The Long Tail

· by Steve · Read in about 3 min · (584 Words)

Raph Koster posted today about the ‘long tail’ phenomenon as it relates to MMOs, obviously one of his areas of speciality. This is an idea which has been bouncing around for a while, and was coined by Chris Anderson who has a book out about it, but for anyone looking for a quick recap, the idea of the ‘long tail’ relates to plotting a graph of demand / sales / users / pretty much anything when the barrier to entry is low, and observing that as well as the inevitable top 10-20% of products that are wildly successful, there are a huge number of other products that can have measurable success, likely good enough to be completely viable.  Like this:


The story goes that in traditional markets, where barriers to entry are high (distribution, shelf space, marketing etc), we only see the 'Body' part of the market, because the long tail, which is always able to be present, just isn't viable. There isn't the room for it in the high street and the margins aren't there to cover it when you could be spending that space / money on the top n% product.

However, make things easy to distribute, easy to market and don't require any shelf space, and all of a sudden lots of products become viable when they weren't before, and because of the startling array of people out there on the big blue marble we call Earth, almost all of them will generate some kind of demand. Provided your product doesn't suck, has something which separates it from the rest, you'll find some customers. The trick of course is matching your investment to the point you're at on the curve.

Raph talks about it in terms of MMOs in his post but as he says, it applies to everything. Of particular relevance to me, given the nature of a sizeable proportion of people using Ogre, is that it gives some hope to independent game developers, as the mainstream game industry increasingly jostles to be in that top N 'Body' section with fairly brutal results. The likes of XBLA occupy the upper end of the tail probably, but it's still volume-limited (currently) by nature of being a single channel - it might be electronic but it still operates like a store, and having too much packed in there can dilute what they're doing. The true benefits of the long tail can only be seen in completely open, zero-barrier to entry environments.

Niche MMOs and Second-Life entrepreneurs probably dominate this at the moment, but I hope, as order eventually emerges from the chaos that is Web 2.0 and whatever Web 3.0 will be, that this really pans out as befitting its potential. It's certainly getting somewhere in the music industry. I've ranted about this kind of thing before, but the attraction of a completely free market promoting the ability to create anything about which you feel passionate and find a valid market for it is undeniable. And I still say that those selling the 'there must be a channel to attract customers, and we must control that channel' principle are actually just regular retailers in another disguise, they're not tapping the long tail in its entirety. And nor should they, necessarily - they have their model to follow. But it's why I continually say that XBLA and similar setups should not be perceived as the single best way to address variety in the market, as the silver bullet. True variety requires total freedom.