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Game Developers vs Game Publishers: What’s the difference?

Game Developers vs Game Publishers: What’s the difference?

Tomas Zegarra
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The world of video game creation has evolved a lot from the early days of arcade games. Over the years, the industry has expanded to include several different organizations involved in the production, development, and publishing of any particular video game.
There are two notable terms when it comes to game creation: the game developer and publisher. Why should you be concerned with the differences or similarities between these two roles?
If you want to understand how a video game ends up on the market, we’ll help shed some light on the process. Building a video game for the market that is enjoyable for consumers and brings in enough income for companies to operate is essential for sustained growth.
Creating, developing, and publishing a video game are tasks that several organizations can collaborate on to build the best games. Let’s take a look at the difference between game developers and publishers, and why it matters to the gaming industry.

What is a game developer?

A game developer is the person or organization that determines what a video game will look like. They are responsible for the game’s storyline and feel. Programmers within that organization write the code and create the artwork to implement the developer’s vision behind the game. The developer team’s job spans from concept creation to putting the finishing touches on gameplay.
Every game developer has their own style and process, which may be influenced by the size and specialty of their organization.

What kinds of game developers are there?

There are three notable types of developers: indie, large-scale, and third-party. These three categories encompass a majority of developers, although there are some outliers that exist outside of these categories.

Indie game developers

Indie developers are teams or organizations that focus on smaller games. They generally range from 1 to 100 employees who work on a single game or a limited portfolio of games.
Solo developers
Can one person be an indie developer? Of course they can! Some notable examples include Toby Fox with Undertale and Scott Caththon with Five Nights at Freddy’s. Did they have some outside help? Sure, but these individuals put in the majority of the time and effort to produce the finished product themselves.
If you think about it, some of the very first video games in existence were made by “indie developers.” Individuals and small teams were the creators behind some of the most famous game titles ever. Some examples include:
  • Toru Iwatani: Pacman
  • Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka: Super Mario Bros
  • Warren Robinett: Adventure
  • Allan Alcorn: Pong
Indie development timeline
As you can imagine, these developers spend countless days perfecting their games. Today, an indie developer can push out a small but still entertaining game in a year or so.
Indie development downside
There are hardships that come with being an indie developer, especially if that developer is a small team or start-up. For instance, an indie studio’s existence is dependent on the continued success of their flagship game(s). Unfortunately, the current competitive market sees many studios fold before they really gain a foothold in the industry.
For those whose games have caught on with a loyal fanbase, they have the opportunity to build upon their success by continuing a franchise or charting a new path with new games.

Third party developers

In some instances, a video game publisher will contract a third party video game company to work on a game. While the third party developer is the one building the world, the publisher determines the game’s goals, and creative control is never fully given to the developer. Those goals might be individual steps within the initial development phase or down-the-road sales on opening day and thereafter.
What’s the benefit of being a 3rd party developer? Depending on the developer’s size, employees may be working on the different games at the same time, meaning the risk is spread among several video game titles. Larger, more financially sound developers can work on multiple games for different publishers, with the hope that at least one of their projects will prove lucrative.
Third party developers have flexibility in their game portfolios and are able to contract themselves out to as many publishers as they’re able to sustain.

Large-scale developers

Large-scale developers field hundreds, if not thousands, of employees across the world working on different games for multiple platforms. They may also have one game that is so massively popular that it requires all-hands-on-deck to operate. Examples of large-scale developers include:
  • Riot Games: League of Legends
  • Epic Games: Fortnite/Gears of War
  • Blizzard Entertainment (Now Activision-Blizzard): World of Warcraft, StarCraft, and Overwatch, just to name a few
Companies like Riot, Epic, and Blizzard have been able to expand on their success to become a hybrid publisher/developer. While other companies have invested in them, these gaming companies have the resources available to do the majority of developing and publishing of their own games.

What is a game publisher?

Game publishers are larger companies or in some cases, the parent organization, that has the resources to put the finished game on the market for the world to play.
It’s not cheap to develop a video game. Developers, especially in the indie category, must work with other companies to put a game into your hands. This includes working with in-person retailers and online stores to ensure your product is visible to the gaming community.
Developers don’t always have the resources to produce, deliver, and support a game all on their own servers. That’s why game publishers exist.
Some notable video game publishers of today include:
  • Activision Blizzard
  • Valve Corporation
  • Bethesda Softworks
  • Electronic Arts (EA)
  • Ubisoft
  • Sega

Game publisher size

Video game publishers take the cake for being some of the largest organizations in the gaming industry. This is because they have multiple developers operating under their banner or have accumulated a sizable number of game assets.
Many publishers use dedicated launchers or game stores to showcase homegrown games or games of other companies that they have negotiated deals with. Examples include Origin (EA), Steam (Valve), and Epic Games Store (Epic Games).

