Thursday, June 28, 2012

Futures (part two)

Democratization of content distribution always has a far-reaching effect on an industry or content type. And I think it's influenced the game industry in ways that most of us never appreciated.

Before the Internet, publishers published games. If you wanted to develop a game, you needed to sign with a publisher to get that product distributed.
[sidebar: obviously, that wasn't true in the era when guys shipped floppy disks in zip-loc bags from their garage, but I'm talking about later than that, when EA and other companies came into existence]

Having a distribution method was crucial, and in that sense, it was just like books and music from that era. How many people wrote books that "almost" got published, but never saw the light of day? Or recorded albums on cassette tapes in their garage?

With limited distribution channels, quite a few things never saw the light of day. Most things, really.

In that environment, with a limited number of competing products because of severely limited distribution channels, taking a risk is an interesting play. The number of product short competing against in the "unique" category is likely to be small, the public's appetite is probably high (because they don't see much that's unique), and it's a good fit. Big companies can make money that way, discover new franchises, etc.

With the Internet, though, distribution became democratized. Now, a goofball like me can learn to program from scratch, make a game, and have multiple distribution options. Hell, as a fallback, a person can create their own website and host the game themeselves.

If you create content now, and have the desire, distribution is guaranteed. That is an earthshaking change from twenty years ago.

What's likely to interest people, coming from a no-name developer? Well, two things, I think: novelty or depth (and hopefully both).

Suddenly, unique games don't sound like so much of a value proposition for a big gaming company anymore. Their unique game, at $40-60, is competing with a bunch of other unique games that cost $10-15 (or less). And the lower-priced games are probably MORE unique. See the problem here?

Everybody tried to get out in front of this train. XBLA, PSN, Wiiware. So instead of developing unique products, everyone just wanted to distribute them and charge a fee for the service.

Then smartphones exploded, and now there are so many games available at such a low prices that the dam has completely broken. It's chaos.

Try to be a game executive in this environment. I don't envy you.

So when Peter Moore says that the FTP model is "inevitable", I think he may well be right. And sure, in-app purchases may drive us all batshit insane, but it would be pretty damn refreshing to play an actual level of a game (not a demo), find out it's garbage, and not have wasted any money. I mean, if we all have limited gaming dollars, don't we want to spend them on the games that we actually play, not the games that we buy? And not annoying us with inappropriate IAP will just be part of how we evaluate a game in the future.

You know what's the best part? Marketing becomes less important. All marketing can do in the FTP future is get you to try a game. They will no longer be trying to sell you on an upfront, $60 purchase with spectacularly misleading advertisements.

The future is not getting you to buy the product, sight unseen. It's to get you to try the product and hopefully enjoy it, so the focus has to be more on development and less on marketing.

Release something six months early, without adequate testing? WTF is the point of that when it's free-to-play? All you're going to do is alienate your core audience and kill your game.

A future where playability and quality become more important, while marketing becomes less important? I'll take that.

Kickstarter and other crowdsource funding mechanisms will also be important in the future. They're already important. Democratization of distribution was incredibly important, but democratization of funding will probably be even more disruptive (disruptive in a good way).

Monoliths spending tens of millions of dollars to develop a game that has to sell five million copies to break even? Not so much.

However, I think I've misunderstood the goal of the big gaming companies all along. After further reflection, I think they entirely realize that most of them are doomed. They know there won't be a "peer group" in ten years.

They're all trying to become the monolith that survives.

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