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What games can learn from other media

Playmetrix' Justin Johnson on paywalls, evergreen content and the shared problems of media

In this guest blog for GamesIndustry.biz, Justin Johnson, chief technical officer of game analytics firm Playmetrix, argues that games could learn much from the experiences of other media.

I recently sat on a panel at the Guardian Changing Media Summit discussing convergence and innovation within the games industry. Though the panel itself was great, for me it was made more so in the context of everything else going on at the summit.

Games exist in a bit of a bubble. Or maybe, after a generation of perceived marginalisation, they like to think they do. Yet, in recent years, we've seen an explosion of interest in what we're doing – whether it's brands wanting to make games of their own or businesses and public sector organisations employing game mechanics in strategy and policy. There is an overriding perception that the lessons being learnt within games have universal applications.

What we struggle with in the games industry, in fact the whole of the media industry is also struggling with. That we should struggle in isolation seems ludicrous.

Should it just be one way traffic, though? Listening to some of the other speakers at the Guardian Changing Media summit convinced me that much of what we struggle with in the games industry, in fact the whole of the media industry is also struggling with. That we should struggle in isolation seems ludicrous. Following are a few things from the summit that stood out for me.

Undoubtedly, one of the biggest media stories of the last 12 months has been the paywalls erected around the FT, Times and New York Times. Generally, a very unpopular concept, particularly within internet circles. And yet, I listened to the managing director of ft.com tell us that – as far as they are concerned - there is no debate, and that it has been hugely successful for them. Interestingly, it also turns out the majority of these subscribers are individuals, rather than corporations.

This lends a lot of credibility to hypothesis that people will pay for content they value from well established brands. It also flies in the face of traditional ideas about what makes a "successful" media property – suddenly the focus is less on building a huge audience which will attract advertisers but about running a profitable business by retaining customers (subscribers) with quality content. For the games industry, whether you're exploring freemium or subscription models, the take away is exactly the same.

For the time being, we're likely to continue seeing a number of different models jostle for position. It's important to remember, though, that their success will be determined entirely by the preferences of their users. On another panel, Mattias Miksche of Stardoll revealed that, in their experience, payment preferences for content vary distinctly by geography. US users, they found, were far more likely to prefer subscriptions where as in the Netherlands most of the payments were by SMS. The demographic, culture of customers and technology available will be big determining factors in which payment methods prove themselves.

Equally relevant for the games industry was Demand Media CEO, Steven Kydd's keynote. Kydd spoke about Demand Media's model, which is dependent on what they refer to as "evergreen content" - content that doesn't decay in relevance and interest over time (e.g. news or a viral video) but rather stays relevant, the long tail (e.g. how to tie a Windsor knot or how to make a soufflé).

Looking through this evergreen lens, games are particularly interesting. In the majority of games, particularly AAA games, the evergreen element is the - often peripheral – multiplayer element, rather than the core experience. Call of Duty is a textbook example of this. The rest of the game, once you've played it, you're done.

However, the inherent irony of making any content is that your audience will always consume it at an order of magnitude faster than you can produce it (I'm thinking of the few hours it took me to put these thoughts together and write them up compared to the few minutes it'll take you to read them). It stands to reason, then, that game designers (particularly smaller developers who really need to maximise the bang for buck ratio) should be building with longevity as a primary concern.

There are some very good examples of this already, whether Bejewelled, Farmville or The Sims. Interestingly, the above sample (unscientific, though it is) are all what you would probably call casual titles. Meanwhile, hardcore audiences (who you would naturally expect to make greater time investments in titles) are offered games routinely criticised for their ever shrinking campaigns.

What ties this all together? Everyone I spoke to at the summit, whether they were other speakers or journalists, were all saying the same thing: that this whole "digital" thing is turning the media industry upside down. What was interesting was that this feeling wasn't limited to gaming. The games industry likes to think it has grown up. It also probably likes to think that it has done this largely in isolation of the rest of the "media industry", you could argue in spite of. The once distant dream of games standing shoulder to shoulder with film, TV, newspapers is today both palpable reality and ancient news and yet, the mindset of the medium in the bubble lingers.

We love to think our problems and their solutions are ours and ours alone. And though platforms, disciplines and technologies within all media are converging at a rate of knots it is possible that, as an industry, we don't spend nearly enough time talking to, sharing with and learning from our contemporaries. I think if we did we would find shared experience where we perhaps wouldn't expect it and realise we have as much to learn from all of them as they do us.

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