Roles of game developers and publishers

The gaming industry has evolved tremendously since the early days of walk-in arcades. Games continuously push the limits of graphics, processing power, and gameplay complexity.
Developers strive every day to find a niche in the industry where they believe their game(s) can thrive. Publishers find ways to get those games visibility so that everyone profits. But what happens when the line between those duties and responsibilities blurs?

Similarities between game publishers and developers

Game publishers and developers largely cross over in concept creation. The game developer may lay the foundation for a video game, but since the publisher is looking down the road at marketability, they may add on certain aspects during conception to help sell the game.
These decisions can involve which content to include or not include, and when and how to release that content. Such decisions are critical to a game’s overall success in the industry.
As we saw in the cases of 3rd party developers, sometimes it is not the developer who comes up with the idea for a game. Large publishers have the bandwidth to conceive a new game, but have priorities elsewhere.
In that case, publishers lay out the foundation and then contract dedicated third-party game developers to take the reins from there. In this contract, the publisher still provides input to the game as it is developed.
Some of the larger gaming publishers crossover as developers. These publishers can either field in-house teams or contract out a new game to an independent developer.
The duties of a publisher in the development period of a game go beyond gameplay. They can create trailers, recruit actors/actresses (if needed), and coordinate all the other marketable aspects that fall under concept creation.
Rarely does the vision of a game remain the same at the moment of creation to the day of release. A publisher’s input at this stage can mean the difference between success and failure post-launch.

Differences: game publisher vs game developer

While publishers may provide input on a game in progress, the developer is building the world from scratch. They are the ones creating the visuals, gameplay, and overall feel of the game.
We’ve already seen how a publisher can overlap with the developer in some ways, so when is the developer in full control of their product?
It comes down to the contract. When a contract exists between a developer and publisher, they lay out who is in control of their product. The situation is difficult to navigate from the outside, but the game industry partners use the contract to clearly differentiate and delineate who does what during the creation of the game.

Case study 1

In 2019, a notable instance of publisher/developer dysfunction occurred with the split between Bungie Inc. and Activision Blizzard. In this partnership, Bungie developed the Destiny franchise while Activision Blizzard published it.
Gamers and media alike had long speculated that the increased monetization over Destiny’s lifetime was part of Activision Blizzard’s influence. The Destiny community grumbled about monetization and the removal of content accessible via actual gameplay.
With the split, Bungie began to self-publish Destiny. At the same time, they lost the resources that Activision Blizzard provided.

Case study 2

Or take Epic Games for example. Long before Fortnite shot them to the top of the industry, they were selling millions of copies of Gears of War in partnership with Microsoft Game Studios.
Before they sold the games of other developers on the Epic Games store, Epic developed and maintained the Unreal Engine (which they still do as of this publication). This engine serves as the base code for many of today’s games.
Many game industry publishers got their start as developers and have since grown to include publishing roles in their offerings.

Why should this matter to you?

The relationship between the publisher, the developer, and the gamer who actually plays must remain healthy if there is to be harmony in the industry. That’s right. You, the gamer, have an important role to play.
Your money and your input on forums and social media can help the developer and publisher make better decisions on gameplay, marketing, and the overall state of the game. After all, the gaming industry exists because of you; the gamer.

Following the money

The video game industry is projected to make close to $160 billion dollars in 2020 [1]. This is actually a slower year, trend-wise. Also, an increasing number of triple-A (AAA) titles are launching on PC rather than console.
Not only that, in 2019, mobile video games made around $49 billion dollars, which made up about 60% of gaming market revenue for that year [2]. The video game industry is extremely profitable year over year and there is no sign of it slowing down any time soon.
However, with the video game industry boom comes tell-tale signs of focus on driving profits over making quality games.

Completed games vs DLC

There was once a time when games were developed, completed, and shipped in their entirety. DLC (downloadable content) didn’t exist, since games were sold on discs, cartridges, or as simple programs on computers.
You bought the game and you received the finished product. These types of games are the ones we as a community should strive for. You might be satisfied or unsatisfied with any given game, but one thing you probably weren’t worried about: whether you had actually purchased the entire game.

