When talking about video game publishers, most of the talk comes down to how they are after your money or don’t care about the players. This, of course, is true in most cases. Publishing is a business and they want to make as much money as possible. In recent years we have seen a massive shift in the industry toward independent publishing and small teams focused on experiences not provided by big publishers. Games like Gone Home, The Stanley Parable, even Minecraft, are developed by small teams and self published, generally on Steam, and have been receiving a lot of focus from the big three console manufacturers. Minecraft actually started a popular trend which has all but taken over Steam, Early Access. Early Access lets you buy the game early, play through the Alpha and Beta and own the final product upon release. Minecraft is an example of how well this strategy can work and how it circumvents the need for a traditional publisher. However, not every game is Minecraft, and too many of these Early Access games aren’t moving past Early Access. Maybe it’s time for this experiment to slow down, and return to business as usual.
I know, you can almost hear them gleefully rubbing their hands together just waiting for the money to pour in. It sucks to be a dollar sign to an executive, but in all honesty, they are more often than not more worthy of your money. Why? It’s because the product they are selling you is final, complete (we aren’t talking about DLC today so save that argument for another day), and any problems it does have are more likely to be fixed. Now this obviously doesn’t apply to every game and every publisher, there are some pretty lousy games published by some pretty lousy publishers, even a few from good devs and publishers. The fact is, nothing is set in stone, but I’m at the point where I’m much more willing to gamble on a game from a decent publisher than I am on an Early Access title.
I’ll admit it, I got caught up in the Kickstarter craze. I have Kickstarted more games that I’d like to admit, and I have learned a valuable lesson in doing this; I should Kickstart less games. The problem with Kickstarter is that these developers are getting money, some just enough, others more than they expected. I look at Broken Age as an example of how making more money could turn out poorly, but Double Fine is a developer I trust to get the job done. They did, but after lengthy delays and a shift to a two part package rather than a single complete game. Why the change? Money, the root of all evil. The game got too ambitious, the voice cast was full of big name talent, things could afford to be prettier, better, more expensive. Suddenly Double Fine had to release half a game so they could make back some money to finish the second.
Were this game published by EA or Ubisoft, Double Fine could have done these things without the need for splitting the game. It is easy to just turn this argument around and say that EA or Ubisoft would just take money from them, but why should that matter to you? Really, when it comes down to it, they are all making money off of you. Shouldn’t your experience be as complete as possible? Self publishing is great, but when the player experience is compromised because of it, is it such a good thing?
Even still, Broken Age is looking to be an excellent overall game. However, what about the slew of other games looking to get funded by players, before they can even play the game? One game that immediately comes to mind for me is Legend of Aethereus. When I first stumbled onto this Kickstarter campaign it looked good. This looked like a game I always wanted to play, an RPG with co-op and a massive world. Not an MMO, but something in the vein of an Elder Scrolls game or Two Worlds, which I happened to like thank you very much. I jumped on board and watched them squeak past their goal and even earn a bit beyond that. Then the game released…boy was I caught off guard. Let’s just say that the grand promises of the Kickstarter campaign were not quite as described. Needless to say, I was not happy with the money I spent on the game.
That is the core of an increasingly large problem facing indie games. The amount of games releasing is growing, but the quality is not. You can still find an honest to goodness hit, but the oversaturation and, more importantly, overall dearth of quality is hurting the scene. This is leaving room for big publishers to move in and make indie styled games of good quality and have them sell like gangbusters. Ubisoft is a perfect example of this with Child of Light. The game strikes the same chords as many of the best indie titles out there, but was developed internally by Ubisoft proper. The upcoming Valiant Hearts looks to embody this idea even more and also looks to be a great game itself. Big name publishers are now making indie styled games, games that are much better than most of the true indie titles out there. This is surely a sign that publishers are not only paying attention to what gamers want to play and buy, but that they are willing to act accordingly to make those games.
Then there is the other side effect of indies, AAA titles are getting better. 2012 was a year dominated by the likes of Journey and The Walking Dead. 2013 saw Gone Home and The Stanley Parable take the limelight, before eventually being overshadowed by The Last of Us, but that was a once in a generation title. 2014 and, from the look of it, 2015 seem to be dominated by AAA titles. To me, and I’m sure to many other gamers, that is exciting. I can’t remember the last time I watched an E3 and was as blown away by the big name titles as I was this year. I saw games I would buy a console for, consoles I otherwise wasn’t interested in. That is a huge deal, and I know I am not the only person who feels that way. Games like Rainbow Six: Siege, The Order: 1886, Halo 5: Guardians, Far Cry 4; I could keep going but my point is made. Though my game of E3 was ultimately No Man’s Sky–I mean come on did you see that game? That is a wet dream for any Star Trek fan–it was the AAA games that took me by surprise. It is a strange, but very welcome feeling.
Here again is where the big publishers come in. Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, EA, and Ubisoft all showed up in a big way to say that they are still making the biggest and best games in the industry (Not ignoring other big publishers, they were just the 5 with major press briefings). It was hard for anyone to hate on the games they showcased, I saw longtime EA haters praise some of their future lineup and I myself, who normally lacks interest in most Ubisoft games, found several games to get genuinely excited about. As much as we want to hate these big publishers, it becomes difficult when their games look this good.
Meanwhile, I look at the community page for Starbound, a game I was prepared to buy amidst its launch craziness, and see more and more disappointed purchasers wondering where the updates are or why it has been three months since any new content. I look at this game, still in Early Access, and wonder if it will ever be truly finished in the traditional release sense. Thousands of people spent their hard earned $15 on this game, only to have the game abandoned mid-development. It doesn’t matter if the money isn’t there or if the passion is gone, when you set out and commit to release a game and then don’t, you never should have made a game in the first place. Bigger and better studios have released their games, only to be closed because of cost or loss of passion, but they got the job done under their publishers. I think of 38 Studios and Big Huge Games, a studio that did their damndest to release Kingdoms of Amalur, only to lose everything in the process. That game, in spite of those struggles, released and was a good game. I hate to think that a talented team like that had to fade away while some indie studio can go on taking money from a game that may or may not ever leave Early Access. That’s not fair to anyone, and you know what? This doesn’t happen with big publishers. If you are an indie studio, but your scope and vision goes far beyond that designation, get a god damn publisher and make sure you actually release your game.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want indies to go away. I believe we are in a nice position where indies and big publishers are pushing each other to be better, and that is better for gamers as well. What we need to do it talk with our money, keep demanding quality from both sides and don’t support them just because they are indie or your favorite publisher. We need games like 2012-13 and games like we saw at E3, and we need to stop buying into Early Access. Publishers may be bad sometimes, but they aren’t taking your money before the game is out.