This Week I’ve Been Reading

Just a selection of choice quotes from things I’ve been reading this week:

Given the choice, I would prefer not to compete head-on with these people. If you know about the new platform opportunity, so does everyone else. If you think you can make a splash in a new marketplace, so does everyone else. Why would you want to risk entering that free-for-all when a calmer, quieter, already proven opportunity sits begging for fresh talent?

For the first time in the history of mass media, we can entertain huge audiences without first bombarding them with advertisements for sugar water and corn flakes and without making them pirates.

Quality doesn’t just magically rise to the surface, and Apple can only recommend so many titles.

Why not forget the labels and concentrate on making games? Focus on making something genuinely enjoyable.

Switching Costs in Games

In this world of “multiplayer games as a service”, I see lots of chat about the power of network effects but little about switching costs. Investopedia defines switching costs as so:

The negative costs that a consumer incurs as a result of changing suppliers, brands or products. Although most prevalent switching costs are monetary in nature, there are also psychological, effort- and time-based switching costs.

In other words, there’s a cost (usually non-monetary) involved in switching from one game with friends to another game of the same type with friends. In fact, this cost rockets when your new game is of the same type – I don’t mean just in the same genre, but of games where the differences are not immediately apparent. The problem with the adage “never judge a book by its cover” is that people inevitably do judge things from a quick glance. So if your game looks quite a lot like Scrabble or Hangman, for example, then people will assume that it is quite a lot like Scrabble or Hangman, and stick with the game they already have that looks quite a lot like (or possibly is) Scrabble or Hangman.

Even if you can get a few people to check your game out, you’re then likely to suffer from the downside of network effects. Normally, network effects, where a service becomes more valuable the more people use it, are viewed as a positive. The downside of attempting to build something that relies on this, however, is that if there’s no one there to play against, no one will hang around waiting for others to show up. That clearly poses problems in building momentum for your game.

None of which is to say your game can’t make that breakthrough against a well-established competitor, but it’s going to have to work incredibly hard (and might take a long time) to do so.

Happy Quarrel Day - Again

Finally! Quarrel is here for Xbox Live Arcade!

So who’s right then: Gamers like myself? Or the Games Industry?  Well, Wednesday January 25th 2012 is “The Day Of Reckoning”.  It’s Gamers vs The Games Industry, and one of us is definitely wrong.

http://www.denki.co.uk/2012/01/25/quarrel-vs-the-games-industry-whos-right/ Quarrel vs The Games Industry: Who’s Right?

It’s true. I remember all the discussions had regarding the received wisdom that “word games don’t sell”.

No, badly made word games don’t sell.

Anyway, I for one welcome our new word game overlord, and so should you. Buy it now, whether or not you have an Xbox. Either way, you won’t regret it.

Bad GameCity, No Biscuit

GamesIndustry.biz reports that GameCity “have launched the GameCity Prize, which it hopes will be the “Turner / Booker / Mercury Prize” of the industry.”

Brilliant – I’ve argued before that we need prizes to celebrate the best of British talent. That’s what the Turner (best British visual artist under the age of 50) and Mercury (best album from the UK and Ireland) prizes are about, and the Booker prize is for Commonwealth authors writing in English. The jury for the prize is fantastic, and the announcement comes with the following comment from Iain Simons, the brains behind GameCity:

The GameCity Prize is about videogames gaining cultural confidence and expressing their value in something other than financial terms. If games are worth almost £3 billion a year in the UK – then surely they’re worth thinking about too.

Yes, absolutely! Let’s make a fuss and show off the best of what’s made in the UK! Let’s show that we’re not just about GTA.

Except. Except except except. The finalists announced for the GameCity prize are from the following countries: Norway, Denmark, USA, Japan (twice), Canada and Sweden. All worthy games, no doubt, and they’ll all win countless awards from other places. But they’ll all win countless awards from other places.

TIGA and UKIE spend all their time talking up the UK industry to anyone and everyone who will listen, and yet neither BAFTA nor GameCity (arguably the only other UK organisation that could give such a prize the credibility and platform it requires) are taking the opportunity to celebrate the industry.

Or is our industry not as good as we claim?

Happy Quarrel Day!

Finally. A full year, four months and three weeks since Black Easter Monday, Quarrel has seen the light of day, and you can now actually buy it for iPhone and iPad (Xbox next, with other platforms to follow, I believe). You should do that now.

The first time I saw Quarrel was almost exactly three years ago today. I was in the process of leaving Slam, and I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next. I paid a visit to Denki to see what they were up to, since I hadn’t been for a while. Colin and Gary showed me a few of the pilot games they had (just about) secured funding for, one of which was of course Quarrel. Every single one blew me away, and I knew I needed to be working with them. Thankfully for me, they agreed.

Things clearly didn’t pan out exactly as we planned three years ago, but Quarrel is a game that I’m incredibly proud to have played a tiny part in the creation of. The fact that I still love to play the game after being involved with it for that length of time should say something about it’s quality and longevity. I hope you enjoy playing it as much as I do.

Sacrificing IP

There was a bit of a stramash last week regarding who gets to own the Intellectual Property (registration required) rights to games when someone other than the creator is paying for it. Good way to get publicity for a new publisher, some might say.

As you might expect, there was a mix of outrage, agreement, indifference and factual error in the comments that followed the article. Given that the most common question I’m asked in my role at the Cultural Enterprise Office is “Where can I get money?”, there were a surprising number of people prepared to turn down the chance to get their product made.

There’s a truism thrown around that game creators must maintain control over their IP at all costs. It’s certainly true that the only way you can build a sustainable games company is to retain as many rights to as many things as possible, but you also need a plan that actively builds that value. Simply making a game and releasing it will technically provide you with some IP, but if no one knows it exists is it actually valuable?

