Game Developers’ Bill of Rights

Eric Zimmerman has published a “Game Developers’ Bill of Rights” on Gamasutra.com. The bill is based on the Creator’s Bill of Rights, which was written for comic developers in 1988.

It begins with article #1: “The right to full ownership of what we fully create.” The other rights derive from this one, including final say over creative, distribution, licensing, and marketing matters. In other words, ultimate control.

Zimmerman quotes Greg Costikyan, who once argued that developers should retain the rights to their games “because they fucking should.” Points for succinctness, but not much else. In any industry, when you take money from an investor to fund an embryonic venture, the investor usually ends up owning the venture. There are two ways around this:

  1. Fund the venture on your own to start, then negotiate for more control based on your initial, demonstrable success.
  2. Become respected enough that you can negotiate for control rights from the very beginning of the venture process.

As an entrepreneur and small business owner, I wish things weren’t this way, but they are. Why not focus on practical solutions to developers’ problems? Working towards greater solidarity would be a good start. Support of digital distribution initiatives would be another.

Ultimately, a developer is free to negotiate their own deal — or to walk away from an “unacceptable” offer. A publisher that does business with an inexperienced developer is taking a big risk… which explains (however unsatisfyingly) their ownership demands. Do I think publishers abuse their control? In many cases, yes. Are they wrong to negotiate for ownership in the first place? Probably not.

21 Responses to Game Developers’ Bill of Rights

  1. I think that the Bill of Rights isn’t addressing the reality of the situation, but at the same time, your piece here doesn’t address the goals of the document either.

    You’re right that developers already have the right to go it on their own. The problem is that it’s impossible for the developers to actually do so. If you wanted to make it on your own, you have to:

    Make a small game that doesn’t require more than a few guys working in their free time.
    Coordinate a lot more free-time developers to create a regular-scale title (never heard of this being done).
    Be independently wealthy and pay for it yourself.

    I’m not sure I buy your assertion that you can earn enough respect to talk your way out of the game, either. Maybe if you’re Peter Molyneux, but there’s only like five guys of that caliber, so that argument doesn’t make sense. So the publishers’ deal is essentially the only game in town. That’s what the Bill of Rights is for — changing perceptions so that it’s more legitimate for regular developers to ask for control.

    The other thing at play here is that the publishers very often fail to capitalize on their ownership of game properties. It may well be to their financial advantage to relinquish control. But I would guess that the people who run these companies are by and large more interested in power than they are in money. :-/

    The root of the blame lies on the structure of the industry. All the costs are front-loaded, and all the sales happen within weeks of release. Cut down the amount of pre-release costs and increase the income window, and all of a sudden it’s not so important that each game be as successful, and ownership isn’t such a tightly-held jewel. Games become revenue streams to be guarded and improved instead of the money bombs they are now.

  2. Peter Molyneux is definitely not the only developer who can call shots. I’m sure that Bioware, Mad Doc, etc, have very significant negotiating leverage with their publishers. (Firaxis and Blizzard too, before they were acquired.)

    I mentioned digital distribution because it addresses some of the issues that you raised. If you can fund the development of your game via profits from other projects (or some other source), it isn’t absolutely necessary to work with a traditional publisher.

    I also mentioned developer collaboration, which I think is key to addressing the core problems that lie at the root of Zimmerman’s bill of rights. Collective standard-setting, while extremely difficult to organize, would be very useful!

    Ultimately, I just have a hard time basing a substantive discussion on a document that completely ignores the risks a publisher assumes when it gives millions of dollars to a developer, nor acknowledges the contributions that a good publisher makes to a game’s success.

  3. Oh, yeah, the Bill of Rights is a complete boondoggle. Look how far the Creator’s Bill of Rights got them (and thanks for the link to that, since it provides a great perspective). I guess if it’s so laughable it’s tough to take seriously the topics it brings up; they’re cheapened by association. But still, do you agree with my assertion that the problem is that publishers need to sink millions of dollars into a game before it can even get started?

    OK, so Blizzard definitely controls their stuff, and Firaxis and Bioware maybe. I’m not sure how this really helps everyone else, though. Kind of putting the cart before the horse, wouldn’t you say?

    For developer collaboration, it’s definitely worth taking a look at game middleware/development kits such as Ogre, Irrlicht, and Cube, and Game Maker. You probably won’t get a team working on one coherent project as I suggested above, but you might be able to get a ton of libraries that can be assembled into a cool game.

  4. Yup — the high (and ever increasing) cost of game development is a huge issue. We could write a few books about that one. :)

  5. Hey can I join the breath-edery chat club too?

  6. I’m gonna make a wacky prediction here: the next generation of console/PC games is going to have the highest or nearly the highest budgets (adjusted for inflation, natch) in the industry’s history, and budgets will go down on a per-game basis afterwards.

    I’d guess that this will have to do with a restructuring of the industry so that less work needs to be done per title, but after Joystiq gave Geometry Wars the ‘best launch game’ rating, maybe simple games will become trendy. Actually, if you consider the mobile gaming market expanding, that definitely seems like a possibility.

  7. All are welcome to join the chat club. *grin*

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