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XBLA creator to platform holders: "Don't be afraid to curate"

Greg Canessa, SVP at GSN Games, would love to see more curation from platforms and smarter strategies from devs

As a former PopCap vice president, Activision Blizzard mobile head and the man who founded Xbox Live Arcade, Greg Canessa has been witness to numerous evolutions in the way video game ecosystems are handled, and the way changes have impacted both developers and platform holders. Canessa is currently in the midst of fine tuning a new ecosystem called Sparcade, a multiplayer competitive platform operated by GSN Games, but with Steam itself going through a big change at the moment - dropping Greenlight in favor of fee-based Direct - decided to pick Canessa's brain for thoughts on gaming ecosystems.

As any developer who's tried launching a game on mobile or Steam could tell you, discoverability is still one of the toughest challenges to tackle. From his perspective, Canessa doesn't believe developers should have to face this problem head-on without at least a little bit of help from the platform holders. In fact, influencing the ecosystem was a big takeaway for his Xbox team back in 2005 when XBLA first launched.

"One of my biggest learnings from XBLA has been the power that the platform provider has in influencing the development community and industry as a whole. The relatively simple act of opening a digital distribution pipeline for full game content on a console (XBLA) had long-standing repercussions that affected much more than we had originally envisioned," Canessa says.

"New game genres were created, new studios were formed, new customers were brought in, and financial terms for publishers and developers were influenced. These factors not only changed the rules of the game for consoles, but also had impact on the creation of the mobile app stores and on Steam as well.

"Another key learning is around the importance of content curation. With XBLA, we set out to curate the portfolio and help the customer by finding and surfacing the best games, which helps the developer as well. We created the XBLA Wednesdays and Summer of Arcade programs to assist in this area. More recent trends toward un-curated stores and 'the long tail' have only served to clutter the app stores and marketplaces, and to hurt discoverability. This is a problem that persists today and needs to be addressed."

To that end, Canessa does see the platform holders having some responsibility to help the cream rise to the top.

"The biggest thing that the platform providers can do is to fix their store/marketplace experiences. Don't be afraid to curate, improve virtual merchandising capabilities, and do a better job of differentiating content," he continues.

"Free demos are important, as are indie-focused promotions, virtual merchandising tools and other mechanisms to get the great games noticed. I would love to see Steam embrace more of this"

"Give indies and smaller titles (that don't have marketing budgets) a separate area to live to assist with discovery and avoid the 'drown out' from AAA releases. Create showcase marketing programs... to further highlight and showcase great content and drive demand to services at specific times."

Steam in particular, as it's become the dominant PC storefront, has been flooded with games of varying quality, and Greenlight certainly didn't help in that regard. Canessa has mixed feelings about Greenlight going away, however.

"On one hand, I think that the goal of streamlining the publishing ecosystem and reducing the clutter and noise of that channel is a great one. As I said, the digital stores are filled with poor quality content, and in the case of Greenlight, there were issues of spam, non-games and other problems that made the shopping experience even worse," he says.

"The shopping experience itself was also really challenging from a consumer point of view, and frustrating for developers. That being said, there have been some great successes on Greenlight and I think it's awesome that they are working to create some checks and balances to weed out the obvious misuse.

"Publishing fee pricing still is an open issue, and it's important that the fee not be too much of a barrier to quality small indies who have great content but not a lot of free cash flow. It's a balancing act for sure. Beyond this, I still think there is the philosophical point to be made regarding curation and the shopping experience. I continue to believe that curation plays an important role in surfacing of quality indie content, particularly in a world where indies are up against AAA games with huge marketing budgets. Free demos are important, as are indie-focused promotions, virtual merchandising tools and other mechanisms to get the great games noticed. I would love to see Steam embrace more of this."

Don't get Canessa wrong, however. He's not saying developers should be getting a free ride from a platform holder. Studios need to do their part to boost their own discoverability.

"Developers can attempt to improve their discoverability by keeping their reviews scores high on the app stores - which has an impact on search results and sorting, effectively meta-tagging their apps, employing app-to-app cross-sell, and utilizing off-deck marketing solutions such as social influencer media, affiliate marketing programs, and so on," he says.

There are also way too many pitfalls that he's seen lesser established developers fall into on more than one occasion.

"The first is a fundamental lack of understanding of the target market. Building the wrong game for the wrong customer on the wrong platform is something you see all too often. Be sure you really understand who your customer is, and pick your target platform accordingly based on that. If a genre or style of game does not fit, then don't go to all the trouble of shipping your game there," he notes.

