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Turning EA into a game

Following the EA/SimCity stories, an idea for a game publishing sim. In their position, what would you do differently?

Damian Connolly, Blogger

March 10, 2013

7 Min Read

With all the fail surrounding EA since the release of SimCity, it got me thinking what I would change if I was in their position. In the spirit of exercising some game making skills or something, it became a rough game idea tentatively called Make ALL of the Money. I will admit that that title possibly needs some work.

The pitch

You start off as a small independant game publisher, with a bank roll of €1 million. Your goal is to become the number one AAA publisher in the industry. But really, it's to make as much money as you can, prestige be damned. Along the way, you'll get to make decisions such as supported platforms, supported demographics (casuals, euw), contracts, sequels vs. new IP, manage the press, deal with the public, and of course, manage piracy and DRM (you'll even get to use the word "draconian"!).

Eventually you'll get big enough where you can choose (or be forced) to go public, which gives the potential for more cash, but you're now also at the whims of investors and that oh-so-logical market. It adds a nice bit of pressure for the player, as long term goals (those are for dreamers anyway) are foresaken for short term profits; after all, the goal of a company or corporation is to offer the best return on investment for its shareholders. Don't make enough money, and you're actively punished in the stock market (which could snowball out of control causing your valuation to faceplant). Make too much money, and you engender unreasonable expectations, which can come back and bite you in the sass at a later stage.

The talent

As a publisher, you'll get approached by studios looking to sell their souls. You can choose to enter negotiations where anything and everything is up for grabs. Milestones, bonuses, DLC, first refusal on their next game, sales targets before royalties. Do you keep the IP? Do you also invest in the studio?

Occasionally, one studio will rise above all others in the current genre du jour. You'll probably want them to make games for you and thus make mega-bucks. But with great talent comes great management demands. How much do you try to control their games? What if they're not going fast enough for your annual franchise desires? What if they don't want to make that particular game any more but it makes up one third of your total revenue? What if they start talking with the competition? (You can bug their computers, but ssh, don't tell anyone, that will cause a scandal)

The games

What games will you publish? Go for possibly easy money, release sequels and risk stagnation, or invest in original IP that could possibly fail? What platforms? Paid? DLC? Freemium? Social? Do you try and get concessions from platform holders to make games for their system? Why not commission some demographics reports and do some focus testing - though that'll only tell you want people are playing now, not what they'll want to play in the future. What about digital? Remember you need to deal with bricks-and-mortar stores that might kick your games off their shelves if you go that route.

So after a while, you own a couple of studios, and you're publishing a few games. Hello market down-turn! Hello recession! Who do you keep and who do you fire? Keep your reputation in mind while you're undergoing that strategic restructuring. Maybe you expanded too quickly and that hit game you bought for 50 million isn't keeping traction. Did that studio over there fail to perform because they're not very good, or because you gave them a bad game and not enough time to make it? How long do you keep a game with a studio that's not doing good? How much money do you want to sink into a project before you realise it sucks and you need to pull the plug? How much time to you give to a new project before saying, "Screw it, change it to a AAA COD-killer"?

Multiplayer is pretty popular these days; any self-respecting game has a multiplayer mode, whether it needs it or not. This means servers, which means money. How many do you roll out for the launch? There's nothing worse than a MMO or an always-connected single player game failing at the first hurdle because your servers get slammed on the first day (we'll skip simulating problems with sharding databases etc :D). When the dust settles, and next years version comes out, how many servers do you keep running for the first game? What about the year after that? Two years is more than enough to enjoy a game; if they want to play with their friends they can blow the mothballs out of their wallets, right?

The press

You know what's great? Spreading rumours. How do you deal with them? A generic "We don't comment on rumour or speculation"? Find who started it and lynch them? Denial is fine for small rumours, such as a game being delayed, but what happens when it's a full blown scandal, such as families whining because Daddy isn't coming home and more? Maybe you could even start some rumours yourself. Competition is only competition while they're still around.

You'll also need to manage your relationship with the press. A good relationship means prime web real-estate for when your game comes out. Ruin it and they'll write bad things about you, maybe even draw satirical comics and then you'll feel bad. You'll need to control embargos; a good game will want plenty of buzz, a bad one will want plenty of bullshots and no actual reviews until after the game's been out for a week or so - don't worry, your review copy is totally in the mail.

Perhaps you can bribe journalists. Or just give them loads of free stuff in return for no obligation whatsoever. Or buy advertising on their sites; that'll work, won't it? Also, there should be a hugely expensive expo at least once a year.

The piracy

Because we can't have nice things, how will you react to reports of rampant piracy? Piracy is different per platform, so do you focus more on others? It's also different depending on the actual game, so do you change the type of games you publish? Screw that, we're aiming to be the biggest, which means the best games, the 60 million all-or-nothings, which, by an amazing coincidence, are the ones most targeted. If you believe that one pirated copy doesn't equal one sale lost (while it mightn't be one for one, it's probably not one for zero, either), then you can of course do nothing about it. Or you can choose to add DRM. I mean, this is your life-blood cash flow we're talking about; if you add nothing, then it's practically telling people that they can steal it, right?

DRM comes in many forms, from passwords and CD keys, to a requirement to be always connected (which is needed because the content is too big for the disc, or the calculations are too complex or something). Each form (or not) will have repercussions, from disillusioned players to a full scale backlash. But remember, you're running a business here, and gaming is a luxury, not a need, and it'll all probably blow over in a few weeks anyway. Of course, any sort of DRM makes you a target for hackers and internet vigilantes, so it won't be long before a cracked version appears on a download site, or your servers are DDoS'd into submission.

Of course, you can always combat piracy in a slightly friendlier way by releasing demos, running pre-order bonuses, modifying prices based on regions, and just generally being a stand-up guy. Surely people will want to buy your game legally because they like you and want to support what you're doing. Those reports need to be taken with a pinch of salt anyway; it should be nothing to inform your investors on the reality of the situation.

If all else fails, and push comes to shove, and then shove comes to slap-in-the-face, we should probably be able to lobby government for bills in our interest.

Exercise time!

This is all just skyballing, but I actually think it could make a pretty fun and interesting game. At least it would give a chance for players to try out their methods and idealogies. How do you think you'd fare? What would you do different from EA or Activision? Or Zynga? Remember, the goal of the game is to make money and be number one, not release games about how to make friends and sing songs around a campfire.

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