Game Publishers Are Obsolete – So Why Haven’t Developers Ditched Them Yet?

Every day, when I hop onto Reddit and scroll through the various happenings and latest meme implementations, I always expect to see some sort of post regarding Electronic Arts (EA) and how it is an evil publisher that is ruining the games it takes ownership of. I have seen these posts for quite some time now, and have begun to wonder a few things, but most important, I’ve begun to wonder why developers haven’t left publishers in the dust in order to go “indie.”

Indie developers are cool. They think up an idea for a game. They develop the code and art for a game. And, when the game is complete, they sell the game all by themselves. This makes them cool because they do not rely on any sort of outside funding from a game publisher in order to promote their games through advertisements, or sell the games in retail boxes. With the evolution of the Internet, indie developers have had an even easier time of getting their game out there and into the hands of gamers. It is much easier and much cheaper to offer your game for download on a website than it is to get it on the shelves of a major retailer. The expenses saved by going the digital route can be put right back into making the game awesome, which makes for happy gamers.

As I hinted, prior to the Internet’s evolution into a useful and powerful means of transporting data, publishers were vital. If you didn’t get your game published, odds are it would see very little light of day, which meant your game was essentially a failure. Game publishers often swoop in and buy up game development studios, taking some creative control in return for supplying the resources needed to get a game out to the market. Up until a few years ago, this relationship was accepted as a necessary complication, and no one said much about it.

It is now 2012. Most games produced by large game publishers are sold for high margins, usually in the $40-$60 range. After they’ve sold you their game, they make you adhere to their strict DRM systems, which more recently have required that you have a connection to the Internet if you even want to start the game. Crackers are the heroes of this market, saving the day by breaking the restrictions publishers’ DRM systems bog their games down with, allowing purchasers of the game to enjoy their games anywhere, without the fear of being locked out because they can’t contact the publisher’s DRM servers.

Now, this introduces both an advantage and disadvantage of the Internet’s application to the game industry. While the Internet allows developers to go indie and publish their games themselves, it also allows for pirates to steal the games without paying for them. This might be enough to scare developers into running towards publishers that have the fancy DRM setups, allowing for a brief period of time where a game can be sold and earn revenue before it is cracked, and subsequently put up on the Internet for free.

So there’s the trade off, I suppose. Stick with a publisher and gain assurance that your game will see some income for a few days, or go it alone in the hopes that gamers will see your show of faith of publishing independently and buying your game as thanks. Minecraft creator Mojang did this, and it’s earned millions and millions of dollars since the game’s initial release. Steam also provides a sort of hybrid between a major publisher and independent publication: Offer your game on your terms, but also get the protection of Steam’s DRM. Plenty of gamers and developers alike have begun to see the benefits of ditching the old game publishers, but some are still stuck in their ways.

What else might be keeping developers from going indie? One problem is that the game publisher usually has some sort of stake in the developer, meaning the developer probably can’t just go off on its own to publish its games without getting the backhand from the publisher. Developers of popular franchises, like Maxis of The Sims fame, are usually in the position where the developer also owns the rights to the games and the names therein. This means that if Maxis somehow broke off into an independent studio, it’d essentially have to start from scratch, being unable to work on games along the same lines of its previous works without answering to the publisher that owns the rights.

What can gamers do? Well, gamers are the ones buying the games, which means they have the power to let publishers know who’s in charge. With the increasing grip publishers like EA are holding over the industry, perhaps it is time gamers organize a movement or boycott in order to show their disapproval. Only then might the publishers listen; only then might the status quo be changed.

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