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.

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Latest comments (7)

Stephen Northcott Senior Consulting Engineer 8 years ago
We have one App in our (small) portfolio that we launched as an experiment, which could be said to "not be a success". By that I mean that if we discount the R&D it enabled us to do (it was our first iPhone App), and the concept we were able to try and learn from, then it has not brought in enough cold hard cash to make it pay us a living.

The Lite version (which has received no updates for about 6 months now), is completely un-promoted other than it's presence on the App Store, and yet it still receives 10 or more downloads per day, and a growing number of players. We can tell all this from the metrics the App generates.

Our main mistake in our opinion was actually giving too much away in the Lite version, as people who download it seem to keep playing it, but very few upgrade to the paid version.

That's cool with us. We can learn from that too.

The one sure thing we can also take away from this is that even an un-promoted App (with a free version available) on the App Store gets 10 or more unique downloads every single day.... Which also means that at least 10 unique people must see it each day. In our opinion, if any game was compelling enough that should be enough to bootstrap sales.

So really it comes down to producing something that the "audience" wants to buy - because there are certainly enough "footfalls" past each and every persons location on the App Store to get you going....

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Stephen Northcott on 19th February 2010 8:37am

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Nicholas Lovell Founder, Gamesbrief8 years ago
Tim O'Reilly said (back in 2002) that obscurity is a bigger problem for most authors than piracy.

This is true in games too.

The people who are bleating on about DRM, tax breaks and "too many games" are the established order: games companies who have "won" the hard battle of getting established and now, in early middle age, see younger, fitter, more agile upstarts starting to threaten their hard won position.

But we need the upstarts. We need the new blood. I entirely agree that we need the pioneers.

Digital distribution offers this. The special pleading that "our games are special", "our industry is special", "my work is special" is hard to defend.

Actually, scratch that. Digital distribution makes it impossible to defend.
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Mark Kelly Games/Level Designers 8 years ago
One problem with overcrowding is that there's not very much in the way of different 'stores', for want of a better word, in digital distribution- at physical retail, if I want The World's Most Mainstream Game/Film/Book, I go to Tesco and get it on the cheap. If I want something less well-known then I got to Game or HMV, and for the really obscure I go to some back-street indie/importer, or buy online.

Bar the very occasional themed (and PC-only) digital distro store like GOG, everything comes from more or less the same outlet, and very little gets its chance to shine amongst its peers- obviously there will always be Modern Warfare 2s that get all the attention and are available from everywhere, but as long as people are putting their hands in their pockets and paying directly for products, there will be prizes for second best- we just need more contests.
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Show all comments (7)
Nicholas Lovell Founder, Gamesbrief8 years ago
@Mark Kelly

Off the top of my head: the App Store, Android Market, Good Old Games, Metaboli/GameTap, Steam, PSN, XBLA, WiiWare, Instant Action, Facebook, MySpace, Hi5, Miniclip, the entire web (for games like Moshi Monsters, RuneScape, Battlefield Heroes, Club Penguin, Sea Fight, Puzzle Pirates).

There are more outlets, of every stripe, on the web could possibly exist in the real world. Or am I missing your point?
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Victor Perez CEO, Games GI8 years ago
@ Rob

Even now to be a pioneer requires a lot of money, I would love that will be like you tried to mean, but saying you are a pioneer the capital will not be enthusiastic. If you say this new Arena will bring new business models to explore, that is another thing. And that is true, absolutely true.. and better: it is a great business opportunity.
Anyway I like these naf articles that show something more than business to videogames ;)
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Matej Gause CEO, Mobilgamer8 years ago
The world has changed. Games are not about passion and love nowadays. Few years ago games were developed by heart, but now? The game products are rising by the help of rational analyses of the market and by skilled brigades of managers and some small independent developers? If they really are experienced in developing quality and innovative games, they definetely will be devoured by established developers. We can see it on iTunes. There are all cases of transformation of the game market. For example Gameloft makes games on basis of analyses from other markets. There is no passion and love about that, only a rational thinking and the need of the market. Players are the most innovative people in the games industry, as a folk has demands on products, players also has demands on games market.
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Michael Vandendriessche Studying Computer Science, K.U. Leuven7 years ago
I agree with Rob Fahey. These special games for a small audience are the best in my opinion. Sure, games like Modern Warfare 2 are great, I enjoy that game, but it doesn't give the same experience as that one weird game you love and nobody else even seems to know (or dislikes). I hope more established developers or publishers will pay more attention to it. Games targeted at a large audience can be technically good and result in better sales but usually they don't feel as good.
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