My take on the B-game debate

· by Steve · Read in about 6 min · (1107 Words)

I picked up on the Gamasutra article about B-games thanks to Penny Arcade, and I found the debate fascinating. I’m a regular casual consumer of B-movies myself, thanks to the fact that the Sci-Fi channel shows them almost constantly, and their ability to amuse is seemingly inexhaustable. I also like the fact that you really don’t need to watch the whole of a B-movie to get something out of it, or even see the beginning or the end; you can have fun just trying to figure out the (usually awful) plot by just watching a 30-minute slot - in fact this is part of the entertainment.

So, B-movies are great because a) they’re highly amusing, b) they require little commitment, and c) they’re dirt cheap or free. So, why can’t this work for games too? Well, I think it can, and in some cases already does, but not without straying a bit further away from the centre ground of game industry. B-movies are made by people who are on the fringes of the traditional movie industry, and like art-house and international cinema, the fringes of the movie industry are far more developed than they are in the game industry right now. So actually, we’re not really talking about B-games per se; we’re talking about diversity and niche markets as a whole.

So how does diversity thrive? Most importantly, by lowering barriers to entry at all levels. Making games needs to be cheaper, quicker and accessible to all. The tools of the trade have to be widely accessible for little or no cost, they need to be mature and well understood, by a wide range of people from professionals, to students, to hobbyists, to retirees - everyone who wants to mess about in their garages (or in this case, home offices) for fun, education, and creative expression. With some variation on quality and scale, they all need to be using fundamentally the same principles and toolsets. Such openness and accessibility is necessary to create a melting pot of ideas and creativity that just doesn’t flourish as well¬† in a closed industry. It happened in the Super-8 generation, and look at all the great directors that nurtured.

I’m biased, but I think open source is simply the best way to deliver on this, hands down. Not just for people using the the open source projects directly themselves, but also in the lower cost commercial products they allow to be created with them, in the same way that cheaper manufacturing led to the higher availability of affordable camera technology for the masses to start experimenting with. Open source creates a ‘continuum’ of technology availability, allowing anyone to pick where they want to be on the scale of time investment vs. financial investment. Short on money, but have the time and energy to figure things out? Grab the open source components and build yourself a toolset. Got more money and less time? Supplement the base technology with packaged solutions & helpers - and those based on open source will likely be cheaper. Somewhere in the middle? Products built with open source tend to allow more granular decisions of that nature, not only because openness breeeds more competition, but also that the parts of packaged solutions are generally assembled from many interchangeable components, rather than being one big opaque tarball that you have to buy off the shelf, with limited choice & flexibility.

Publishing also needs to change, and that’s already started. To a degree the promise of the openness of digital distribution hasn’t delivered, since the majority of portals are still controlled by a small number of incumbents. The barrier to entry is lower, but it’s still out of reach for many - and that’s understandable from the perspective of those running the portal. However, what’s really needed is a greater range of portals catering to different audiences, user searchable portals in which quality rises to the top and is marketed on its merits rather than whether it is favoured by a portal owner. XBox Live Community Games tried to tap into that, but despite the positive step of letting the community rank content, it really hasn’t worked that well so far, due to the restricted toolset (XNA, no using native libs and little portability through which to maximise your tech investment) and almost complete lack of marketing; with most content there appearing like a second-class citizen. Apple’s AppStore has done a bit better - even though one company still controls the publishing decision, the toolset is less restrictive (you can use the full capabilities of the device, and use a far wider range of mature libs) and there’s greater perceived equality of content. Also, what the AppStore clearly showed is that people will happily buy ‘B-apps’ by the truckload if the price is right, and making them can be very worthwhile - provided it can be done cheaply. Cable channels also show that niche content can work, and will be paid for and enjoyed in small portions, so long as it’s part of a larger bundle. In all, I think there’s demand out there for a flatter, wider range of product than is generally sold right now, but we have to stop trying to shove it all through the single simple sales & marketing pipeline we use for AAA games.

Lastly, culture. In the core game industry,¬† a common attitude among both consumers and developers is that if it’s not a AAA game, it’s not worth the time of day. That’s not a universal opinion of course, look at how well Popcap have done for example, but I think it’s fair to say that as an industry, there’s a huge amount of elitism and focus on what I would call ‘whizbangery’ (Oxford dictionary, please save some space for that one in the next edition). We need to adjust our thinking and stop considering ‘worthwhile’ to mean ‘big budget, movie-like effects, cutting edge tech, 200-strong art team’. If it entertains, there’s a market out there for it, so we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss games that don’t fall into a particular style & budget range. Provided the price is right (and the typical game price point is still far too expensive), people will pay for content that entertains them in one way or another, and that doesn’t have to be a 20 hour Hollywood-effects filled epic. B-movies make me laugh, and I’m happy to consume them within the commercial framework of my TV subscription, even though I would not buy a boxed copy of them, or even watch them all the way through. Games can absolutely explore such territory too.