Wednesday, June 15, 2005

On problems with the game industry...

First off, I'm gonna go off here. I have pent up rant-ness in me, and it's gotta get out.

I'm not going to rant about the usual lack-of-innovation-rant(tm), publishers-are-evil-rant(tm), woe-to-the-downtrodden-developer-rant(tm), or yet-another-rant-about-sequelitis-rant(tm), or any of the other usual ones you hear.

Instead I'm going to talk about a couple other problems: gaming press and unintended consequences of shorting the retail market.

1) The Gaming Press.

Um... well... it sucks. Brian Hook wrote a more detailed rant on this than I could hope to, and actually followed it up with a more detailed study. Go read them. I'll wait here....

//push
Ok you're back? good.
//pop

I was reminded about this by Robin's related recent post about how innovation is stifled by buying trends (driven by press, publisher budgets, retail [which I'll get to in a minute], etc), that discourage risk taking by publishers in favor of tried-n-true game formulas and brand-name sequels. Robin hopes for a solution in "long-tail" content distribution - but I'm not so hopeful. The problem with long tails, if I might extend the metaphor inappropriately, is that they drag on the ground and get smeared with poo.

I don't have an answer. In the interim though, I like Robin's grass-roots suggestion - that we each commit to writing a Metacritic review of games that we play. I personally just went and rated Psychonauts (9/10) and God of War (4/10). What's needed next is a meta-meta-critic, which somehow holds press accountable for reviews that fall out of line with gamer reviews, so that we know which mags are more in line with end user opinion (which maybe isn't a good thing anyway, but that's another topic)

//push
Ok, with that on the stack, let us discuss the embarrassing subject of "premature adulation" :-)

Robin's post mentions an article's premature praise for the upcoming Spore title from EA. I have some thoughts on this as well.

Will Wright' s Spore won a bunch of awards at E3 (Best of Show, others). I saw the GDC talk on Spore, and I have to say I have a beef with it, and have to disagree with what I deem is the premature granting of the "best of show" award.

Will's talk on the game covered a number of points, the main themes being the scope of the game (amoeba to galaxies), the fact the content is procedural with user-influenced/seeded elements, and sharing of user-created content. I think all three are interesting. The scope of the game is an interesting technical achievement. The procedural element is a necesary direction (I even wrote an article and demo back in 2000 on the subject). The user-created content is an, ahem, admirable goal, but I have issues with it.

My main issues with user-created content, is that there needs to be a way to "police it", or at least to "sift through it". The same is true of procedural content. When we did our procedural content demo, we found there were some amazing things the machine produced for us. However, they were at the far ends of a spectrum of bland mediocre stuff. How do you get the amazing stuff to the user without them having to wade through a bunch of garbage.

And just as "one in a thousand random things is interesting", so too is "one in a thousand user-created things interesting".

I had this thought occur to me when I spent a little time touring Second Life. I deemed it a "Digital Shanty Town". Nice technology, nice idea... somebody please hire an urban planner to help lay this out in a more aesthetically pleasing fashion, and somebody create a digital bulldozer with which we may vote on what crap needs to go. Maybe it's gotten better since then, but if it did, I wager it's through their intervention, not natural evolution.

So, getting back to Spore. The user-influenced, procedually-created, content that was shown at GDC & E3 was OK, but at the end of the day, that was created by people that work at EA, not run-of-the-mill gamers, it was also, perhaps, selected from a wide array of content by people that worked at EA, as the best stuff to show there.

And here's the biggest thing: I really didn't look all that fun. It was technically and artistically ambitious, but I'm not sure yet that it's *fun*. Perhaps fun in the TOY sense, but not in the GAME sense. And in the end, isn't THAT the most important thing that should be considered for an E3 "best of show"? Would it have won best of show if Will Wright's name had not been associated with it?

Quite frankly, I don't think it was deserved, and is just an example of how the gaming press isn't nearly as objective or reader-oriented as they need to be. (Apologies to Brian & Chris for dissing their game, and to Jane, for dissing her livelyhood. Of course, Jane is also part of the solution :-)

OK, enough of that. Back to the rant at hand.

//pop

I was saying that gaming press is part of the problem. There's also another thing that's been bugging me recently, which is related:

2. Retail.

One of my fave sessions from GDC this year was Kathy Schoback's "Economics of Next Gen Game Development".

One of the many illuminating points Kathy made was that the game publishers today run their retail distribution operations extremely inefficiently. Markdown account for millions in the budget of today's games. I'm no MBA, but here's my rudimentary attempt at an explanation:

If I make widgets, and sell them at widgets-r-us, I'd like to put the correct number of widgets in each store given the expectations of customers that are going to come in. If I don't put enough in, then I sell all my widgets, but could have sold more. If I put too many in, then my arrangements with the retailer say that I will eat the cost of liquidating that product (i.e. rebates, sale-below-cost, buy-back, etc). While I'm sure I have some of it wrong, the bottom line is that games in the channel that don't sell through, don't just "not make money", they COST money.

So, while you want to walk the line between too much product in the channel and not enough, it's better to err on the conservative side and short the market. Kathy's conclusion on that point, if I understood correctly, is that part of publishers reaching ISO-9001 type execution will involve a more frequent shorting of the market in coming years.

In other words, it will become increasingly common to go into stores to pick up a game and find that they don't have it in stock.

So why is this an issue, if it makes for a more profitable industry. More to the point (should I ever get to one), why do I care?

First off, I beleive this will affect innovative, sleeper hit titles more than the (more predictable) sequels and known brands. I beleive this is already happening. When I tried to buy Katamari Damacy, I had to try 3 retail locations before finding it in stock. When I tried ot buy Psychonauts, 2 locations - and it was just released! Yesterday I tried to pick up Lego Star Wars for PC, same thing. Plenty of God of War on the shelf though.

Secondly, I beleive this will affect PC gaming more than consoles, where the portfolio of titles is under a little more control. And PC gaming is where more innovation - at least more variety - is likely to take place, so it's yet another factor eroding away chances of gaming breaking out of the hardcore rut.

I don't beleive more retail space is going to help either. It'll just accomodate more console SKUs.

//end rant

1 comment:

nexis said...

Some very interesting ideas there. Innovation and good gameplay alone won't make games sell. Psychonauts is a good example of that given the poor sales its gotten.

I'd say the larger problem is communicating to the customers what are the good games and which aren't. Game direction is determined by where the money flows. I don't think gaming press matters too much given the majority of the people who buy games are casual gamers who likely don't keep up with gaming news or read reviews. Sure there's word of mouth, but even talking about games is stigmitized to a certain degree (as opposed to something like movies).

Stick that game rankings score on the box and then you might get somewhere.