But even the most competent game developers can be caught off-guard by what’s happening at the next level; when whales start thrashing around in their death throes, a lot of smaller fish often get smashed to bits in the chaos.
I’ve been (un)lucky enough to have two past projects canceled in mid-development thanks to publishers either going out of business or shutting down a significant part of their operations. More recently, I’ve had a Wii design get put on hold due to an executive shake-up and so a game that has been approved and should be six months into development instead continues to languish in the greenlight process, waiting to get approved for a second time by the very same publisher.
This sort of thing happens. It’s damn near unavoidable if you’re in the business long enough. So I’m not complaining, merely pointing out an aspect of the business that is very seldom mentioned by the executive producers and vice presidents of development who are making a pitch for signing your game with his company. The dynamic nature of the game industry is one of the things that makes it exciting, but it is that very dynamism that occasionally throws a monkey wrench into the development process.
Consider some of the better-known publishing names in gaming history: SSI, Origin Systems, Sierra, GT Interactive, Infocom. They’re all gone, and even if aspects of them live on in newer companies such as Vivendi and Electronic Arts, their disappearance represents corporate turmoil of the sort that has made an impact on the development of dozens, if not hundreds, of games.
For the independent developer, the cost of a publisher going out of business, being acquired or even undergoing a relatively minor restructuring can be substantial. A change in decision-making executives will usually require a review of all the games in the various stages of approval and development, which can cause a delay of months before that all-important next cheque arrives. This is problematic enough, but even worse, because publishers are aware that developers are often living paycheck-to-paycheck, it is not exactly unheard of for unscrupulous, cash-strapped publishers to take advantage of this situation in order to relieve their own financial pressures.
And while it’s upsetting to be unable to complete a game on which your development team has labored hard for months, or even years, it’s significantly more disturbing to see the entire business crumble and disappear into the obscure history of forgotten game developers.
Development houses have lifespans, just like every other form
of corporate entity, and having a publisher who is both fair and financially stable is one of the key components of extending that lifespan.
Here are four factors to keep in mind:
1. Bigger is not always better.
The larger and more established publishers often have corporate owners whose strategic decisions can have a serious impact on product development and have nothing to do with your game or its potential.
2. Know the decision makers.
It doesn’t matter how good your relationship is with someone at the producer level or how great he thinks your game would be if the folks who run the numbers don’t think they can sell it. But each publisher has its own unique mindset, so do your homework, learn who calls the shots and try to position your project accordingly.
3. Relationships matter.
No game makes it through the process without a champion. This usually isn’t a decision maker, but it’s someone who will make the case for your game to those who do make the decisions. The more committed your champion is, the more likely it is that your game will be approved. If you don’t have a real champion, you probably won’t end up with a signed contract either.
4. Research the finance.
There’s a certain amount of BS in the industry and it’s not all on the development side. Very few publishers actually have as much development money allocated as they claim when they are shopping for developers.
Of course, none of this applies to the developer who only has one publisher interested in his project and therefore no real choice available to him. A suboptimal publisher who is willing to fund the development of your game is always to be preferred to the perfect one who has no interest in it. But at the very least, you can still enter even the most risky publishing relationship with your eyes open, aware of the risks, and give yourself a chance of extricating you and your team with a minimum of distress and damage.