Why are console manufacturers afraid of developers?
It's right at the heart of their whole business model that they place developers at arms' length purposefully, first by producing steep barriers to entry and second by instituting approvals processes that guarantee that developers will shape their games to the needs of the gatekeepers rather than the audience.
I speak specifically here about the online side of the major consoles. I have recently (finally) acquired a 360 and had a chance to really have a look at Xbox Live, and the one impression that I took away from it is that of over-management.
Firstly, it's obvious that the catalogue is entirely managed, like a TV schedule. And just like a TV schedule this means that there aren't many surprises but rather a series of checkboxes being ticked. It reeks of platform-holder side meetings in which they discuss how their catalogue has holes and those holes need to be plugged to gain the upper hand against Eastasia. I mean Nintendo.
Secondly, with such a managed catalogue and antiquated business model based on the retail model as invented by Nintendo, Atari and co, it's obvious that Live is going to run out of steam fairly soon. Once you have settled on a series of catalogue categories and holes-to-be-filled, well where do you go when those holes have all been filled? Where does your audience go, more importantly.
Thirdly, the front page of Live Arcade in particular is very drab and uninteresting, and the browsing mechanism doesn't really do anything to sell games, promote games, or basically work like an enthusiastic retailer should. When compared to Popcap, Big Fish, Amazon and Itunes, Live looks almost embarrassed to be seen selling games. It seems to actively want to downplay games and instead make it all about the multiplayer retail games like Halo 3 and the like, even though the online retail is where Live would make most of its money.
The great fear, and it's the same fear that Nintendo had back in 1988 with the NES, is that opening the floodgates leads to a drop in quality. It does. Opening the floodgates also leads to a rise in innovation, however. The reason why the casual market is so exciting these days is all to do with it being essentially anarchic. No one company can be the gatekeeper of the web, and so no one company's sense of catalogue aesthetics is going to over-run a marketplace. Casual gaming is the games industry's closest example of a free market, and it is where all the life is.
Microsoft, the company that brought you the OS that anyone could develop for and they would not control, is worried sick of letting evolution play its part in the evolution of Live, and this means they are very likely to run into the same issues that Nintendo did when their managed catalogue foundered in the face of competition. Managed catalogues don't really get the job done if you want to be the number one destination.
What they should do, especially with the roll out of the Windows extension to Live, is step back. They should behave like the company they natively are, which means:
- Provide the environment, and the tools, all at reasonable prices
- Create a standardised contractual model that gives them a slice of game sales that is fair and not punitive to smaller companies in particular
- Hire someone talented to redesign Xbox Live Arcade's portal as something attractive
- Step the hell back and let nature run its course.
The first manufacturer that realises the need to get out of the way is the one that will own the online space, and thus drive sales of everything else.
Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.