Money-driven mobile games

Money-driven Mobile Games
That is no longer the case. Many games are sold these days with the understanding that there will be additional content becoming available over time. Much of this content is offered behind a paywall, meaning that you have to open your wallet (sometimes multiple times) to play the whole game.
Not everyone has the luxury of taking an Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo Switch, or gaming computer everywhere; but most people do have access to a smartphone or smart device. Access to smartphones allows people to play all manner of small games and apps that come at relatively cheap prices.

In-game purchases

All those initial purchases, as well as in-game purchases, add up to the staggering revenue from this particular section of the market. This comes with its own share of controversy, since some in-game purchases can be exaggerated or even downright predatory.
Mobile games make up the bulk of “in-game” purchases. These in-game purchases include unlocking new content, paths, characters, and so on. It is increasingly common for developers and publishers to lock content behind paywalls. This means that free-to-play gamers (or gamers not willing to pay for extra content) are left with a game that feels half completed.

Gaming community push-back

This situation is a reality for both console and PC games. One of the most infamous cases of late was with No Man’s Sky by Hello Games. The game was highly anticipated due to its revolutionary universe. However, within a few days of its launch in August of 2016, it was critically panned for its perceived lack of content and repetitive nature.

The power of the player

An uproar ensued over the game’s full price point and Hello Games was vilified over its lack of communication. Some of the controversy can be traced back to exaggerated media and expectations pre-release. In the ensuing months, Hello Games restored its community’s faith by aggressively adding new content and features that produced a fantastic redemption story.

Getting to the root of industry issues

Funding fuels both opportunities and problems throughout the industry. It’s perfectly fine to have a completed game and then have additional content as DLC. But, what gamers really want is to feel satisfied with the game they initially purchased. They do not want to feel like a sizable chunk is on the other side of a paywall. Here, we’ll look at some of the issues regarding money in the gaming industry.

Monetizing content

Let’s take a look at some common terms regarding the monetization of games.
  • Monetization: Altering a game (in development or completed) to increase revenue
  • Microtransactions: In-game purchases of content not released with the initial game using real money
  • Downloadable content (DLC): Content packages purchased outside of the game that add to what you originally purchased
  • Loot boxes: Chests of mystery content that you pay for with real money but, as the player, you have no control over what you receive
Loot boxes in particular have been under scrutiny due to their similarities to gambling. When young gamers are exposed to these monetization techniques, do we expect them to have enough knowledge to make wise financial decisions? Some countries have even banned such practices.
The increased monetization of games can lead people to adopt a gambling mindset: I’ve spent so much money already, if I keep doing it, I have to win (or get something really cool) sometime.
Terms such as greed, obsessed, and evil have been tossed in the direction of some of the largest publishers and developers in the industry. No gamer wants their content locked behind a paywall.
No gamer wants to empty their pockets time after time in order to get satisfactory content. This is the big problem with game monetization: with each new batch of content, it is locked behind payment of real money.
With every new developer that emerges or game that is released, the industry becomes ever more competitive. It is understandable why some developers and publishers push the monetization of content: to outdo their competitors. A war within the higher levels of the gaming industry, however, never really works out well for the gamer.

Who makes the final decision?

This question is asked by nearly every gamer and content creator. Who is making the decision to lock content away from the gamer until he or she pays up - the developer or the publisher? The answer isn’t always easy and usually depends on the game.
As we saw earlier, some developers are in full command of their game, while others are subject to the terms set by their publisher. The publisher is often the company giving the developer the financial backing it needs to fully produce the game. It can be easy to hurl blame in one direction, but that is why having awareness of all those behind a certain game is key.

Is the gaming industry broken?

The industry is booming. While many organizations claim that we are in the midst of the golden age of gaming with more games than ever are being produced, these successes don’t always indicate a harmonious journey.
The gaming industry is growing so fast that laws regarding technology and fair practice haven’t caught up. This inevitably leads to the manipulation of the gamer’s wallet like the situations we’ve talked about. All is not so happy between the developer, publisher, and within those respective organizations either.
The stress of producing a game and the desire for it to be successful can be overwhelming at times. The gaming industry is notorious for having a rickety scale to pay employees. Less-competitive games may offer a relaxed work environment but pay less overall. High-intensity games with large fan bases may pay well but require much more from employees than other organizations.

Crunch Time

The term “crunch time” is commonly used in the gaming industry to describe instances where employees are asked to put in additional hours with little to no incentive or extra pay. Burnout on the developer side inevitably leads to a breakdown in the way a game is produced and managed. That breakdown will more than likely be noticed by the gamer, which in turn creates a perfect storm of controversy.

