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游戏开发合同的谈判

2006-07-10 10:18   来源:艾伦·伯赫和凯瑟琳·M·华莱士       我要纠错 | 打印 | 收藏 | | |

  [本文主要介绍了开发商在与发行商签订发行协议时需要注意的事项。本文的原作者为艾伦。伯赫和凯瑟琳M.华莱士。艾伦.伯赫是Alston & Bird公司纽约办事处法律顾问,专注于知识产权法和娱乐相关法律,他曾任GT互动软件公司(现Atari公司)首席法律官。凯瑟琳M.华莱士是Alston & Bird公司亚特兰大办事处合作人,专注于知识产权法。]

  尽管主机生产商和大型游戏发行商均拥有自己的内部开发团队,独立开发工作室仍是娱乐软件业的主要创作力量。在与游戏发行商达成授权关系之前,开发工作室及其法律顾问必须面对一些财务、市场和法律方面的独特问题。

  本文主要介绍此种类型的授权关系:开发工作室保留游戏的知识产权,而把特定地区和特定时间内的发行及相关权力授予发行商,由发行商负责在PC平台或单个/多个主机平台上发行游戏。文中还将提及开发商从主机生产商手中获取游戏开发工具以从事开发,而发行商则成为该主机的授权第三方合作伙伴,为该主机提供游戏的情况。

  财务方面的考虑

  在开发过程中,开发商通常希望尽早签下发行协议,一旦确定了发行商,从策划初期到最终压盘这段时间内的费用,按惯例就将由发行商以版税预付金的形式承担。此时开发商将遇到第一个需要考虑的问题:发行商可能会要求开发商将所有预付款用于支付游戏的实际开发费用,而不能用于支付工作室的经常性支出。如果开发商同意这一条件,那么它只有在游戏的版税金超过预付款后才可能获得利润,而且它会发现自己在获得第一笔版税金之前将无力承担日常运营的支出(房租、电费、电话费)。在这种情况下,一家依靠单一产品为生且没有成功作品的工作室很快就会遇到资金上的困扰。(开发商也可以自主投资以获取更大的开发控制权和更高的版税收入,但由此而增加的风险是大部分较小的独立开发商所无法承受的。)

  更糟糕的是,对于开发商来说,由于很少有游戏能够真正赚回其预付款并获得额外的版税金,这笔预付款很可能就是开发商所能获得的所有收入。因此,开发商必须争取将工作室的经常性支出以及每个项目的利润计入预付款。

  为了减少风险,开发商还可以在发行协议中进一步明确:当项目被终止时,发行商必须支付一笔“解除费”(kill fee)给开发商,解除费通常是游戏的当前开发阶段以及下一阶段根据协议发行商所应支付的款项。开发商还可以争取在发行协议中加入“转变”(turnaround)条款,以允许开发商将被终止的项目“出售”给其它发行商。对于开发商来说,第二次交易往往比第一次交易更有利可图。

  开发商最关心的问题通常是版税率,但这种关心是没有必要的。开发商依据净营业额的一定比例获得版税金,电脑游戏的版税率一般为净营业额的20%至25%,高水准的电脑游戏开发商可以要求30%到35%甚至更高的版税率。与之相比,游戏机游戏的版税率通常较低,因为利益分配方包括开发商、发行商和主机生产商三方,并且主机生产商为了以软件销售收入弥补主机销售的亏损,会要求较高的分成。

  问题在于,人们对“净营业额”的不同理解导致了最终结果的巨大差异。与好莱坞相比,游戏业的情况还不算糟糕。在好莱坞,工作室从影片的毛利中扣去多如牛毛的各种费用,最后,即便是一部成功的影片也无法显示出任何“利润”。合理的扣除应包括产品成本、运输费和保险费,而发行商则会要求把合作广告费、不限量的供宣传和赠送之用的游戏光盘的成本也一并扣除,发行商还会要求赊销的权利,这些都需要在签订协议时多加注意,否则开发商很可能会发现自己根本无法从销售收入中获得任何好处。(为了避免被发行商所提出的各种克扣项目弄得不知所措,最好在授权协议后面附上一份空白的、格式经双方同意的版税声明。)

