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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Games: Knar - Gar The Groin Ripper

Third party developers are a lot like restaurants in that the mortality rate is high, and that the prospect of your business crapping out in the first few months is often a better hope than the long bleed it could become.

The cost of programmers, artists,testers,hardware, and the random ins and outs of running a business in a technology driven industry makes the non "in-house" development team an endangered species. And if EA's attempted hostile takeover of Take-two was any indication, the big sharks can smell any devs blood in the water from a mile away.

And here is where the big problems, the problems that lead to the shutting of doors, the firing of employees, and the general fuckery of the whole situation occurs. Imagine you are a Producer in a moderately respected third party and you gained notice from Company X for your creative use of the Jumanji engine in your latest title, "Shane and Grinch."

So Company(Publisher) X sits you down and tells you that the grappling hook mechanic and usage of massive gibbs would be perfect for their new Video game adaptation of the film "Knar-Gar, the Groin ripper." They want the title to be multi platform and want it to coincide with the movies release July after next. you explain to them that this is the first simultaneous multi release your company has ever done, and that your version of the engine was tweaked for a specific console.

But they shoot down this logic with reassurances that they have worked closely with third parties in the past that voiced the same problem, and the outcome was simply David Blane magic.But with doubt in your heart and dollar signs in your eyes you get on-board, and out pops the Contract. Its nothing serious, and only a little binding, they say, just a way to keep things honest, and to keep both sides informed and on the path to success.

And stuck somewhere in-between the part about security badges and the section detailing parking privileges, is a little thing called a Milestone clause. This little gem of a business practice makes it legally clear that if you do not hit a (usually publisher defined) set of goals by a certain date, then you and your people are not getting paid. No one gets paid. The Programmer doesn't get paid, the testers don't get paid, the producers don't get paid. The Mocap dudes, don't get paid. And that is not good.

Say it is November now. The Launch date is about about nine months out and everything is looking good. The emails from the Publisher are positive. You as a smaller third party cannot afford a marketing juggernaut, but thanks to the fat pockets of Company X you see early teasers for you game on the Internet, and in magazines. They love how it is coming along, they sent you dev kits, manpower for test, even the programmers learned to code for all platforms by going to Naughty Dog's website. Every thing is looking great for a July launch, and everyone is getting paid.

So December rolls along, and the problems with it. You get an e-mail from The publishing manager about how the Gibbs that they loved so much are not going to get any play now because "Large Rob Cycle," and "Emohunt" have trusted video game violence into the spotlight during an election year, gotta tone down the violence, bud. So you run down to tell the programmers that they are going to have to go back and clean up the code they already finished.But its too late, they now have their own problems. 

They tell you that the testers are sending them way too many bugs about the goddamn grappling hooks, and that trying to fix all of them would take them well into the next lifetime, and that it would be easier for everyone involved to just tone the mechanic down to isolated...quicktime events... No.

So you run back to the office to stab you balls with chopsticks when you glance at an open magazine page flapping in the wind.And there on the page is none other than an old screen cap of Knar-gar in all his glory, Ascending a mountain with grappling hook in one hand, and an enemies throbbing nutsac in another, looking as if he just took a big bite out of it like it was a Georgia peach. Fuck.

Next thing you know you are a talking head on TV, shilling the hell out of a project that you don't even recognize anymore, while every journalist on the planet wants to crawl deep into you ass about the "uber Violnce" your new title touted when they played it at the HAXORZ game show. They want to give you both barrels concerning the voice acting, collision, the hard to open shrink wrap, and ask if these issues will be addressed by launch. Fuck. 

So you go back to the office and call a meeting. You tell everyone in the room what is riding on the project, and that the expectations have reached a fevered pitch because it is running parallel to the film. They all got to get on the ball and fix this, no matter how long it takes. Not so fast.

You get a call from the publisher and they are mad, well not really mad, just disappointed. You missed four of six milestones and unfortunately they cannot pay you the full royalty for that particular six week cycle. They hope you get back on the ball, they wish you luck, and remind you to tone it down,bud.

Usually no money from the Publisher would not be so crippling, but you took on the extra manpower from them and now you have to pay them. Everyone on staff has been working Eighty to ninety hour weeks and have been waiting on the "Big Check." So to not have that money during crunch time will just about be the worst thing that could happen. But hey, payday is about a week and a half away, so there is time to figure something out, right?

No. Its June now, the title is not close to shippable, a couple of programmers have quit, and you are now two milestones in the hole. It is looking bad, it is looking really bad. A "false launch"(A title that doesn't ship on its specified date) looks inevitable, and you getting shitcanned is both assured and looked forward to by yourself.

And then it comes. Company X has taken notice of your repeated missed deadlines, they notice your company unable to attain the standard of quality that the Company X brand requires. But it is ok, They have an option. If you sell your company to them, then they will eat the cost of the false launch, eat the cost of the missed milestones, and put a pretty penny into the coffers of you and your shareholders. And all they ask is that you work exclusively for them, under relaxed conditions, retaining most of the autonomy that you previously had.With the small exception that most of the money will go to them obviously, and the benefit of stock perks will be theirs also, and they choose and redline all the games you make.Besides that though, good times.

So you and your Dev house go with the only option available, and you spend the rest of your careers pandering to whatever Company X asks of you, Never getting to create original or innovative games because the company bottom line demands at least one hit from every company every fiscal year.

This cycle of Milestone manipulation occurs constantly in the game industry, and almost always serves to benefit to Larger company. And while it is true that former third parties like Neversoft and Vicarious visions still operate much like they did independently while under a large publisher( in this case Activision), far too many companies fold nowadays due to the intense pressure for every title to be a triple A success. 

I prefer the Valve method of "it will be done when it is done." A situation like this serves to allow employees to produce great work in an relaxed environment. And while I understand that it would be financially irresponsible for all companies to do this, I would like to see publishers allow some of the more respected and proven companies to have more time in producing their titles and to not be held under the thumb of unfair Milestone achievement practices.

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