Sometimes, it’s worth sacrificing IP to reach your ultimate destination. Pixar never owned the IP in Toy Story. It was all transferred to Disney in the funding deal for the film. Pixar did retain several royalty streams as part of the deal (including merchandise, which for some reason no one at Disney thought would be a big deal in a movie about toys), but Disney had full control over when or if a sequel would happen, for example. The clue that there was a masterplan at work is the clause that stated Pixar’s logo would be given equal prominence to the Disney logo in all promotional materials.

When Pixar filed to go public (their IPO date was the week after Toy Story was due to open), they explicitly stated they wanted to build the next big consumer facing movie brand of note. A brand that acted as a stamp of quality and expectation in the same way as Disney, for example (the only other example). I’d say they certainly managed to achieve that, given that more than five years after Disney acquired them, the name “Pixar” lives on above the film name.

Not owning the IP to Toy Story didn’t hold Pixar back, but they had a clear understanding of why it didn’t matter quite so much at that point. So, by all means negotiate to keep your IP, but make sure you have a clear understanding of what you’re negotiating for.

Are Game Makers Scared of Crowdfunding?

Kickstarter, the crowdfunding site that can’t handle non-US projects, posted some stats from its first 10,000 funded projects:

Music and Film clearly dominate, taking 61.5% of all projects between them, but Games are way down at the other end of the scale, with just 180 projects: 1.8%.

Why? There’s an IGDA selected project page, after all. I’ve asked IndieGoGo (which does handle non-US projects) how games figured into their stats, and I’m waiting for them to get back to me. I’ll update this post as and when they do so. Update: IndieGoGo will only say that games are a “steadily increasing percentage” of their 30,000+ campaigns. That makes me think it’s a low percentage.

Are games creators deliberately avoiding this funding model? If so, why? Especially given that “lack of funding” is one of the main reasons given for not making something. Do they think they won’t raise enough money? You might not raise enough to make a big console game, but Urbanized (a documentary sequel to Helvetica and Objectified) raised $118,505. Are players not interested in supporting game makers? Do players even know who the game makers are? Are the rewards offered by games projects powerful enough?

Are game makers trying but failing? I follow a fair few people on Twitter from across film, games, music and theatre. I see lots of project promotion from all those sectors except games, which leads me to suspect that game makers aren’t even trying it out.

Clearly, I have more questions than answers about this, but given the fuss about this funding model in the worlds of film, music and art, I’m curious as to why more don’t seem to have taken this route.

What It Takes

Letters of Note is a site that collects “fascinating letters, postcards, telegrams, faxes, and memos.” There’s a letter from Pixar director Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc., Up) originally posted last summer, but which I’ve seen doing the rounds again recently.

Mostly, people are picking up the closing line: “As John Lasseter likes to say, our films don’t get finished, they just get released” – a common refrain from artists – but it’s an earlier line that jumps out at me:

It takes a lot of work (and rework, and rework and rework) to get it right.

Related reading: The Vertical Slice

The Only Thing Worse Than Being Talked About

Ken Levine, of Bioshock fame, on raising industry profile (free registration required):

It’s not their fault. It’s our fault. As an industry we need to think of ourselves differently. We need to think of ourselves that way and present ourselves that way… We have a responsibility … to educate people who don’t think of games. Like the people booking those [chat] shows.

His point is that the games industry as a whole, isn’t that great at raising it’s own profile, or the profile of those who work within it. Unless, of course, it’s some sort of “video nasty” type story (e.g., Manhunt, Hot Coffee).

This is something I’ve been thinking about over the last week or so, triggered by a couple of shows on BBC Scotland’s Artworks Scotland strand. The first was about Scottish bands heading out to SXSW earlier this year. The second about Scotland’s comic book writers and artists. Why isn’t there a third show about Scotland’s games industry?

Anecdotally, I’ve seen and heard plenty of evidence over the last couple of years that school pupils and university students don’t have a huge awareness of where games are made in the UK, what games are made in the UK, and the fact that there’s an industry beyond EA, Activision, UbiSoft, Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft or Take 2. Combine this with quality of life and workplace diversity issues (never mind the lack of creative diversity), and we have ourselves a bit of an image problem. And it’s no use talking to ourselves about it.

TIGA have done a fantastic job of raising awareness of the industry at a government level, and are rightly applauded for that. But I agree with Levine’s sentiments: it’s up to the creators of games to get out there and talk to the world, rather than just to ourselves. We can’t (and shouldn’t) rely on a trade association to do that, we can’t (and shouldn’t) rely on the media to come to us. If we don’t talk to the world about what we do, we have no right to complain about being misrepresented or misunderstood.

Australia’s “Games” Tax Credit

Develop reports on Australia’s tax relief scheme:

That breakthrough scheme sets aside $1.9 billion for digital creative companies across the country.

Good for Australia, except… well, it’s not a tax credit for “digital creative companies” at all (and it’s also not $1.9 billion). It’s a pure R&D tax credit, according to the Australian’s Innovation Ministry:

The Gillard Labor Government’s $1.8 billion R&D Tax Credit will deliver more funding to innovative firms – including manufacturers, ICT and biotech.

From what I’ve read, this scheme for Australia sounds almost identical to the scheme we already have here in the UK. It’s not just some magical pot of gold that pours money into the bank accounts of games companies (or indeed, any company). That’s what the “credit” part in the names of these schemes means.

Meanwhile, Tony Reed, CEO of the Game Developers Association of Australia, says:

Our goal at the GDAA is to prepare Australia to become one of the top three territories in the world for game development within the next five years. I think this can be achieved.

I’m sure he does. I believe that the UK can achieve the same. What I don’t believe is that a tax credit scheme, however designed, is the singular basis on which that achievement will be made.