Wednesday, January 28, 2009

What Hollywood Knows that Video Games Industry Doesn't

The article where Rockstar's Dan Houser voices his appreciation for the lack of respect is over here at website. The argument is that the low profile of video games have prevented things from becoming codified as it has in traditional media like TV and film, allowing for creative freedom.

I would think perhaps 'refinement' is a better word in the case of the traditional media, which video games seem to be lacking in large quantities.

As for "creative freedom," I'm at a loss as to what that might mean, since I am unable to observe a great deal of creative originality that (one would expect) would result from such freedom.

The successful people of Hollywood know that artistic freedom in film does not mean a lot when you forget to put the singularly most essential ingredient in a movie. No make-up wonders, no CGI wizardry, no sets and no props will save a movie from being a total dog when it fails to deliver on the primary attribute: storytelling. No story, no movie. (Compare The Dark Knight or Batman Begins to previous Batman movies with Val Kilmer and George Clooney, and you'll see what I mean)

Things might be said to have become codified on that front, but for the purpose of supporting that primary goal. Storytelling has long been an art form, and those traditional media have almost perfected the techniques of its delivery.

When you apply that lesson to video games, that essential, primary ingredient becomes gameplay. Again, just like in movies, no amount of graphical awesomeness, no celebrity voice-acting, and certainly no advertising genius will save you from the contempt of gamers who had paid 60 bucks for a total dog.

Today's games have, perhaps, a great amount of artistic creativity in them, but not so much where it counts. There is not enough game in video games anymore. While the said artistic freedom might benefit the artist himself or herself by allowing for a more diversified professional portfolio, it does very little to advance the medium itself to its rightful place.

Let me finish with a direct comparison: if Hollywood did things like the video games industry, we would have seen some 15 versions of the same The Matrix movie by now, all with exactly the same story and script but with different make-up schemes, different special effects, different actors and such.

Great for the artists. Not so great for the audience or the medium.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Game rental business and what (not) to do about it

There is much talk about the game rental business and what a threat it can be to the revenues. Despite the call for defensive maneuvers from the games industry, the rental sector is continuing the expand. The most recent news on it are from the UK, and the reactions to the retailer GAME's announced move into the rental business.

After reading about a variety of ideas on the matter, I decided to share my own opinions and suggestions here.

  • Do not jump the gun for defensive measures.
The worst you can do is fighting change without understanding the factors that have brought it. You may find yourself winning a battle against the symptoms, but not the real cause of the issue.
  • Do take time to understand 'why.'
Why are people renting games instead of buying them? Why do they think the product is not worth the retail price? Why do they not feel attached to the physical product? These are all very important questions you should be asking yourself.
  • Do not see the rental business as the enemy.
They would not be in business if there was not a demand for them from the customer. Go back to the 'why.' Why is there a demand for the value they provide? Where does the value come from? Their very existence should give you hints about what you can do better.
  • Do understand the concept of 'value added.'
Look for the gap you have left in your own value offering that led to a demand for rentals. People are burnt out from paying $59 for a few hours' worth of cheap thrills. Ask yourself whether all the price-inflating features you pack in a game really get appreciation from the consumer. (I still cannot believe they had hired Kiefer Sutherland for Call of Duty. I had to pay for his voice and I didnot even know --let alone care-- until somebody told me. There's a golden example of a non-value added feature.)
  • Do not fall back to primitive, backwards ideas to block/restrict/limit/fight the consumers' access to value.
In a time when consumers are crying out en masse against DRM schemes, such actions to put limitations on content will hurt you in the long run. The modern business philosophy is all about providing value, not taking it away. If you think you can win by 'legally exploiting' your customers, you do not have a place in the future.

  • Do look into ways of improving the value of your product at retail.
Pack some jam into those DVD cases. My disappointment with the game itself aside, Fallout 3 Collector's Edition is a great example for how to differentiate one's product from the masses of plastic, soulless vessels. For me, a bobblehead made all the difference between rental and retail. I am sure brilliant minds can come up with many different ways of making the retail value worth the price again, if only they take the time to think on it.
  • Do not just hold your breath until the digital delivery revolution.
The consistent move towards digital distribution may just be the solution you want, at first glance. However the fact remains that it would only remedy the symptom of revenues bleeding to rentals, and not cure the true cause of it. The underlying issues will surely surface again sooner or later.
  • Do read about the music industry versus mp3 format again.
There lies an example of how much ground you can lose, simply by arrogantly and ignorantly fighting change instead of learning from it.

And do remember; ultimately it's the customer who puts the price on your product, not you. It was never some royal decree that you should be making money, and it will never be.

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Monday, January 12, 2009

I didn't like Fallout 3 either

And I'm a die-hard RPG fan too. Despite my fondness for the genre and the franchise, however, I could not help being able to relate to Scott Jones in his admission. He attributes his earlier reluctance to come out of the closet to 1. the developers, and 2. the game's pedigree. For me, it was a different reason that I tried my best to convince myself that I liked it even though I was not really impressed.

