iConundrum

The video game industry was arguably kicked off by a bunch of unwashed enthusiasts coding games in a few weeks in their bedrooms. A lot of them were derivative or obvious knock-offs of other titles, others were original and created new genres, but a single person could turn a hobby into a profession and make good money; it was the Wild West back then.

Okay, this is not entirely true. The industry as it stands today is probably more down to Nintendo reviving the market and changing the rules with the Famicom (Nintendo Entertainment System), but even then most people employed to create games came from this pool of bedroom enthusiasts. During that time companies were created that still exist today, that are, in fact, huge multinational corporations today. And don’t forget, Richard Garriott started out selling his game through mail-order in Ziploc bags with Xeroxed instruction leaflets and ended up becoming a space tourist. It was a wild time of opportunity and possibilities, where an enthusiast with a dream and the chutzpah to work at it could make something of himself or at least create a game and send it out there.

The success of the iPhone platform is arguably kicked off by a bunch of unwashed enthusiasts coding games in a few weeks in their bedrooms. A lot of them are derivative or obvious knock-offs of other titles, others are original and create new genres, but a single person can turn a hobby into a profession and make good money; it is the Wild West.

Now I’m not directly comparing the current iPhone craze with the early days of the video game industry, but there are parallels. Single enthusiasts seem to have as much of a shot as anyone else to create something and put it out there. These days of course they are competing with huge, well-funded corporations like EA and Square-Enix and the surprising thing is that they are competing well. The old system of creating polished product on a closed platform, selling it and marketing it apparently works as well as getting a lucky mention and ending up in the top 10 downloads, which in turn leads to ridiculous returns.

And our industry hates it. How often do we hear people complain that the App Store is a swamp of substandard product with the occasional hard-to-find gem? How many people complain how a quick rip-off game shot to the top of the charts while their own presumably awesome, highly polished product languished in barely triple figure sales? People have even declared the iPhone a dead platform because of this already; “too much shitware” they claim, “there is no point in trying to compete in that market, it’s weighed down by crap and a bad rating and search system”.

Poppycock, I say! This is purest industry hubris, and I’ve heard it many times before. It’s a repeat of the early days of the Wii when publishers threw together cheap shovelware and declared the Wii a failure because they couldn’t make significant sales for their substandard product. Before people understood the DS it was declared a failure. We, as an industry, are very adept at pointing the finger of blame, be it the App Store system, that old classic the economic climate or the failure of a platform to appeal to the market your own game is supposed to appeal to. When things go bad it is never the publisher’s nor the developer’s fault; it’s always an outside influence that pushes down our creativity, our Art.

The fact it is incredibly hard for a highly polished product to make significant sales on the iPhone tells us a few things:
1. Maybe people are more interested in iFart applications or cheap knock-offs than expensive gaming experiences akin to those on home consoles. Just like the Wii is a massive success because the market that wants Wii Fit and Wii Sports is larger than the market that wants Space Marine FPS games. The iPhone market is comprised of gadget freaks and mobile phone users, not home console gamers.
2. It’s useless to transpose the home console business onto the iPhone; it works differently and if you get unexpectedly bad sales you might be doing it wrong. Whatever the “right” way is might still be unknown, but therein lies the challenge, right? Or do we really want to keep things as they always have been? Surely that will make us stale and irrelevant?
3. The iPhone is delivering unto us a new generation of bedroom coders and entrepreneurs. We can either sit back, complain about their successes and watch them set up shop and compete, or we can snap them up for ourselves.
4. More has been released on the iPhone Apps Store than on the three home consoles combined (this fact is entirely made-up and spurious), and people are making money of off it. How is this a failed or broken platform?

The industry must step up or shut up. Stop blaming the economic climate for studio closures, stop pointing to your bad sales on the iPhone as a failure of the system as opposed to a failure of your own business plan. Personally I find more interesting things have come out on the iPhone than the home consoles, due to the hobbyist nature and accessibility of the platform and the lower costs involved. Are we going to sit back and let Apple reinvent our industry as it did with the music business? Or are we going to take it seriously as a platform and try to crack it?

15 comments:

  1. I sort of 110% agree with this.

    Besides, given our Industry current status, I wouldn't even mind if Apple had to reinvent it.

    Although I am no coder, I come from the very same generation of nerds who were sitting in a room idolizing their C64 and dreaming of new pixelated adventures.

    What the Industry doesn't get is the real value of these "one shot gadgets", both from a contents and commercial point of view.

    Having the possibility to think small, think simple and think fun (iFart included) opens up endless creative opportunities and new business models as well.
    The industry must simply drop this perception that ridiculously small apps and incredibly simple but neat ideas are not worth to be considered games / toys that make commercially sense.
    And this leads to the distorted "me-too crapware" loop, where nobody really understand what's the point of developing a product for Wii, DS or iPhone, the important thing being just to be there with something and money will come.

    On a nostalgic (and old fart) note, I guess I'll go back in my bedroom and keep dreaming of 8-bit 5 min adventures where at least I was using my imagination, rather than being spoon-fed by a 40hours obnoxious exercise of realism-machismo for people with too much free time.

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  2. I'd like to see some real stats on which of the supposedly 25000 apps actually made money. In the "old game industry" only a small few of the 5000 or so titles that supposedly come out each year actually make their money back. I think that 5000 titles includes PC but still, think if you go look in a game store it's not unreasonable to think there are 500 titles a year across PS3/Wii/360/DS/PSP.

    Just a guess but what do you think, 5% make their money back?

    Do you think on iPhone it's actually higher than 5%? Looking on the App store I see a ton of apps that have under 5 reviews. Many have zero reviews. It's unlikley those apps made any money.

    So, the question really is, are we seeing through rose colored glasses? I remember when every PC/Console developer thought their game was going to be as popular as Doom or Quake. Their business plan, in their head if not written, basically assumed they would be as successful as Id. Well, Id was the exception. I have a feeling that with 25k titles iFart, the Moron Test, StickWars and the like are also the exception. Will your title be an exception as well or will it be one of the 23500 titles that didn't make any money?

    Don't get me wrong, I love that there is effectively a new console but that is open to almost all apps. But I'm just not convinced that everything it touches is gold.

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