Hello! Quick question, do the rights of a video game (characters, etc) belong to the publisher, or the developer of that game? (I tried to google search it but couldn't find a clear answer).
Usually the publisher owns the IP. Sometimes the studio can negotiate a deal for ownership, like how Bungie owns the rights to Destiny, and Respawn owns the rights to Titanfall. If it isn’t explicitly stated, however, the publisher usually gets the game by default. This was actually a bit of an important point when Guitar Hero hit it big.
Way back in 2005, Guitar Hero was an indie game developed by a studio named Harmonix and published by a small publisher called Red Octane. It hit it big and resonated with players, selling a lot of copies and putting little plastic instruments in homes everywhere. Publishers thought that they could get a piece of that pie, so they made their pitches and threw some money around. When the dust settled, Activision had purchased publisher Red Octane, and MTV had secured developer Harmonix. By buying Red Octane, Activision gained the rights to Guitar Hero and all associated intellectual property. MTV got Harmonix, the developers who made Guitar Hero, and who would go on to make Rock Band. Since Activision owned the rights to Guitar Hero, it could have any developer it wanted create the next Guitar Hero game… so they chose Neversoft, their former Tony Hawk skate game developer, who went on to create most of the subsequent Guitar Hero games.
If you followed the separation of Bungie from Microsoft, you’ll see a similar situation. Originally, Microsoft actually purchased Bungie entirely. Through a good amount of earning and saving, Bungie amassed enough money to buy themselves out from Microsoft and go independent again. However, even though Bungie could leave Microsoft, they had to leave the Halo rights behind. Microsoft handed Halo over to 343 Industries, who continue to work on it to this day. In a similar vein, Microsoft also owns the rights to Killer Instinct which they obtained when Microsoft bought Rare (the original developer). Since then, Microsoft had Double Helix create the 2013 reboot, and then shifted the development to Iron Galaxy after Amazon bought Double Helix.
Sometimes the rights are licensed from other sources - movie studios, comic books, television shows, etc. Then it can get really complicated. In situations like that, you can end up with odd combinations of who owns what… like Capcom owns the rights to the concept of a Marvel vs Capcom game, but can’t actually sell any copies of the game or any DLC because the contract with Disney/Marvel to sell and distribute such things expired. It’s because of legal issues like this that ties up remakes or remasters of classic games like Goldeneye 64. In that situation, you have MGM and Eon Productions (who both own the rights to the character and world of James Bond), Nintendo (who owned the rights to Goldeneye 64), and Microsoft who own Rare. Appeasing all of the parties involved can be very problematic.