"Maturing" download games market starts to show retail-like characteristics

· by Steve · Read in about 6 min · (1128 Words)

Watching the ebbs and flows of the game industry is simultaneously inspiring and outright depressing. As is usual for this stage in a console generation, we’re at the ‘consolidation point’ (pun unintentional)  - where the tech is pretty well understood, even if it is starting to look a bit dated compared to even a modest PC (how much hassle AA is on this console generation is a case in point), but that at least developers can crank out content in a more efficient fashion. This has led to some darned good games.

What’s depressing is what’s happening to the ‘official’ download channels - which were a bastion of independent content a year or two ago, and now are turning more and more into just another channel for the same mainstream developers & publishers we see at retail. XBLA has been the trend maker here, it was first to really embrace and promote downloadable games to a ‘core’ market, and has done extremely well. Now, however, we have a limit of 2 games per week, and all too often those 2 slots are being assigned to either major developers (Shadow Complex, Alien Breed Evo) or shovelware ports with brand recognition but little quality or innovation (I’m looking at Taito in particular: Bubble Bobble and Qix remakes were incredibly lazy, uninspiring affairs). It’s very clear that the team behind choosing which developers are published in XBLA has changed in recent years, and not for the better from my perspective. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with Shadow Complex and Alien Breed Evo, but if they’re using up the slots it means that publishing route is rapidly being cut off for small developers who are big on ideas and talent, but short on funds and established brands. Alien Breed Evo’s budget was supposedly around $2.5m for goodness sakes - although it’s looking like that’s going to backfire anyway since sales have been poor. Trials HD, ‘Splosion Man and Peggle are pretty much the only games from small studios with modest budgets that I can think of that made a splash on XBLA in 2009 - the rest just read like a whos who of regular retail channels. Indeed many developers who have had games published on XBLA are no longer welcome there, such as PomPom (interview) and Llamasoft. Clearly the message is ‘win big, or get your coat’. This isn’t the right environment for an indie scene to flourish, where experimentation and mistakes are part of the process.

Yes, I know there’s XBL ‘Indie Games’ but that’s the absolute opposite end of the spectrum, hobbled with a niche development environment that’s incompatible with the most established dev libraries and every other platform a developer might want to deploy on (barring PC), and so far almost totally lacking any way for a decent game to effectively ‘rise above the noise’, except via external review sites like XNPlay, which doesn’t work at all for targetting the majority of game players with information.  It’s just not a very good target for those I would call ‘serious indies’ and actually acts as a false argument for not opening primary download channels more; there’s nothing wrong with the concept, it’s just implemented completely wrong.

PSN got started later so has been earlier in the curve of promoting independent content, but they’re going that way too. I guess they’re all just ‘following the money’, and the games industry remains obsessed with hits because of its current top-heavy model. I’d hoped that the downloadable content channels would promote an equivalent to low-budget and art-house cinema, where content can survive and make a profit for the creators, without necessarily having to be the Biggest Thing Ever™, encouraging experimentation. But, the giant flaw in this plan is that independent cinema is able to be published and consumed anywhere - while most games consumers remain shackled to console platform holders, who just want to publish a limited number of the very biggest hits, everything else not being worth their time or risking ‘distracting’ the customer with choice. If you’ve read my blog before, you know my opinion of the effectiveness of closed platforms in the long term when it comes to broadening and deepening a medium, but I’ll say it again - closed platforms are bad for the industry in the grand scheme of things. Games will never be as big as film until this changes, they might compete on the blockbuster level, but that’s far, far from the whole story. But, until we’re further along the lifecycle of games when hardware and delivery becomes mostly invisible,  the vested interests aren’t going to allow that to change for a little while yet.

You really need to go to the iPhone/iPod Touch for more prolific indie content these days. But, how long will that last?

I honestly don’t know why platform holders find it so hard to manage an open publishing strategy. All you need is systems that:

  • Allow users to rank content; and nominate ‘trusted reviewers’ such as those from major game review sites
  • Allow wide marketing opportunities - both in-system and cross-site (such as to xbox.com, where you can buy in-browser too)
  • Robust searching, on keywords, categories, user ratings, friends recommendations etc
  • Cross-promotion, aka the ‘You might also like…’ lists

Hell, if Amazon can create a compelling buying experience with millions of products across a diverse range of departments, why on earth do platform holders think a console user can’t handle more than 2 game choices a week? It’s hugely patronising, and says more about the inadequacy of the platform to manage larger amounts of content effectively than about any limit on what consumers are willing to peruse. Saying “we can’t sell as effectively if we have more product available” actually means “we suck at organisation”. This argument stacks up at retail, where there’s a limited amount of shelf space, and customers don’t want to wander around a massive warehouse or to squint at shelves of tightly packed boxes looking for something, but not when you have unlimited shelf space and a cloud full of computers to index it in the blink of an eye for you (and make suggestions), and where a marketing campaign or friend recommendation can bring a customer instantly to the point of sale with the use of a simple link.

For Christ’s sakes platform holders, wake up to the opportunities of the channel. Stop being blinded by what works at physical retail, it’s really not the same. There are people out there already doing it leagues better than you (see pretty much any of the e-commerce leaders), and putting your fingers in your ears and saying it can’t possibly work  is both ignorant and doing a massive disservice to both customers and content creators.