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Dead medium: Computer Games Are Dead (Part 2)
From: ChrisCr@aol.com Chris Crawford

INTERACTIVE ENTERTAINMENT DESIGN Volume 9, Number 4, April 1996

Interactive Entertainment Design
5251 Sierra Road
San Jose, CA 95132
published six times/year, $36 year, $50 outside US

(((We continue Mr Crawford's essay on the decline of

computer gaming, "Computer Games Are Dead.".)))

FROM CREATOR-DRIVEN TO MARKET-DRIVEN

The first indicator is the decisive shift from a

creator-driven field to a market-driven field. In the

early days of computer gaming, the creative talents made

all the editorial decisions. There were two reasons for

this: first, they had a lockhold on the supply of games.

Competent designer/programmers were rare; if the

executives didn't take it the way the designer created it,

the designer could walk away and leave the executives

stranded without product.

Nowadays, the supply is more closely matched to

demand, so the designers have less creative control over

their work. Second, the marketplace was not well-

understood in those days. It's difficult to overrule a

designer with marketing data that doesn't exist. But over

the years the industry has built up an impressive set of

marketing truisms that have shifted the balance of power

into the hands of the marketing folk.

I'll not decry this power shift as an evil; it just

happened. Marketing people aren't bad or stupid or crass,

and designers don't hold the keys to goodness and light.

But the shift from a creator-driven atmosphere to a

market-driven atmosphere worked a profound change on the

organism, transforming it from a future-looking creature

to a past-looking creature. At its heart, the creator-

driven approach concentrates on the future, on what might

be. The creator's whole point and purpose is to move

beyond the existing limits and explore new areas == to

change. This emphasis on change is at the core of what we

mean by "life."

By contrast, the market-driven approach is past-

looking, for it concentrates on what was successful

yesterday. The marketer's whole point and purpose is to

identify the locus of success and stick close to it.

Stability is the byword of the market-driven approach.

Every industry combines the creator-driven approach

with the market-driven approach in its own proportion. The

creators supply drive and the marketers provide

sustenance. The proportion determines the liveliness or

morbidity of the industry. For example, laundry detergent

is a mature industry, needing nothing in the way of new

worlds to conquer; it is therefore, and quite fittingly, a

market-driven industry.

By contrast, a field such as genetic engineering is

still nascent; its triumphs all lie in the future.

Marketing focus is inappropriate here; whoever finds a

cure for cancer need not concern himself with marketing

issues. This field is utterly creator-driven.

There is nothing inherently disreputable or

dishonorable about the laundry detergent industry, nor is

genetic engineering morally superior to making laundry

detergent. But ask yourself: which field has more life in

it? Which field has the future with the greater promise

of change?

By shifting from a creator-driven organism to a

market-driven organism, we have transformed computer games

from a medium to a commodity. A medium is a channel of

communication, something whose content is constantly in

flux and ever-surprising. This flux, this change, is the

heartbeat of life of the medium. There is always the hope

of a brighter future with any medium, because the content

can always change to address new conditions. But a

commodity is a dead thing, a box that sits on a shelf.

Who can confidently expect the commodities of today to

meet the needs of tomorrow? In our shift from creator-

driven to market-driven, our image of the computer game

has shifted, too: we now see a box where once we saw a

medium. By fixing it in place, we have killed it.

BUYING MARKET SHARE

1990 brought a turning point in the history of

computer games: Wing Commander. The game itself had some

strong points; it was a modernized version of Star

Raiders, the classic Atari game of 1979 that catapulted

the Atari computers into near-success. But its greatest

strength lay in its development budget. This may be hard

to understand, but in 1990 the typical computer game cost

perhaps $150K to create. Wing Commander's budget was much,

much larger than this. Origin's strategy with Wing

Commander was clear: to buy market share. In most cases, a

willingness to raise the stakes by investing more money is

of positive benefit to an industry. Everybody else must

either call the bet or fold, and the overall quality of

product rises.

However, in a young industry such as computer games,

it doesn't quite work the way it should work, or the way

it does work in mature industries. In a mature industry,

additional investment capital is carefully routed to those

endeavors that will yield the greatest return on

investment. To make this intelligent allocation of funds,

we require an experienced team of executives who know what

they're doing.

