Today I will be answering a few questions that readers have sent in, hopefully giving you all an inside look into the videogames industry.
Q. Do some publishers pay websites/magazines to give their game a good score? I've heard of this yet never seen it...
A. Quite relevant considering the recent scandal and rumour regarding Atari "paying" for positive reviews for Driv3r.
To answer the question, I don't believe that it is as prevalent as it used to be. Back in the 16-bit days, there were numerous occasions when a publisher would take a group of journalists out for an evening and supply them with as much alcohol (and sometimes women!) as possible in order to gain a more encouraging review, but even then it was pretty rare to be so blatant. What did tend to happen was that pressure was applied by the publisher towards the magazine publisher over future advertising space (which of course the publisher paid for) in order to gain a few extra points.
In the current climate, publishers tend not to bother with the print magazines due to their low circulation to target markets following the uptake of the Internet, and now spend their money on brand awareness in order to sell their products. The most obvious of these recently has been EA, whom have spent many millions on pushing the EA Sports and EA Games. The benefit of this is that for casual games purchasers (which are the majority), they can go into a store without knowing what they want and notice a brand that they have seen advertised on TV - an EA Brand, and pick that product up.
So to come back to the original question, nobody would ever admit to paying for a positive review score and the sites and magazines know that their own credibility could be damaged if they make things too obvious, but they may well be times when an publisher paid trip somewhere (with free beer) could make the difference between an 85% score and a 90% score. Possibly ...!
Q. Who controls the game? Does the developer come up with a game, and ask the publisher for $$$ so they can make it, or does the publisher want a certain game made and ask a developer to make it?
A. In the current climate of games development, it is normally the latter that starts the development process. Unfortunately, not many independent developers have the funds in the bank to dedicate a small team to concept development, however, it is still not unheard of for a publisher to take on a concept from a developer they have close links to.
What normally happens is that the publisher has a gap in their own product grid for the release year (a product grid is basically a list of all the possible genre's that the publishers wants to fill). They may instead have a license that they have acquired that they want made into a game, or maybe they can see an area of the market where they would like to be. What normally happens is that the publishers have their own 'favoured' developers, or those that they have worked with before and have confidence in. One or more of these developers may be asked to pitch for the project and then the developer has to spend time creating documentation to tell the publisher how they would go about it.
Documents created for the pitch would normally include a show-reel, a full or overview GDD (Game Design Document), a TDD (Technical Design Document), a document detailing the biographies of the key development team, a product schedule, a milestone schedule and maybe even a vertical slice demo, to name but a few. Obviously there is a lot of work involved here and the developers that do not get the contract end up wasting funds and time chasing a lost cause.
Part of this process involves the $$$ and it is not always the cheapest developer who gets chosen! Bearing in mind that a "normal" title can cost upwards of $5m to develop, the publisher obviously wants to ensure that their investment is as risk free as possible, and may well decide to go with the more expensive, but less risky studio.
So in summary, it is normally the latter although sometimes the former.
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