A few weeks ago Gamasutra put up an article by Dan Lee Rogers, "The End Game: How Top Developers Sold Their Studios." I have a few comments:
o Rogers writes, "For many developers, selling their studio is the final prize for a race well run." Although I understand that many studios believe that selling is a great goal, I do not understand why. Independence, if maintainable (and that's the key, of course), is a much more rewarding goal. Once you sell your company to a publisher, despite good intentions by both sides, it's difficult to resist digestion by the bigger fish.
As the article shows, there have been many dozens of developer studios bought-out in the last 15 years, and hardly any of them remain intact. A few like Raven and Blizzard are notable longer term exceptions (and even with Blizzard a significant number of key people and founders have left). Most, like Origin, Bullfrog, Westwood, Maxis, Iguana, Papyrus and Legend has been swallowed and digested by their predators, and are all but lost to the industry, with any remaining remnants not resembling the pre-purchased version.
This blog entry was triggered because 3D Realms received a very serious buy-out opportunity yesterday, but as with all offers that come our way, we quickly pointed out how much we prefer 100% independence and the creative control it affords us -- even if at great personal cost. It's just not worth it to us to lose even an ounce of control over our destiny, and we're fortunate to have a choice to remain as we are in this respect.
Most independent studios don't have much of a choice, though. And growing financial pressures force them to sell-out and push their company within the black event horizon of obscurity.
o I'm not against all buy-outs, as there's always a price that can't be turned down. I hold no fault for Rare, for example. The owners of that company would have been crazy to turn down Microsoft's desperately overblown offer of $375 million. Present us with a stupefying offer and I'll happily sign the dotted line.
o Another problem that I see is that too many dev studios are concerned with growth, and building multiple internal teams. The idea is that it's safer to spread risk among multiple projects, and avoid having all the eggs in one basket. Makes sense, except it doesn't.
It's friggin' hard enough to make one hit game. Who in their right mind thinks they should try to make two or three hit games! And take my word for it, hit games are all that matters, assuming you run a studio that wants to become financially self-sufficient, and pry yourself away from the always pressing publisher thumb.
The bottom-line is that it's MUCH easier to focus the entire company on one game, and make that one game a hit. Once you begin to divide internal company resources between two of more projects, the chances of any of them being a hit drops proportionally. Just as the best way to strike it big in Vegas is to place all of your money on a single bet, the best way to make a hit game is to play a single bet with everything you have, financially and people-wise.
When we began working with Remedy Entertainment on their second project, after Death Rally (published by our Apogee label), they presented us with three games that they wanted to create simultaneously: One a game set in space, something like Freespace, the second a racing game, and the third a top-down, Loaded-style, detective game. My partner, George Broussard, and I did our best to convince Remedy's leaders to drop two of the games and focus the entire company on the one game we liked the best, the detective game. They resisted strongly at first, but within a year they dropped the other two and later claimed it was one of the best company decisions they ever made. And with the entire company focused on a single project, the resulting game worked out quite well, earning over $70 million for us and them combined. The power of focus.
Another prime example of focus can be seen with Id Software, one of the world's most financially successful indie studios, and always a one-game-at-a-time company. When your entire company focuses on a single game, your chances of doing it right skyrocket.
To wrap up, I hate to see studios sell-out. It usually means a sure end to that studio's identity, and it represents another small power shift toward publishers, and things are already shifted too far in that direction. I still believe that the independents, if given a reasonable amount of financial and creative freedom, have a better chance of of paving new ground than publishers. For example, GTA was created by DMA while they were still independent. Will Wright created The Sims as a internal indie project, within EA (and often against EA's desire to publish the game while it was still an experimental concept). Peter Molyneux's indie studio, Lionhead, is working on a potentially groundbreaking game, Fable. And look what independent developer Remedy did with Max Payne, and Valve with Half-Life. Publishers, although they have more money, seem to think they have more to lose by taking risks. That's why I think our industry needs healthy indies, who are more willing to innovate. And each indie that's sold to a publisher is another one that you can strike off the list as potentially creating a break-though game. Anyone think we'll see another revolutionary original game from Warren Spector's Ion Storm (owned by Eidos) or Bungie (owned by Microsoft) again? Don't hold your breath.