Tuesday, October 11, 2011


I've been thinking quite a bit lately about creativity, and how creativity is captured. More accurately, how it is shaped and contained by platform.

If you look at different types of drawing and painting as different platforms--charcoal, pastel, watercolor, oil, etc.--it's easy to understand how the platform influences and shapes the creativity of the artist. In the simplest terms, just choosing between painting in color or sketching in black-and-white has a huge influence in terms of the relative importance of light and shadows.

So platforms, in one way, are constraints. However, in another way, those constraints can produce a more focused creativity than would otherwise be possible.

The reason I've been thinking about this so much is because of the explosion of mobile platforms, and what it might mean for the future of mobile gaming--in particular, the future of dedicated mobile platforms like the DS and the PSP.

What I've been particularly curious about is the optimal environment for producing the most creativity from a platform. And it seems like there are two very different approaches, at least philosophically: high rewards or low barriers to entry.

Consoles in this era, as well as dedicated mobile platforms, seem to focus on potentially high rewards. So the dev kits aren't cheap, and neither are the tools, but the potential payoff is quite remarkable for the highest selling games. I can't imagine that Carnival Games or Just Dance had high development budgets, and yet their sales have been staggering.

The flip side of that, though, is that in the high rewards arena, competition is fierce. Huge companies fund games with huge development budgets and even bigger marketing budgets. Sharks, as it were. So even though the fish you can catch are quite large, you have to compete with some incredibly ruthless predators whose primary goal is money, not creativity.

The evolution of this environment has unfortunately created a situation where the vast majority of games on console and dedicated mobile platforms aren't profitable. The most popular games are still fabulously successful, but now it seems like, with only rare exceptions, those games are sequels.

It's a curious situation. In most cases, a platform would shape creativity, not reduce it, but that's what's happening today in the gaming world: the console platforms (and, in many cases, consumers themselves) are no longer rewarding creativity.

If you think about it a bit more deeply, though, it should be no surprise. The new, creative game with a wonderful new concept is not going to have much of a chance against games with behemoth marketing budgets and huge television advertising spends. Just Dance and Carnival Games had a better chance of breaking out on the Wii precisely because the platform wasn't very popular with the makers of endless sequels.

A very good argument can be made that this is why the PC platform has experienced a significant renaissance in the last few years. The number of AAA releases for the PC has declined substantially in the last five years, but at the same time, that means there are fewer sharks in the tank.

In a sense, the PC platform has flipped. Before digital distribution, it was tremendously difficult for an indie developer to make a living, because distribution was incredibly difficult. So low barriers to entry in terms of development costs, potentially, but very high barriers in terms of distribution.

With the advent of digital distribution, though, the PC platform became truly low barrier in every way. And there has been an explosion of creativity on the PC platform since that happened.

This is not a coincidence.

Mobile platforms like iOS and Android are having similar explosions. Very low barriers to entry, which makes it possible for almost anyone--with determination--to make a game. And low barriers to entry translate into lower costs for consumers--cost so low that mobile phone gaming has become a truly disruptive technology in an economic sense.

Does it matter that the vast majority of mobile games are crap? No. It's completely irrelevant, really. All that matters is the top one percent, or even the top half of one percent. How many games can we play, anyway? The garbage is a necessary consequence of having a huge number of people developing for a platform. It's a mathematical certainty. That doesn't mean the best people developing for the platform aren't brilliant, though, and the chances of a platform attracting these brilliant people are directly related to the entry barriers (or lack of them).

So we're currently in an environment where developing for a mobile platform is both less expensive and potentially more lucrative than developing for the PSP or 3DS. Prices are so low for consumers, and they don't have to purchase specific "gaming phone" to be a potential game buyer. The potential audience is absolutely huge, and it's growing at an unbelievable rate.

How the hell are the PSP and the 3DS supposed to compete with this?

I don't know. And I don't think they know, either. Sure, they're trying downloadable stores, but the barriers to entry are higher than for a mobile platform, and so are the prices to consumers. In short, the economic model has turned strongly against dedicated mobile gaming hardware, and it's turned stunningly quickly.

Plus, this isn't going to ameliorate in the future-- it's going to get even more pronounced. Here's a dirty little secret: lots of people don't care about quality to the degree that we do, or they have a different definition of quality entirely. There are millions and millions of people who play games on their cell phones who don't care that a game didn't have a multimillion dollar budget or years of development time (not that those things guarantee quality, anyway). They just want a few minutes of pleasant entertainment.

Core gamers still care, but on the financial scale required by Sony and Nintendo, are there enough core gamers to make a platform a financial success?

It's pretty easy to answer that question in three words: Wii and Kinect. I'm not sure if "and" should count as a word, but there you go. The Wii and Kinect were the two bombshells of this generation, and they were two devices whose success depended on non-gamers. That's where the money is, in most cases, and mobile phones are tapping this market in a way that dedicated gaming hardware can't.

I'm not saying this is insoluble, but it's impossible to solve with $49 games. It's almost certainly impossible to solve with $39 games.

Sometimes it's hard to realize this is something is happening, but we are in the middle of a seismic shift. In many ways, I think it's far more profound and far more significant (although far less evocative) than burying millions of E.T. cartridges in the desert.

It's entirely possible, though, that Sony or Nintendo might be renting some bulldozers if they don't pull their head out of the sand.

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