Here’s a wacky idea: Instead of the traditional tough-parent, bad-child publisher/studio relationship, let’s do like other creative industries and treat developers as adults. Let’s grant them increased leeway and freedom as they earn it, instead of the constant antagonistic bond of mistrust and autocracy that turns good games bad.

Once initial surprise over the Microsoft/Bungie split evaporated, it didn’t take much to recognize the universal benefits. Both firms probably see themselves as getting the long end of the stick. Microsoft keeps a property that prints money. Bungie gets its coveted independence and multiplatform options. The publisher won, the developer won. Even players won.

Bungie’s reasoning behind the split was they didn’t want to make nothing but Halo all their life. Halo had become a proven franchise, and the creative minds at the studio were eager to wander fresh roads. But that required a split from Microsoft, which conventional wisdom says should be unlikely, but Bungie did well for Microsoft and got something surprising – something Microsoft by no means had to give – in return.

Reapplying the core concept, imagine this: a developmental relationship between studios and publishers based on the idea of mutual back scratching, instead of a make-us-money-while-we-backseat-drive arrangement. If publishers were willing to offer the incentive of additional and escalating creative freedom as a reward for successful releases, we’d likely see much better games and much higher profits.

First Comes Broccoli, Then Comes Dessert

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Time and again we see the best, most innovative games coming from self-funded studios and studios with significant creative control over their projects. Irrational, Valve and Blizzard are all good examples. Some are independent, some are not, but they each had near-total creative control over their most successful properties. They got it thanks to a consistent record of retail success. As for smaller studios lacking the autonomy of a Valve or Maxis, there’s no reason why their financiers shouldn’t grant them even greater leeway, provided they’ve earned it.

The most obvious way to implement is just as simple as a do-your-chores-before-you-watch-TV understanding: “You, studio, make my movie tie-in or expansion pack or umpteenth sequel. Manage well, come in on time and under budget and produce a successful game. I, publisher, will then reward you with unparalleled creative freedom for your next project.” Work on preexisting IP may seem less onerous when developers have an incentive to get through it.

The model depends on two things. First, studios must be willing (and able) to hold up their end of the bargain, whether or not the initial project is a dream job. Those that can’t will fall by the wayside. Second, publishers actually have to make good on their promises, and recognize that an independent, unshackled studio does better than one in chattel. That’s the hard part, but it has happened.

Take Radical Entertainment and The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction. Rather than sullenly phoning in a blah franchise product so they could move onto their own IP, Radical produced a clever and well-received game that moved a lot of units. And as the ducats were rolling in from Hulk, Vivendi was rolling the dice on Radical, rewarding them with enormous creative freedom in their next project, the original-IP Prototype. Having earned Vivendi’s faith, Radical is now challenged to justify it by working on exactly the game they want to make. Assuming Prototype succeeds, both companies win again, inventing a new property that may become a lucrative franchise itself.

The whole by-carrot approach means developers first have to work on something that represents a safe financial bet for the publisher – something like an Incredible Hulk tie-in, something possibly rather dull, something that may put drastic limits on originality and is almost certainly tied to a brutal schedule. What’s more, the developer not only has to work on this humdrum project, it has to produce sales volume if it wants its carrot.

This is a get lemons/make lemonade situation. And hugely successful, creatively independent studios commonly manage it. Treat an unwelcome project as a chore, and the game will come off as one; treat it as an opportunity, and your future products will benefit. Radical experimented with urban open-world settings in Hulk and is now putting that to use in Prototype. BioWare did those D&D licenses and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, gathering best practices for Dragon Age and Mass Effect. Irrational produced SWAT 4 and Tribes: Vengeance, applying the lessons they learned to BioShock.

I Ate The Damn Broccoli, Now Leave Me Alone
The flaw in this model is publishers don’t exactly have a history of good developer care and feeding. The system has no checks or balances, few ways to ensure the publisher won’t get nervous and crack down in violation of its own agreement. Or, to be fair, that liberated developers won’t immolate their own projects in a frenzy of creative abandon. Industry vet Ernest Adams warns of both:

Creative free rein is so vague and unquantifiable that it’s impossible to put in a contract, so there’s no good way to hold a publisher to it … [and] any publisher who starts feeling as if the project is running off the rails … is going to clamp down, promise or no promise.”

