When the industry started really talking seriously about digital distribution back in the early 2000s, there were a number of important things that didn't feature in the conversation. Lots of people were talking about the impact digital distribution would have on retail, and quite a few people grasped the impact this would have on the nature of the relationship between publishers and consumers. The potential for digital distribution, through eliminating the overheads and problems associated with physical stock, to open up the industry to new entrants and allow developers to cultivate audiences directly was also discussed with some excitement.
What was missed, for the most part, were the emergent problems that arise because of precisely those factors. Few people expected that the PC, for example, would end up with a hegemonic store operator in place rather than a diversity of competing store platforms; and few comprehended just how intractable the issue of discovery would become as the volume of games being released each week increased to torrential levels.
"It takes a big step down the path to righting one of the games industry's longest-standing wrongs; it puts creators front and centre of the experience right from the first step, the store front itself"
This latter problem has been approached by many different companies in a host of different ways in recent years - largely without making any significant headway. Google, Apple, Valve, even Facebook. The list of companies that have devoted time and effort to figuring out discoverability is a who's-who of the world's top tech firms, and yet the problem still remains an issue.
What seems to frustrate many of these companies' efforts - and indeed, frustrates them on a genuinely emotional level a lot of the time - is that algorithmic solutions to discoverability have run into a wall. Attempts to implement deep learning approaches that are fed a torrent of information about consumer behaviour and produce intelligent fixes for discoverability have helped far less than most people hoped. There are many problems, but perhaps the core of them all is that algorithms are only as good as the data available to them, and there's not much useful data available on just-released games or previously unknown creators.
The dirty secret of discoverability, then, is that for all the attempts to use consumer behaviour - either quietly monitored by deep learning algorithms, or overtly influencing systems like Steam Greenlight - to solve discoverability, the most powerful systems out there remain entirely in the realm of "getting a human to judge" rather than letting an impartial machine figure things out automatically. The most important tool in the world for discoverability, right now, is the very much chosen by a human "Featured" section on Apple's iOS App Store. Not only is it enormously influential in terms of the success of the apps featured; it's also qualitatively a better experience for consumers than any attempt thus far at replicating this functionality with an algorithm.
Consoles don't have quite the same degree of trouble with discoverability as open platforms like smartphones or PC, but with the proliferation of indie games on platforms like PS4, the same issues have started to creep in. Who can keep up with the amount of content available on the PlayStation Store? Even if you're someone involved with the industry on some level, browsing through the store on your PS4 will often yield games you've never heard of and know nothing about. There's only so much bandwidth for media and marketing; things fall through the cracks, and some of those things may even be brilliant.
"It's a powerful idea both from a consumer experience standpoint and from a cultural standpoint"
Hence why Sony's new feature on the PlayStation Store is so welcome. The company has launched a channel called "The Creators", which on the face of it isn't such a huge innovation; it's basically a space where people can make a curated list of their favourite games for other people to see. Steam has had that for ages, and it sort-of, kind-of works; anyone can make a list of games, and the quality of those lists or the standards by which games are included varies enormously, but it's Valve's best stab yet at a solution to discoverability and clearly inspired Sony's new feature.
Where Sony improves on Steam's curated lists, at the expense of high-minded notions of consumer democracy but to the great advantage of consumer experience, is by curating the curators. PS4's curated lists are run by game creators and people intimately involved with game creation. The idea is that there are certain people or studios whose names should have an automatic currency with consumers; these are people with distinctive voices who have been involved in making games you love, and that should give you confidence in their game recommendations. Each of the curated lists in The Creators is a solid, interesting set of fantastic games; the quality bar is high and the diversity and variety of games is good, as you'd expect from lists chosen by game creators themselves.
That's only a small tweak to Valve's formula, but it's a vitally important one for two reasons. The first is that it is genuinely a better consumer experience; Steam's curation lists ended up just shunting the discoverability problem up a level, because the difficulty then became finding curation lists actually worth following. The second and more important reason, however, is that it takes a big step down the path to righting one of the games industry's longest-standing wrongs; it puts creators front and centre of the experience right from the first step, the storefront itself.
For years, games gave creators - with the exception of the tiny handful of elite creators whose names went on the front of the box - short shrift. Publishers wanted to own intellectual property unencumbered by the attachment of a real person's name, so that if a star developer decided they wanted to go elsewhere, or perhaps ought to be paid a bit better for creating such a successful game, the publisher could dump them and hand over development duties on the next entry in the franchise to someone else.
Slowly but surely, we've been moving away from that; love them or hate them, people like Hideo Kojima and David Cage have done a great job of aping the communication style and image management of film auteurs, and in their wake a lot of more understated game creators are starting to enjoy a degree of public recognition. We're still a long way away from the "star power" of a Hollywood director's name, but we're getting there, and creators other than the lead designer / director are even starting to get a bit more recognition now.
"Sony's approach here is absolutely laudable. Human curation has to have a place in the improvement of discovery"
Sony's The Creators section is a big step in that direction; an equivalent for our industry of the way that film and TV is able to promote the work of new, exciting and interesting creators by attaching a household name as an Executive Producer or simply as a "Steven Spielberg Presents" / "Quentin Tarantino Presents" credit that's featured prominently on the poster and in the marketing. It's an acknowledgement that creators, more than anyone else, deserve to be trusted by consumers; that their names have currency, and that their names really ought to have even more currency than they currently do.
It's not a perfect system by any means, nor is it a "solution" to discoverability - in its own way, this too just moves the problem up a level, since newcomers now have to find a way to get influential creators to see their work, rather than somehow trying to get it in front of a general audience of consumers. However, it's a powerful idea both from a consumer experience standpoint and from a cultural standpoint, and I sincerely hope it's not a one-off notion from Sony; it's something that deserves to be properly funded and worked on, kept up to date and hopefully expanded significantly. (One no-brainer I'd like to see Sony implement is adding an extract of the creator's curated list to the information page for games in the PS4's front-end UI, for example.)
The slightly more difficult question is how this might be carried over to other platforms. Sony has a unique advantage in terms of its direct relationship with creators; it's a little harder to imagine how Steam, or a smartphone App Store, could achieve a similar system.
Perhaps the biggest difficulty would be on the smartphones, in fact; because of the ongoing revenue model of an F2P game, creators on Google Play / iOS App Store are in much more direct competition with one another than creators on PlayStation or another console. There's really no downside to the creator of Horizon: Zero Dawn or Prison Architect suggesting other games you might play after theirs, whereas an F2P developer who recommends a great game to their own customers risks losing those valuable customers in the process. I'd argue, incidentally, that this is why cross-advertising other games in F2P titles obviously doesn't work; if promotions for rival games actually had any kind of conversion rate worth a damn, nobody would run those promotions because they'd destroy retention.
Discovery is not a problem that's going to be "solved" any time soon; indeed, it's not really the kind of problem that ever truly gets solved. However, it's worth calling out good initiatives as well as criticising those that don't work, and Sony's approach here is absolutely laudable. Human curation has to have a place in the improvement of discovery, and starting from a standpoint of being willing to curate those curators, to give the highest platform to those whose track record of creation says they deserve a voice, is an excellent idea. It won't fix everything; but it's certainly given me, and no doubt many other consumers, some great and unexpected ideas about what to play next.