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How Sony Lost ‘Limbo’ Exclusivity

On July 21, 2010, Limbo released on the Xbox Live Arcade to an outpouring of positive critical feedback. Said feedback did nothing but drive gamers to spend their Microsoft points on this fresh indie game  and developer Playdead Studios couldn’t have been happier. Sony, on the other hand, was not rejoicing quite so much.

As it turns out, about a year before the game’s release, Playdead and Sony were negotiating an exclusive contract–Sony would market and publish the game, with their considerable clout in those areas, if Playdead agreed to hand over the IP rights. To make a long story short, this agreement was not reached.

For those who don’t know the ins and outs of video game politics (and we don’t expect you to), IP stands for Intellectual Property, which refers to the ownership of a game–its story, its characters, its contents and, most importantly, its future development and sequel potential. As many outside publishers do, Sony wanted these rights which inherently belonged to the independent developer. Playdead wasn’t so keen on relinquishing the IP. Their stalemate lasted until negotiations fell through and Microsoft got to reap the benefits.

In case you’re wondering why this is coming up now instead of two years ago, this particular piece of news was kept between the parties involved until today. While speaking at a Brighton’s Develop conference, Sony Computer Entertainment executive producer Pete Smith told of the above incident to illustrate the difficulties of IP procurement. In defense of Sony, he explained that the company fought so hard for the IP because “sometimes all we want is protection, so (developers) don’t make a game, finish it, then go to one of our rivals.” It’s a sound business strategy, but in this case, it didn’t work out in Sony’s favor. Having learned from the experience, Smith did offer a word of advice to the audience. “Remember, 100 percent of nothing is nothing. A publisher is much more likely to commit to marketing and merchandising if they own the IP.”

While both sides of this story make sense–taking into account both the freedom of the independent developer to maintain control of their product and the security of the publisher against avoidable competition–there is an element that makes us as consumers more likely to side with the developer in this case. When console-owning publishers own IP rights, the chance of seeing the game on other platforms diminishes greatly. For instance, had Sony procured the game’s IP, there would be very little possibility of seeing Limbo on the upcoming OUYA. As it stands now, the game ranks among the top-twenty games fans hope to see on the new system when it releases.

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