Fargo on publisher deals: 'They have all the power'

The InXile boss discusses the difficulties of being independent and why Metacritic scores shouldn't matter
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Parts of the publishing process can be unhealthy for many independent developers, says Brian Fargo.

Speaking to Develop, the InXile boss, who recently self-published Wasteland 2 on PC, said working with a publisher can mean devs are constantly having to prove that development is on track, they know what they're doing and that they're delivering on milestones.

He said this can mean devs can spend 30 or 40 per cent of their time trying to get paid, rather than focusing on development and new, creative ideas.

“It’s not always wonderful on the creative psyche,” he said. “[In Wasteland 2] we come up with all this wonderful stuff. If instead I’m running around with the pressure of trying to get paid or approved, I don’t come up with that good stuff, you’re really not thinking that way, it’s just really the natural creative mindset of it all.

“So that part I don’t like and I didn’t like. And you spend the other 30 per cent of your time between What am I going to do next? How am I going to pay the bills? And how am I not going to have to lay off my people? So there’s 75 per cent of my time not working on the game itself.

“I now spend 95 per cent of my time on the game, and it’s just fantastic.”

Team17 MD Debbie Bestwick revealed in July that the studio once nearly lost its famous Worms IP in the late 1990s due to a deal that stipulated if sales targets for a game were not met within 12 months, the rights to Worms would be relinquished to the publisher. The target was beaten by 1.7 per cent.

Fargo said he had experienced similar deals in the past, and one time had to tell his staff he'd signed a "horrible" contract, as the alternative was to lay off the entire team.

“With a publisher, it’s 20 pages of horribles if anything goes wrong or if you’re late, and sometimes you’re late because of them," he said.

"You might have to do a demo for a trade show, or we’re having a board of directors meeting and you need to come out here make a presentation and lock it down. You could lose a week just like that.

“You may be late for their reasons, you may be late for really good reasons. You could have a lead programmer quit and it’ll take you a month to replace them. There are a million things that could go wrong, that doesn’t mean you’re not smart, that just happen. Yet there’s this list of horribles like exactly what you described where here you can lose the rights to your IP.

“And there’s this whole thing about losing a bonus on a Metacritic rating. To me, who cares? If the thing sells ten million copies, who cares? Shouldn’t it be based on economics and not review scores?

“Poor Obsidian, they got hit by a point [on Fallout: New Vegas], because of the bugs. Who does QA? The publisher. So they lost their bonus because of the publisher’s QA department either A, not finding the bugs or B, not giving Obsidian enough time to fix it, one of the two. So that whole thing I dislike. So those are the parts when you hear about developers complain about publishers."

When asked if these kind of contracts still exist today, similar to those like Team17’s, Obsidian’s or even Bungie's Destiny contract, which had claimed the team needed to achieve an average review score of 90 or higher on Gamerankings.com to receive a bonus, Fargo said: “It’s the default. Because they have all the power".

“It’s not like other entertainment businesses, like if you’re Stephen King you’ve got clout, if you’re Steven Spielberg you’ve got clout," he said.

"We don’t really have the same consumer clout where you can flex your muscles and give the right deal. There are a few, the guys at Bungie with the Destiny deal. But there’s just so very few.”

He added: “If you’re a famous director and work a movie, when you go home, you have no overhead, not really. You don’t have a staff of 15 or 30 people. By virtue of the fact that you don’t fire and hire people, but you stay together as a group with a large overhead, it leaves you in a weakened position to negotiate.

“And they well know that and they know you’re running overhead and they can drag their feet a month on a contract and you could be out $200,000. It’s very difficult being an independent developer, very, very, very hard.”

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