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?

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