Curate or Filter?

The debate over whether to curate or filter digital content presents a false dichotomy - both sides have merit

The shape of the future is rarely clear, especially in an industry which moves and changes so rapidly as interactive entertainment - but on one point, at least, almost everyone is in agreement. Although physical, boxed products are unlikely to disappear entirely, an increasing proportion of games are being sold over digital channels - a delivery mechanism which is likely to account for increasingly large majorities of the industry's distribution in years to come.

This shift changes a lot of things. It changes consumers' relationships with games - directly affecting prices, which will be driven down (although right now, many publishers are hobbling their own digital distribution efforts by desperately clinging to RRPs that no customer ever pays at a physical retailer). It moves the balance of power in the value chain, eventually rendering companies such as GAME and GameStop obsolete, unless they can find a very good new reason for their continued existence.

Digital distribution will open doors for new players to enter the market, by making retail and distribution channels - formerly the high-cost preserve of dedicated publishing companies - available to anyone with an internet connection and a simple suite of software tools. We can already see the effect of this in the resurgent indie games market on the PC and on iOS devices - marketplaces where exactly the kind of creative, low-budget games whose death we were lamenting only a few years ago are now thriving.

Should firms which operate digital store fronts act simply as repositories of content, or as curators of that content?

This change, however, is a lot more complex than simply replacing a store front made of bricks with one driven by clicks. As we move increasingly rapidly towards a digital distribution future, a major divide has emerged in the strategies of the companies at the top of the market. It's a divide along both ideological and practical lines - a divide over the question of whether the firms which operate digital store fronts should act simply as repositories of content, or as curators of that content.

That might sound like a fairly minor thing to disagree over, but in practice it's a huge difference in approach. Curation is what the games industry has been based on, for the most part, for years. Publishers and platform holders acted as gatekeepers, selecting which products to fund and developer, effectively acting as a massive pre-filtering process for the content that was eventually made available to consumers. Walk into a branch of GAME today and you're seeing curated content - only games which a publisher has been willing to throw millions of pounds behind have ended up being put in boxes and placed on shelves.

The advantage is that, in theory at least, you get a much higher baseline of quality, and consumers who aren't terribly au fait with the selection get clear indicators of what's worth buying. The disadvantage is that the curators essentially act as gatekeepers, meaning that content they don't explicitly select simply never gets distributed through these channels. Curated channels have high barriers to entry - there's little or no potential for an individual or a small team with a great, offbeat idea to create an underground hit in this model.

Moreover, curated channels - which are preferred by every existing console platform holder - are inflexible in terms of their business model. They generally have a few fixed price points and are, for the most part, focused on an up-front lump payment model, with some limited potential for DLC after-market income. In essence, they're an attempt to crowbar the existing console ecosystem into the digital distribution world.

Contrast that with non-curated channels, such as the PC indie market or Apple's App Store. Here, innovation both in terms of content and in terms of business model is rapid and utterly undaunted by the cumbersome movement of a long-established content market. iOS games are a great example; in the past couple of years, not only has their quality improved immensely, but their business models have shifted radically from up-front payment to freemium systems. That kind of shift would take many years to take root on a content channel curated by a major platform holder - on the (almost) anything goes App Store, it can happen practically overnight.

However, listening to the passionate arguments for non-curated channels which are made by many developers - most often those who have been successful on iOS or PC and want to make the leap to consoles - I find myself agreeing with the basis of those arguments, but not with the conclusion that curation is an approach whose day is done.

The App Store and its ilk, after all, still suffer immense growing pains from the sheer volume of content available. Apple tries to get the best of both worlds by insisting on a quality baseline - the games must, at least, work on people's devices, and cannot infringe certain basic rules - making the App Store a much more friendly experience for the average user than the rather wild frontier that is Google's Android market. However, even so, the App Store teems with games that lack ratings, reviews or any clear guidance for buyers.

Simply driving people to buy a game that's already a top-seller just isn't a nuanced enough approach

Top-rated and top-selling games are clearly indicated - a user filtration system which advocates of non-curated channels believe to be far superior to curation. But this approach, too, is flawed. If something is popular, it may well be quite good - but that doesn't mean it's to your tastes. If the digital transition has taught us anything, it's that the range and variety of human tastes in media is extraordinary. In music, in particular, digital distribution has started to erode the appeal of the mega-artist in favour of spreading people's purchases over a wider range of artists. That's likely to happen in games, too, and simply driving people to buy a game that's already a top-seller just isn't a nuanced enough approach.

The conflict between curation and filtration, in short, is a false dichotomy. For some consumers, a filtered channel, crammed with content which they can browse through using various filters and search tools, is ideal. For others, however, a curated channel is far preferable - somewhere that'll give clear recommendations and act as a trusted source for content. Not all consumers want the same approach, and preferences in terms of discovery methods vary just as much as preferences in terms of content and genre.

Indeed, far from declining, I believe that curation is likely to evolve into quite a powerful force in terms of games discovery and the path to purchase. Not just curation as it's practised by Sony, Microsoft, and so on - but an emergent form of curation which draws on the strengths of the App Store model, by establishing trusted channels for recommendation.

