If I say the word ‘Publisher’ in the context of gaming you’ll probably think of names like Ubisoft, Bethesda and even (angry murmuring) Electronic Arts. These are companies who, for a long time, I thought were the people who actually make the games. I was wrong, they are the publisher – they fund and market the games and often overshadow the developers. That doesn’t seem very fair to me, as the developer is the person who actually puts in most of the work. So why does the publisher get so much attention on the box cover and in the adverts? It’s because they are the ones producing the adverts and making the box covers. This is the kind of thing I’d assumed could be done by the developer, and they could be, but the publisher is the company which takes the game and gets it to the player. In modern times of the internet, developers can just stick their game on the internet and players can just download it. Marketing can also be done quite cheaply if it is just done on the internet as well. So what then, is the point of the publisher anymore?
Arkham Knight: A PC Port Gone Wrong
I’m going to need an example of a developer. I’ll take Rocksteady as Arkham Knight was released quite recently and that makes this quite relatable. A few years ago Rocksteady started work on their second game, Batman: Arkham Asylum. Because the game quite heavily involves the very much copyrighted character Batman, Rocksteady needed permission from the people who own the rights to video games about Batman. Those people were Warner Brothers. Warner Brothers would only allow Rocksteady to make this game if they could be the publishers of the game.
It is important to understand that at the time, this was not a highly anticipated title; it was not a sequel and was only their second game, following not a very widely known title, Urban Chaos: Riot Response (I had to Google it). For this reason, Warner Brothers didn’t put too much of a stranglehold on the development of the game, neither did they give the developers much of a budget. And thus the game was excellent, the best game in the series, and importantly the PC port was wonderful.
Fast forward to June the 29th, I was walking home after my final A2 level exam feeling pretty fine, and getting ready and excited to sit down and play the final instalment of Rocksteady’s Arkham series. I opened Reddit on my phone and am met with a wall of posts named in variations of, “DO NOT BUY ARKHAM KNIGHT ON PC.” You can imagine how something like that would make you feel a little uneasy, especially after anticipating the game’s release for a few years and having pre-ordered the game. I raced home and, sure enough, the PC port of Arkham Knight was awful. What happened?
Well, in the time I’ve waited to actually play the bloody game, I think I’ve worked out the answer to that question: the publisher. Let me explain. I did a little bit of research into what was going on and it seems like (by which I mean was officially confirmed) the PC port was not done by Rocksteady, but by a little company famous for screwing up various other PC ports called Iron Galaxy. I know this to be true because I have in my possession a boxed copy of the PC version of the game and the PlayStation version, the only logo that is not on the PS version is Iron Galaxy’s. They did the PC port of Arkham Origins, a game which I deny the existence of as much as I can. When that game came out there were a very large number of bugs which I had to deal with and became very annoying over time. This was a problem with the PC port of the game – console plays didn’t seem to have most of these problems. Consider this: Arkham Origins was not developed by Rocksteady, it was developed by Warner Brothers Montréal. This probably means that for both games, the decision to just hand the PC port over to Iron Galaxy to sort out was probably Warner Brothers. Why they decided to use them again I have no idea. It seems like Rocksteady didn’t have much say in that matter. Why not?
It comes down to the popularity of the game. The Arkham series is probably one of the most successful series Warner Brothers have published, so when work started on the final instalment of the series, Warner Brothers, like an overbearing parent, started really paying attention and interfering way too much. They needed to get money for the game to be as big and epic as possible, so Rocksteady would have no walls stopping them from making the best game they can. To do this, Warner Brothers struck up a deal with Sony (I should remind you at this point that this is all basically just my speculation and a succession of educated guesses), so that some content would be exclusive to the PS4 and all advertising would in some way involve a PS4. Look at all advertising for this game and you’ll see some reference to the PS4 in every advert. I don’t doubt that this probably helped in the development of the game, and probably contributed to the being able to hire Johnathan Banks, which served to distract me greatly while playing the game. What it probably did lead to, was Warner Brothers handing the job of porting the game to PC over to Iron Galaxy, in order to let Rocksteady worry about the actual game. For whatever reason, Iron Galaxy screwed it up and Warner Brothers and Rocksteady were unaware that the port was not in good shape. For me, this explains why Rocksteady seemed so surprised by the bad port and reacted so quickly. I’m sure if they were aware of the quality of the port before release, they would have delayed it. It would have been better than what they actually did.
Obviously, the publisher is good for funding the game. Arkham Knight would be as big and as grand as it is without the funding from Warner Brothers. What I am saying is that it is fairly clear that Warner Brothers interfered too much with the development (again, this is all speculation – I don’t know any of this for sure).
EA – Money Grabbing Bastards
Electronic Arts used to be a very well respected organisation which was responsible for a lot of Maxis’ successes like Sim City and The Sims. They also have helped with DICE’s successes like the battlefield series. More recently they have been named the main reason Maxis has now collapsed in on itself, and the disaster of the latest Sim City. Sim City failed because of EA’s ridiculous DRM worries. EA can’t live if they feel like they are losing money, however little, through something even if they can’t prevent it. EA is perhaps most known for the many, many freemium games which you can find on your phone’s app store. Search for EA in your app store of choice and see how many games are there.
A freemium game is a game which you can play for free, but which has a load of micro-transactions, or in-app purchases, which the game (kind of) forces you to buy in order to progress. This is something which most gamers don’t partake in, but which affects a certain type of person who finds it addictive. If you want to know more, I’d recommend you watch the excellent South Park episode “Freemium Isn’t Free”. It’s in the eighteenth series. If you want an example of a freemium game and to listen to a rather angry man get angry about it (in a slightly over-the-top fashion) then go watch this:
I won’t go on about it, but I feel that EA is a very good example of a company which is poisoning the gaming world with its money grabbing ways. EA was recently voted the worst company in America, and I’m kind of inclined to agree; they’ve done a lot of things which have annoyed many, many people. I think it’s because EA has gotten so big, they are no longer looking to make great games, and they are looking to make money. A want to make money doesn’t make great games. Face it, if you’re looking to make a profit, you shouldn’t be in the gaming industry, where studios like Irrational Games produce games like Bioshock Infinite and then go bankrupt because they overspent and didn’t make that money back – despite being the bestselling game on Steam at the week of release, and having critically acclaimed status. Games are super expensive to make and you have to make a lot of sacrifices in your game to not overspend (speaking as someone who has never made a game and does not know anyone who has).
The Lighter Side
This has been a delightfully negative review. I was told once that it is much easier to be negative than it is to be positive. So perhaps I should leave a little note about the good side of publishers – after all, they’re not all bad. Publishers can be good for the developers of games. The publisher funds the game and gets it marketed – it’s what they’re for. If the publisher doesn’t over-interfere with the development of the game, they can be doing something great. They take talented independent studios and give them the resources to make the game they really want to make.
This is the philosophy of publishers like Bethesda. Bethesda is good at publishing games – a lot of the games they’ve published in recent memories have been successes and many which have been critically acclaimed, and I think I might know why. Bethesda doesn’t just publish games, they make their own; we’ve all at least heard of the Elder Scrolls series and the Fallout games. That tells me that they know how a game is made, they understand the process and so they know what developers need from a publisher. All they have to do is give that to the developers who are being published by them. This is what a publisher should be, they should care about the games they are publishing. They should not be in it for the money, they should want to get great games out there.
No. Publishers are not bad for games. But, as with everything in the world, there are good publishers and there are bad publishers. It all hinges on the attitude of the publisher – if they care about the game, they are a good publisher, if they are only concerned about how they can get more profit out of a game, and they are bad for the game.