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Are Backers Publishers?

Tim Eisen Posted:
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There was no update this week, which I’m hearing ironically means some good things for backers. As a result, I thought it might be a good time to talk about everyone’s favorite villain, video game publishers! What are they and have we become them? Let’s start with a highly simplified history lesson.

Long long ago in a MMORPG genre most of us only remember nostalgically game developers needed lots of money to make MMORPGs. They could get that by getting bank loans or through private investors. Considering how risky games were (and are) and considering how hard (and expensive) it was to market your game to a wider audience going through a video game publisher became the most logical option.

The publisher served the role of banker. You pitched them your concept and they paid you to make it! Easy right? Once finished they promoted and distributed your game taking care of all the nasty legal stuff in-between. In the end the publisher made their money back off of game sales (and developers got a % depending).

Of course nothing in life is free. Publishers generally don’t hand out money and say “holler back at me when it’s done”. Games are extremely difficult and risky. To minimize risk and maximize profitability publishers often get more involved with development than a developer would like. Not unlike Hollywood this often results in sequel fatigue and a product that is less progressive and more of what has proven to sell before. In our world its why we had 10 years of WOW clones.

Studios need to recoup their investment, developers (being creative types) often want to make playable art. I believe it creates an art vs business philosophical conflict. Art is extremely flexible, especially when it’s trying to attain greatness. Unfortunately chasing something that intangible results in delays that we all know and expect from game developers. Business on the other hand is not. It comes down to math, specifically dollars gained and dollars lost. That issue is compounded with publicly traded publishers who have investors to answer to.

As more and more MMORPGs failed publishers became less willing to bet on them. The ones they did they over produced which resulted in a bunch of unevolved theme parks. From their point of view it’s hard to fault them but where did that leave developers like Mark Jacobs?

He was someone that I believe wanted to make MMORPG art. The kind that evolved the genre and challenged the very idea of what a MMORPG was supposed to be. That isn’t the kind of game a publisher would want to risk money on, frankly even if it was I’m not sure he would have wanted to work with one again.

This is where we came in. We changed how gaming worked and we did it by crowd funding games like Camelot Unchained effectively cutting out the publisher and their oversight when we did. This allowed developers like MJ to fund their project and remove much of the financial risk while maintaining creative control. Instead of starting out in a hole and having to code their way out of it they started out with game sales!

Believe me, I never imagined it would work. I thought it was insanity but clearly I underestimated the players of the MMORPG genre and how deep our desire for a progressive MMORPG was! We would rather buy words on paper than another generic unevolved MMORPG!

That brings me to the question, now that fans fund games does that make us the publishers? “LOL silly Tierless, we are customers not publishers!” I don’t disagree. Publishing terms never came up as part of the Kickstarter offer. I have never expected anything beyond what the tier I purchased contains and I feel like I’ve gotten far more than I ever imagined from CSE but it’s a relevant question to ask, especially if crowd funding continues into the future. We provide the finances. We assumed the risk, we even market the game, build the brand and help with development! All things a publisher did prior. It certainly sounds like we could make an argument!

I’m not naive. 20,000 people couldn’t agree on the color of grass let alone actually unite to become a game publisher but let’s close our eyes and let our imaginations run a bit. We would have to unite and elect representatives almost like a union of co-op. If such a group existed how would that effect crowd funding? There is great power in numbers. Imagine going to a developer and saying “We are 20,000 strong. We will collectively back your project but what can you offer us? What assurances can we get? How much do you want from us, here are our package options for 5k 10k, or all 20k of us and what we want in return.”. I’m not even talking about money; I’m talking about pretty pixels-digital returns! Celebrities use their social media followers in negotiations. What if MMORPG fans became legion? You would be hard pressed to find a more digitally capable group of people to have backing you.

It’s fun to fantasize about this sort of thing but if I’m fantasizing about it I’d guess someone smarter than me has already tried it or is about to. It’s only natural. With new sources of income will come new ways for people to utilize it and control the power that comes with it. The day the Camelot Unchained (or any crowd funded game for that matter) Kickstarter ended every backer got onto an ark and set sail into uncharted water. There are things we think about now that we never imagined back then. There are hundreds more questions that haven’t even come up that will get answered as this development of Camelot Unchained continues. I used to get the thrill of the unknown from the games, I never imagined I would find that old feeling in their development as well but I’m glad I did.


Tim Eisen

I roleplay a wordsmith that writes about the technological and social evolution within the game industry