Game studio models: a quick guide to the various entities involved in the games industry.
When people start looking for work in the games industry, they’re often unaware that not all jobs of a particular kind are created equal.
Take Quality Assurance. You can be a good QA tester armed with little more than perfectionism and an eye for detail. This makes it a popular foot-in-the-door role for aspiring game designers. Land a QA role at an established studio, make a good impression, and you’ve a decent chance of progressing to designer at the same studio in a few years.
But what if your QA job is with a big publisher rather than a dev studio? Publishers need a lot of QA testers, but they don’t generally hire artists, designers or coders, so your options are limited if you’re hoping to switch your career into a new track.
To help you understand these differences, let’s take a look at some common game studio models in the industry, and how they are structured.
The relation between different entities in the games industry.
Publishers are the money men. They don’t make games themselves; instead, they fund others making them, and take on most of the financial risk by doing so. Not all games make a profit, so publishers fund a variety of games and hope to make enough profit on the big hits to cover the cost of the flops. Since they hold the purse strings, they usually expect a lot of say in a game’s development, and are quick to drop a project that seems to be floundering.
Paying for a game’s development lets publishers display their logos front and centre on promotional art. How many of these do you recognise?
As part of the contract, publishers normally provide the services of their own QA team. Publisher QA usually comes on board late in a project, with the aim of ensuring the game meets the guidelines of the platform manufacturers and passes submission. As such, the job requires a lot of repetitive testing and focusing on minutiae. Teams will start on a nearly-finished project, see it through to submission over the course of a few months, and then be moved straight on to the next project.
It’s common for large publishers to buy development studios outright, either to gain a lucrative IP or to exert even tighter control of their output in hopes of ensuring profitability.
When Digital Bros bought Kunos Simulazioni in 2017, they gained control of their popular racing game IP, Assetto Corsa.
Such studios still operate as a normal development studio, with roles for artists, designers, programmers, animators, etc., but they are highly constrained as to what titles they work on, since the publisher calls all the shots. They may be allowed to hire their own internal QA or required to use the publisher’s QA team to save costs.
Work-for-hire studios aren’t beholden to a specific publisher, but they still need external funding. They may spend significant resources developing written pitches and demos for a game concept which will then be shown to several potential backers, with tweaks to tailor it to each one’s interests (e.g. adding branding and characters from a popular IP they own). If someone bites, they may pay for the pitch to be developed further before they commit to funding a full cycle of development.
Title page of a fictional game pitch, modified for two different potential publishers.
Publishers and IP holders may also send out a “Request for Proposal” (RFP) to work-for-hire studios, specifying a concept (such as a new take on an existing game franchise, or a game based on a line of toys) and inviting studios to submit pitches based on the provided concept. In this case, one of the submitted proposals is typically selected for funding.
Since work-for-hire studios often have the freedom to pitch their own ideas, getting a job at one can be a good compromise between the constraints of publisher-controlled development and the volatility of indie dev. However, it can take a lot of time and effort to find funding.
Indies – independent game developers – are so-called because they aren’t reliant on external financial backing; this may mean small self-funded teams, crowdfunded projects, or teams who have got lucky with a big hit and are using the royalties to fund their next project.
Well… that used to be true. These days, the lines of what counts as an indie game have become blurred. There are “indie-friendly” publishers who provide funding to small teams with original ideas, offsetting the extra risk involved by keeping budgets small. Such publishers normally take a hands-off approach to avoid stifling creativity, and the style of game produced is very much indie – here it refers to creative rather than financial independence.
Going indie is the ultimate in creative freedom, but it carries definite risks. Indie games rarely make a big profit, particularly in today’s glutted market, and there’s unlikely to be enough money to absorb more than one or maybe two flops in a row.
Publishers and studios often outsource parts of development to a specialised external outfit, rather than go through the process of hiring a bunch of people for just a few weeks or months. Things like art, animation, audio and QA are frequently outsourced. Design and code are usually kept in-house, since they require tighter collaboration with the core team. If you just want to make cool art for a variety of projects (games or not), you could do worse than join an outsourcer.
So there you have it: a quick guide to the various game studio models and their relationships to the industry. I’m not going to say that any of these is the right place to start your career in games: that’s up to you. It will likely come down to what’s available in your area, who (if anyone) you know in the industry, what your goals are, and how flexible you’re prepared to be.