Interview: Cory Doctorow on the game industry

Cory Doctorow is a Canadian science fiction writer, journalist, blogger and co-editor of Boing Boing. He has been roaming around in the realm of Creative Commons for quite some time, theorizing on subjects such as the rise of e-books, copyright, and the restriction of protection of creative works. He himself has published many novels that are available online under a Creative Commons license, stating firmly that “not only does making my books available for free increase the number of sales that I get, but I also came to understand it artistically as a Science Fiction writer that if I was making work that wasn’t intended to be copied, then I was really making contemporary work”.

During this short interview, Cory Doctorow dove into the realm of the game industry and discusses intellectual property in the game industry and the relationship between publishers and indie developers.

Video games and intellectual property

The game industry has been through a tumultuous process of development when it comes to one of Doctorow’s areas of expertise;  intellectual property. For a long time, the game industry has had to put up with changes in the market without being able to get past any laws concerning the intellectual property of games. While the music industry became well-known for taking legal actions against downloading, the game industry never quite become as fervent in this particular practice as other industries.

According to Doctorow, “this has probably worked in game’s favor”. He explains this by describing that while the music industry (for example) is still frantically trying to battle illegal downloading and the spreading and sharing of creative works through numerous law suits, the game industry has figured out another way to deal with this issue. If the game industry had been preoccupied with suing and shutting down everyone who threatened to distribute games through less legal channels, they maybe never would have made the jump to digital distribution in the way they have now. “You best prepare for the future, but not being locked into the present,” Doctorow argues. “And game companies have as much to take away from that as any other.”

Although Doctorow praises the game industry for this move, he leaves us food for thought by arguing that the video game industry is not dealing well with digital distribution. When developers lock themselves into proprietary platforms and copyright delivery systems or market places, they will end up in a situation where the life of the game depends on the ongoing relationship with a vendor and not on its inherent popularity or its relationship with the audience. In the world of consoles this occurrence has been going on for so long it has become the standard.

Publishers and indies

When discussing indie development Doctorow talks about the changing dynamic of the classic publisher and the relationship they should have with indies and vice versa. “Historically the way that the publisher dynamic played out, was that you had a bunch of people who had material they wanted to get to the public eye,” he explains. “You had some people who had the organizational wherewithal, the capital and specialized knowledge to accomplish that. And those people went and they picked from the best works that were sent to them in private. Those works were then passed the bottleneck and went out into the public.” The funnel Doctorow describes still excists until today, but is also constantly challenged by disruptive new markets like the Apple Appstore.

“The major job of a publisher is to identify a work and identify an audience for that work and to take such steps as necessary to connect the audience and the work,” Doctorow explains. In his own sense, Google would be perceived as the biggest publisher in the world. But this classic publisher dynamic has drastically changed. “We have gone from a world in which you select and then publish, to a world in which you publish and then select,” he says. “We used to inhabit where all the stuff that wasn’t published was invisible and now we inhabit a world where everything is visible. Whether or not it’s been published.”

From Doctorow’s perspective, one of the things that game publishers do now is that they go around looking for the best works and then bootstrap them to a higher level by offering the developers their expertise. “As a result of this there is less that we need from publishers than we used to”, he argues. On the one hand, this development leads to better negotiation leverage for developers. On the other hand, though, there are still things that remain difficult to do by yourself. “For example, you can’t be your own sales force or tech support,” Doctorow says. “There’s a lot of things that don’t scale well as an individual.”

What publishers should do according to Doctorow, is to figure out what it is that indie developers can’t do themselves and focus on building those things. What an indie should do is figure out which publisher excels at these things (that they can’t do themselves). “By leaving out the publisher, there’s a whole bunch of costs that I’m assuming for myself or money I’m leaving on the table,” he says. “There are people I will never reach and the people I will reach, I’ll have to pay more money out of my pocket to reach them.” From Doctorow’s perspective and personal experience with self-publishing, it comes down to figuring out what you can do as an indie, where you want to go, and how you’re going to get there.

Doctorow also gave a keynote during the PicNic conference in the Netherlands last year on how to design an object that trades on the unique physical aspects of a freely copyable digital work. Definitely worth a look at here.

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Written by Vlad M.

Vlad wears many hats, but he's mostly known for his work as a freelance game journalist, researcher and consultant. He's always looking for the next game related project to sink his teeth in. You can find his adventures over on

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