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.

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