Sunday, February 3, 2008

Let Sony Publish Star Trek Online

I've expressed my own criticisms of Sony Online Entertainment's (SOE) game development choices over the years, in particular:

1. Releasing products before they are feature-complete and essentially bug-free.
2. Adding new features before fixing bugs.
3. "Fixing" minor balance problems with wholesale replacement of major systems.
That said, I don't think SOE is the mysterious replacement for Perpetual Entertainment as the developer of a Star Trek MMORPG. So, whoever does wind up developing this game, there's still the question of whether SOE is accepable as the publisher of Star Trek Online, specifically through SOE's Platform Publishing service.

I like the idea of a service like this. By cutting deals to give smaller developers access to Sony's significant online customer base, the developer gets their game published and seen by lots of gamers, SOE gets a piece of that action, and gamers see a game they might not otherwise have tried. That's a win for everybody concerned.

So I'm a fan of the Platform Publishing service. But what about the perception that SOE insists on control over a game's design in exchange for publishing it? (And that when they get that control, they honk up the game?)

Here's what Rusty from Flying Lab Software (devleoper of Pirates of the Burning Sea) said about meeting with SOE to consider a deal whereby SOE would publish PotBS. (I'm quoting several paragraphs so that it's clear I'm not taking anything out of context.)

... we weren't going to work with anybody unless we kept control of the game development and the community. That eliminated a lot of potential partners right off the bat. Let me tell you a few things that are different about working with SOE than with the other MMO publishers we talked with:

1) We keep complete ownership of Pirates of the Burning Sea.
2) We have no interference from SOE on the development/ideas of the game.
3) Because we financed Pirates ourselves, we keep most of the revenues so we stay strong and independent.
4) The contract they gave us actually says what we agreed to verbally.

Pretty basic stuff, I know, but we talked to maybe a dozen other development houses and MMO publishers, and many of them had one or more of the following in their relationships and contracts:

1) Publisher takes ownership of the intellectual property.
2) All sorts of verbal promises that never appeared in the contract.
3) Publisher approval over the game’s design.

All of this is why negotiating with SOE was such a breath of fresh air. I kept tensing at various points, expecting them to pull off the mask of humanity and say "Puny humans, our superior alien contract will take control of your game!" But thankfully for both us and all life on Earth, that never happened.
I'm not suggesting by posting this that I think a Star Trek MMORPG's new developer should definitely use SOE's Platform Publishing. Maybe the new guys'll think that a Star Trek MMORPG has a chance to score WoW-like numbers, and thus some other publishing deal with different terms might be more appropriate.

Regardless of which way that goes, I think the example of how SOE dealt with Flying Lab does tell us that signing with SOE as a publisher is not the kiss of death to a game's content. If a game blows, it won't be SOE's fault.

This time.

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