By Nathan Grayson on May 5th, 2012 at 11:30 am.
Earlier this week, EA launched an indie bundle. Not-so-coincidentally, the Internet proceeded to explode, and I’m now typing this while holding a tin can with a piece of string attached next to my PC. I even said some things about it, though admittedly, mostly to kick off a discussion about an only partially related topic. However, off the back of that, I ended up getting in touch with Klei Entertainment technical designer Nels Anderson, who directly worked on four of the six games (both Deathspanks, both Shanks) featured in EA’s bundle of befuddlement. And while he agrees that the name itself is “a little gross,” writing off the whole thing as yet another bile-drenched belch from a money-devouring giant would be to turn a blind eye to some pretty enormous benefits for the developers involved. EA Partners is not EA proper. It seems like an insane notion, but here’s the short version: “total creative independence.” And the long version? Well, it’s quite a bit more complicated than that. And it’s after the break.
RPS: How was EA involved in the development process on these games? Did it have any sort of creative input (“suggestions,” etc)? Do you know how much of each project it funded?
Nels Anderson: First, all the games in this bundle were published via the EA Partners program. It’s the same group that Valve uses to release their games on consoles. It’s actually a very small group of people within EA and the people that run it are separate from EA’s internal studios.
And it really is a partnership. I never saw anything that could even be vaguely considered creative pressure. EAP got on board with the games because they liked the concepts and the developers! I think they understood that total creative freedom was very important to all the developers involved in these projects.
I’m not privy to the financials though. I’m a game designer very much on purpose and avoid the really business-y stuff if I can.
RPS: Do you think these games would’ve been the same without EA’s help? Or rather, would they have been able to achieve such a high level of quality?
Nels Anderson: It’s entirely possible some of these games would have never been made at all without EAP’s involvement. To make Shank, Klei’s founders literally put their mortgages on the line. And should some kind of snag happened that would have delayed the game, it’s entirely possible the game would never have been released and people would have actually lost their homes.
RPS: What were the benefits of working with EA on these projects? And what, in your opinion, were the biggest downsides?
Nels Anderson: Well, the main benefit is it’s possible to put these games on console at all! I know that’s not exactly what the RPS readership cares about, but I’m personally a big advocate of being platform agnostic and letting the players decide where they want the game (and my personal choice is almost always PC).
But as XBLA and PSN are effectively closed platforms (to their detriment, if I’m being really frank), to put on a game on those platforms, you *must* have a publisher. So either your publisher is Microsoft/Sony or it’s a third party. And it’s one of the platform holders, those platform holders almost always insist on some window of exclusivity, which usually comes at the expense of the PC audience, which as a predominantly PC gamer myself, I wish didn’t have to happen.
Working with EAP allowed all of these games to come out all 3 platforms. Shank 2 launched on all three platforms simultaneously, which is still quite a rarity these days, but again, we think it’s important to make the game available for as many people as possible on their platform of choice.
There are downsides, to be sure. Sometimes there inflexible deadlines and EA’s PR is very much traditional PR, which isn’t the best way to discuss smaller, more unusual games like these. Also because EA is obviously such a big name, sometimes people don’t realize these games have been made by small, independent developers, they just see an EA game and whatever preexisting feelings and/or expectations they have that go with that.
RPS: Are these developers in any way tied to EA once the project ends? Is there first right to refusal on their next game or anything along those lines?
Nels Anderson: I’m not privy the details of everyone’s agreements, but there’s nothing as far as I’m aware. Hothead made the third DeathSpank game without EAP, while Klei chose to work with EAP again on Shank 2 because the Shank 1 experience with EAP was so positive. But I don’t think there’s any kind of obligation.
RPS: How much control of the games do developers have post-release? I know they get to keep their IPs, but obviously EA can “surprise” everyone with bundles like this one. So how far does that power extend?
Nels Anderson: Well, EAP did get approval from all the developers in this bundle. We knew it was coming, heh, we just didn’t realize it would carry the unfortunate moniker that it did. Had we known that, we would have asked them to change it. It’s technically accurate, of course, but as plenty of people have said, it’s easy to construe a somewhat untoward purpose there. Maybe they should have called it the “EA Great White North Pals Bundle” or “EA Fundraiser for Ice Spider Defense Bundle” since 5 of the 6 games in the bundle were made by Canadians!
But yeah, even after the games come out, it’s still a partnership. Shank was in a recent Humble Indie Bundle alongside Super Meat Boy, Jamestown, NightSky and Hammerfight because the Humble Bundle guys asked Klei if we wanted to put our game in there. EAP was supportive of the idea and that was basically that (minus some paperwork wrangling). Which is honestly pretty impressive, considering it meant DRM-free versions of the game for PC, Mac and Linux would be sold, with potentially not a single cent from that sale going to the developer.
RPS: Do you think the big guys vs little guys mentality people seem to have toward triple-A publishers in relation to indies is erroneous? Going forward, do you even think we’ll start to see more partnerships along the lines of EA’s?
