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Scott Kurtz On Publishers

Scott Kurtz on PublishersThese are some thoughts on what to expect of publishers by cartoonist Scott Kurtz posted on the page of his web comic PvP.

Scott has been running PvP since 1998 with a daily update schedule, which is an impressive thing to pull off for almost 15 years. He is also involved in other projects like The Trenches.

Of course, since he is a cartoonist, the publishers he is talking about in his post are classic print publishers. However, his statements are true for the relationship between game developers and software publishers as well, in my opinion.

In my opinion, the title of the article, “Know Your Creator Rights”, is a bit misleading, since he is not going into much detail about legal issues. Basically, he is giving some rules of thumb for what to expect of publishers and how you should approach making deals with them.

These are my thoughts on this:

Knowing the Role of a Publisher

It seems that the article has been triggered by other artists who feel they have been exploited by publishers and asked Scott for help. I can understand that a frustrated artist hopes that an industry veteran can somehow help him/her out of a bad deal, but I can also understand when Scott can only look at these situations and shrug:

  • Once a creator has allowed themselves to be exploited the battle is already over.
  • The real enemy in the fight for creator’s rights is the uneducated creator, not the entities looking to exploit creators.
  • There is no fight, actually.

An important point he is making is to know what the roles of each party in a business deal are. How does the publisher benefit from my product? What do I want out of that deal and why should the other side be interested in that?

It’s not up to the publisher to take care of you. That’s your job. Their job is to make money. That doesn’t make you the good guy and them the bad guy. It’s just makes your[sic] the artist and them the publisher.

I think this actually is a very important insight. I think a lot of frustration in the corporate and the business world comes from being unaware of the roles every party plays under the given circumstances. I believe very few people get up in the morning and consciously think to themselves, “today, I will screw somebody over.”.

They do think, “today, I want to accomplish my goals”. Still, to many people that feels like being exploited because they haven’t seen that their goals are actually incompatible with those of their business partner.

On Not Accepting a Deal

Another important point Scott makes is basically, “don’t accept every deal you are offered”. Don’t sign a contract that is doing you a disservice out of desperation. I think the way he explains this is making sense, but I can also see how this is much more difficult to live by in real life, especially in the games business.

It’s much more likely that you are working alone when creating comics. In that case, not accepting an offer by a publisher only affects you. However, the situation for most game developers is that they don’t have to make ends meet for just a single person, but for a whole team of employees or freelancers. In that case, you might find yourself without an alternative to taking the first chance you are offered by a publisher.

From my experience when working for binary madness, in most cases this means losing the rights to your creation to the publisher, especially if you want them to pay for the development of the game. In the role of a publisher acting like that makes sense, since owning the IP enables you to decide when to develop sequels, spin-offs and merchandise.

This isn’t something that only happens to small start up studios, either. Bungie’s most famous creation, the Halo series, doesn’t belong to them either, but stayed with publisher Microsoft when the two companies split. Also, being a famous game developer company apparently doesn’t necessarily protect you from seeing your brainchild being taken into directions you don’t like.

A similar case is the Far Cry series that stayed with Ubisoft when Crytek switched publishers. Both game series are now developed by different developers.

How This Applies to Me

Having worked both at a small game developer and a big, international games company before, I have seen both sides of the story, at least to some degree.

I know how frustrating it can be to try to get deals from publishers that don’t benefit only them. But I have also seen that the decisions being made in these companies are not coming from being intentionally malicious, but from trying themselves to find the best way for conducting business, at least the way these companies see it.

Right now, I am working as a single developer, so I can be picky about accepting deals, at least without harming anybody but me. I’m very interested in seeing how far I can go without actually having to rely on publishers to get my games out there. With game portal sites and download stores, there are a lot of options for independent developers to publish their games on their own.

However, if I find myself in a situation where I actually might need a business partner to get a bigger project going, I will remember to look at Scott’s rules of thumb.

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