"The second is, be prepared with a strategy on how to build an audience for your game. Don't rely on App Store featuring as your sole marketing strategy to get your game an audience. Tap into social media, talk to YouTubers, build pre-launch buzz - do whatever it takes to build an audience and a community for your game as effectively and cost-efficiently as possible. This is the key to long-term success, relevance and shelf life for your title.

"The third - and it seems super obvious - is shipping a high quality, innovative and differentiated product. Keep advancing the art and finding new ways to build on what has been done beforehand. This is a pitfall I have seen developers fall into time and time again - believing that they can ship a 'me too' product with no differentiation, and expect that it is going to be a financial or critical success in the market. Keep pushing the boundaries."

In the 12 years since XBLA launched, poor discoverability isn't the only issue to have given developers big headaches in the digital space.

"Free-to-play has been a real mixed bag, with some genres benefitting while other genres suffering or creating poor user experiences. Game development costs have risen dramatically, which in turn has led to a certain amount of unhealthy risk aversion, and games marketing has become an unwieldy and expensive proposition with questionable ROI," Canessa acknowledges.

"Having said all of that, there are a number of things that have not changed. There still is a thriving hard-core gamer market of enthusiasts like me who love games and want immersive experiences - that is something we can celebrate. The principal gaming scenarios in our lives have not changed - we want to play games in our living room, at our computer, and on the go, and each remains a viable market. And people still want to play the games that XBLA pioneered - small games, indie games, casual games - these are a permanent part of our lexicon now."

Given that Canessa is making his living on mobile now with Sparcade, you might think he'd advocate for mobile devices over other platforms, but that's not the case.

"I think what you will begin to see is more of a trend towards games that are built specifically for competition and spectation... I think there is a huge opportunity to evolve the content to better serve streaming and observation"

"I won't lie - the mobile games market is a very tough one right now," he notes. "It is true that the same games tend to dominate the charts, it is expensive to acquire and retain users, and it is very difficult to break out and get noticed. Unfortunately there is no silver bullet solution here.

"The advice I would give is to 1) focus on delivering a high-quality, fun and differentiated experience; 2) acknowledge and understand the mobile market - which genres do well, and which do not; 3) build the business model into the game in a natural way that is fair to the user, and does not feel forced or tacked-on, and 4) utilize creative marketing strategies like social media, YouTube/Twitch, cross-sell, social features and other mechanisms to help drive discoverability of your app - and don't rely on app store featuring."

Ultimately, Canessa sees all the platforms nicely complementing one another rather than competing.

"All three [platforms] are thriving, and for good reason - they each serve a purpose... The console is just a great living room experience - sit back on the couch, leverage the big screen TV and the stereo system, and enjoy immersive, high production quality gaming experiences, spanning AAA and indies. Certain genres also just work best on a console due to controls and input, full stop. And it's the largest market in terms of loyal gamers. The challenge here is principally around investment level and ROI - development and marketing costs are very expensive and the bar is very high on production value and quality of experience," he says.

"The PC on the other hand is a superior platform for other genres of games where mouse and keyboard rule, such as MOBAs and RTS. It is also a great platform for eSports, and it's arguably the best platform for content creation given the input and tools. The challenge here is that the market is smaller than on console for loyal gamers, and price points are more challenging on PC, so it can be tougher to make money."

Looking towards the future, Canessa is optimistic that the rise of eSports and virtual reality - two of the biggest trends in the industry right now - will make a difference for developers as well.

"I think what you will begin to see is more of a trend towards games that are built specifically for competition and spectation. Today's popular eSports titles have risen up due to their strong communities but are not specifically built for the medium. I think there is a huge opportunity to evolve the content to better serve streaming and observation," he says.

"VR is another opportunity entirely. I think that from an ecosystem development POV, as we evolve past the tech demos of today, we will see more of a focus on full-size games, more immersive experiences, and a trend toward multi-platform development to maximize potential ROI given the small installed bases. While the ecosystem is developing over the next 1 to 2 years, I do think you will continue to see platform providers being willing to subsidize game development to bootstrap the ecosystems, which potentially creates an opportunity for developers to experiment with the medium while mitigating some of the ROI risk."

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James Brightman avatar
James Brightman: James Brightman has been covering the games industry since 2003 and has been an avid gamer since the days of Atari and Intellivision. He was previously EIC and co-founder of IndustryGamers and spent several years leading GameDaily Biz at AOL prior to that.
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