  还有一个相关问题是退货预留金(reserve for returns),尽管游戏被送到了商店,但可能乏人问津,因此发行商会坚持预留一部分版税金,以应付游戏被销往零售商但最终未能售出而是被退回的情况。授权协议如果只是提到对预期退货给予“合理的预留金”,则显然没有多大意义。10%的预留金是否足够?发行商可能会认为某类特定游戏的真实退货比例在40%以上。对此,开发商及其法律顾问应该问问自己:是否有了较高的退货预留金,发行商就愿意承担风险为这款游戏进行包装,或者发行商在需要提升底线或发布新闻稿时把游戏一脚踢出门外,又或者发行商的律师希望无人提及此事?无论预留多少,开发商必须要求在一段规定的时间内对预留进行清算,按惯例为每年清算。

  开发进度表:开发阶段

  发行协议列有一份开发计划,整个开发周期通常被划分为8至15个阶段,开发商必须按照这份进度表开展工作,每到达一个新的阶段都要由发行商对上一阶段进行评估,通过后再行付款。

  尽管很少有两份开发进度表完全一致,大部分进度表都会包含一些特定的标准内容,例如最初的设计文档,列出游戏的故事情节、玩法、目标、谜题、关卡设计、技术能力、配置,以及初期的一些美术。在接下去的一个阶段里还会提供游戏原型,游戏初期的一小段试玩内容。在基于游戏原型的交易中,开发进度表很难在原型本身获得认可前被通过。无论进度表的结构如何变化,最后三个阶段是固定不变的:alpha测试版、beta测试版和压盘版。alpha版的完成度通常达到95%,部分关卡和细节可能尚未完工,并且该版本可能藏有不少bug.beta版是用于接受全面质保测试的版本,该版本中的任何重大bug必须在交付压盘前解决。当然,要清除游戏中的所有bug几乎不可能,因此开发商必须在合同中注明什么样的bug才是质保测试中不允许出现的。

  在制作开发进度表时,开发商应该为自己确立一个现实的目标,因为发行商有权认为,任何没有正当理由的延迟都是对合同的违犯。发行合同中有时会加入搁置否决权,在这种情况下,即便发行商没有明确否定开发商某阶段的工作成果,也可以通过搁置而达到同样的目的。

  如果发行商否定了开发商某阶段的工作成果,开发商唯有返工,这将令项目的实际进度落后于最初制定的时间表,从而影响开发商预付款的到位情况。因此,在由于某阶段工作未被发行商通过而不得不返工的情况下,开发商必须争取把进度表上的所有截止日期向后推延。与此同时,合同中必须有一项专门的条款,要求发行商以客观的技术指标或合理的商业指标作为衡量某阶段工作合格与否的标准。

  续作的权利以及未来的项目

  游戏业内可以出现《最终幻想11》这样的名字而不令人觉得滑稽,这说明续作在这块市场上有着相当的地位。开发商会坚持保留续集的权利,发行商则认为自己花费了时间和金钱用于支持原作的成功发售,无论最终能否成为续作的发行商,都应该享有分成权。

  双方最终可能会达成一项约定,即双方都有权要求开发续作,另一方可以以投资的形式参与,双方的具体关系如下:开发商制作续集并由原发行商发行;开发商制作续集并由另一发行商发行;另一开发商制作续集并由原发行商发行。此外还有一个替代方案,即在续作问题上赋予原发行商以有限的权利,例如在原作发售后的一段特定时限内有效。此外合同还必须考虑另一种可能性:发行商不仅索取续作的权利,还要求获得围绕原作产生的所有授权产品的经营权。

  开发商未来的其它项目所涉及的问题更为宽泛,如同音乐业和图书业,娱乐软件的发行商常常持有这种观点:他们投资的是人才,而不仅仅是一个特定的项目。这一观点暗示,用户不再是根据发行商的品牌选择游戏,正如他们不会根据唱片公司的品牌选择唱片或根据出版公司的品牌选择图书。(EA Sports是一个例外,对于玩家来说,该品牌的知名度远比游戏开发者的品牌高得多。)因此,开发商在与发行商签订其第一份合同时,可能会吃惊地发现其中竟然列有赋予发行商从自己的一个或多个未来项目中获利的条款,即便这些项目与目前的项目毫无关系。开发商至少可以要求这些未来的项目应根据其实际工作量获得一笔合理的预付金。