Nels Anderson: I don’t think there’s any maliciousness on the part of AAA studios toward indies. I have plenty of good friends that are AAA devs and plenty that are indies. Almost always, we want the same thing- to see games continue to advance and improve as a form of creative expression. Personally I find smaller games are generally much more interesting and tend to seek them out and support them more than gigantic franchises, simply because they tend to be the games I enjoy more. I think games are a tremendously powerful and important form of expression and I want to support those creators. But different people like different things and that’s fine. I don’t think the success of AAA games comes at the expense of indies or vice versa. A rising tide lifts all boats and such.
And really, the more ways there are for creators to get their original games made while retaining creative freedom and their IP, the better. Unfortunately most publishers don’t support those kinds of things and have no idea how much that is going to change.
RPS: What does EA gain from assisting independent developers with the Partners program? How much of it is purely monetarily motivated versus injecting some fresh blood into its lineup? Moreover, how much – if any – of it do you think is a matter of image – i.e. “supporting the little guy”?
Nels Anderson: I can’t speak for EA of course, but I imagine EAP is meant to be similar to something like Fox Searchlight Pictures. Searchlight supports foreign and independent movies that likely otherwise wouldn’t get the funding and distribution necessary to be viable. I can’t imagine a film like Boys Don’t Cry or even 28 Days Later getting made in the normal Hollywood system, at least not while retaining the soul of those films, what makes them interesting.
So Searchlight bankrolls a lot of unusual, original films, usually for *far* less than the cost of a normal Hollywood blockbuster. Most of them break even and make a little money, a few lose money and few are gigantic breakout successes (e.g. Black Swan cost $13 million and made $330 million at the box office alone). Rather than betting the farm on one or two blockbusters, it’s dispersing that risk over a number of titles while simultaneously allow for creative new works to get made. Again, I can’t speak for EA, but I imagine that EA Partners was meant to be a similar model.
And part of the benefit is that (as we all saw last fall, when practically every AAA game release had a numeral hanging off the end of the title), original IP development is risky and frankly, hard. Most AAA studios aren’t setup to generate original IP, nor does that really play to their strengths. If you look at Metacritic’s 2010 publisher roundup (http://www.metacritic.com/feature/game-publisher-rankings-for-2010-releases), both EA and Take2’s best original titles of that year (DeathSpank and The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom respectively) were made by independent developers they partnered with.
As for image, I have no idea. That kind of brand/identity/image stuff is totally outside of anything I ever really think about. I know people inside EA that think indie games are tremendously important part of games as a creative medium and maybe they just want to support that. Again, I’m just guessing.
RPS: Ultimately, then, do you think people’s reaction to EA’s use of the word “indie” is overblown? Is it even perhaps counterproductive for people to get this bent out of shape, seeing as there are obvious benefits to big publishers helping out on smaller games in this capacity? Should we as players be more actively encouraging publishers like EA to spotlight smaller games?
Nels Anderson: I can definitely understand why people are upset. I just hope they understand that those six games that were not made by studios EA owns or had any kind of creative control over, and that all six were original IP that the creators still own. If people still take umbrage, that’s their prerogative and totally fair.
But if Braid, Limbo, and Castle Crashers were put into an “XBLA Indie Bundle” or Journey, Fat Princess, and Joe Danger were in a “PSN Indie Bundle,” I don’t think as many folks would take issue with that, even though MS/Sony had the same relationship with those games as EAP did with the ones in this bundle.
I guess the problem is that we can say “EA,” but it’s not really a single entity, right? It’s made up of a lot of different people with different perspectives and opinions. That’s kind of the problem with any large, publicly traded company. They’re behold to all these different interests and it ends up influencing their decisions in ways that I’m not sure are always optimal long term. At least the point where I’d probably never be comfortable working for a publicly traded company.
I mean, 20th Century Fox is producing Prometheus, which I’m quite excited about and will definitely go see. But 20th Century Fox is owned by News Corp, which also owns Fox News. And as any thinking person knows, Fox News is a blight upon the 4th estate and frankly, any person with a goddamn functioning brain. So the money I pay to see Prometheus is going into the same coffers as Fox News (i.e. Rupert Murdoch’s money bin). How the hell am I supposed to evaluate that? Should I refuse to see Prometheus? Should I also stop watching House, even though I’ve loved Hugh Laurie since Blackadder? Should I throw away my copy of American Gods, because HarperCollins is also owned by News Corp? I genuinely don’t know how to feel about this. Maybe the best you can do is vote with your dollar, supporting the things that are good and refusing to support the things that aren’t.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying EA is akin to News Corp. Not even close. Because if anyone deserves that worst company in America label, it’s probably News Corp.
So it’s probably not the best name for the bundle, but how and why these games were made were all for the right reasons and the creators were treated well, fairly and certainly benefit from this bundle. I just hope people understand that, in addition to whatever feelings they may have about the nomenclature.