Games industry killing itself over used games

One of the largest problems facing the games industry today is used games. Publishers can't compete with the low prices and have launched campaigns trying to persuade customers that buying used games hurt developers. This is almost certainly true but the problem is, as so often with situations like this, not used games but how games as a medium are developed and sold. Let me describe why this phenomenon exists and what developers can do to change it today. Books and movies are more rarely sold used then games

There is a market for used books and movies, and it's pretty large, but nowhere near as large as for games. This is because the products leave a lingering thought with the consumer that they "might want to see / read it again". In this post I'll call this emotional impact.

I'm not saying that games don't have emotional impact, in fact they might have more emotional impact then traditional media, but in games it works a bit differently.

Traditional media is completely based on narrative

Narrative has always been a way for humans to interpret the things happening around us, in other words; we look for patterns that might not be there. Putting stories on events to make them understandable.

Traditional media is a way to channel this interest by offering interesting stories, that have been thought out before hand and then feeding them to the audience. We've been doing it since long before Shakespeare

When a movie, book or any work of fiction presents us with a narrative that we particularly like we achieve a sense of satisfaction. Known in story telling as catharsis.

Games don't work like this

Games have two sets of narrative going on at once; the story narrative that is usually fed to the player (s) in more or less sophisticated ways. The game mechanical narrative, the story that the player build by doing things in the game: "I ran around the wall and shot that guy from behind, I'm such a ninja!".

The first narrative is directly comparable to traditional media and is the dominant narrative in games such as the Final Fantasy series or the Metal Gear series. The emotional impact of these games are usually quite high and sure enough, you'll find a lot less of them on the used shelves at your local Gamestop.

The second narrative however, is unique to games as a medium. It is the dominant form of narrative in games such as Battlefield or Gran Turismo. These games can be resold without much emotional impact because the main experience is already experienced. Playing the game again won't be as interesting.

Let's compare this to a vacation trip. The pictures from said vacation are valuable, because they let the consumer remember the experience. But going back will be different, we all know this, that's why we don't always travel to the same spots.

Experiencing the game mechanic again can often be more interesting by playing the sequel or a similar game. A consumer will rarely play the same game again if there aren't new goals to reach or if similar games and sequels are noticeably different. (If your game is a shooter you'll probably not ever get consumers to do more then one play through. If that.)

So how are we going to solve this?

From this point of view, I've identified three key ways of making more emotional impact and staying of the used games shelf:

  1. Create games that capture the emotional impact of narrative. Create games with more traditional story that can keep the players coming back.
  2. Create games with game mechanic lock-ins. So that they are forced to keep playing your game to get the same pleasurable mechanic. Look at fighting games for example. Fighting games seem to be generally online or party experiences, with unique fighting styles they deliver experiences that you can't interchange easily.
  3. Games that are more focused on mechanic narrative, don't release them as boxed products. Seriously. They are easily interchangeable and after one play through they are simply not very interesting. Sell them as episodic content through direct downloads or as subscription services.

This might sound a bit crude, but the games industry is not as successful per unit as other media industries and mostly I believe this is because the industry isn't selling games as consumers want them. The games industry is just copying other mediums and then complaining about all the problems that they run into.

If you've read this far I'd love to hear your thoughts on the subject, comment away, I answer all comments.

The state of PC gaming

"PC gaming is dead" has been the mantra of hundreds of developers for the last 3 years now, and as more and more titles move on to consoles it seems like open platforms have been abandoned due to rampant piracy and non-existing demand... Wait! What am I saying? Rampant piracy AND non existing demand? Impossible. Rampant piracy can only exist with rampant demand, why else would anyone do it?

This week a couple of publishers/developers have gone on the record to say that, in fact, PC gaming isn't dead... It's actually at an all time high. With more then 20 million westerners playing MMO's each week and a hell of a lot more then that playing online games in general PC gaming still far outnumbers all console platforms excepting the PS2.

So what the hell are developers whining about? The answer: non existent sales. Believed by many to be due to rampant piracy. But this is about as intelligent as a doctor that your hair falling out is due to lack of calcium (or whatever) while he's blasting you with radiation.

Let's analyse what the hell is happening with piracy and see if we can find any advantages that may sway the public away from buying games:

Non pirate game:

  • It will cost you $50.
  • it will (with a massive margin compared to DLs) cost you a trip to a store or a few days while you wait for the game to arrive.
  • It will take time and irritation to install (install, serial, download patches)
  • You'll need the damn CD/DVD to play it (does everyone even have an optical drive nowadays?)

Pirated game:

  • It will cost you very little (Internet bandwidth mostly)
  • It will take less time then a trip to the store
  • It will install easily
  • You'll never wait in line or be left without it on launch day
  • It'll be easy to install
  • Once installed you can play it whenever you feel like it by just clicking the icon.

I don't even know what to say to this. This is the dumbest way to market something, ever. It's like selling coke is 1CC bottles that require tools to open them. And what do publishers do to stop piracy? They either hunt down the END USERS of the products and slap them with subpoenas or they install ever worse DRM software making games even harder to use.

Now, I'm not a genius in any way. But anyone can see where this is heading. Piracy will never end while publishers continue this crazy blitzkrieg against their customers.

Hey publishers, need ideas about how to make money from games again? These are just some short idea, I bet a lot of smart people can think of even more ways:

Tips for publishers:

  • Only sell high value content in stores (boxed content with extras, more content or just a really nice box)
  • Sell ALL games online. There are already services for this, all you need to do is give them a master copy of the game.
  • Let gamers register their games for something worthwhile (all multiplayer require an account, don't be asses though, let customers be able to use their google accounts, open ID accounts and so on. Oh, and make games available for re-download to those accounts)
  • Don't go after end user pirates, that just sows seeds of distrust. When a pirated version of a game is logged online, email the customer informing them that their issue is illegal and give them a credible reason, and easy way, for buying the real thing. How about they cash in but don't need anything else, they'll just get an automatically updated serial and the optional box in the mail.
  • Learn from other entertainment industries. There are hundreds of possible tie-in products available from toy makers, novelists, children book writers, painters, t-shirt producers and so on. Sign on with a few, it doesn't matter if you don't make enormous amounts on the first deal, get the ball rolling and the cash will start flowing.
  • Open API for your games information. Most of the successful web apps available today use open API's so that other services can exchange information with them. Why not in games? Should I, as a player, really need to find my online friends AGAIN for every single online game I play? They all use the same mail addresses anyway. And I can't even search through my Gmail contacts damn it.

These are just a few suggestions, feel free to pitch in with even more and send this to a publisher near you. Maybe someone will have an epiphany and realise "ooh, keeping customers happy is a good thing!".

New design wrecks havoc just like new tech

As you've probably noticed my blog is moved and redesigned (not final yet) because I needed to speed up my site updates. Sadly my domain host is restricting me from completing the change faster but it will be done in a couple of weeks. Which is ironically very similar to the Moore's Wall phenomena that Raph Koster has previously talked about. Moore's Wall is basically states that because new, better and faster technology is usually thought to be the same as visual improvement (graphical in games) developers are implicitly forced to focus harder on visual representation then on interactivity or function. As technology improves this will become more and more work until development is so expensive that taking chances is never profitable.

Sound familiar? It's basically the current state of the games industry. Not until technological innovation has matured so far that new technology is not leaps and bounds faster or better then the previous tech or when the leaps between tech grow longer can we really focus on creating better gameplay.

Anyway, it's a great read and the basic idea is perforating my day to day life so check it out.