Mind The Generation Gap
Angry Birds and Minecraft are the stars of the new age of gaming - can the rest of the industry keep up, asks Johnny Minkley
Metrics have transformed our understanding of gaming in recent years, but you don't need to crunch numbers to see a profound cultural shift in effect. Indeed, sometimes all it takes is a cardboard box on the head.
At the weekend I took part in the British 10km race in London, alongside a huge group of games industry runners. We were raising money for SpecialEffect, the charity dedicated to making gaming accessible for the disabled, and as a result many of us took to the streets of the capital in costumes inspired by the digital stars of the small screen.
"The new LEGO and the new Mario, creations not of the US and Japan but the Nordic region, both digitally delivered and neither originating on a console"
I dressed up as Minecraft Steve, a reckless choice which required me to run for an hour in the rain with a newspaper-stuffed box on my head. But the reaction to it from the crowds was fascinating: overwhelmingly and strikingly it was young kids who recognised me as "Minecraft man!", amidst encouraging if confused cries of "box head!" and "LEGO face!" from adults.
For part of the race I ran with UKIE chairman Andy Payne, who had gamely rubbered up as an Angry Bird with his wife, Kirsty. The response from children was brilliant: excitement, cheers and ecstatic smiles. As Payne himself tweeted: "All kids of 7 and under shouting Angry Birds shows how games are the number 1 - mobile ones at that."
Every generation needs its own cultural icons. And in these two powerful, very different products of the new gaming world order, kids have them: the new LEGO and the new Mario, creations not of the US and Japan but the Nordic region, both digitally delivered and neither originating on a console.
The numbers in both cases speak for themselves, but it's hard to beat the potent symbolism of Nintendo Land - a virtual theme park celebrating a back catalogue - getting announced two weeks after the opening of Angry Birds Land, a real life attraction.
A US poll in the '90s revealed Mario as more recognisable than Mickey Mouse to children; Rovio's cartoon creations now feel like the usurpers for a new generation. Nintendo remains enormously popular with kids, of course, but like its console-making rivals, it is fighting hard to adapt its business as the digital landscape changes around it at a frightening rate.
As I highlighted last week, Angry Birds has gone from nought to a billion in under three years from the springboard of a platform that didn't exist when Wii launched. Rovio's title and Minecraft, like Nintendo's system, have shown success isn't dependent on horsepower. At the same time, while Microsoft and Sony try to work out how to articulate why consumers will want to invest in yet another expensive box, I've already got a device in my pocket that displays content at a higher resolution than the PS4 games I'll be playing on my TV next Christmas.
"How much longer can Nintendo resist moving its iconic IP into the mobile space and - critically - in front of the eyes of a devoted new generation?"
It's taken until now for Nintendo to wake up to paid-for DLC and day one digital releases - the first being New Super Mario Bros. 2, out next month. For how much longer can the company resist moving its iconic IP into the mobile space and - critically - in front of the eyes of a devoted new generation?
From toys and clothes to books and stationary - oh, and a few games too - Angry Birds has won its place in the hearts and minds of gamers of all ages. Run around dressed as one and you'll see what it means to kids, this status achieved entirely without Microsoft, Sony or Nintendo.
Like Angry Birds, Minecraft - originally a one-man indie project - has blindsided not just the mainstream games industry with its sales success and cultural impact, but the mainstream media, too.
This week the BBC will shine a light on Yogscast, the phenomenally popular YouTube double act, describing it as "Britain's fastest growing TV channel". Yogscast's most popular content is Minecraft-based - indeed, as I type, the team's "Minecraft: Epic Air Battles & Pincushions Mod Spotlight!" is the most popular video on YouTube. The whole of YouTube.
Minecraft and the creativity it inspires is making stars out of people who would have no chance of a similar career through traditional broadcasting routes. And yet Yogscast's YouTube channel has over 2 million subscribers and its content has been viewed over 1 billion times.
Then there's The Syndicate Project, the work of Tom Cassell, an 18 year-old, hyper-enthusiastic British gamer who produces videos with excitable, entertaining commentary, many of which focus on Minecraft. Tom's channel has over 1 million subscribers and 402 million views. He has 278,000 followers on Twitter. There is, as you might imagine, a lot of money to be made with those kind of figures.
Minecraft creator Markus "Notch" Persson, meanwhile, a softly-spoken Swedish coder, has over three quarters of a million Twitter followers. Many sports, music and movie stars would kill to enjoy that kind of popularity, and such has been the impact of his digital building blocks, you can now buy real Minecraft LEGO.
While Minecraft drives cultural change, creates celebrities and engages millions online, major broadcasters and many national newspapers continue to view video games with bemused suspicion, filing content away in "technology" sections, with senior editors and producers either clueless or somehow oblivious to the massive change happening all around them, ever more out-of-touch with vast potential audiences. It is cultural illiteracy on a grand scale. But the revolution will continue regardless.
During a GameCity-sponsored debate a couple of months ago, entitled "What is the point of video games?", the chair, Lord Puttnam, made the powerful point that games had yet to find their form and shape, arguing that no-one in the early days of cinema would have predicted the medium's future as a 100-minute narrative form.
"Major broadcasters and many national newspapers continue to view video games with bemused suspicion. It is cultural illiteracy on a grand scale"
The impact of Minecraft and Angry Birds is as much cultural as commercial, on a scale few would have dared predict or imagine just a few years ago. For those of us in the business of making, selling and writing about games, the current transition is exciting and daunting in equal measure, with enormous opportunities but precious little that can be taken for granted.
Whether you make games, television, newspapers or websites, the biggest question of all, then, is how to remain relevant to these new customers and consumers who will happily and easily get their kicks with or without you. Because the change they represent cannot be ignored. Even with a box on your head.