Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

IP Rights – Why Are They Are Important to Indie Game Developers? Part 1

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 12, 2012

This is gonna be a multi-part article about a discussion we had last week (in comments) about Intellectual Property rights. Why are they such a big deal? Why should indies care (beyond the fact that, in the opinion of most, if you are working on someone else’s IP, you ain’t indie)?

Let’s talk about a former Big Publisher. I always feel bad talking negatively speaking ill of the dead, but this particular company has been pretty much dead-and-buried for a decade, in spite of being one of the BIG PUBLISHERS of the early-to-mid 90’s, so here goes. (I should note here that any relationship I might have had with said big company gave me very little insight into their actual workings, and much of this is based on the press of the time, plus some conjectures, rumors, and ruminations by former employees).

So once upon a time, this big publisher (A Certain Company, Loathed Am I to Mention… let’s just call ’em BP – not British Petroleum!) struck a deal with a struggling but up-and-coming wrestling franchise. “Hey,” said BP, “Your audience represents a segment of potential market we don’t normally appeal to. This could be a great opportunity for us to expand, and for you to start, you know, leveraging your franchise and get more money.”

Said wrestling league, probably hard-up for cash, took the deal: an extended exclusive deal with BP.

Well, the deal went far better than either of them could have imagined. The games were Really Popular and made BP a lot of money. It went really well for the wrestling league too… in fact, in many ways, it made their business. Instead of simply giving the BP access to their audience, it vastly increased their audience as people played the game and then started tuning into wrestling matches on TV.

At least, that was BP’s take. I think they were correct in that they had a hand in it.

But years went by, and as both companies prospered, the wrestling league started getting annoyed. That multi-year exclusive deal was for peanuts, they protested… it would be worth a lot more now! BP saw it differently. They were the kingmakers – if anything, the wrestlers owed THEM for their success.

Well, the time came that the exclusive license came to an end. As you’d expect, the now-big-and-famous wrestling league jacked up their price for future licenses by an almost punitive amount. “Now,” they said to BP, “You will pay us what you should have paid us all along for our piece of awesomeness.”

“Bite me,” said BP. “We made you. We can make someone else just like you. Good luck staying awesome without us to prop you up.”

I doubt the conversation went exactly like that. But from the rumors I heard that may have suffered a little from the telephone-game effect, that was the gist of it. In the end, BP and the wrestlers went their separate ways. BP found a new, struggling wrestling league just like their former partners had once been. And the wrestlers found game publishers willing to pay through the nose to sell games with the official franchise brand that were guaranteed to make lots of sales, because they always had before.

So who won that argument?

In my opinion, nobody.

The wrestling league pretty much peaked at about that time. The “fad,” I guess, faded. Though there are innumerable reasons for their decline, I don’t think changing game publishers made that big of a difference.

And the Big Publisher? As I stated earlier, dead-and-buried.  Again, many reasons for this, most of them having little to do with wrestling games, but a lot of them having to do with it not actually owning the IP rights for most of its games. I imagine they had a tough time without being able to anchor their business on a consistently franchise, and other stories often repeated this one: the more successful they were, the more difficult life became for them later.

And the new wrestling league? Also dead-and-buried, with bits and pieces of it purchased and absorbed into the original wrestling league of this story.

There is much more to this story, but let’s just treat it as an allegory for now.

BP used to brag in magazines about its core strategy of leveraging other people’s IP. It worked out pretty well for them when video game licenses were cheap, and they didn’t have to do much more than re-texture an existing game to match the license and push it out into the stores. But as games became bigger and bigger business, the licenses got pricier, and quick-and-dirty game development got less a lot less quick (or cheap).

In an industry built on ephemeral works of creativity given form only in the collection of information, Intellectual Property rights are the lifeblood. It doesn’t matter if the product is rented, sold, or given away freely and even permits others to share a joint ownership – the holders of the IP rights have the control over their own creations and are allowed to dictate how they they will be shared with the word, insofar as legally enforceable. It is very possible for symbiotes (and their nastier, leechier cousins, the parasites) to survive or even thrive in this world, but they are always dependent upon their hosts for life.

Note the word “dependent.” As in, opposite of “independent.”

Maybe it’s unfair, but maybe it was a victim of its own success. But as much of a beneficial symbiote as BP saw itself, without enough lifeblood from hosts, it curled up and died.

IP rights matter. And yeah, they should.

Filed Under: Biz, Indie Evangelism, Mainstream Games - Comments: 3 Comments to Read

  • Dave Toulouse said,

    “probably hard-up for cash”

    That one is always a problem.

    I think it’s quite easy to find many “horror stories” when it comes to publishers but surely there are out there also some stories of “I turned down this offer and then nothing happened” (maybe for the best one might say).

    In the best of world IP rights do matter. Can’t argue about that. When one make it to Steam and kept his IP I bet there’s a good chance he’ll be happy to have handle things that way (just an example I was recently reading this: http://pc.ign.com/articles/122/1220163p1.html). I don’t think anyone making a living out of their games for which they kept their IP will say that they regret such decision. For some it is after all the ultimate goal.

    I don’t think it’s all black and white though. For example when you read about the development of SPAZ (shamless tiny plug: http://www.over00.com/?p=1977) it came really close to be a train wreck. They were fortunate to be a strong team and to receive incredible support from people close to them (and both worked in the game industry before so I guess it was indie or nothing for them anyway). But put me in the same situation and a publisher comes knocking on my door I’m not sure how I’d react…

    For someone who never thought of working for a game studio and is stubborn to get a relative success almost on my own I don’t know if I’d turned down all offers even if it means not being the only one in charge anymore. It’d depend on a number of factors that I can’t predict. I had a little taste of it last year and it showed me that I didn’t know yet how difficult indie could be.

    So yes IP rights matter. Creators should be the one getting the big reward. Of course looking back at whatever decision you made it’s easy to say you should have done things differently. It’s just that sometimes I guess it can be hard to close a door that just opened in front of you when you know how hard it can be be to open these damn doors 😉 Depends of one’s priorities, situation, etc.

  • Albert1 said,

    You’re talking about Acclaim, aren’t you? Well, they weren’t totally IP-less: they owned Turok, which was quite popular, yet they screwed it! So the full lesson, in my opinion, is: keep your IP… and keep it fed and healty!

  • JJ said,

    I have been playing indie games for last couple of years other than few golden oldie Diablo & Fallout, I am at moment reconsidering playing mainstream.

    Not sure the indie community knows or not but Diablo has gone RMAH (Real Money Auction House). Already the hassle of playing a single/solo player Diablo III game with need of constant connection then you need some sort of authenticator to avoid been hacked or to use RMAH.

    Now recently they got players community uproar by banning a bunch of players who bought from buggy their RMAH! You can’t even play a single player since the ban affects your ability to play the game you bought. Then there is the weekly server maintenance for hours which stops any gamers who just wanted to play single player game from playing. These so called maintenance sometimes happens twice a week!

    I may be lucky since I would never buy “fake virtual” stuffs with real money for games so I wasn’t banned. Blizzard is making me think of Microsoft no offense to Microsoft! I seriously think there will be a spade of customers suing them real soon with the way things are going. I hope they lose too!