  交叉担保

  如果发行协议涉及多款游戏、游戏的多个版本,或是续集以及未来的作品,发行商可能会要求所有这些项目的权利金必须“交叉担保”。这个古怪的名词听起来似乎更适合于出现在一份债务合同中,它给开发商的感觉是自己成了发行商的债务人。交叉担保是指某产品的版税金在抵消完预付款后必须用于弥补另一款版税金未能达到预付款的产品的不足部分。理论上,在这一条款下,始终为某一固定发行商制作游戏的开发商可能最终会发现自己一无所获,因为本应支付给自己的一款已上市一段时间的游戏的版税金,将被用于抵扣一款刚刚上市的游戏的预付款。

  解决的方法是要求发行商至少在部分产品上不要实行这种交叉担保制度,一旦游戏的版税金收入超过了该项目的预付款,则此收入不应再用于偿还其它游戏的预付款。这样,即使只有一款游戏开始赚取版税金,而其它两款游戏尚未补足预付款,开发商仍然能够从中获利。由此可以看出,开发商只有仔细审核并思考合同内容所可能产生的财务后果,才能最大程度地避免未来的损失。

  版权、商标、广告和包装

  在本文讨论的此类授权协议中,开发商拥有游戏的版权。不过发行商可能会要求开发商将游戏的商标所有权转让给发行商。如果开发商拥有游戏的版权而发行商拥有游戏的商标(如游戏标志和游戏角色),情况可能会变得复杂;如果协议上并未清楚地列明双方的权利,一旦出现创意或商业上的不和谐,情况甚至会变得非常恶劣。

  包装、广告和公关等事宜的决定权通常掌握在发行商而非开发商的手中,发行合同可能会禁止开发商未经发行商同意而发布任何与产品相关的新闻稿,可能会要求核心开发成员必须在发行商组织的促销活动中到场。这些细微而略显苛刻的要求比其它条款更为个人化,它们看上去可能并不像其它直接影响收入的条款那样重要,但开发商仍应对此给予充分的考虑。

  结论

  对于希望收获与自己的辛勤劳动相等值的回报的开发工作室来说,一份可操作的开发合同非常重要。在签订合同前仔细审核并思考所有问题,将有助于规避不必要的风险,令自己能够将全部精力投入游戏开发这一最重要的任务上。

  Negotiating Development Contracts

  by Alan Behr and Katherine M. Wallace

  Although console manufacturers and the major game publishers have in-house game development talent, independent development studios remain the core creative force of the entertainment software business. When entering into a licensing relationship with a game publisher, the development studio, together with its attorney, must address unique financial, marketing and legal challenges. This article addresses the situation in which a development studio retains the copyright in its game but licenses the publishing and related rights to a game publisher for a specified territory and a specified duration. The publisher, in turn, either publishes the game for play for the PC or for one or more game consoles. In the latter instance, the developer will have received an software development kit from the console manufacturer and the publisher will have been accepted as an authorized third-party provider of software for the console.

  Financial Considerations

  Developers generally seek to enter into a publishing contract as early in the development process as possible because, once a publisher is on board, the fare for the ride from concept to gold master is customarily borne by the publisher in the form of an advance—really a loan repayable solely from future acquired royalties. The first financial challenge for the developer will come if the publisher should demand that the developer use all advance payments directly for the actual costs of the game being developed and not for the general overhead of the development studio. If the developer agrees to those financial conditions, not only will the developer show no profit until the game recoups the amount of the advance (and the publisher at last begins making royalty payments), the developer also may find itself unable to meet general operating expenses (rent, electricity, telephones) while waiting for the first royalty check. As a result, a development studio without multiple (and successful) projects, and with only a lean advance, can quickly find itself in financial difficulty. (The alternative—self-financing in exchange for greater creative control and potentially higher royalties—increases risk to a level that most smaller, independent developers hope to avoid.)

  To add insult to injury, because few games actually earn back their advances and harvest additional royalty payments for the developer, the initial advance provided by the publisher may be all the money the developer will ever receive for its troubles. The developer should therefore attempt to build not only coverage for overhead, but also a measure of profit into its advance for each project.

  A developer can further limit its financial exposure by having the publishing contract provide for payment to the developer in the event that the project is canceled during development. Payment would be in the form of a kill fee, meaning a specific sum paid on cancellation. A typical kill fee is the amount due under the contract on completion of the milestone currently in production, as well as the subsequent milestone. (Milestone schedules are discussed in more detail below.) A developer also can seek to include a turnaround clause, allowing the developer to “shop” a canceled project to other publishers. In fact, the subsequent deal—made when the development of the game is further along—is often richer for the developer than the original one.

