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Risk Averse – How Gamers Are Becoming The New Publishers


Risk Averse – How Gamers Are Becoming The New Publishers

Note: This piece spoils the ending of Braid. Like, immediately. So if you haven’t played it, and you should, go do so.

It is now just over five years ago, a game came out that changed the course of gaming: Jonathan Blow’s platformer BraidBraid was a fundamentally straightforward platformer with a very simple hook; you could control time. Of course, that’s not what made Braid famous; what made it famous was its ending.

At Braid’s end, you witness a very serious revelation about your main character, Tim. He was the monster the whole time. He was chasing a princess that was desperately trying to run away from him. Tim was convinced of his own heroism, and it obscured a descent into villainy. He became what he perceived as evil.

Such is the nature of evil, that in time all foul things come forward…

I got a text on my fancy future phone from a friend of mine a couple of days ago as I walked into school. “Got that Day Z virus so I’m sick” (corrected for grammar), it said. I was a bit baffled for a moment before I remembered a detail I got by scrolling the news on the couch an hour or so prior: Day Z, the runaway success ARMA II mod from 2012 that substituted hardcore military simulation for hardcore multiplayer zombie apocalypse simulation, had finally gotten a standalone release. No longer do those who wish to jump into the hellish days and nights of Chernarus need to buy the full suit of ARMA II and its expansion Operation Arrowhead.

However, there is a catch: the game is not complete.

Which attaches a certain amount of irony to this picture, though in Mr. Hall’s defense this came along six months prior to now in the Standalone Alpha’s development.

Today, the version of the game you can purchase on Steam via Early Access for thirty American dollars is in its Alpha development stage, meaning it is very early in development. It is feature-complete (possibly), but in nowhere near anything resembling a finished product. To quote direct from Dean “Rocket” Hall and Bohemia Interactive from the DayZ Steam page:

“DayZ Early Access is your chance to experience DayZ as it evolves throughout its development process. Be aware that our Early Access offer is a representation of our core pillars, and the framework we have created around them. It is a work in progress and therefore contains a variety of bugs. We strongly advise you not to buy and play the game at this stage unless you clearly understand what Early Access means and are interested in participating in the ongoing development cycle.”

This Early Access business model has swung into popularity in recent years, with Minecraft as the usher. It is, as most all business strategies are, a double-edged blade. It offers an inside look at the building of a game and displays a remarkable and welcome amount of transparency between developers and consumers. It provides developers with a working ground and an excellent QA department, and the funds to continue making the game, begetting a pay to access Alpha that gives you access to the game forever at a reduced price, but at the cost of playing a buggy, constantly in development work in progress build of the game.

It also has the unintended side-effect of turning gamers into publishers.

*cue that really sharp violin they use in horror movies*

We live in the Kickstarter-era. Crowdfunding has become the name of the independent development game, a buzzword tossed around so often that it is only a few misuses away from being as meaningless as synergy. That’s not meant as a put down to those who seek crowdfunding; for many, it’s the only snowball’s chance in hell they have of gathering the money needed to fund development.

Of course, the reason they have to go to crowdfunding in the first place is because big publishers are very, very risk averse. The franchise dominates. The marketable rules. Even though I am an optimist, and that I believe games should be able to be played by all (still allowing for difficulty) and that “dumbing-down” is a very stupid criticism, there becomes a point where it stops becoming “accessibility”, and becomes “playing to the market demographic.” If you choke a market with enough of one thing, it becomes the only thing.

This is the heart of the Independent Revolution of the recent years that captured the minds of gamers around the world. It was rebellion against an increasingly draconian publishing system that devoured entire studios in its search for profitable franchises. We’ve seen the results. The Indies are the new rockstars of game development. Mike Bithell, Zoe Quinn, Davey Wreden, The Fullbright Company, The Chinese Room, Hello Games, these are now name developers. Their games are now used as selling devices for entire consoles, celebrated by the common gamer as auteurs, and through those two they have become the battleground for an entire new console generation.

The Independent Revolution gave way to crowdfunding with the advent of Tim Schafer, an auteur from long before the new Indies showed up, and his Double Fine project we now call Broken Age. Raising over 3.3 million dollars, Schafer, a creative genius oft stifled by publishers, had found his way out in the hands of the fans he had won with his own skill.

But those hands, as they say in the old Roman proverb, did not give out 3.3 million dollars without expecting results. Frustration has grown in recent months among the giving hands about reports of Schafer somehow running out of money when we gave him THREE MILLION DOLLARS, along with the other Double Fine Kickstarter campaign for Massive Chalice. Not all the focus was on one project. The backers were not getting results. This was a debacle for Schafer, and now we know that the game has been split into two halves. We were only getting half of a game.

I should know about the frustration. I’m one of those backers. I wasn’t quite angry, but I was saddened. I had made a bet on an auteur, and it had given me a delay and a promise. For a moment, I though it wasn’t worth it. For a moment, I swore off crowdfunding. For a moment, I wished Schafer would just get the damn game out so I could see a return.

And then I remembered Braid. 

…question is, what shape will that evil take?

I remembered Tim, who became what he fought against, and I realized what had happened. These were the thoughts of the people who we funded Schafer in protest of. That was the thought of a publisher.

Crowdfunding has given way to the Alpha release model, where a game is released unfinished with the option to pay for permanent access. And now, into our hands, are the responsibilities of a publisher. We must judge product before it is ready, we must judge far in advance if it will be worth the dollars spent, and we must hound developers give us something to show for our investment. While for now the crowdfunding and Early Access movement is riding on a wave of goodwill, as we find more and more games taking on this model, the more and more will come up a rat; it’s statistics, and it’s unavoidable. People will get frustrated and angry, and they will swear off these more unique experiences for fear of getting burned just one more time by simple human failure. Cynicism will set in and, sure as the turning of the Earth, we will make the same mistakes the publishers do, and stomp on creativity in favor of the dollar.

Well, we won’t necessarily make those mistakes, it’s merely an option, one path. We have to choose to make those mistakes. The other option is to own it, and be the best damn publishers we can.

We will need to be diligent and smart. Trust developers to be able to deliver on their promises, hold them accountable for when they do not, and fulfill our end by offering useful, operable feedback that the developers can use to make better games. For the love of some higher power, do not infringe on their creativity. What stifling them does is create cycles of crap where people lose confidence in developers because they can’t deliver when we don’t allow them to deliver in the first place.

Allow them to make the games they want, even games that you may believe have “bad endings” or “don’t count” as games because they don’t have these traditional mechanics we’ve relied upon for decades. We cannot step in, we cannot be risk averse. Risk is what creates the best new things. We were the ones who backed the Independent Revolution. We went searching for these new experiences, new avenues. We want these things, we need these things. We need to have complete trust in them for them to trust us, and I think they do trust us. We aren’t stupid.

Like the winding roads of DayZ’s Chernarus as the sun goes down, it will be dangerous, and it will not be easy. Bad things will come in the dark on all sides, try to take us back to where we were, but we can’t afford to fail. After all, we’re the publishers now. It’s in our hands.

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