Thursday, May 21, 2009

A publisher is to a developer, as a developer is to a..... ?

The answer is "designer." In other words, a recent revelation has shown me that developer studios are not much different in terms of business philosophy, than the publishers that they are so fond of (privately) criticizing.

The revelation came when I was pitching my idea of designer branding to the head of a prominent studio. I was trying to explain that the most original, innovative ideas in gaming tended to come from designers with their own brand names, and that such individual brands could help studios drive ideas through the publisher resistance. And in response, it was explained to me why this idea would not work.

The reasoning was that most studios would be hard pressed to retain their then-famous game designers, whereas publishers could easily write pretty alluring cheques to steal such emerging talents from the developers' hands. At first glance this sounds pretty reasonable. When you rearrange the main argument a bit, though, you find the true meaning:

We do not want to reward our designers with the fame they deserve, lest they use that against us to demand more and more.

Which ironically happens to be the same business philosophy of publishers to keep developers in check. Needless to say, there are ways of preventing that supposedly-inevitable outcome of losing designers: equity-sharing is the easiest one that comes to mind. But of course, why give that away when you can keep the lion share to yourself? Is it not the point of running your own business to have people working for you?

Maybe it is not.

Maybe it is a better idea to have people working with you, while they work for themselves at the same time.

Maybe risk sharing is exactly what your creatives need to mature up.

Maybe you should consider not running your video game business the same way your grandfather ran his paper mill.

Maybe the escape from commoditization starts right inside your head, with the way you think about your own employees.

Maybe it is not about what you pay people, but about what you share with them.

The future of gaming innovation is with those who can bring together creative ambitions and business responsibility. As long as you keep the two apart, you will remain a follower.

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