Pay-to-win or Pay-to-have-fun

One of the most all-encompassing terms regarding all that is bad in the gaming industry is pay-to-win. Simply put, in order to have a good time or to beat other gamers, you have to pay for the best content after purchasing the initial game.
Take the free-to-play gamer, who is trying their best to succeed in a lobby full of gamers who have purchased top-of-the-line content. Who do you think is going to win? This experience is not fun, nor is it ethical.
This practice is unlikely to be eliminated anytime soon, but you can help out by avoiding these games or calling out them for what they are.

Community management of games

One of the most important components of post-game release is community management. This could be anything from simple patch notes to open letters to the community. As we saw in the situation with Hello Games, communication between developer and gamer is key to understanding why certain changes are made.
A developer can’t let out every secret about the game, but that’s not their job. Community management lets gamers know that the developer is listening to their comments and feedback.

Mobilizing the community for better quality games

As the gamer/consumer, you have the biggest part to play in this industry. It is important for you to voice your opinion on community forums whenever possible and encourage others to do the same.
If the gaming community as a whole voices its displeasure, its message can be heard. This especially pertains to subjects like monetization and pay-to-win strategies. For the price you pay, you should expect a quality return.
It is important to note that developers are only human. Errors, bugs, and mistakes are inevitable with any game. Your feedback helps in bug reporting, but where it really helps is the state of the game.
Dissatisfaction with a game can happen for a number of reasons. Is monetization ruining the experience? Is the free-to-play content too lackluster? These are just some instances where the community needs to make a joint statement on their dissatisfaction.
Remember, there is no industry without the gamer. If the active player base begins to drop significantly, the developer will notice.

What happens when the community and developers disagree?

A game that panders to exactly everything the community wants becomes less and less creative. Sure, the community does put forth good ideas from time to time, but it is a developer’s job to keep the mystery of a game alive.
Oftentimes, the community and developer disagree on changes to a game. If the developer gave in to every request or demand the community makes, the number of patches and updates a game would receive would skyrocket.
Take League of Legends for example and its ever-increasing champion base. A game that is in constant growth is likely to miss everything from bugs to significant flaws. Check any forum or league-related sites and you’ll find no shortage of complaints.
Is Riot Games able to implement a solution to every piece of feedback? They are a company of several thousand people, while there are millions of gamers across the world playing League of Legends.
The answer is that it's simply not feasible to factor in all feedback provided. However, the fact that developers have community management roles in the first place is evidence of the need for communication to exist between gamer and developer.

How your money affects the gaming industry

Considering how much revenue the gaming industry brought in the past year and a half, the money you and the rest of the gaming community spends helps determine the direction that publishers and developers choose to go.
If mobile games profits are skyrocketing, you can expect to see more mobile games in the future. Likewise the popularity of Fortnite and its battle royale mode saw the same tactic being replicated by other developers. Your choice of game and platform now is the biggest indicator of what content will be like in the ensuing years.

Are you getting your money’s worth?

Here are a few questions to ask yourself and the community to ensure you are getting your money’s worth:
  • Can I enjoy this game every time I play it?
  • How wide is the content?
  • Does the content have or lack depth?
  • How much of the game is monetized?
  • Is it too repetitive or “grindy”?
  • Is the initial challenge there whenever I play?
The most important question of those bullets is the first one, can I enjoy this game every time I play it? If you aren’t enjoying it, chances are some of the answers to the rest of the questions are going to be negative.
Before you go spending tens to hundreds of dollars on in-game purchases or DLC, remind yourself of these questions. They can help you make wiser decisions with your wallet while keeping your enjoyment in the game.

You’ve got power

Our purpose in laying out the roles of game developer vs game publisher for you in the article is to ensure you are aware of the many forces that combine to put a game at your fingertips. This awareness will allow you to make smarter choices with your wallet and in your gaming community.
It is important to understand these differences so that you, the gamer, can help drive the introduction of fun, inclusive games. Behind every gaming brand are people using what resources they have to make a game enjoyable for all.
Knowing the differences between publishers and developers will help us understand community topics and industry trends better.
The gaming development world can get confusing at times as larger, more complex games are put into production. You, the consumer, can be a big catalyst in confirming to publishers and developers what quality of content you want to see.
About the Author: Tomas Zegarra is a contributing writer for HP® Tech Takes. Tomas is an Idaho-based writer for the tech and outdoor industries. His writing has appeared in journals such as Memoir Mixtapes, Upland Optics, and The Prepper Journal. He also writes fiction and is always working on a new idea for a short story.

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