Saturday, February 17, 2007

Guns, Germs and Videogames

Greg Costikyan wrote an interesting post on the pitfalls of digital distribution recently, citing a couple of major worries that he and others have over the possibility of console distribution becoming even more closed combined with a potential threat by Microsoft (in the form of Vista) to effectively turn the PC market into a console-like market via Vista's means of managing security of installs and parental controls.

I've recently been reading Guns, Germs and Steel, which offers a deterministic view of man's history, saying that because of prevailing geographical, economic, social and other considerations, certain outcomes of history are entirely predictable. Although the actions of individuals may help to precipitate or delay some historical consequences, they eventually come to pass. Of course the same sort of thinking can be applied to any sort of large scale system, and it's a basic foundation idea of evolution. Conditions change and the ecosystem filters and responds to that change. Back and forth it goes.

In this sense, I think that Greg is perfectly right to highlight his worries. As the interests of the mainstream game industry have tended to gravitate toward the bigger and the broader, the threat to the Long Tail companies becomes apparent. The console industry has been on this Hollywood-isation kick for some time, and it's likely to continue, but losing the PC's ability to be the indie arthouse for games is the more serious threat.

There are some possibilities, such as a move to the Mac, to Linux, or an attempt by a client such as Steam to automate or quietly circumvent Vista's roadblocks. The problem with all of these is that computer users like PCs and they are familiar enough with Windows to stick with it regardless of whether one release is better than another. Most PC consumers are not particularly enlightened consumers, which is why Macs always remain a distant second.
Steam has its fans of course, but the Steam client has had its critics and tends to only serve a particular segment of the games community.

So what's the solution?
You're looking at it.
No, not this blog.

Browser technology is ever expanding, and it has the advantage of not requiring any kind of installation process to use, any kind of platform dependence, or any kind of vetting process. Through a browser, you can (in theory) access and view any information, conduct any kind of data transaction, and basically forget the OS.

The big problem is that, to date, browser technology and games have never really seen eye to eye. This is the fault of game developers for the most part, and here's why: Most people who play PC games are now likely casual players. They don't really give a stuff about performance, or graphical whoosh. They just want to click and play. They play Poker. They play match 3. They play whatever it is that they want to play as long as it is convenient for them. Most game developers are still obsessed with a much more classical idea of gamers and so their priorities diverge from their markets' priorities.

Convenience is the real key here. Where a dinosaur game developer faps over Direct X, shaders, surround sound and more textures to make your eyes bleed even harder, a mammal developer is focussed on small scale convenient fun with a wide reach. Mammal developers want their games to look nice, but more importantly, they want people to be able to play them. Convenience trumps fidelity every time.

Basing games around a browser means a complete inversion of many of the game dev community's basic notions of what it is to make games. Browsers are more suited to strategy games and simple action games. They're unsuited to FPS, and likely will remain so for quite some time. They are probably great for point and click adventures, but likely rubbish for full real world or galaxy simulation jerkathons. They basically oblige the developers to think in terms of focussing on gameplay above oomph, because oomph isn't really their strong suit.

Most of all, they support sustainability. Mammal developers need their games to have long-term availability than short-term pizazz, and browsers offer some of the longest term viability there is. So, they offer a future where Windows may no longer, and that future is independent of any one company. There is a way to go, of course, but there is also a business opportunity here for an entrepreneur to bridge the gap between browser and game developers (possibly via a plug-in a la Shockwave or Flash).

Regardless, browsers are moving forward and determinism says that where there is opportunity, it will be taken. If not by you then someone else. Wanna miss the the boat?

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Monday, February 05, 2007

All Hail the Entrepreneur

Small business is the heart and soul of any market sector, and usually it is the seat of genius. Whether in the public eye of business to customer or behind the scenes, small businesses bring vitality and evolution to marketplaces grown stale or old. This is the primary effect of liberalisation of the marketplace, and one of the goals of free trade. In technology as much as any other industry, small business has its part to play, and so too in games.

This is because entrepreneurship is the spirit of having a go and seeing what happens. Take a risk. See what you can do, what you are made of etc. A novelist attempting to get published is essentially a sole trader looking for a client, every bit as much as an indie film-maker looking for distribution or a database developer looking for corporate customers.

When there is little or no entrepreneurship in an industry it's usually a sign that things have grown old. This is what I fear has happened to the games industry, and largely because of two things. One is ignorance and the other is hesitancy.

By ignorance I mean the amount of hard facts that many people who work in the industry actually know about their industry. It is surprising how many industry workers still believe in a lot of old-school illusions, from the idea that games are taking on movies to the one that Nintendo loves 3rd party developers and wants them on Wii. There's also the one about the guys who think that all they need is a great demo to take around to publishers and they'll seal the deal for sure.

What these beliefs amount to is an inexact picture of the industry as a liberal, expanding marketplace. This really couldn't be further from the truth. There are all manner of restrictions and constraints in the industry, many hoops to jump through and a highly top-down approach. Manufacturers don't want tonnes of indie developers, they want a few choice ones that feather their nest and make them look forward thinking. They know that the real meat and potatoes quality games for their platforms have to be internally made, but that plays badly in the press.

In reality, the console industry is claustrophobic. Publishers are uninterested in the team with the demo unless that team can prove that they can actually finish the game's production (a not unreasonable demand in this day and age) and they want the IP rights to the game because that's where the value is perceived to be. They also know that there are not too many places for teams to take their demo's and ideas, so deals tend to reflect that. They're not in the business of making other people wealthy.

Hesitancy is an even greater problem, because what it means is that many people in the industry have internalised the idea that risk is bad. It is hard not to internalise this idea when all around you the message is so negative on the one hand, and painting a very safe image on the other. Franchises are the very embodiment of this idea, and the game press's enthusiasm for them and their supposed heritage value drives the point home: Risk is bad. The familiar is good. Why fight it?

Except of course this isn't true at all. Many franchises fall in and out of favour, and companies that do take genuine entrepreneurial risks often reap the rewards. Entrepreneurship belongs in every part of the industry, and should be encouraged. From systems which challenge distribution methods to developers pioneering new genres, to tool makers, engine crafters, publications with a different spin than the usual fodder, all entrepreneurship deserves to be promoted, emphasised and accepted as how things should be. With some more presence in the industry's consciousness, we might encourage more people to take the risk themselves.

Do you have a story of entrepreneurial activities in games to share? Comment them here, or email me directly and I'll compile them. Maybe we might even make this a regular outing if enough people are interested.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Greatest Show on Earth

My friend Cliff made an interesting post about large-scale creative projects versus small-scale lone wolf authors.

You're wrong Cliff.

Shakespeare did not work alone, neither did Austen or Tolstoy. All three (and this is true of most writers) had friends, editors, people who would read and comment. Shakespeare even had a theatre company to bounce his ideas off. JK Rowling has the editors at Bloomsbury.

You are also right to say that all movies, plays and so forth are imperfect, but what you're missing there is that they are also emergent, and that can be very powerful. Nobody really knows going into shooting a show like Galactica exactly how it's going to pan out, but that means that they can discover new ideas along the way and incorporate them.

What makes them work is strong direction, someone in the middle who makes consistent decisions from a creative standpoint. What make it difficult is when there is no strong direction, and games have no real tradition of doing that. Games have come from a collaborative sort of culture to where they are today, like a bunch of indie bands, and when looking to scale up, developers looked to software companies and their management techniques rather than entertainment companies, and that cultural choice is what makes modern games weak for the most part.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.