high-profile departure due to the unhealthy nature of pub-dev relationships - the whole field needs a rethink

I have an until-now secret obsession; I can't get enough of making-of documentaries and features. After watching a movie, finishing a TV series or seeing the end credits scroll on a game, my next stop is usually a Google search for behind-the-scenes videos, interviews or articles about the process through which it was made. The decisions made by the big, visible people - the director, the actors, and so on - are interesting, but the really fascinating stuff, to me, is the extraordinary range of talent that goes into the smaller details without which the whole edifice would have crumbled. The sound design and foley work; the clever way a programmer or special effects artist found of conveying something vital; the set dressers, costume designers, location scouts; the minute details added in the evolution of a level's design that I could never have dreamed of but which turned it into a smooth, enjoyable experience rather than a frustrating blind alley. I've pored over things like the blog of Janice Poon, who designed the extraordinary food (and many of the cooking sequences) for the TV show Hannibal, or the all-too-rare "DVD extra" style documentaries that occasionally accompany special editions of games.

What comes across incredibly clearly from engaging with this kind of material is just how much talent, of how many different kinds, is required to make a great game, movie or TV show. Given the cumulative output of genuinely high-quality material across those fields (not to mention in several other related creative fields, such as music, publishing, theatre and so on), it's somewhat sobering to visualise the sheer appetite for human creativity which these industries must possess; the absolutely astonishing number of talented individuals that must be assimilated into these industries for their output to remain up to scratch.

"The problem is that it's the most talented people, those with the most to offer, who can most easily jump ship after a harrowing and draining experience like this. The brightest and best have no difficulty finding a better line of work"

Consider, if you will, the amount of creative talent required to build, populate and bring to life a world like that in GTA V; now multiply that by all the MMOs, all the open-world games, all the sprawling TV series and epic movies; now add in the towering volume of smaller games (some of them still pretty enormous, and many of them extraordinarily detailed), shows and movies that appear each year. It's not unreasonable to suggest that a game like the forthcoming Fallout 4 demands as much creativity (measured in hours, in head-count or in whatever units of human creativity you desire) as was pumped into every single game released in a given year only a couple of decades ago; the gaping, starving maw of the games industry, in particular, needs and demands creative talent at a rate far outstripping any time in the past.

That's what makes it so unfortunate to see people like Jessica Curry packing up and leaving. Whether you liked Dear Esther and Everybody's Gone to the Rapture or not is inconsequential; they're acclaimed and loved by a significant audience, innovative in many ways, and Curry's work on them was fantastic. There's absolutely no doubt that she has a very bright future in the creative arts; it's just that she's decided that videogames aren't the place where she's going to be applying her prodigious talents, and from the standpoint of the industry - or simply from the standpoint of someone who loves videogames - that's a tragedy.

Curry cited various reasons for leaving - her own health is a factor, as is the sexism she was forced to confront in the industry - but while the well-documented gender bias of the games biz deserves a renewed focus all of its own, it was her condemnation of the developer-publisher relationship that leapt out to me from her comments. It leapt out for the simple reason that it echoes comments I've heard before, over and over again; perhaps a dozen times in the past few years, all told, from talented people who, while lacking the profile or portfolio of someone like Jessica Curry, have found themselves in the same position. They're done and headed for the exit, burned out not on the process of creating games, which they love, but on the agonising and often downright abusive process of working with publishers.

Curry's statements in this regard match up with stories that a great many of you have probably heard - or, unfortunately, experienced. Even the very best publishers (Sony, whom Curry mentions, are generally considered a good bunch, but nevertheless are hugely problematic in some regards) have cultivated toxic and damaging behaviours towards the studios with which they work - behaviours which are at best careless and unthinking, and at worst openly abusive of the huge power differential that exists in the relationship between a multinational publisher or platform holder, and a small creative team.

"It's the publishers who maintain healthy relationships who will find themselves with first refusal on almost every worthwhile game or talented studio in the future"

Themes in the "this is why I'm leaving" stories repeat over and over on loop. Publishers hammering down their estimations of hours required or man-hour cost until hugely experienced veteran staff are on less than minimum wage. Publishers making rapid changes to their demands in order to meet meaningless internal goals and targets with no consideration for the actual capabilities of the much smaller company upon whom those demands are imposed. Publishers failing to pay money that's needed to keep the lights on and the salaries paid; publishers forcing studios to cut back on headcount only to demand within a matter of weeks that they increase headcount again to hit a new deadline or implement a new demand; the list goes on and on, and these are merely the common complaints, not the really crazy edge cases of publishers truly dramatically messing their supposed partners around. These are the things that good publishers do to their more vulnerable studio partners; working with a bad publisher is a deathknell.

I'd love to be able to say here that this model is not sustainable, but we all know that's not true. Publishers have lots of money and developing games is a risky business; there will always be developers out there who jump at a chance to take a publisher's coin, no matter how many have been burned before. The problem is a more subtle and a deeper one; the problem is that it's the most talented people, those with the most to offer, who can most easily jump ship after a harrowing and draining experience like this. The brightest and best have no difficulty finding a better line of work (Jessica Curry is off to work on a music project with Britain's poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy; great game programmers generally stroll into higher salaries and more job security in other industries; great artists, musicians and so on find easy enough employment elsewhere; even designers often find that many of their best skills are very transferable). New talent arises all the time, but that doesn't excuse permitting and even encouraging a drain of veteran, experienced people whose passion for games is undiminished but whose willingness to sacrifice months and years of their life on the altar of publisher bullshit has reached an end.

"It doesn't have to be this way. Publishers can and should take a different approach; one which explicitly tasks their producers with the role of understanding, nurturing and helping the studios with whom they work"

It doesn't have to be this way. Publishers can and should take a different approach; one which explicitly tasks their producers with the role of understanding, nurturing and helping the studios with whom they work, rather than doing as far too many do today - squeezing them until the pips squeak. That's tougher than it sounds, because producers at publishers are functioning inside multinational industries and often have extremely limited visibility, let alone experience, of what is involved in running a small, fragile business like a studio. These are people from different worlds, and one of the most frustrating and exhausting things that studios often seem to run into is production staff at their publisher who simply can't comprehend a world in which so many of the functions of a company - HR, accounts, IT, office admin, facilities - are just part-time roles for otherwise busy managers and staff, not large, well-funded and well-staffed departments in their own right.

This sounds terribly obvious to anyone who's ever worked in a small company, but it's quite honestly a culture shock for many of those whose careers have been entirely spent at large corporations. The fragility of a small studio and the extent to which added overheads and demands impose enormous stresses on core staff of that studio is often lost on their publishing partners, even the very people whose job ought to be understanding and helping the studio to thrive and produce its best work.

Nothing in this regard could change, and publishers would still find developers willing to work with them; but for publishers willing to step up and really think hard about how they work with studios and how that relationship can be made easier, more sustainable and more workable from the perspective of those small but vital partners, the rewards could be enormous - both for the industry as a whole, which will stem some of the bleeding of talent, and for the specific publisher. Creative businesses aren't assembly lines; there has to be a degree of nurturing in the publisher relationship for it to be healthy, and it's the publishers who maintain healthy relationships who will find themselves with first refusal on almost every worthwhile game or talented studio in the future.

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Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of GamesIndustry.biz who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.

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