150,000's a Crowd
Developers may wring their hands over visibility - but you can never have too much content
There has been much hand-wringing over the past few years about the idea of overcrowding on digital distribution platforms. The theory goes something like this; since these platforms have, in theory, an infinite amount of shelf space and incredibly low barriers to entry, the volume of games being released on an ongoing basis will be impossible for consumers to keep up with - and that's even before taking the back catalogue into consideration.
The result? If we listen to some of the industry's prophets of doom (most recently, God of War creator David Jaffe at the DICE Summit), this oversaturation of new products will result in a lack of visibility for everyone involved, reduced average sales for the titles on the service and commercial failure all round. Or something along those lines, at least.
It's a compelling argument, on the surface, yet it's hard to escape the idea that it's also one which could only come from an established, successful developer. It presupposes that the products worth actually caring about are those which would have sold a large number of copies in the first place, and that the proliferation of new, perhaps less "commercial" software is detracting from the visibility of those titles.
Consider this argument from the other side of the playing field. For small independent developers - often hobbyists or amateurs, or tiny teams of one to three people going it alone - there has always been a huge artificial barrier between their products and those of established studios. The process of creating a game with enough content, high enough quality and sufficient marketing and distribution muscle behind it to get onto a console platform excluded all but a tiny minority of creators - and even today, XBLA, PSN and WiiWare are still walled gardens, to some extent.
The result has been a market which was unnaturally difficult to break into - something which, ironically, was bemoaned for years by many of the same developers now fretting over visibility. Analogies with the film business, where it's possible (albeit unlikely) for someone to pick up a camcorder and create a break-out hit like The Blair Witch Project, have floated around conferences like GDC for years. Now, digital distribution services such as the App Store and web technologies like Flash have brought a similar mentality to games, and many in the industry aren't sure how comfortable they are with it after all.
Yet for the creators of these small, perhaps "uncommercial" games, this is nothing but positive. From a position where they simply couldn't sell any games at all - or where they might be consigned to the murky world of PC shareware - they suddenly have the ability to release products into a commercial market, and notch up hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands of sales. Small change for a professional studio - a vast opportunity for a creatively minded hobbyist.
From a position where they were simply told to stay the hell out of the pool, with high fences erected on all sides, these small developers are suddenly free to dive in - with the power to sink or swim resting in their own hands. Of course, the vast majority will sink. That's only to be expected, and it's something of a red herring to hear industry types feigning concern for the fates of those games which simply sink without a trace on digital services. In every media sector, vastly more works are created than ever break even, with the huge number of dead products balanced out by the enormous profits created by the rare break-out hits.
That may sound unhealthy, but it's not - it's the very essence of a thriving creative business. The simple reality is that while people like Jaffe talk about the need for commercial titles, they are speaking only of a very limited sub-set of the word "commercial"; they mean the kind of titles which have already proven themselves to have strong appeal to a certain sub-section of the audience. There are countless other types of content which will find audiences, perhaps even larger and more commercially viable audiences than anything Jaffe has in mind - but because nobody has actually taken the risk to make those games yet, nobody (including Jaffe, and every other developer in the industry) actually knows what they are yet.
In other words, commercial success does not ride simply on making games that you know to be commercially viable. To create true, ongoing success for the industry as a whole, we need a huge number of pioneers - creative, innovative people who are free to take risks and try new things, thanks to a low barrier to entry. These pioneers spread themselves across the frontier, and most of them will be eaten by wolves or starve in the desert - but the handful who strike gold, whose ideas and innovations strike a chord with a new audience, will be the basis for the medium's continued growth.
The slightly blinkered attitude which wonders about the worth of such a wide range of content isn't unusual, nor is it unique to the games business. Witness this week's comments from the head of RIM - the firm behind the Blackberry mobile devices - who rather snarkily remarked that a device doesn't need 150,000 apps (as the iPhone's App Store offers), it just needs a handful of apps that you love.
It's a comment dumb enough to make you wonder about RIM's future with this kind of thinking at the helm. The concept that there can be a handful apps which everyone - every user, with all of their diverse and often bizarre personal preferences, desires, demands and usage scenarios - will love is ridiculous. You need a vast library of content so that people can pick and choose their own handful of beloved apps - many of which will seem pointless, stupid or clunky to the next customer in line, who will in turn have their own handful of apps installed.
The same logic applies to television, to music, to books, to films and, of course, to games. Many of the games which David Jaffe enjoys, I would probably find mind-numbingly awful - and vice versa. The same applies to any two consumers, and while our industry has done a reasonable job of establishing key genres and tropes which appeal to a certain, limited audience over the past thirty years, the idea that we've reached a point where we can point at one style of game and say "this, and this alone, equals commercial success!" is nonsense.
We need our pioneers. We need creative people driven simply by the love of creativity rather than by concerns over how the hell they're going to pay back their publisher advance or keep the lights on in a huge studio next month. We need people willing to go out there and make games which you, and I, and David Jaffe, find stupid, or pointless, or boring, or mind-boggling - games which established developers simply won't make, because there's no obvious audience for them. We need those people because although in the vast majority of cases, established designers will be quite right to look at their concepts and say, "it'll never work", in a tiny, tiny minority of cases, they'll be totally wrong - and it's that tiny minority of stunning, unheard-of ideas which will keep this industry fresh and vibrant for decades to come.