The reason is simple and somewhat laughable: I was afraid of what it could mean if I admitted not liking it. Could it mean I was getting old? Had I lost my appreciation for the medium? Had my inner child died? The answer, I realize, is none of those. It is something far worse perhaps: the gaming that I used to like seems to be dying, if not dead already.

For me, my fascination with games was always for discovering something new. When I was a little kid, I did not have internet access to read reviews from. I could not even find any gaming magazines to read in my country. So it was a treasure hunt each time I went to the computer store, and read the long (and sometimes handwritten) list of games, picking titles I had heard about but not knowing what I would get. And yes, they were pirated copies. But simply because no company was shipping to my corner of the world in those days. I used to play games with no tutorials, no manuals, spending hours and hours trying to understand how it all worked.

It was the talk of the whole school when some kid managed to make the jet fighter take off in some simulation game. Knowing the way to tackle a tough puzzle in the Secret of the Monkey Island was a golden bargaining chip in many situations that a schoolboy might have to settle with his peers. Being one level ahead than the next kid on Dune 2 meant being on a whole different level of existence, as you had access to wonders that they did not. Back in the day, gameplay duration given in hours used to give you an idea about the amount of treasure buried in a given game, the amount of things to discover. These days it simply means how much of a drone-like activity you will repeatedly perform until you reach a sorry excuse for a story ending.

The games I loved used to stand for originality. They used to give me an incredibly valuable resource for my mind: a venue for discovery. It saddens me greatly to realize that this huge benefit has been taken away from me. It saddens me to know that when I look at the DVD cases at the retail store, I know exactly what makes them tick without opening the case, let alone playing them. They all follow the same 'tried and true' formulas of RTS, RPG, FPS, whathaveyou. They were all designed with the common sense of 'not fixing what did not break.' Sometimes I know it all just by hearing the name of the title. I know all too well how it will play out, what resources I will gather, what mechanics I will utilize, what 'world changing choices' I will have to make, and all that good stuff. -- (I also have to note; it is becoming something of an industry norm that whenever someone speaks of world changing choices in a RPG game, it turns out they were referring to a very singular and isolated instance in the whole game, outside of which everything is scripted and streamlined like an elementary school play)

I was hoping it would be different, that it would be like the good old days with Fallout 3. After reaching level 8, though, I no longer see a point in going any further. There is nothing left to discover. All the areas unlocked thereafter, all the dungeons I have missed, I am pretty sure I have already seen them in other games if not in Fallout 3 itself.

This is why people (including myself) are playing more and more casual games. Because we find something in those games that I cannot find in Fallout 3. When a browser game loads, I find joy in the fact that I have no idea how it will play out. Sure, it takes me less than five minutes to figure it all out, but guess what, then I can move on to another without having to pay $59.99 again. In that sense, it is ironic that what people call casual gamers might very well be the true hardcore gamers, for what they derive from the experience is what the medium used to stand for.

I sometimes think whether the video games industry is just waiting for that group to die out, so the marketing divisions will have no trouble selling their games to impressionable youngsters of the future who will have nothing better to compare to. It is a bitter thought along with the predictions in the news saying games will be the dominant media of the future. There was a time I would be very excited about that statement. These days I don't even know if we are talking about the same thing when they say 'games.'

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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Co-production, digital distribution, and the future of video game publishing

The inspiration for this post comes from a developer interview on The interview talks about the co-production method of development, which involves multiple studios coming together to complement each other with their respective core competencies. The benefits are the distribution of risk and greater accessibility to talent in various fields. Daniel Kozlov sees this collaboration method as the future of game development. The interview made me think of what this could mean from a greater perspective.

Publishers in the video games industry have three main roles to play in the value chain:
  • Marketing of titles
  • Distribution of titles
  • Technological support for development
Look at that list and try to imagine what it will look like in the future. Most people agree that digital delivery of titles is the future, which would make physical distribution of CDs and DVDs obsolete. So, cross distribution off your list, as it doesn't take much muscle to put a title on an online server for digital distribution on demand.

Now back to that interview with Kozlov, it seems to me that co-production could also lower reliance on publishers for technological support. So that bullet on the list becomes much less certain, if not crossed off altogether.

What remains is marketing. In my blog I have discussed examples of great marketing that does not necessarily involve million dollar budgets. Viral advertising and word-of-mouth are tactics employed very successfully by some independent developers.

The question is, will there be enough room in the value chain of the future, to justify the existence of publishers as we know them today? Or will publishing be reduced to involve only the console manufacturers like Microsoft, who would merely enforce platform standard compliance and make titles available on Live? On the other side, is it too far fetched to imagine production studios becoming their own publishers?
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