20121126

The Fair Game - Part 1 : why ?

Or why a Fair Game doctrine of game making is the sensible thing to embrace now.

With the seemingly irreversible onward march of online distribution, cloud gaming and DLC, and the probable end of brick and mortar retail, along with traditional console gaming business models, the incentives for small studios to throw themselves into soul'n'blood-sucking publishing deals are vanishingly reduced.

Those among the present set of big publishers that are swift enough to make the transition certainly won't die anytime soon, if ever, as they have plenty of wiggle room to cultivate walled gardens that should prove profitable for years to come, yet they are liable to lose huge segments of the market to the self-publishing studios pushing titles on comparatively 'open' platforms (Android, cloudgaming, possibly some desktop OSes), funded through crowdfunding and 'committed investors', and which manage their growth mom'n'pop style (profits reinvestment) as opposed to bubble'n'burst.

Although the shiny exposed bit of the crowdfunding iceberg right now is mostly outlier cases that raise millions in minutes, rather than slow and steady boutique studios doing solid work, and while some bubble economy useful idiots want to believe in neverending riches through yet-another gold rush, I believe the core model is here to persist after the dust has settled, as it is the most fertile environment for game production in the internet age.
In this context, the key factors for this new generation of self-publishing studios (SPS from now on) are to be differentiation and brand recognition, and customer acquisition and loyalty.

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As is obvious from the most casual tour of the — comparatively well-tended and variably walled — gardens of Apple, Google or Amazon app stores, sorting through the offerings isn't exactly straighforward. Even ignoring for a moment the toxic waste of mal/spy/adware ridden ripoffs of other games, repackaged with complimentary keyloggers, sifting through the chaff of cheap ports and gimmicky flash games is a daunting task.
A slightly deeper look at this market shows two things, though : companies that release consistently solid products gain recognition fast, and the need for triage is quickly filled by fan sites and "personal shopper" apps and services that feed from the player community to highlight the good bits.

Inevitably some-to-most of these helper services will go the way of the gaming press and quickly turn into for-hire mouthpieces for big name publishers, but the quickloop feedback provided by other channels like gamer forums and trusted fansites is already easing the metagame of telling which advisors customers should trust.

From the gamer perspective, the online distribution channels are thus fast becoming a much nicer and satisfying shopping space, and the only question is how good the actual videogame offerings might be in the mid-to-long run.

Except for a few occasional exclusives, owing to a walled garden owner also being their backer and publisher, it seems the cat is already out of the bag, and if the Android gaming dynamics are anything to go by, many titles may end up showing on more than one app store (at comparable pricepoints), with those acting essentially as retailer outlets.

Even Apple, although it likely won't open its gates anytime soon, might unwittingly be helping and soon find itself circumvented by cloud gaming service providers, wherever broadband wireless/cellular is becoming ubiquitous.
[ISPs and cellphone operators may actually have a strong card to play here, by bundling cloud gaming services with cellular data plans, cable TV style, but that's a topic in its own name, so I won't elaborate here.]

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If you're a gamedev, this should speak to you in more than one way.

As the pressure from a very real competition which doesn't spend more on advertising than production increases, making money from the umpteenth rehash of a tired franchise will prove increasingly difficult for big publishing houses, as the costs to market and promote big-budget games done the usual way will increase geometrically to achieve no better than linear revenue growth (which is the only metric that matters to a publicly traded publisher). This could mean a serious downtrend in budget sizes by big name studios, or a suicidal arms' race between major publishers if they fail to realize it's not their share, it's the pie that's shrinking. In any case, expect a lot of suddenly 'freed' talent to hit the gamebiz job market soon.

On the plus side, as the crud filter of community fansites and shopper helper services gets better at keeping the good wares flowing, SPSes that manage to build a good reputation* will have an increasingly easier time funding projects, recruiting talent, and making a pretty penny from their games, thanks to much lower overhead in customer acquisition and loyalty cultivation costs, and lesser interference from short-term revenue demands by their shareholders.

In time, as more of the videogaming action moves to on-tap model, existing entities that are well-established both as distributors, service and infrastructure providers, which includes notably Google, Amazon, Akamai and Microsoft (and likely more than a couple cellular network operators) will all find themselves in a very favorable position to claim a large stake of 'real' cloud gaming, by ignoring or circumventing net-neutrality hindrances and saving prime morsels for their own offerings both in bandwidth and computational access.
This once again may put comparatively "indie" shops at a disadvantage, but unless the hardware consumer market for general purpose / gaming devices crashes horribly, leaving nothing behind but dumb terminals streaming pre-rendered HD from the cloud, SPS should still keep enough of an agility and creative edge that they don't have to sell themselves into slavery, for a while.

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If I'm even half right in that bucketload of unsubstantiated prophesies, we're looking at a pretty good ten years for gamedevs interested in making high-quality genre games, and an equally unfriendly period for those who expect business to run as usual and still believe you can make big bucks by wrapping lowest common denominator turds in shiny eye candy.

Not to say braindead big splashy titles will stop hogging the limelight in gaming "press", on TV and walls of your cities, but odds are you'll see fewer of them, further apart, as — unless the aforementioned fratricide arms' race ensues — I expect the megapublishers to begin flirting with cartel-style practices anytime now, to protect their bottom line.

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In part 2, I'll ramble about what makes a Fair Game self-publishing studio, and some more on why that's what you should go for if you want to make interesting games for a living.


*[Good reputation is to be understood as producing good games, but also as being a good company,  because crowdfunders and committed investors are more likely to put a premium on company values, not just value]

2 comments:

Psychochild said...

I wrote a bit about this topic on my own blog a few years ago: http://psychochild.org/?p=927

Interesting to see where you go with this.

Armchair Designer said...

Lots of good stuff in there, some of which I'll get back to in this ongoing series, and some I'd like to tackle separately, lest I really end up all over the place with this. ;)

The question of how to design compelling games that actively try to avoid reinforcing addictive/compulsive behavior, or even discourage it is one especially that keeps nagging me, and I'm sure I'll get around to put something together about that, if I manage to somewhat untangle it from the general issue of games as learning/teaching tools.

The issue of 'treating players right' as a moral imperative (as semi-separate from the 'good business' argument) is for part 4 of this series.

Also, part 2 is out : http://acdpad.blogspot.com/2012/11/the-fair-game-part-2-what.html
Fire away.