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The developer-publisher relationship can be a difficult one full of love, hate, confusion, and delays. That’s why it’s important for both sides to find partners that they can get along with and launch a successful product with.
David Jaffe, who’s directed games like Twisted Metal and God of War, has years of insight into a the publisher-developer deal. To him, it’s like starting a new relationship. “It’s kind of like going out on a date with someone you’ve just met,” Jaffe said when talking about the first pitch a developer makes to a publisher. At some point you have to be yourself and let them see that, no matter how well you dress up. Genuineness and passion can go a long way. However, for something to hit, there has to be mutual love.
Jaffe, who’s now working on the multiplayer shooter Drawn to Death at The Barlet Jones Supernatural Detective Agency, discussed this relationships with two others on the publishing side during a panel at our GamesBeat 2016 conference in Ranchos Palos Verde, California, This included Mark Stanley of GameStop, the massive game retailer that recently got into the publishing game (its first title was Song of the Deep earlier this year, developed by Insomniac Games), and Walter Driver from the mobile publishing company Scopely.
Stanley says its important for a publisher to understand how a developer operates. Some like to focus on one project at a time, while others work on three at a time. GameStop looks at the pedigree of a developer before partnering with them, but still knows that things can happen that can delay project. He notes that GameStop shares all of its numbers, including profitability, with developers. When problems arise, they collaboratively work through it.
Driver said that for them the project is secondary to the people they work with. They have to be able to trust and like the developer, as well as enjoy past projects by them. Scopely also wants to be sure that the developer has team members that get along and are able to produce. He noted that for free-to-play, the publisher-developer deal is a longer-term relationship. They often figure out what the project is together. They don’t like super-specific pitches, since Scopely prefers to get in on a project early.
“For me, it’s always been about making the customer happy,” Jaffe said. At the beginning, the publisher becomes the first customer, so they are the first people you have to please. Sometimes that can become difficult or frustrating when the two sides begin to disagree. His history with a publisher has given Jaffe the context to understand decisions that other developers might find confusing or idiotic.
Driver says Scopely avoids the “us vs. them” mentality by assigning whole teams to a developer. It helps put both parties in the same side and share in the stakes. Scopely also assumes that nothing will come in on time and on budget, so it puts in some padding room for both. It depends on metrics, since it provides black and white numbers that can’t be argued.
Jaffe noted that most of the games he’s worked on have had extensions numerous times. He explained that mechanics-based games can depend more on their core, while a story-based game can come under more scrutiny. As a result, the story-based projects often see more delays.
Jaffe also said that it becomes easy to blame a publisher toward the end of development if you don’t get as much marketing or support as you want. Developers always want more.
“All the marketing in the world isn’t going to help a game that doesn’t have a commercial hook,” Jaffe said. He used Uncharted as an example, which saw more marketing from Sony than his own Twisted Metal. While it can be frustrating if you’re working on the game with less market appeal, it’s a reality of business.
“Just fucking deal with it,” said Jaffe.
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