[[Edited for additional points I derped out on, and assorted spelling errors because apparantly I fail at keyboard.]]
So, I was having a conversation with my wife the other day in which I was explaining what I shall henceforth refer to as the Tim Schaffer Phenomenon, and about what Kickstarter is and what it means for funding products in general. I realized about halfway through that this whole topic sort of wound into the general animosity toward publishers these days. I’m going to use ‘publisher’ interchangibly with ‘movie studio’ and ‘record label’, because I’m going to touch on aspects of books, movies, music, and video games, such as I have been doing quite a bit lately. Of course, I quickly realized that if I was going to write about this, I needed to say something other than what everyone else I know, and a whole bunch of people that I don’t know, have already said: “Publishers are evil and deserve to fade into obscurity and vanish”. If I wrote a thousand words on that, I know I would get a whole lot of ‘like’s, and very little constructive discussion because I would be presenting exactly one side of the argument: the popular side. It would also partially be a rehash of every single comment anyone has made regarding The Ending (you know which one) and I’ve told everyone I’m saying no more about that, and I fucking mean it.
So I put out a call for someone to step up and say something in favor of publishers, so that I could have a counterpoint. Again, my wife already did a bit of that for me, using books as an example (as she does with many, many other things), but I wanted to see if I could generate some variance in the discussion. I was pleasantly surprised, and in the words of the internet, I ACCIDENTALLY AN ARTICLE.
Journalistic integrity check: I don’t have references to cite, so all my historical facts are probably half-remembered. The spirit of the article is genuine though.
Traditionally, publishers have been responsible for three things in regards to the artists and developers they represent: funding, advertisement, and distribution. Of course, no project can get off the ground without money, no amount of money can guarantee success if no one knows about it, and no amount of consumer knowledge and hype can sell a product that can’t make it to where the consumers are. I’m pretty sure the whole idea of the publisher began with the practice of ‘patronage’, where the poor, yet passionate artist would receive funding from a wealthy lord or lady in order that he may continue being an artist and not, for example, a stonecutter or blacksmith or whatnot. In return, the artist would perform or create works for the lord or lady, and often travel to play in court, where others would see the artist and thus, the artist’s renown would spread across the land. It was a symbiotic relationship in which each party gave to and took from the other. As time went on, the nobility sort of went out of fashion and good old American capitalism took over and facilitated pretty much the exact same sort of relationship, especially once recorded music came about. The role of the publisher was still pretty necessary. For example, nobody probably would have heard of Elvis, or John, Paul, George, and Ringo, if someone with a whole lot of money hadn’t taken notice of them and decided that they could make a whole lot more money if a whole lot of other people took notice of them too.
But then this thing happened. It’s called the Internet.
And after it had happened to the general public for about twenty years or so, something else happened.
Funding started to become a non-issue. Of course, funding still needs to happen, but Kickstarter and several similar services, or even something as basic as a Paypal ‘donate’ button, can generate quite a bit of initial money.
Distribution absolutely became a non-issue. It is much cheaper to distribute digitally than it is to distribute through traditional media, and a lot of people, including the author of this article, prefer digital distribution. Most of my PC game collection is on Steam now, all my music is either stored or streamed, and I get more TV and movies through Netflix than I do through almost any other means. Books are an exception, I still have shelves of books, but that’s personal preference. Other people like kindles and whatnot a whole lot more.
Advertisement started to become a non-issue as well. It’s again cheaper to advertise over the internet, and if people are streaming their TV instead of watching it through cable, internet advertisement will work better anyway. And nobody reads newspapers anymore because fuck newspapers, that’s why.
