It's vacation time for your faithful TWD columnist, so I thought I'd run a couple articles talking about how the game industry works. Those of us who are avid industry watchers like to throw around a lot of terminology and information that isn't on the radar of everyday gamers. Knowing the basics of the industry works can be very helpful for answering a lot of questions about games, though. Today's column will look at developers and publishers, answering why some games are only available on some systems and how gamers sometimes blame the wrong people for problems in their games.
Which Party Are You?
In the world of game consoles, there are two basic kinds of games. First-party games are created and/or published by the same companies that make game consoles, i.e. Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo. First-party games almost always appear exclusively on the associated console. Third-party games are created and/or published by companies that don't make game consoles, and are often released on multiple consoles. Multiplatform third-party games have become particularly popular in this generation, as publishers have decided that the extra sales created by wide availability are worth the extra cost of developing for multiple systems.
Although most home computers run either Windows or Apple's operating system, neither company has control over which games are published on their platforms. Anybody can make a game for Windows or Mac and make it available to customers in whatever way they can, so we don't tend to refer to PC games as first- or third-party.
Devs and Pubs
It's quite common for gamers to mix up a game's developer and its publisher, especially since publishers often make themselves very visible on a game's packaging. Basically, developers do the work of creating a game, while publishers are responsible for the economic side of things, often handling funding, PR, marketing, distribution deals, and customer support.
Because of the high cost of today's game development, most of today's major game developers are owned by publishers. Some, like Naughty Dog (Sony) or Rare (Microsoft), are owned by first parties. Many more, like Rockstar (Take-Two), BioWare (EA), and Eidos (Square Enix), are owned by third-party publishers. Many first- and third-party publishers also have in-house development teams that don't have a separate identity, such as Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed teams and most of Nintendo's development teams.
Independent developers aren't owned by a particular publisher. Examples of independent developers include Obsidian Entertainment and Double-Fine Productions. These developers either need to self-publish (most common on PC) or pitch projects to publishers. For example, Obsidian's Dungeon Siege III was published by Square Enix, while its upcoming South Park RPG is being published by THQ. Being independent gives a developer the freedom to attempt any kind of project it desires, but provides a great deal less financial stability than being owned by a publisher.