If you haven’t read Chris Taylor’s interview with EuroGamer.net you absolutely should.
"There's multiple games that we got almost to the finish line on," Taylor revealed, reluctant to say more because of NDAs, which suggests this happened recently.
"We got a phone call from the publisher and they said, 'We're terminating.' And we're like, 'Yeah but we're only a month away from beta!' And they're like, 'Yeah we're still terminating.' And we're like, 'OK.' "
"One of these days - and it won't be from me - you guys will get leaked through some anonymous source..." he teased (I'm not entirely sure if he was joking). "And you can read a game development contract, and you will - it'll be like the Nazis when they opened up The Ark: all the flesh will melt all down your face."
There are publishers and there are studios. A game publisher is essentially like a specialized loan shark. That is, they give you an “advance” on royalties that’s enough (but barely) to cover the cost of making the game in exchange for a 20% royalty. Before the studio sees a cent, that advance has to be paid off. Oh, and by the way, the publisher may cancel the project at any time leaving the studio holding the bag on unpaid development costs. It’s a terrible business model for studios.
I went through a version of this myself.
Back in 1993, I signed a contract with Advanced Idea Machines. I wrote a game, from my dorm room, called Galactic Civilizations for OS/2. They took my game, put it in a box, shipped it to stores and made millions. Me? I didn’t get a cent. They gamed the bankruptcy system (it was a 1 game publisher, I was naïve back then) and I got nothing.
So then, in 1995, we wrote (we as in me and an artist) wrote Galactic Civilizations 2 for OS/2. This time, we published it ourselves and sent it over to Micro Central who in turn distributed it to stores. It made millions again. But us? Nope. Micro Central didn’t pay us. They filed bankruptcy as well (see a pattern)?
Ok, so we move to Windows and in 2003 we write Galactic Civilizations for Windows and we sign on with Strategy First to publish it. Again, it makes millions. And us? Wait for it…..wait…for it…That’s right….bankrupcty again. And thus, Impulse was born. Digital distribution would save us. Because Galactic Civilizations II (and the e-sales of galciv 1) belonged to us and we could make a living on it finally. It was a tiny loophole in our agreement – Stardock could digitally distribute Galactic Civilizations for Windows. Imagine if GPG had had those rights on Supreme Commander.
Historically, getting paid for your work has been a real challenge. The more leverage your partner has over you, the less willing they are. Our European publisher of Demigod, at once point, claimed to have not sold a single copy of the game and hence, owed no royalties. The statistical odds of getting paid for something is relative to the amount of leverage they have on you.
When we worked on Demigod with GPG, I remember visiting them and thinking they had a pretty good gig going. It was like “Man, this shower room is huge! The water is so hot.” and Chris say “Oh, just you wait.” and I turn around and a bunch of guys enter the room. “Who are those guys? I wonder if we’ll be friends..”
This is why Stardock self-publishes. I already know I have a pretty mouth. I don’t need a publisher to whisper it to me.