So again, where is the argument in /favor/ of publishers? Just by looking at what I’ve said up until now, they seem pretty useless, ineffective, and at their worst, dangerous. For the past few years there has been this gigantic push where publishers are thinking up more and more sleazy ways to justify their own existance. Just to give a few well-known examples that I probably don’t even have to give, we’ve got the record labels and movie studios suing their own target audience for thousands of dollars per minor infraction, we’ve got ‘project ten dollar’ where a game that is not bought brand new is fundamentally broken unless an additional ten dollars is paid to ‘unlock’ its full functionality, and we’ve got the recent ebook price fixing investigation (that hasn’t really ended yet, so the implications of it are not fully known). We’ve also got games that there has been a widespread demand to see released, that were held off on for over two years because… well, that’s the thing. I don’t really know why. Xenoblade Chronicles should have been localized. It /was/ localized, in English, in Europe. Literally all that was needed to be done was to print it on Region 1 discs, and that DID NOT HAPPEN for some reason which I still cannot fathom, until this month. I’ve stated before that publishers are the popular Big Bad now, and there’s so much bandwagon hate for them that this article almost didn’t get written.
The argument, as it were, came from a class of gamer I’m going to go ahead and call Johnny Job (or the female counterpart, Christina Career). This is the class of gamer that, in the past year, I have found myself in. I’m not in college anymore, and not paid by the hour either. I’ve got a job that demands more than 9-5, 40. I’ve got a commute, and on top of that, I’ve got a damn social life (who would have seen THAT one coming). Johnny and Christina, like me, grew up on the NES, the Genesis, and the early PC and had hours upon hours to dump into games. The ironic thing is that now that these gamers have grown up and have the means (sometimes) to afford more games, they don’t have the time to play as many of them. Similarly, they also do not have the time to put the sheer amount of research into each game in order to cut through the bullshit and find the gems.
Well. I mean. /I/ do the research. But that’s because I care. I care because I want to make sure Johnny and Christina play some goddamn games and have a good time doing it, and don’t waste their money.
So here’s where the positive aspect of the publisher comes in, in a way. If you buy a game, you want to know exactly what it is you’re signing up for, especially if you don’t have all that much time to play it. Why are Warcraft, Starcraft, and Diablo still on top despite several (arguably better in some cases) alternatives? Because if you buy a Blizzard game, you know it’s going to be /good/. You’re not taking as big of a chance. That’s why there was so much controversy surrounding The Ending (okay, one more mention, I’m done now): because people felt like they were not delivered the complete product they signed up for, and whether they are right or wrong in feeling that way is not relevant to this article. It’s why the Final Fantasy brand is on a downward swing, because people /don’t/ know what they’re signing up for when they pick up a game in that series anymore.
So in essence, the publisher becomes a filter, sifting through the muck and mire, and forming it into something solid and playable, making sure the target audience knows about it, and delivering exactly what said audience is signing up for. Additionally, the publisher also brings along the idea of accountability. Publishers are companies with structures, and who have deadlines and legal obligations. If a publisher puts money into a developer’s project, they do expect a return, and there is a structure in place to make sure that they get that return. Indie developers, artists, or whatnot who rely on donations don’t have that layer of accountability. If someone donates to a kickstarter or a musician’s paypal fund, there is absolutely no guarantee, other than the personal work ethic and the good will of said artist or developer, that there will ever be a product at the end, and if there is not, there is no legal recourse for the consumers who donated under the belief that that product would see the light of day. So a publisher should bring to the table credibility for the consumer, and accountability for the developer.
In a perfect world, anyway.
The flip side of that, is that the publisher is a filter in the bad sense, keeping the games that you want to play away from you and only offering you the same recycled junk all over again. I’m looking at you, Gears of War, Halo, Call of Duty, and every frakking zombie game with the word ‘Dead’ in the title. These are the kind of games that a group of people who are pretty disconnected from the masses and who probably have the words ‘director’ and ‘marketing’ in their titles have determined will sell the most copies, because every preceeding iteration of said games have sold a lot of copies. It’s the same problem movie studios have. Nobody wants to fund something that won’t sell, and the only things guaranteed to sell are things that have proven to have sold in the past. I mean, it’s why we have about a hundred goddamn Shrek movies.
