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Will Wright’s departure signals the end of the entire games publisher business model

By on April 8, 2009

Will Wright has left Electronic Arts after 12 years. His departure is not just a challenge for EA: it will be a pivotal moment in the demise of the games publisher

In a press release this morning, Electronic Arts announced the formation of Stupid Fun Club, “entertainment think tank developing new Intellectual Properties” run by Will Wright, creator of SimCity, the Sims and Spore. 

Electronic Arts and Will Wright each own equal percentages and are the principal shareholders in Stupid Fun Club and each own equal percentages. (The wording suggests that there are other shareholders – I guess other employees).

The “Hollywood-isation” of games

I am convinced that this is the start of a major trend: the elevation of a few superstars of game development who can “open” a game, get their names on the box and command an increasing proportion of the economic value that they create. It is the beginning of the “Hollywood-isation” of games.

Although I doubt filthy lucre is Wright’s only reason for this move, Lucy Bradshaw, VP and General Manager at Maxis may have hit the nail on the head when she said “it’s been rewarding for us to bring his ideas to life.” Rewarding for EA, certainly. But perhaps not as rewarding for Will Wright, one of the few superstars of gaming, as if his own production company, in which he owned a close-to-50% stake, had made the game.

Let’s take a moment to think about how movies get made in Hollywood. Production companies consisting of a small cadre of key talent develop script ideas. These ideas are pitched to major studios who, if they greenlight the project, finance, market, sell and distribute the movie. The production companies can pull in the best talent – actors, writers, directors, cinematographers and a host of technicians – to make the best possible movie. Since the talent can make or break a movie, they can command premium rates. The stars get rich.

Compare this with the standard games publisher model, where the publishers have their developers on employment contracts, deploy them where they see fit, and rarely share the fruits of mega-hits with their creators.

Now don’t get me wrong. This is not a diatribe against publishers. I still believe that they provide a critical (and under-rated by developers) function in the games business. Without them, the majority of developers might as well pack up and go home, because for the forseeable future, publishers will been the main source of finance and distribution for games. Indeed, as we approach a more Hollywood-style model, developers had better grow to love the publishing houses (or at least to say that they do), in the same way that movie production companies love studios. Because they need them.

But once you have reached the heights that Will Wright has attained, as a game developer who is sufficiently well known that his name alone can guarantee sales, you can start to break the mould. You can say that you don’t want to be contracted to do what EA wants. That you want the freedom to explore new concepts. Concepts that might turn into dead-ends or might turn into the next Sims. And that at the same time, you want to be able to get paid – really, properly, paid – for your unique expertise.

Talent is scarce. Really scarce.

There are only a handful of developers who could possibly put themselves in this position. Miyamoto. Sid Meier. Maybe Molyneux. Tim Schafer. American McGee.

And on the one hand, the publishers are desperate to stop this from happening. Desperate to stop the process that will see major economic value shift from publishing house to key creative talent.

But on the other hand, they will encourage it. Because putting Tim Shaffer’s name on the box will help sell more copies of Brutal Legend. And Will Wright shifted Spore. And so on. So publishers will help create the star-system that will change their business model for ever.

It is a truism in Hollywood that the majority of people working in it could get paid much more elsewhere. They keep striving because of the outlandish rewards available to those few who make it. That desire to succeed, and to get the rewards from success, keep people struggling and toiling in the movie business. And the same will happen in games as developers and production companies try to emulate Wright, and Shaffer et al.

Is now the time?

I’m also not saying that this will happen fast. A number of other major changes need to happen for this model to be dominant:

  • The emergence of a freelance games development workforce, coming together for a project in the same way a crew assemble for principal photography on a movie. (Owain Bennallack’s excellent article in Develop sets out some of the issues and requirements here, and I particularly endorse #5: the need for equitable pay)
  • Acceptance of new financing models such as single-project special purpose vehicles
  • Increased reliance on standardised middleware to allow contractors to move from project to project
  • Massively increased expertised in outsourcing and managing vast projects mainly staffed by outside contractors

But I am convinced that Will Wright’s departure will be seen by future historians of the games industry as a turning point. As the moment when the creative talent broke free of the contractual restrictions of publisher employment and were freed to pursue their dreams.

But it’s not all good news for developers

However, this is not the beginning of a development utopia. There is some bad news for all those developers who are not superstars (in other words, everyone except the handful of individuals names above):

But these new production companies will give developers an example to aim for. And, as developers increasingly move from project to project as freelancers, they will get to work with the best and brightest creative talent in the world.

The Golden Age of Gaming

The emergence of a new industry structure will be good for innovation and creativity. It will be good for investors in publishers (who will be investing in a marketing machine, not an expensively-staffed hit factory). It will be great for gamers and absolutely fabulous for a handful of exceptional developers.

I am convinced that this is the beginning of a Golden Age of Gaming.

Tell me what you think.

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: