7/28/06

An Analytical Discussion of the Industry, Culture, Progress and Nature of Video Games.

 

July 28, 2006

What The Long Tail Means for Gaming

For those of you who haven’t noticed, we have recently added the ability to subscribe to Pixels and Progress through your RSS news aggregator of choice. Why? A few reasons: 1) You’re a busy person, you love your news aggregator, and you wanted us to join Internet 2.0 with full gusto. 2) Try as we might to post in a timely fashion on Fridays, we are mortal. With a news aggregator, you are instantly alerted when we update – even if that update happens on a Saturday. And 3) We’re into tail.

The Long Tail, that is.

The recent book, The Long Tail, written by Wired’s Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson, has provided an insight into the new digital economy where concrete commercial space knows no bounds and personal tastes can be satiated at will. His model (or is it a deductive decoding of concrete facts?) shows how some net-based businesses are experiencing exponential growth while brick-and-mortar stores struggle for survival.

The basic premise is this: For any media (Anderson spends time writing about books and music in particular), there are a few hits and there are many, many misses. Physical stores such as Wal-mart, Best Buy, and Target have only a certain amount of space in which they can store product and, to maximize their investment, stock only the most popular media titles. This leaves the many misses to languish, unsold, in dusty storage. These misses, however, do have niche audience, and companies such as Amazon.com, Rhapsody, iTunes, and Netflix have found success by giving their customers the ability to purchase this “long tail” of content as well as access to hit titles. For some of these businesses, the money generated from niche sales outweighs the money generated from the selling of hits. The businesses seeing the most gain are the ones with near-limitless storage (either giant warehouses spread across the country, or server space). Anderson predicts that whoever can effectively exploit the long tail of content will succeed in this new, largely-internet-based, world economy.

If Anderson knew anything about videogames, he would also predict that Nintendo is poised to become very, very rich with the launch of the Wii and establishment of the Virtual Console.

For years, NES and SNES emulation has been popular among tech-savvy enthusiasts. Sadly, however, emulation tethered gamers to the computer, which largely necessitated using either the keyboard or third-party controllers, and prevented gaming from taking place on the comfy confines of the couch. It was also an inexact science, resulting in games that couldn’t save, were translated poorly, or were too buggy to enjoy. Now, with the Virtual Console, Nintendo is providing gamers interested in strolling down Memory Lane the opportunity to download games from their entire library – stretching back into the early 1980s – as well as classic content from Sega and Turbografx.

The rights are theirs. The storage is free. Downloading is agreeably cheap for consumers (analysts predict $5 for NES, $10 for SNES). For sure, Nintendo is going to make massive money on their back catalog of hits: Metroid, Zelda, Kid Icarus, not to mention the Mario series. But, what if they offered all of their random misses available for download, as well. Balloon Fight, anyone? Yo! Noid? If the big N is smart, they’ll be there. Available for download. And every download is $5 in Nintendo’s pocket. Even if 20 people buy it on a joke – “look how shitty this game is!” – that’s $100 more than they would have if they didn’t put it on the server. Imagine this scenario playing out for hundreds of games. Now realize that it costs virtually nothing for Nintendo to provide this service. By exploiting the long tail of their back catalog, Nintendo could become more of a money-making juggernaught than it already is. And don’t forget: They’re still making new, next-gen games for the Wii at $50 a pop.

Where’s Sony and Microsoft in all this? Close, but the don’t seem to understand the economic benefits of fully embracing the long tail. Sony has made the PS3 backwards compatable with PS2 and PSX games, which could result in small, niche sales of classic games off eBay or at flea markets – but Sony isn’t profiting directly from these sales. They have no plans for offering PSX games for download to the PS3, even though a 60GB harddrive comes with the $600 model. What would it take for them to offer Resident Evil 1 for download over their online service? Nothing. The profits would be unimaginable.

Microsoft is supporting backwards compatability through selective emulators available for download off of Live, but they’re foolishly supporting unpopular games and leaving critical darlings and exclusives off the list. Independent studios have been having success through the sales of their small games through the Live Marketplace (Uno, Geometry Wars), effectively keeping the Xbox 360 on life-support while the launch titles fail to impress. Microsoft should see the benefits of the long tail, but, rather than embracing it fully and providing their own niche-aimed content from their back catalog (which could include decades of PC-only titles), they are concentrating fully on making next-gen hits.

While Nintendo is embracing the entire beast, Sony and Microsoft are effectively cutting off their tails with their next generation of consoles.

Chris Anderson would disagree on this last point, citing that Microsoft has provided gamers with the opportunity for microtransactions: A few dollars for horse armor in Oblivion, or $10 for a new SOCOM map. He suggests, through the creation of added content, Microsoft (and Sony, which has also stated they are interested in episodic content and micro-transactions) is creating a long tail they can exploit. I find this a misapplication of his model – and I wouldn’t be the first person to suggest that, as brilliant as the Long Tail model is, it doesn’t apply to everything.

No, I see something different, albeit economically powerful, happening with Microsoft’s microtransactions: The Diderot Effect.

The Diderot Effect was first suggested by Denis Diderot in the 18th Century in the essay, “Regrest on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown,” in which he discusses purchasing a new, fancier dressing gown and suddenly finding that his furnishings did not match it. In a flurry of consumerism, Diderot replaces his drapes, furniture, and wardrobe (and he’s an 18th Century Frenchman, so it’s a HUGE wardrobe) to match the his new gown. One purhcase eventually leads to many, related purchases, resulting in much more money spent than was originally planned or wanted. Oblivion players – sound familiar? It’s a powerful economic force, but is it as porfitable as exploting the long tail?

If the Long Tail is truly the model for the new economy, then Nintendo is the only company truly ready to suck our pocketbooks dry. And I’ll be too busy playing Bionic Commando to notice.

Update: But is this enough? I still maintain that Microsoft would be smart to convert their entire back catalog, not 50 updated ports. 

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August 1st, 2006 (LATE!) 

Story Telling: The Gaping Holes in Narrative Video Games

I love stories. I love telling stories and I love hearing stories. I'm a voracious reader (I get twitchy if a have to go too long without text) and also a lover of movies, TV, comics, (both the superhero and hoighty-toighty graphic novel kind) news, games, the whole megillah. I feel a need, an instinctual need to hear stories (both short and long), narratives, tales, yarns, fables, anecdotes, folktales, myths, chronicles, histories, and more. I love characters and their relationships, I love the twists and turns of a good plot. I love a good sentence. I love a good scene. I love a good comic panel. Hell, I love a good news report. It's just something in the very root of my being, floating in and infused with my blood. In a certain way, it's who I am. So it's also odd that I love Tetris.

Tetris has no story. No characters. No plot, nor narrative, nor settings. Nothing but four-square blocks, an enclosed space, and the rapidly increasing pull of gravity. It's a simple, ingenious, addictive, game. And I've played it enough that I start my runs at Level 9, Height 5. I think the strangest part is how, when I play (intensely pretentious and cerebral thinker that I am) I become a brainless zombie without presence of mind at all, just eye coordination and reaction time. And the same thing happens to me in the middle of a fire fight, or at least Halo's version of them. It's all reaction and instinct. It is in a way proof that some (though not all) of the best bits of enjoyment and experience in games tend to be those moments that are without the trappings of story, shorn of those things that make us think or feel.

If there is a problem (outside of my usual tirades about video games being too young and undeveloped a medium to support any Citizen Kanes or Brothers Karamazov . . . s) it lies partially in a very prosaic reason: It is hard to tell a good story with a lot of action. The most popular franchises such as Halo and Metal Gear, which have a great number of fast-paced sequences of shootie-splodey chaos, have to have their stories told around the fighting. Halo's by way of cut-scenes and convenient voice-over, and Metal Gear's, in ultra-Japanese fashion, through extensive scenes of sometimes ponderous exposition and revelation. Characters can't really forward the plot, express complex emotion, or tell the story while they're wasting badguys or defying death because, well,  they're kind of busy. So instead Snake spends ten minutes on the radio learning about his ridiculously labyrinthian origins, or Cortana tells the Chief over his commlink, in lines that sound remarkably like a writer's notes on plot points, just why he going where he's going and shooting what he's shooting. More intelligent action films with tight plots and good stories tend to take long  pauses between sparingly used action sequences, taking their time to make sure everything actually makes sense. Of course, you do this too much in a video game, you get Dreamfall. The Half-Life games may have found ways of smoothing over the clunkiness of telling a story in a video game, but you'll notice our intrepid Doctor Freeman always seems to be in a closed room, or an elevator, or other such spatial trap when the necessary injection of plot must be administered (and more on this later). It's a balance, one which some games have struck better than others. Of course, all of this is useless if the story itself is hogwash. Which, in video games, it almost always is.

"Narrative" and "plot" are tricky words, often used interchangeably, though they shouldn't be. By my understanding, and my understanding is subjective as all hell, narrative is the way a story is told, while plot is what happens. This may seem elementary, but it is still crucial. Consider how the strength of one can make the other unnecessary. Lolita, for example, has one of the all-time great narratives, and almost an afterthought of a plot. L.A. Confidential, on the opposite pole, while well told, (i.e. having a strong narrative) as both a book and movie has a taut and at times brilliant plot. Right now games seem to have half of it down: Their narratives tend to be good but their plots are for shit. Because they have to stretch things over ten to fifty or more (or sometimes much more) hours, there is an overabundance of backstory and every other scene involves some kind of major revelation. (Hello every-Final-Fantasy-since-VII-and-a-few-beforehand-as-well) Or things are just a formless mass. (Yeah, I'm callin' you out Oblivion) Plot and narrative don't have to go hand in hand, but they have to make sense, both by themselves and in some sort of relation to each other.

The Metal Gear Solid series has an almost obsessive attention to detail and realism, to the point where Snake's eyes have to adjust when he enters a bright room. I mean, you have to feed the guy for God's sake (or at least his clone/father/ father-clone), in a video game. So why is this realistic narrative attached to a plot featuring cloning, severed arms overtaking their new hosts, and the rest? If the game's narrative (i.e. the gameplay) is going to be strongly realistic, why does the plot abandon all reason? Half-Life and it's sequel were praised for innovating new ways for games to tell stories (creating a better narrative, in other words), but the plot was the old sci-fi trope of alien invaders. And for every great game like Halo or MGS or HL that inches the storytelling forward ever so slightly, there's a dozen Blacks; solid gameplay whose previews and reviews only mention story so as to mention how unimportant it is. Video games right now are like a comedian telling an old and expected joke about how bad airplane food is, or how women are different than men. The comedian is really enthusiastic about the jokes, and he's telling them well, but the jokes aren't all that inspired, and we're pretty sure the warm-up act was saying the same things. We're laughing and enjoying the show, but we're not hearing anything new, and we're not being challenged in the least. And art challenges us, so you can imagine what video games aren't right now. Gaming doesn't need a Lester Bangs, it needs a Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor, someone to stand up tall and very loudly let us know that we can talk about more, we can talk about the visceral human experience with which we are all familiar, someone who can be entertaining while opening our eyes.

Games aren't going to be able to tell stories until a game designer can make all of these things; plot, narrative, character, setting, tone, pace, and gameplay, make sense as a cohesive whole. Games aren't going to grow as an art form until someone can make a game, a good and exciting game, out of storytelling. And as long as they can't tell stories, they won't be art. Of course, the convenience of being a commentator is that I don't have to solve the problem, I simply have to address it. The rest I leave to Bioware. I have hopes, but they are not high ones.

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