But that’s where the comparison breaks down. Movies have a very high cost barrier for entry for directors, especially the full-on two-hour things. Sure, the internet and youtube make web-shorts possible (and quite popular, thanks to what I like to call the Whedon-Day Effect), but to create something to be shown in theaters takes quite a bit of cashflow. Studios actually serve a purpose there, and there are still some good movies that get through them, and if the worst we have to put up with is Michael Bay, then I think I can handle that tradeoff for now.
On the other end of the cost spectrum, there are books, and in this regard a publisher also serves a purpose. Books can be written by anyone, and I mean /absolutely anyone/. Case in point, I have absolutely no credentials as a writer, but you’re reading this article right now. I’m not saying I’m a /bad/ writer, and in fact I have been stunned by being brought face to face with overwhelming evidence that I am not. It’s just that there is absolutely no barrier to entry when it comes to writing. In this example, a publisher can step in and actually serve the purpose of finding the good writing amongst the painfully bad (most times), and help lend some professionalism (and editing) to an aspiring writer. Again, it’s not as easy as all that, and I know enough writers to know that getting accepted by a publisher is a lot of fucking effort, but when it works, boy does it work. I also know people who have successfully self-published, and that was the result of even more effort, trial and error, and a strong network of people to get their word-of-mouth on.
The argument can be made that a publisher can lend a game studio some credibility as well. The example I was given was Xbox Live Arcade, where there are tons of (mostly pretty bad) indie games. One can occasionally find a few gems there, but proportionately it doesn’t happen very often. But even then, those games only set one back a few dollars at most. The same can be said about the reason that iOS and Android are becoming viable gaming platforms these days. Games on those ‘systems’ will only set a person back a few bucks, and are well-suited for ‘burst gaming’. Certainly Johnny Job and Christina Career always have their iPhone or Droid with them and can catch a few rounds of Angry Birds or Temple Run between meetings or on the bus. Personally, I’ve only gotten into a couple of mobile games, but that’s because I’m not a ‘burst gamer’.
Music labels have the absolute least relevance, due to the very low cost-to-time commitment of trying out new music. Internet radio is free. And I’m not talking the internet streams of the complete shit that Clear Channel pushes onto FM radio. I’m talking about Pandora, LastFM, Spotify, iHeartRadio, Rdio, and a half million other similar services that stream music straight from the cloud to your eager ears. For free. If you like a song, you can pay about 99 cents, give or take, to grab the song from Amazon, Google Music, iTunes, and whatnot. And that’s for the big name songs, the popular stuff, the stuff everyone knows. The internet has allowed for the proliferation of indie artists and niche markets (Chiptunes FTW) in an unprecedented way, pioneered by both the talented and the charismatic. And if you don’t like an artist you’ve tried? You’re only out about three minutes of your time and, possibly, less than a dollar of your money. What, then, is the relevance of a major record label?
Yeah, I pretty much thought so. It’s why they’ve been the most aggressive in justifying their own existance and stifling change.
Anyway, the point of this article isn’t to say whether the existance of publishers is right or wrong for all media ever. I could have done that in two sentences. The point is to state that there are reasons for certain types of publishers to exist in certain situations for certain media, and for other situations publishers only serve to limit creativity and constrain the art as a whole. No one answer is right for every single person or situation. Not everyone is Tim Schaffer or Felicia Day right out of the gate, and sometimes the exposure a publisher can create is what a developer or artist needs to get their name out there, or to refine their work and iron out the rough parts. At the same time, sometimes a good Kickstarter is just what is necessary to get some exciting new ideas out there, or to revitalize old ones (like Shadowrun. I cannot overstate how excited I am about that). As always, the point of my writing is to offer perspective and generate healthy discussion.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go play Xenoblade Chronicles. Finally.
[This article is reposted with my permission at Attack Initiative.]