Monday, April 18, 2011

Implications of the Amazon-IGDA spat

In case you missed it, there's been some interesting goings-on in digital distribution land, in particular with Amazon's Android Appstore, and the dev community (via their proxy, the IGDA) taking issue with some of the terms in their distribution agreement.

The IGDA, in service of it's members, posted an advisory calling Amazon out on several of the points they viewed as egregious and called attention to the risks they believed developers were taking on in accepting such terms. You can read the IGDA's letter here.

On their developer blog, Amazon responded the following day, stating simply that the policy in question was from a dated text file, and that a PDF elsewhere on the site contained the correct terms.

The response seems fishy. The IGDA's letter states that they reached out to Amazon several times and that Amazon were unwilling to change terms. If it were simply a matter of referencing the wrong terms, surely they would have pointed that out. Secondly, Amazon's response doesn't actually address the concerns stated in the IGDA letter. Even taking Amazon's 'correction' into account, many of the IGDA's concerns still seem valid.

It will be interesting to watch how this plays out.

However, I wanted to call attention to a couple things I think are worth noting about this chain of events.

1) As Dan Cook pointed out in his excellent GDC presentation, platform owners and/or retailers may act in a way that is detrimental to developers, depending on their motivations, business interests and the stage of their life-cycle.

Amazon here is a retailer with far less interest in the success of the platform than they have success in capturing revenue/market share away from other android store fronts. This is a formula for a Tragedy of the Commons where it will be the developers upon whom the livestock graze.

So, this current Amazon/IGDA tete-a-tete serves to draw attention to the issue from that perspective. In a case like this, Amazon may be very different from Apple. For that matter, Amazon's Android Appstore may be very different than their Kindle Appstore.

2) Another way to think about this, is as a form of collective action. Not formal collective action such as a union might undertake; but rather collective in the sense that as the hive-mind of the developer community becomes educated about the implications of terms, they can jointly act.

3) As Dan also pointed out in his presentation, large companies generally don't like bad PR, especially when it presents them as Goliath to a game developer David. I think this is a great example of the kind of collective developer action we are going to see to try to shame platform owners into curbing one-sided practices. I'm surprised their weak response isn't developing more outrage.

We've seen previous efforts in this vein. e.g. When MS was proposing changes to the XBLA royalty structure, or when MS did a dashboard update that buried the indie games channel. In both cases, developer outcry caused at minimum a public response, if not a back-pedal on policy.

So what is the real implication?

Developers, and the indie community in particular, have always had a 'sneaker net' with which they supported each other with information about platform and distribution portal learnings. However, today with social media tools and groups like the IGDA, developers better armed than ever to take action when terms aren't in their favor

The question portals, distributors, and retailers should ask themselves is how they would feel about their terms coming under public scrutiny. Today this is about Amazon, but in reality it's about 'little guys' vs 'big guys'. The little guys are realizing they wield more power than they thought, and are starting to learn how to use it. One need only look to the past months' developments in the middle east to see examples of it in other contexts.

[Update - April 19: IGDA responds to Amazon's response]

1 comment:

Ian Schreiber said...

I can't speak for other developers, but I think the main reason I wasn't outraged at the Amazon response was that I wasn't aware of it until I read about it here.