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August 11, 2020
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Rev Share: The Potluck of Game Dev

by Mark Jessup on 11/30/11 06:17:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

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Our plan was simple: We would use the promise of rev share to attract talented individuals we knew from the industry. They would each bring their "signature dish" to the table and we would make high-caliber games most startup studios could only dream of executing. The plan was flawless. There was no downside. 

Except there was, of course... 

Today's Lesson: The potential cost of rev share. -or- There ain't no such thing as a free lunch.

Before I begin, a word about the title for today's entry. It's occurred to me that potlucks are not quite as in vogue as they once were when I was a small boy growing up on an Amish homestead, so let me quickly explain.

A potluck is where a bunch of people get together and everyone brings a side dish to the occasion. In this way, everybody gets to have a nice meal much larger than anything they could prepare on their own, and all they had to do was fix one thing. It's really quite lovely.

The same principle applies if you decide to develop a game using pure revenue sharing as the basis for compensation among the individual contributors. To be clear, I'm not talking about jobs in which revenue sharing is a portion of the overall paid compensation. That's pretty common in the indie dev scene as a way to defray high production costs.

I'm talking about rev share as the only form of compensation, paid as a percentage of the overall revenue generated on the back end.

When we were first starting out, Lane and I thought this would be our primary model for developing games. As I once explained to a friend, (borrowing another metaphor) "We're going to build games like bank heists. Pull together the crew, do the job, split the loot." Add a dash of heroism and romance for good measure.

We assumed that we would be able to execute a game with a large crew for only the promise of a potential payout. Now I want to say, if you're trying to get a game out the door and you don't have a lot of money to spend, this is not necessarily a bad plan.

In the same way that a potluck is a big meal created for little cost in aggregate, a rev share model can provide a much bigger production with less sacrifice from the individual participants.

But here's the rub. If a potluck is a meal pieced together, a rev share game is a project built in piecemeal. And that can sometimes pose significant problems.

Look at it this way, when you ask people to work entirely for free against the possibility of payment on the back end, there are really only four reasons they'll say yes:

1. They're your friends and wish you only the best in your new career, you lucky SOB.

2. The job allows them to accomplish some personal or professional goal along the way.

3. Dude, they really need the experience. Just give them a shot and you will totally not be sorry.

4. They believe the game will be a huge financial success.

Excepting point four, their motivations for creating the game won't necessarily coincide perfectly with yours. In fact, their motivation may even lie outside of the financial success of the final product. And that means, in terms of your overall vision and creative direction, what you think will have the best chance of succeeding, you'll only be able to push so far.
I mean, if a dude wants to make a robot game and is willing to work on it for free, but then you decide to ace the robots in favor of ninjas, you can imagine the effect this is going to have on his motivation to finish the project.
And even in the case of point four, your revenue sharing contractors may have some very strong opinions about what the final product should look like. After all, their entire compensation is wrapped up in its success; you can bet they'll want a say in how it comes about.
Essentially, you've gone from a hierarchical model in which a singular vision is enforced by a project lead, to an egalitarian one in which the entire dev team are partners. And that might seem a beautiful thing in theory, but in practice it can lead to a total trainwreck.
Even one *mediocre* vision perfectly coordinated and executed is worth several brilliant, wildly divergent ideas.

Don't get me wrong, I still believe there are great reasons to consider a pure rev share model for a project. Especially when you're just starting out, you can get a game published with a greater diversity of resources and production value than would be possible with your normal team. It can really help you punch above your weight.

But just remember, when you ask talented professionals to work for free, you'll probably have to give up a certain degree of creative control and ability to drive a tight production schedule. If you want that level of oversight, you'll have to pay for it upfront.

So know what you're getting into with rev share and manage your own expectations. Scope your job to make the best use of individual talents without relying too heavily on coordinated, cross-functional efforts and strict deadlines. Do that, and you can still find success and peace of mind along the way.

P.S. I was never raised on an Amish homestead. It just seemed like the cool thing to say.

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