Mobile won't kill console. F2P won't kill full priced
There is no "perfect answer" to doing business with video games. Let's call a halt to the pointless "zero-sum" debates that blighted 2012
A day in which you learn nothing is a day wasted; by which standard, a year in which we learned nothing would be a pointless waste of time indeed. It's worth, as 2012 draws to a close (all that's left now is the few days of indulgence before the year, in harmony with our waistbands, croaks its last), thinking about what we've learned. What did 2012 teach us that we did not before? Never mind, for a moment, the money we earned or lost, the games we played or made; did we grow? Did we advance? Did we learn?
"Free to play is clearly going to be with us for the long haul; hopefully 2013 might be the year when the industry stops having ill-tempered hissy fits about this fact"
From a business standpoint, certainly, we learned a great deal. 2012 cemented the place of mobile in the gaming ecosystem, forcing all but the most ardent refuseniks (so Nintendo and... er... that's about it) to recognise mobile as an important part of their business - and even those who were slow to react to the rise of mobile gaming seem determined not to be left behind as tablets gain steam, with 2012 having shown us pretty clearly that the iPad and its myriad imitators are on track to become the primary data device of many consumers in the coming years.
We also learned some things - although not enough, I reckon - about where price points are heading. Freed of the artificial barriers to entry which define console platforms and physical retail, the App Store and Google Play have shown us where prices for digital content will inevitably trend towards - zero. In 2012, more entertaining, successful games than ever before launched at the princely price point of absolutely nothing. Plenty of others didn't debut at far above 99p, and several of my favourite games of the year would have given me change from a £10 note. Free to play, with all that it entails, remains in its infancy, but is clearly going to be with us for the long haul; hopefully 2013 might be the year when the industry stops having ill-tempered hissy fits about this fact, and starts engaging with making F2P work better rather than loudly and pointlessly damning or exalting it at every turn.
That, perhaps, is a reasonable lead-in to something that I don't think we learned this year, as an industry - we didn't learn to stop being afraid of zero-sum games that don't really exist. Discussions about mobile gaming, even among supposed professionals and experts, often descend into abject ridiculousness due to an insistence that mobile games will come to replace all other kinds of games, or that they are doomed to be a cynical, low-quality niche - neither of which position stands up to the slightest moment of intellectual scrutiny. The same applies to the vitriolic arguments about free-to-play which have washed over and back across 2012 like a stinking, polluted tide - when one side insists that everything will eventually be F2P, and the other insists that F2P is intrinsically evil and wrong, you're no longer dealing with professional debate, but with dumb fanaticism.
"The idea that one form of entertainment, one form of business model or even one form of distribution will emerge to Rule Them All, is simply an idiot's fantasy"
I'm not saying, by the way, that we should all be cautious fence-sitters - there's no virtue to sitting on the fence simply because it's comfortable. Strong beliefs are good, but meaningless unless tempered by reason and fact. The fact is that cinema did not kill theatre, television did not kill cinema, video games have yet to viciously murder books, home recording did not kill music and video did not kill the radio star. Media and entertainment industries are ecosystems that accommodate an extraordinary range of different kinds of product and different business models - and that is not ever going to change. The idea that one form of entertainment, one form of business model or even one form of distribution will emerge to Rule Them All, is simply an idiot's fantasy.
I say that with absolute confidence, not just because it is supported by countless years of history and the sheer wealth of culture and entertainment they have bequeathed to us, but because I recognise where the belief springs from. It's the unique curse and blessing of the games industry that it teems with “left-brained” people - logical, analytical, mathematical, and quite different from the “right-brained” people who often dominate other creative industries. Video games were born with both feet firmly in the sphere of technology, only gradually moving to straddle the worlds of both technology and art - a marriage which is superbly creative but often fraught, as evidenced by the hissing recoil of many gamers and industry types alike when presented with the (stonkingly obvious) fact that games are an artform.
Left-brain people (yes, modern psychology dismisses this terminology, but it's so much more polite than grouping you all as “geeks” and “arty types”, isn't it?) love perfect answers. They like problems which have a correct solution, and see the world in those terms. In many industries, they're perfect business leaders - there absolutely is a single most efficient way to extract oil or metal from the ground, to build an aircraft, to lay out a road or rail network. In entertainment, though, the idea of a “perfect” solution runs into a huge set of problems which utterly stump the left-brained - sentiment. Emotion. Irrationality. Sheer outright bloody-mindedness.
The fact is - nobody needs entertainment. Not really. If video games, films, books, music, plays, TV shows, paintings and sculptures all disappeared tomorrow, we'd be a much diminished species, but nobody would die. People need shelter, food, clothing, transport, protection, fuel - but entertainment is “discretionary”. It says so right there in your accounts. It's spending at your discretion - and what that means is that it's spending guided not by optimisation, but by sentiment.
Is free-to-play the most efficient way for money and experiences to change hands between developer and player? Is mobile or tablet gaming the most cost-effective route for consumers to engage with video games? Yeah, maybe - but what so few of us seem to really grasp is that this doesn't actually matter. Is MP3 music the perfect balance of quality, convenience and file size? Probably - but vinyl shops thrive and specialist services offering “lossless” quality music files are on the rise. Is Kindle the best way to consume books? Yes, undoubtedly - but I don't think of myself “consuming” books. Some books I just read; some I own; some I treasure. Sentiment; emotion; irrationality. I went to a shop and bought a leather-backed volume of a book I already own in paperback and Kindle alike. I'll probably never read it. I love it. Am I an idiot, failing to see that this is not the optimal consumption path and bound to realise the error of my ways eventually? No, because this is my discretion; this is how I choose to enjoy and to spend on my pastime.
"We sell experiences and emotions, and people will choose to consume those in the way that makes them feel best, not the way that is most coldly, mathematically efficient"
That's why the zero-sum game will never come to pass - not as the strident debaters of 2012 believed. A very large number of consumers will still want things like dedicated gaming hardware, expensive full-price releases and physical products, not because this makes “sense” in an economic or logical way, but because they love those things and because, beyond straightforward questions of affordability, “economic sense” isn't a welcome guest in deliberations about your hobbies and your passions.
The industry evolves and changes - never as rapidly as it did in 2012, though 2013 will probably make our heads spin just as fast - but little is truly lost. We don't sell petrol, or sliced bread, or concrete, or train tickets. We sell experiences and emotions, and people will choose to consume those in the way that makes them feel best, not the way that is most coldly, mathematically efficient. Nobody fears that releasing Shakespeare adaptations on DVD will shut down theatres, or that allowing buskers onto the streets will eventually lead to concert halls being demolished. It's time that we, too, learned that the expansion of the games business leads to more opportunities and more diversity, not to an existential threat to things we love - or worse, a chance to gloat over the imagined demise of things we hate. If you've got one new years resolution to make for 2013, make it this one - no more zero-sum arguments. Mobile won't kill console. F2P won't kill full-price. Cloud won't kill local. The forest grows ever bigger; the old tree doesn't block the sunlight from the new trees, the new trees do not strangle the roots of the old.
On which note, I'd like to wish a very merry and enjoyable Christmas (or winter holiday of your choosing) to all of our readers - not to mention a truly prosperous and wonderful new year.