Developers are from Mars, Publishers from Venus

Developers are from Mars, Publishers from Venus

By Tim Heaton

January 9th 2012 at 9:30AM

Tim Heaton looks at the relationship between the two

Relationships are hard. You have to work at them, be understanding, sometimes give unconditional love, and tackle difficult issues with bravery and dignity. Some are storms; some are deep and long lasting.

And that’s just the relationships between developers and publishers. Don’t ask me about those people who inhabit your life when you’re not at work – that’s an even deeper mystery.

The connection between developers and publishers is the great, largely unwritten, story of video game history.

It makes the headlines sometimes when there’s a particularly nasty falling-out and it goes to court, or someone goes bust, but most of the time it’s entwined in the day-to-day way the business runs.I’ve been lucky enough to see the business from both sides.

My heart is in development, but my time spent at Electronic Arts opened my eyes to understanding how publishers work, the difficult decisions they need to make, and what’s important to them.

It changed my perception of how projects and relations should be managed.

I don’t think things change significantly if you’re an independent studio or owned by a publisher. In general it seems that projects are still managed in similar ways.

If you’re self-publishing you’re in a different position of course, and the death of publishers has long been suggested, but I don’t see that happening.

It could be argued that because of rising development costs and the difficulty in discovery across the social and mobile sectors, sugar daddies with access to investment money, and the power to build and control infrastructures and global marketing, will be as key to success as they were in the retail-only days.

SECURING INFLUENCE

In dealing with a developer, the publisher’s overriding need is to feel secure. It’s often making a huge bet on the game being made, and will do everything it can for assurance that it will get what it’s paying for.

Senior executives at a publisher stake their careers on projects they cannot closely control. So, obviously, a significant part of the role of the publisher is auditing the developer prior to a greenlight, and monitoring progress throughout development.

It seems to me that doing due diligence on a developer prior to a deal is really easy. It depends on one simple component: track record.

I would suggest that in games development, you’re likely to get projects done at quality thresholds and delivery dates in a similar fashion to those that the key staff on the project have achieved before.

Of course there are exceptions, but in a world of complex, disruptive issues, if it were my money, I’d be spending it on people who have hit my expectations before. If you’re working with a 70 per cent average Metacritic team and wanting 85 per cent, you really have to understand what needs to change.

The least important part of due diligence prior to the greenlight? The high-level concept. Sure, the game needs to fit into a publisher’s portfolio, and be in a broad genre where the publisher feels it can succeed.

But beyond that, successful games are all about the detailed implementation, and not the high-level concept. Most games change direction significantly during pre-production, and often in production too.

There’s no point obsessing on a concept at an early stage if you’re entering a relationship where the creative staff at a developer have shown their capability previously.

GOING GREEN

Once the game is greenlit, the day-to-day relationship is all about trust, hitting milestones, communicating issues and demonstrating an understanding of the objectives.

In addition, the most important and successful strategy for a developer is to manage communications up into the higher echelons of the publisher. Week-to-week communications often happen with a ‘publishing producer’, who then reports back up the organisation.

But usually publishers will also have internal review sessions, often quarterly, where the real decision-makers at the company want to see and hear that their big bets will pay off.

These are a huge opportunity, and should be taken very seriously. If it’s not quarterly reviews it may be ‘royal visits’, when the publishing chiefs visit, or specific milestones that will be reviewed at a high level.

These reviews need to create a buzz. The internal excitement at a publisher about a game is vital, and it’s importance often underestimated. All the best staff want to be associated with a success, and in these days of focused portfolios, marketing support will evaporate if there’s no will for it to succeed.

If you have heads of marketing and production leaving a meeting going ‘Wow, it looked really good’, and then sitting on a plane with the CEO saying the same thing, you’ve succeeded.

There’s a lot more to say about good practice between developers and publishers, so hopefully it’s a topic to come back to soon. But try not to disappoint or fall out with your publisher – currently, in games development, there really aren’t plenty more fish in the sea.