  It is to the royalty percentage that developers usually devote their greatest financial attention, but that can be a mistake. The developer typically will be compensated with a royalty based on a percentage of net receipts. While the developer of a computer game usually can expect royalties of about 20 percent to 25 percent of net receipts, top developers can command 30 percent to 35 percent, and sometimes more. Console-game royalties generally are lower because three parties—developer, publisher and console manufacturer—are involved and because console manufacturers, who need to make up on software the losses they suffer in selling consoles at below manufacturing cost, end up with a healthy piece of game-unit revenues.

  The problem is that just about everyone defines net differently, often with vastly different financial consequences. The game business, however, is not as bad as Hollywood, where studios have deducted so much from gross profits to cover expenses that even successful films have failed to show a “profit” for contract purposes. Fair and reasonable deductions from gross receipts include the cost of goods, shipping and insurance. Red flags in a publisher's form development contract include the deduction of cooperative advertising expenses from net receipts and deductions for the value of an unlimited number of promotional or giveaway copies. Developers also should beware of rights asserted by publishers to give credits to their customers rather than to take payment; the net effect could well be that the developer gets nothing for those sales. (A good way to keep from being surprised by what a publisher may consider deductible is to have an agreed-to form of royalty statement attached in blank to the license agreement.)

  A related issue is a reserve for returns. Though many copies may be shipped to stores, few may be bought by gamers. The publisher therefore will rightly insist that it withhold a portion of royalties to cover for the likelihood that much of what it “sells in” at retail may not “sell through” to consumers and may instead be returned. The question is, what does a license agreement mean if it provides only for a “reasonable reserve” for those expected returns? Is 10 percent enough? A publisher may insist that even 40 percent doesn't represent its true returns figure for certain types of games. The developer and its counsel should ask themselves whether a high returns reserve proves that the publisher is willing to take risks to build hits, that the publisher simply kicks product out the door whenever it needs to puff up the bottom line or issue a press release, or that the publisher's lawyer was just hoping no one would ask. Whatever the reserve, the developer should counter that it be liquidated within a prescribed period. An annual liquidation is customary.

  Development Schedule: Milestones

  Delivery of the game is typically made in accordance with a multiphase development plan articulated in the publishing agreement, most commonly structured in the form of a milestone schedule. There are customarily between eight and 15 milestones. While the first milestone is often the execution of the agreement itself, each subsequent milestone will likely be for delivery of game work product, each to be presented to the publisher by the developer for comment, approval and payment.

  Although well-written milestone schedules are rarely identical, there are certain standard deliverables that most milestone schedules contain. One is for the original design document, which outlines the story, method of play, objectives, puzzles, level design, technical capabilities and specifications, and which contains preliminary artwork. There also may be a subsequent milestone for delivery of a prototype, which consists of a small segment of the game in its earliest, minimally playable form, filled with placeholders. Indeed, in a prototype-based deal, the balance of the milestone schedule may not even be agreed on (and the project given the green light) until after approval of the prototype. Whatever the structure of the milestone schedule, the last three milestones will almost invariably be carefully defined: the alpha, beta and gold master versions. The alpha version will likely be the game in a form that is more than 95 percent complete; some levels and details will be incomplete, however, and the version likely will contain bugs. The beta version must have the game in a form ready for full quality assurance testing. Any major bugs in the beta version must be closed prior to the delivery of the gold master for distribution and sale. Given that the elimination of all bugs is almost impossible, it is important for the developer to ask for the contract to state clearly what constitutes an unacceptable bug for the purposes of quality assurance testing.

  When agreeing to the milestone schedule, a developer should set realistic goals for itself. That is because the publisher will almost certainly have the right to consider any unexcused delay in delivery to be a breach of the publishing contract. Publishing contracts sometimes provide for a pocket veto, whereby the publisher's failure to approve a deliverable item (even if delivered on time by the developer) has the same effect as an explicit rejection by the publisher.

  If the publisher rejects a delivery, the developer must resubmit the deliverable for that milestone, potentially placing the project behind schedule and further delaying the developer's receipt of crucial advance payments. It is therefore in the developer's interest to press for a milestone schedule that pushes back the deadline for all deliverables in the event of reasonable delay caused by the need to rework and resubmit any deliverable due to its rejection. Just as important is a provision in the contract requiring the publisher to accept a particular deliverable (where appropriate) based on an objective technical standard, or at least a standard based on reasonably acceptable commercial standards.

