Saturday, August 04, 2007

The End of Novelty

As is my wont, I shall now wax lyrical on the subject of novelty.

As some readers may be aware, I have in the past taken pains to note that the trend for novelty and innovation is not one that is self-sustaining. What I did not pause to consider when looking at, say, Nintendo last time is how wide the novelty culture goes. Actually, it is of course far far larger than gaming, encompassing user-generated content across several media (such as this one).

Novelty has been a very powerful force in recent years. It is the backbone of Web 2.0 for the most part, having spawned a variety of services that have become household names. Youtube is one. Wii is another. What novelty is exactly is saying to the audience "Bet you never thought of that before". Users love to play with novelties, like magpies,particularly if those novelties are free or reasonably cheap. They get off on the idea of little things that brighten their day as long as they continue to do so in some way.

The problem is that at some point novelty itself must give way to depth. So we can see the novelty of Youtube and all of its short films and trailers etc, but after a little while Youtube becomes damn boring to play with if you're just out for some entertainment. As a sharing tool it's useful in a holiday-video sort of way, but the sheer entertainment of it as a thing for itself is actually very low. Similarly, blogs are the for the most part airbags full of text rantings about nothing in particular. The vast majority of music on Myspace and the like is simply amateurish.

And then games, oh games, where you see ten thousand versions of the same game again, or the company that pioneered the controller to end all controllers then turning around and producing half a dozen more, as though to underscore that their innovation is, y'know, a bit lacking once you get past the joy of swinging your arm in the air.

What we can see here is that the so-called year of "You", the joy of the strange and unbridled creativity is very quickly giving way to the dawning realisation that, actually, "you" isn't very good at most things, and so "you" naturally creates a wall of content that eventually turns people off wholesale. It's the same reason why podcasting has basically failed to find a general audience in the face of radio. Amateur is still amateur, and one man's democratised content is ten men's idiocratised mess that they just have no interest in.

Of all the Web 2.0 content tools that have emerged, the only one that shows examples of depth is Wikipedia. Some people like to lambaste Wikipedia for its inaccuracies, and it sometimes is, but what they are missing is a genuine community devoted to gathering all there is to know about everything. And it proves that vetting matters, editing matters and, ultimately, quality matters. Once the novelty has passed you by, Wikipedia remains useful.

The backlash against user-generated content is gathering pace from all quarters, but what's missing from it is the understanding that it's not the whole thing that's borked, it's the essential lack of editing/vetting that makes it so. Editing is what weeds out novelty with no purpose from novelty that is an actual font for creativity.

Turning to games, what this means is that the content vetting still matters. Casual portals perform this function automatically by ranking on popularity, but the games sites and news arenas are much more important as both seeds of discussion and vetting that which is not. Yet they have the problem of being so wrapped up in the industry's press whorl that they really often become mouthpieces.

As a result, the thing that the industry actually needs is not more indie games or more access for developers or whatever (well it does, but that's a separate gig). What it actually needs is a site/magazine blog that focuses its energies on being the vetting force behind indie. There is more than enough reportage on the activities of the main industry with its boom and bust, its half a thousand cliche's and its endless wranging over meaningless theories of game design. What there isn't is an indie media mag that effectively tunes all this out and spends its entire time finding the cool stuff.

Media needs guardians and gatekeepers, because without them all that happens is that they the public simply turn away. Without some measure or means to define and gauge taste, novelty simply dries up, buzz vanishes and the ladder that helped the very lucky few at the start get established disappears for everyone else. This applies all across the spectrum, and we are no different.

So, who's going to start the magazine revolution?

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