What Are Video Game Publishers & Why Bungie Celebrates Splitting From Activision
Publishers, good or bad?
Bungie, the creators of the famous Halo series and now Destiny, have split from their publisher Activision! What does this actually mean and why should any of us care? Does it mean Destiny is going to become a better game or are we going to get a whole new one? The answer is, MAYBE! We can't see the future but this is the perfect time to watch what Bungie does and understand a little bit more of the developer/publisher relationship, along with how it affects us as gamers.
What's the Difference Between Developers & Publishers?
It can be confusing! For example with The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) by 'Bethesda'. This is a company known for the everlasting Elder Scrolls (Skyrim) and Fallout series! When they announced a new game in the Elder Scrolls universe and that it would be an MMO, everyone got really excited. I'm not saying ESO isn't a good game but 'Bethesda' did not make it. That's because there are TWO (2) different 'Bethesda' even though they're kind of the same company:
- Bethesda Game Studios are the developers
- Bethesda Softworks are the publishers
ESO is actually made by ZeniMax Online Studios and published by Bethesda Softworks. Even more confusing, ZeniMax was founded by the head of Bethesda... but basically it means the people who worked on Skyrim and Fallout 4 are NOT the one's who made ESO. This disappointed many at the start but we now have a clear example of what kind of MMO Bethesda Game Studios (developers of Skyrim) would make... Fallout 76. Seems like the developers at ZeniMax are better at developing MMOs at the end of the day.
Why Do Developers Even Want Publishers?
Why not just get a group of people together and make a video game that sold well and everyone made a lot of money? If only it was that easy.
Money, management, and marketing. On a practical side, that's what a publisher brings to the table. Making games is expensive, often costing hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars! Publishers can get you that money. What to do with that money can be tough to handle too. Plus, even if you make a game, who's gonna know? A publisher will market your game, advertise it, get it in magazine and online. You won't sell a game if no one knows it exists.
Of course some publishers are more than that and genuinely love the games under their care. They go out of their way to protect and nurture their games and it's not just about money, management, and marketing. One publisher that comes to mind is Devolver Digital, who are honest, playful, and really seem to enjoy video games themselves as you can see in this video of their 'unique' E3 presentation.
So Why Did Bungie Celebrate Splitting From Activision?
Bungie are pretty happy about their independence, they might have even been drinking celebratory champagne.
at Bungie, champagne bottles were apparently popped.
There are many reasons why you would not want to work with a publisher but some of the main reasons are common:
1. Too much control
When publishers pay for everything they're in charge of everything. It's like living with your parents but if they wanted you to make lots of money for them. Publishers have often forced things into games when the developers didn't want to just so more money could be made, like lootboxes in Shadow of War.
2. Pleasing investors, not gamers
It's not that some publishers don't care at all about gamers, after all, you are where the money comes from. It's just that they have to please another group first—the investors, shareholders, and stakeholders. The people who put in all that money to make the game? Well they want that money back and with LOTS of profit. After the investors are happy, the publisher needs to be happy, because they're in charge. By that point, what the gamers want doesn't really matter too much. With no publisher, the connection is more direct and it's just about the gamers and the developers.
3. Losing the rights to the game (Bungie kept it!)
A final note in Bungie's favour is that they get to keep the game, Destiny, and have the legal rights to keep making more Destiny games. Often the publishers hold all the legal rights, so game developers can't leave without abandoning their beloved game. So now Destiny is entirely in its creators' hands.
Have Other Developers Left Their Publisher?
One example is the 'X' series of space games developed by Egosoft. In 2013 they released the first 'X' game by self-publishing, meaning they split from all publishers to do it themselves. This is also a case where the developers keep the IP (the actual brand and name of the game) like with Bungie and Destiny.
What happened after the split?
The X series of games was very well liked until Egosoft (developers) started to self-publish. The 2013 game, X: Rebirth, was not enjoyed by fans and the latest game released in 2018, X4: Foundations, only has about a 50% positive rating on Steam right now. We can't know exactly why for sure but the conclusion is that the X series has not been as good ever since Egosoft went independent.
Is it always bad to leave a publisher?
Not always! Frictional Games, the developers who made the horror games Amnesia and SOMA, originally made a three games in a series called 'Penumbra'. All three games were published by Paradox Interactive and Frictional Games thinks the games did worse because Paradox didn't handle things properly. The developers went independent and when self-publishing they made one of the most famous horror games in the video game scene—Amnesia: The Dark Descent—making the developers an indie studio success story. Frictional Games even said about their publisher:
What a mess! It’s a mixed bag of thoughts. You think about the original publisher and the problems they created, how their misbehaving led to so much extra work and ripples effects.
- Frictional Games, 2009, Rock Paper Shotgun
The Best Example
Bungie walking away from Activision while still holding on to Destiny is going to be the clearest recent example of the difference a publisher makes. Will the game become more fun and could monetisation methods be reduced? Maybe the game will deviate from the formula of success and actually get worse or Bungie could make costly decisions that end up with Destiny 2 shutting down? Both these situations have happened before with other games gone independent and it will be interesting to see which way Bungie will go with Destiny 2.
'How Is This Useful To me?'
Knowing a bit about the industry can save you time, money, and help you manage your expectations for an upcoming game because you know the history of the people making and publishing it. Each publisher has their own style of doing things. Activision likes to add lootboxes into games, so if they announce a new game it's most likely going to have lootboxes. Lootboxes that are a current controversy for being potentially gambling and exploitative of us gamers. Knowing things like this, you can check on possible issues before buying a game published by certain publishers. It's not always 100% guaranteed but knowing their reputation will let you make better decisions and avoid that horrible feeling of buyer's remorse (when you buy something and regret that you bought it) like with the new Star Wars Battlefront published by EA. If you knew EA, you'd know it was a risky purchase.