  Sequel Rights and Later Projects

  The fact that this is an industry that can announce a major title called “Final Fantasy XI” without a trace of irony indicates how important sequels are to the market. The developer may take the position that it should retain sequel rights. The publisher will likely counter that having spent the time and money to launch a title good enough to warrant a sequel, the publisher deserves the right to participate in the revenue, regardless of whether it is ultimately the publisher of the sequel.

  The parties may agree to a provision whereby either of them would have the right to call for the creation of a sequel and give the other an opportunity to participate financially under each of the following contingencies: The developer makes the sequel and it is published by the original publisher; the developer makes the sequel but another publisher picks it up; or another developer makes the sequel but it is published by the original publisher. An alternative arrangement would be to grant a limited sequel option to the initial publisher, one that would expire within a certain period of time following the release of the initial game. The contract also should consider the potential that the publisher will seek the rights not only to a sequel or two, but to an entire franchise arising from a hit game.

  Related to the franchise question is the broader issue of later projects. As in the music business and the book-publishing business, entertainment software publishers often take the position that they are investing in talent, not merely a particular project. There is logic behind this: Consumers generally don't choose games based on the publisher's brand any more than they choose music recordings based on the record label or select books based on the publisher's imprint. (One notable exception is the EA Sports brand, which generally means more to consumers than the names of the development studios that create the titles.) For that reason, a developer receiving its first contract from a publisher may be surprised to find a clause that gives the publisher first dibs on one or more future projects, even if they are not part of the instant product's franchise. At the least, the developer should insist that future projects will have advances appropriate for the specific work required to develop them.

  Cross-Collateralization

  If the publisher expects multiple releases, either through different versions of a game or through sequels or later projects, it may ask that royalties from most or all of them be “cross-collateralized.” That odd term of art, sounding as if it more properly belongs in a contract of indebtedness, could, at its worst, make the developer's employees feel that they have become debtors of the publisher. Cross-collateralization means that royalties for one project that has earned back its advance may be used to recoup advances on another project that has not yet earned back its advance. The strongest kind of cross-collateralization clause makes every game in every version “fully crossed.” In theory, a developer that is steadily delivering games for a publisher could find itself being paid nothing under such an arrangement, because royalties that would have been paid to it for games that have been on the market for some time will instead be applied toward the recoupment of advances for games that have just been released.

  The solution for the developer is to gain at least a partial uncrossing. For instance, the developer could take the position that once sales of a game have allowed the publisher to recoup the advance for it, royalties from that game should no longer be applied toward any other advance. In that way, a developer with one game that is earning royalties and two that are not may continue to obtain royalties from the one game that is in the black. There are other possible compromises, but the main lesson to be learned from cross-collateralization is that careful drafting and knowledge of the financial implications of what has been drafted are the best protections against later disappointment.

  Copyright, Trademark, Advertising and Packaging

  In a license agreement of the kind discussed here, the developer will retain copyright ownership, but it may be asked to cede to the publisher the trademarks in the game. If the developer owns the copyright in the game itself and the publisher owns the trademarks (for the title, logotypes and characters, among other elements), things can get murky—and, if there is a creative or business disagreement, things can get ugly—if the agreement does not clearly delineate the rights of the parties.

  When it comes to packaging, advertising and public-relations issues, it is nearly always the publisher, rather than the developer, who has the final word. The publishing contract also may restrict the developer from issuing press releases about the product without prior approval by the publisher. The contract may further provide that key development personnel must be available for promotional activities arranged by the publisher. These small but potentially sticky issues—being more personal in nature than others—should be given due consideration by the developer and its counsel, even if, at first blush, they don't appear as important as issues directly affecting revenue.

  Conclusion

  Negotiating a workable development contract is critical to a development studio that hopes to reap financial rewards commensurate with its hard work. Careful drafting and consideration of all the issues prior to signing an agreement can help a studio avoid unnecessary risks and allow it to concentrate on the important task of developing games.

  Authors' Bio

  Alan Behr, counsel in the New York office of Alston & Bird, focuses his practice on intellectual property and entertainment law. He is a member of the firm's IP-Transactional and IP-Trademarks Groups and is former chief legal officer at GT Interactive Software Corp. Katherine M. Wallace is an associate in the Atlanta office of Alston & Bird and focuses her practice on intellectual property law.

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