What is a Publisher?
What is the difference between a game developer and a publisher? Well first indulge me a short story. In what seems like another life, I had a friend and they had a parent who used to go to work each day to the Postmaster General's Office. The Postmaster General’s office was at the time the post office. When my friend had matured in age, their father sat them down and explained that they didn’t quite work at the post office and all those office barbecues that they went to where everyone pretended that they worked at the post office were actually family gatherings at the security services. Yes, their father was a spy. But what was really interesting about my friends’ fathers’ position was his official designation. It was not military; it was civilian and therefore the positions had civilian names. His designation was a “generalist”. I can’t lie, I do love a great spy film as much as the next guy, and as such that designation stuck with me. It was the ultimate designation for a spy, a jack of all trades. Not too technical and not too upper class, not too brutal. It was perfect. It was the blunt instrument of description that encompassed every action from the eloquent to the vicious. The generalist.
Fast forward many years and I cannot stop thinking about how this description becomes equally as appropriate when trying to differentiate the publisher from the developer.
There is no argument when it comes to being able to self-publish. The barriers don’t exist anymore, and digital distribution makes the path to bringing your game directly to market. So the what can a publisher do for a developer is more of another article topic, but let's just keep on the track of what the differences are.
In contrast to the idea of the publisher as a generalist, process of development requires a collective of specialists. Designers, producers, programmers and artists who utilize their expertise toward the common goal that is the vision of the game designer.
Publishing on the other hand, is much more akin to joining the dots. To understanding an entire process in ways that allow an interpretation or a prediction of what the outcome maybe. It’s a dark art of picking cards from a deck that has no blemishes to guide you to popular picks.
By adopting the term generalist and applying it to the world of publishing is to imagine yourself as a person who is able to join many hands and understand all aspects of an extremely broad process. To understand the experience of now and the demand of tomorrow. It's the ability to understand how a game is conceived and how an idea can gain traction and evolve to a game mechanic that has a place in a future market. To imagine how a look and feel before it morphs into an art style and how it will age over the development cycle and beyond. How a games authors relate to their environment and each other to work within close contact to bring an idea to life. It’s understanding the transformation of basic versions to alpha and beta versions, it’s the ability to imagine multiple threads and tales of protagonists lives yet to be written. It’s the foresight to see the posters in the streets, the fan art and the queues of people purchasing merchandise, long before the porting has begun. The games industry publisher is perhaps the greatest Generalist. For he knows when to raise an issue, when to argue a point and when a battle is not worth fighting.
Perhaps the idea of a game’s publisher can be romanticized. The true role of a publishing is the management of established and emerging intellectual property. I recently observed a talk on game publishings future and that the role of the publisher has changed. That the publisher is no longer a monolith that serves a single sales and marketing function. It’s a multi-dimensional partner in the creative process. A developer of brands and manager of these brands and intellectual properties. The truth is that this is not some revelation, but a true picture of what games publishing has always been. Every games publisher throughout history has engaged in pure distribution. Pure distribution is the process where they simply sell and market a game as opposed to developing and owning the intellectual property. They still call it publishing but essentially its somewhat different. Why does a mix of both publishing and distribution work?
Well, simply put - development timelines are so long and unpredictable it's almost inevitable that the publisher’s pipeline will experience periods without any new products. That is only a problem if you don’t have or don’t want to spend your resources on having a whole team of people waiting for new games. If you want to save that cash for a rainy day, or another project and want to keep your publisher operations in full operating mode you introduce distributed product.
Whilst the statement that publishing is about developing brands and intellectual property is very true that doesn’t make the statement that publishing is about distribution, sales and marketing not true. The fact is, both are true. Being good at one makes your chances of success higher at the other.
You get good at doing things not because you know more about it than the next person but through practice. Releasing or publishing games is a process and more you engage in that process the better you will become at it. Law is of course is tied to the idea of practicing as opposed to simply knowing.
One of the first questions as a publisher you will be asked by a developer is what you can do for me? The answer to that is a good practiced publisher will employ the expertise that has been gathered by the years of sales, marketing and distribution and apply it to your game.
So back to the beginning and the central question — My answer to this question is simply this — A developer is a group of specialists working toward a common goal. A publishing group are an organization of generalists whose expertise is knowing all parts of the process. Working in unison can give both parties a far greater chance of success.