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You can’t translate creative freedom to legalese, and a gentlemen’s agreement won’t cut it. The only hope is to mutually develop the parameters of the independence in advance and codify them as best as possible. Doubtless there will be many false starts. But witness passing evidence that larger publishers – even ones ridiculed for their obsession with franchise IP – are seeing the light when it comes to the fact that trustworthy developers with creative autonomy tend to turn out some pretty amazing games.

As to Adams’ second point, it’s less a problem of publishers clamping down on a troubled project; it’s their eagerness to do so. If development is going badly awry, the publisher should step in and snap the leash. GSC Game World‘s S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl actually turned out pretty well, but THQ had to slam the lid – hard – on a project that had long since lost direction. Turning the screws on GSC was the right thing to do, since the alternative might mean the game never would have shipped. I can’t fault a publisher for monitoring and protecting its investment and the allowance of creative freedom shouldn’t negate that right.

But publishers must recognize the difference between acting to protect an asset and acting so rashly that premature interference derails the project. A proven studio should have earned clemency, should be allowed time to right itself before the publisher intervenes. That right there is the biggest flaw in the model. Adams voices the practical concerns regarding the codification of “creative freedom” rather pragmatically: “I think we’re better off struggling for all the creative freedom we can get on every project, rather than accepting an iron fist now in the hopes of lenient treatment later.”

Adams isn’t being a curmudgeon; he’s being a realist. His views are those of a longtime industry player whose experience has made him cautious. Plenty of developers probably view an incentive-based model as hopelessly optimistic, as far too trusting of entities that repeatedly demonstrate untrustworthiness. There can be no argument that developers should struggle for maximum freedom on every project, no matter what. This should never change, and publishers need to recognize that. The thought process behind this model isn’t about developers trading away all their freedoms for some mysterious future boon, it’s about publishers hedging their bets and improving games by supporting validated properties as well as innovative ideas.

Bluntly, it’s about finally recognizing that creative latitude means better games, and better games mean bigger sales.

Irrational Exuberance Or Exuberant Innovation

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Publishers are not clairvoyant, which is why they’re reluctant to risk piles of money on unseen providence. And while it’s true that creatively independent studios tend to produce remarkable games, success isn’t guaranteed. Look no further than Psychonauts. Double Fine shipped the sort of product we’d hope to see if this model were adopted. But Psychonauts failed, largely due to flaccid marketing from people who clearly didn’t understand the game. Which leads to another challenge with an incentive-based development model: other entities, such as marketing, will want their own fingers in the creative pie and may not care what promises a publisher has made.

“We need more innovation in games” is losing substance as a catchphrase. “Innovation” has too many meanings. id Software‘s engines are remarkably innovative, yet DOOM 3‘s gameplay was derivative. The Wii is unquestionably the most innovative console of the generation, but it’s not technologically advanced. Halo sells a bazillion copies despite the fact that it’s about as innovative as any PC shooter five years its senior. Then you have something like BioShock, a revelation of narrative, setting and theme, but even its creators are quick to point out that it is, first and foremost, a shooter. Doesn’t make it any less innovative.

Incentivizing development with the promise of eventual freedom is a risky proposition for both sides, but gaming is the only creative industry that doesn’t take the risk. If a studio proves itself capable of developing a successful game within the parameters set by the publisher, it should be rewarded with additional leeway on its next project. This will lead to more creativity, more unique ideas, more innovation and, certainly, more deliciously profitable franchises to fob off on the next newbie studio. Everyone assumes risk. Everyone can win. And the business grows in more than just dollars, a benefit that’s hard to oppose.

Matthew Sakey is a freelance games consultant and journalist. His column “Culture Clash” is published monthly at the International Game Developers Association website. Reach him at [email protected].

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