Let’s suppose for just a minute, that you are a developer. You’ve had some successes and a loyal following, but lately, you’ve taken some jobs that haven’t turned out so well. You’ve drifted away from your roots in order to keep your independent studio afloat with much needed capital. The last project you worked on turned out pretty well. People liked it, but there were a lot of technical issues that marred the experience and emerged in a number of reviews. Going into the relationship with the publisher, you were either overconfident or unable to negotiate a better deal, and let part of your funding hinge on an 85 Metacritic score. You missed that mark… by one, measly point.
You’re unhappy. You know what the contract said, but you feel, deep down, that the publisher should have cut you some slack and, maybe, paid out some of the bonus as a gesture of good will. No matter how hard you try to rationalize it and let logic prevail, you’re a little bitter.
Thankfully, there’s a new trend called Kickstarter that is getting some traction. Double Fine and Tim Schafer and, now, inXile and Brian Fargo meeting with huge success seeing “unmarketable” projects take off with a huge influx of cash.
“Why not us?” a voice whispers in your ear. “That loyal following would heap money on us.”
And, so, you mention your interest publicly. You’re on the road to a huge Kickstarter pile of money and a game with no strings attached. No one will try to make you change it. No one will focus test your design. It’s yours, and no publisher can take it away from you.
Unfortunately, you’ve forgotten one thing. You’ve got two other projects in progress with two different publishers. How will they react?
While we are unable to independently confirm this, a report on Kotaku indicates the Irvine, California based studio’s rumored next-generation project with Microsoft has been canceled. While there could be any number of reasons for this, such as missed milestones or a difference of creative vision, when I heard the rumor, I couldn’t help but wonder, “What do publishers think of developers striking out on their own?” Could Microsoft have killed the project because of Obsidian’s public Kickstarter aspirations?
Developers going outside the standard model, pitching projects directly to gamers, unbalances the equation. No longer are publishers the arbiters of good taste, determining what the public will and won’t buy, what we crave and what we loathe. Their power is eroding under the crashing waves of backer payments small and large. What’s more, one thing has resonated with the advent of successful crowd-sourcing by quality developers. The message is clear, “We don’t need publishers.” Tim Schafer and company were a bit more tactful than that, though, when they proposed their Double Fine Adventure project.
“To finance the production, promotion, and distribution of these massive undertakings, companies like Double Fine have to rely on external sources like publishers, investment firms, or loans. And while they fulfill an important role in the process, their involvement also comes with significant strings attached that can pull the game in the wrong directions or even cancel its production altogether.”
“This is probably the last chance for a Wasteland sequel. We have tried to pitch this game multiple times to game publishers, but they’ve balked. They don’t think there’s any interest in a solid, old school type of game. This is our shot at proving them wrong.”
And then there’s Obsidian. They merely promoted possible Kickstarter ideas on their website, taking the first steps on the path to a life without publishers. And while that may seem attractive, their reality is an ailing studio currently being kept afloat by “dirty, unwanted publisher money.” One can’t help but wonder how a publisher, who has put a significant amount of money into a studio, must feel about their partner shouting, “damn the man!”
If this is the case—if publishers really are seething at the idea of Kickstarter-funded games—could this be setting up a war? Will we see successful Kickstarted developers locked out of publishing deals? Maybe we are going to see new clauses in contracts emerging that prevent developers from crowd-sourcing for a period of time surrounding launch of a publisher-funded project?
One thing is certain, the Kickstarter phenomenon is only just getting started. When Double Fine rocketed to success, there is no doubt that every third-party developer perked up and wondered, “what if?” Could Obsidian’s rumored disconnect with Microsoft be the result of the developer publicly wondering “what if” themselves?
We knew it would change the landscape, and the story is still developing. You can be sure that we’re keeping a close eye on how the industry dynamics are shifting in response.
Update: RipTen has received independent confirmation from a source with knowledge of the situation, confirming the cancelation of an unnamed Obsidian project, as well as the reported layoffs. No publisher was named.
When asked to comment on the matter, a Microsoft spokesperson reported that, “Microsoft does not comment on rumor or speculation.”