In a crazy month that saw Vietnamese games developer Dong Nguyen pull Flappy Bird from the iOS and Android marketplaces, Cliff Belszinski proclaim that “he’ll never publish another disc based game for the rest of his life” and Ken Levine decide to close Irrational Games for a "small entrepreneurial endeavor at Take-Two" it’s a wonder that the word “epiphany” isn’t trending right now.
If you had asked me to predict the next five years in video gaming five years ago, the blank expression on my face at the time would have probably told you all you need to know. Could anybody predict that an unfinished game with no marketing about surviving in a Zombie infected wilderness would make the creator a cool $5.1 Million dollars in 24 hours? More surprisingly could anyone predict that Zombies would trend as long as they have in a market saturated with them?
As Bob Dylan once sang, The Times, They are a changin’, to be able to predict where gaming is going is no easy task, it’s simply moving so fast. What I will say though is that I’ll be as bold enough to predict that PC gaming will be bigger in the next 2 years than it has ever been and I’ll cite RUST and DAY Z as two examples of why I say that. I’ll even go as far as saying that console gaming as we’ve come to know and love in all its ‘scratchy disc’ shenanigans is coming to an end and the role of digital and direct to consumer is now the single biggest business model that people in the games industry should learn like their life depended on it.
When the Magnavox Odyssey was launched in 1972 it was the world’s first videogame console, it was the first home console to introduce game cards, removable circuit boards that worked in a very similar way to how ROM cartridges did for Atari’s consoles which followed it. For 42 years gamers have relied on read only content on cartridge or disc to play console games, that’s almost half a century, so it should come as no surprise to any of us that a change is now due. I believe that perhaps one day it’s not too far-fetched to imagine that we will establish a single format digital home console like device that will host 100+ players in multiplayer. As for the current format holders, perhaps both Sony and Microsoft will no longer be the separate competitors they are today but combined in business to deliver innovative and even more cutting edge gaming experiences that engage players on multiple levels.
It’s fair to say that we are seeing a massive shift in the current games industry, one that removes the traditional developer / publisher relationship that many of us have come to know. Sony and Microsoft rolled up their sleeves to duke it out for another round of battle for the hardcore gamers willing to drop serious cash on a disc based next gen console, the remainder of the current gen owners are busy downloading Gigabyte heavy patches for games that everyone expected to be ‘fit for purpose’.
Truth be told the gaming consumer has never had as much freedom and choice as he does now. Gaming is an industry that is as volatile as it is diverse with games now very much a part of our culture across many different devices and formats. There are no allegiances anymore as consumers simply jump from one format to another, one brand to another just as long as they can get their gaming fix. The transitional shift we are seeing is in part caused by the rapid increase in technology and digital ready mobile devices from smart phones to tablets and additionally direct to consumer distribution networks like Steam which are able to deliver digital only products to those willing to pay for them. This shift is putting more creative and publishing power into the hands of the developer than we seen in the last decade of videogames.
Publishers willing to stay in the disc publishing model know that in order to stay the fight they also need to create robust digital online businesses at the same time just to stay relevant.
The bedroom coders, the YouTube video-bloggers and self-published entrepreneurs are the new jet set, they’re the guys calling the shots in an industry that is constantly changing and adapting to the advances in consumer tech and lifestyle habits. However, all this comes at a price, discoverability and over saturation are the danger areas now. While many studios are deciding to cut out the traditional publishing relationship to go it alone many are finding that all important link to the consumer a tricky skill set to get right.
It would be easy to assume that Publishers are no longer relevant given the spate of indie success stories and direct to consumer aspects we now see (Day Z) but to discredit their relevance in putting a game in front of potential consumers is dangerous thinking. Not all developers understand the complexity of managing player communities, media buying, transmedia and press relationships, tasks of which publishers perform on a day by day basis. To even attempt to put something online with little or no social aspect to its awareness campaign is product suicide.
Longevity is key, no longer is the focus now aimed at day one numbers at retail, now the complexities of the market are focused on how developers and publishers can retain their audiences for months, even years. While many could interpret this article to support a lone wolf theory that talks of developer freedom and the notion to do as you please I should hasten to add that collaboration is more important now than it has ever been. Developers are extremely sensitive about their projects to the point where they become over protective, it’s their baby, their I.P and if it doesn’t work it’s their risk. This is perfectly natural, creativity to coin the Wikipedia meaning is “a phenomenon whereby something new and valuable is created”, the key words here are “phenomenon” and “valuable”. While good developers are the technical Jedi of our industry they need to have an open mind about the marketplace and open themselves up to talking and sharing with others, including consumers as well as specialists in the industry that can help them realize their potential. We don’t even need to look at an indie developer to prove this point, When Square Enix posted its disappointing financial results for FY2013 senior executive managing director Yosuke Matsuda decided that long development turnaround times with little or no consumer feedback prior to launch was not a way to run a profitable or honest business. The publisher has now set its sights on a new business strategy designed to win the hearts and mind of gamers and developers, it’s radically overhauled its internal marketing teams to recruit talent within the free to play sector as it looks to mobilize a more robust digital outlook for its brands. Additionally, Square Enix has launched Collective, a service that Indie studios can utilize for free for advice and promotion without the need to sign up to the publisher.
In this day and age of video-gaming it pays to have many strings to your bow, it’s no longer good enough to be competent in one single skill if you want to make it in the games industry. If you’re a developer aiming to market your product directly to the consumer then it wouldn’t hurt to get a few marketing seminars under your belt to grasp the understanding of positioning product and the long tail aspects of retention and lifecycle management. If this recent power shift has taught us anything new it’s that we also need to encourage and nurture creativity before it’s even entered the market place , our educational curriculum is a prime example. The next generation of coders and creators still need to find their way in an industry that takes no prisoners.