We can already see this happening, to a degree - speaking personally, I know that I've bought a large number of iOS games based on the mobile game review round-ups which are published on Eurogamer, for example. What is that, if not one step away from being, in essence, a curated channel? Wouldn't it make sense for that kind of content to actually be integral to the App Store - essentially a third-party, trusted-source curation "layer" which sits on top of the content repository? Consumers would end up subscribing to the source they trust most and buying games based on those recommendations and reviews - in the process, creating exactly the direct link between game reviews and game purchases which many publishers have long decried as a myth.

The argument, in other words, is not over which is a better approach - curation or filtration. Rather, it's over how each approach can learn from the other to create something better, and help to make sense of one of the biggest challenges presented by digital distribution - the sheer volume of content and how to let consumers cut through it to get to the games they actually want.

Latest comments (7)

Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 5 years ago
I think game and content providers/publishers SHOULD run their own online shops and along with developers who worked on the games, be entirely responsible for content updates, patches and any other issues that arise from digital sales. Curate and nuture, rather than filter. Conversely, I'd say publishers should be allowed to filter content, provided they give a clear reasoning behind their decisions. If games aren't up to what they consider "quality" they expect, well, I'd say those folks who make those games can find another provider willing to release their work on another platform, as we seem to be in a multi-format age (little in-joke there)...

The problem here in the end is enforcing this evolution too quickly (and yes, despite all the tech advances and every device now a gaming machine of some sort) in an age where not every gamer has broadband access nor wants to purchase EVERY game in a digital format.

Trying to kill off retail too soon is a bad idea - getting rid of overpriced "premium" editions and junk that takes up retail space and replacing them with standard editions is a smarter move while the industry tries to recover from years of excessive packing and big, expensive peripheral mistakes that end up proving the law of diminishing returns is a real bitch with a flaming whip.

That and there's the looming (and soon to be MASSIVE) problems of ISP's limiting bandwidth and charging higher fees to those going over their capped limits 9at least here in the US, where we have surprisingly awful connections in some areas and NONE in others). This may have the end result of forcing some gamers who are day one purchasers to pay more for games when you add whatever fees are charged to the cost of that formerly cheaper online-only content.

That and again, what's going to happen once the cloud is tainted either through human error, some sort of data corruption or hacking? It's not an "if" issue as much as a "when" at this point in time, so that may as well be addressed before the class action suits start tumbling down from the heavens when people who thought they were seeing a "perfect" solution end up seeing its flaws as they're revealed.

But I could be wrong (and I hope I am)...
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Aaron Mathias Executive 5 years ago
Thought provoking editorial indeed! Keep up the fine work. Though been a gamer so long (on the PC side) this article was an eye-opener indeed. I wonder for example how would Tom Hall's Anachronox fared today if it was released on the iOS or the iPad? It would be interesting to see curation process actually dig up golden oldies of the past & rejig them for current available platforms. Now I'm ranting... ;-)
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Emmeline Pui Ling Dobson Course Co-ordinator, National Film & TV School, Nescot College5 years ago
Perhaps our games purchasing process will start to resemble a visit to Amazon, where I can check out works by the same author, purchases by other users, recommendations, reviews and user-created lists?
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Show all comments (7)
Basically, what Sir Fahey is suggesting is a Youtube-like model ? Subscribing to channels that provide (or highlight) videos that might draw your interest ?
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Tony Johns5 years ago
In order to look for games that I like, I would like to be able to pick a genre of game, or even a name of the developer/publisher and look under all the games from that developer/publisher or genre.

Or even search for a name of a game.

Even have an abc sort of seach system.

Whatever happens to the digital distribution of games in the future will be likely to be like the boxed game system where the most popular titles will always be appearing on the front, and then the lesser known titles will be harder to find and will require some time to search the site to see all the games that that site has to offer.

With me, I would rather buy games in their boxes, but I would only buy digital distribution games only if I am able to download some Japanese games that you can't find anywhere else.

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Osma Ahvenlampi CTO, Sulake5 years ago
Setting this in terms of curate vs filter is a false argument to begin with. In fact, I could turn the entire column around and saying that the console worlds' gatekeepers are the filters who prevent effective curation from happening.

And why is that? Well, go back to the definition of curation (for the lazy, here's the Wikipedia version: "Curation is generally the selection of, care for and presentation of the objects entered into a collection"). You can not select, care for nor present objects which do not exist, in the collection or outside of it. And that's precisely what happens in the old-world publisher/gatekeeper model -- the worthy but different doesn't spring into existence because of pre-filtering processes.

Now, I fully get that looking at the App Store as an alternative, one arrives at the conclusion that it isn't curated, hence, curation must be something different. But there is a third model. Internet is absolutely chock full of curated content, some of it by commercial entities, some by passionate individuals, some by crowds. This is where the "is it for me" comes from.

The crucial difference is that none of those collections prevent other content from being created, and in fact, the collections wouldn't have anything to select from without that free-flowing base.

Curation is the model. Pre-selection is not curation. Both Nintendo and Apple are wrong.
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Victor Perez CEO, Games GI5 years ago
?? what is the question.. sell in internet?

Honestly sometime is much better sell your product in one web that knows how to sell than to do it by your self. It is like said retail store it just a warehouse... well no!!

Another, sell by internet it is not only downloading... internet is a channel; you can always have the physical product buying through internet.

Games as service is for me a second waive.. it will came but latter.
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