Such has not been the case with computer games.

Despite all we have learned in the last fifteen years,

most computer game company executives are still groping

about. The best evidence of this is the torrent of money

that has been poured down the sinkhole over the last five

years. Origin's action triggered an inverted gold rush;

everybody stampeded to spend money on products.

In the process, we succeeded in 1) glutting the

shelves with overpriced junk; 2) convincing our customers

that our output was overpriced junk; and 3) attracting a

horde of shysters and opportunists into our industry.

The most invidious result of the inverse gold rush

has been the steep rise in entry costs. Back in the

1980s, two clowns in a garage could put together a hit

computer game. This attracted a great many clowns, to be

sure, but some of those clowns turned out to be quite

creative. The low entry costs of making computer games

kept up the creative ferment. But when the entry cost rose

beyond the reach of individuals in the 1990s, computer

game design became an activity requiring financial muscle

== and a lot of talented people were shut out of the

market.

A CLOSED DISTRIBUTION SYSTEM

A third factor contributing to the sclerosis of

computer games is the self-assured closure of the

distribution system for games. Everybody in the

distribution chain, from retailers to distributors to

publishers, knows what sells and what doesn't sell. They

can all tell you with great precision what makes for a hit

game and what doesn't. It has almost been reduced to a

science.

The entire process has become so tightly managed, so

carefully balanced on the edge of profitability, that

there is no longer any room for experimentation.

There's nothing wrong with applying our knowledge. We

need to consider the feedback of the marketplace and apply

that feedback to our creations. But we also need to retain

some intellectual humility, a recognition that our best

marketing data represents only a fraction of the truth, to

wit, the knowledge of what has worked in response to what

has been attempted.

The marketplace is a vast unknown creature, a blob of

confusion that we can only know by poking it with a

variety of experiments. If we try to sell one game and it

fails, then we know that games similar to it will fail; if

we try to sell another game and it succeeds, then we know

that games similar to this game will sell. But we must be

careful about generalizing too much from these lessons. A

failure can be attributed to many factors, and we cannot

know with certainty why any given game succeeded.

For example, why was Balance of Power such a huge

commercial success? I don't know. Was it because it was

one of the first games to fully exploit the spirit of the

Macintosh GUI? Was it because it appeared at a tense time

when the public was particularly sensitive to

international relations? Was it because its intelligence

and maturity provided a welcome relief from the juvenile

pap that dominated the industry at the time? We will

never know. Anybody who claims to have put their finger on

the answer is deceiving himself.

Let's look at the other side of the coin: why did my

game Trust & Betrayal fail so miserably? Was it because

the graphics were below average? Perhaps; but the

graphics were still superior to those of some games that

were more successful, such as the Infocom adventure games,

which continued to sell well at the same time that Trust &

Betrayal was bombing. Was it because the game had no

action or violence? Perhaps. Was it because the game

emphasized interpersonal relationships? Perhaps. Was it

that the game had no clear market identification? Was the

price too high? Who knows? The danger here is that we can

use Trust & Betrayal or Balance of Power to support any

pet theory we favor.

It is entirely plausible that someday, interpersonal

games may be a hugely successful genre. In this case,

people will point to Trust & Betrayal as the precursor

game of the genre, attributing its failure to other

factors. It was on the right track, we will say, but was

crippled by the fatal flaw of (fill in the blank). The

important thing for us to recognize today is that it is

impossible for us to know what that fatal flaw is, at

least not until we try other experiments. To dismiss

interpersonal games as a dead end because Trust & Betrayal

failed would be idiocy == and yet the games industry has

jumped to exactly that conclusion by placing all of its

money on other factors.

This problem has been addressed successfully by other

industries. For example, by the mid-1970's, Hollywood had

established a solid marketing rule of thumb that science-

fiction movies just didn't attract large audiences. Thus,

George Lucas was taking an almost contrarian stance when

he made Star Wars. Had Hollywood's distribution system

been as closed as the computer games distribution system,

Star Wars would never have seen the light of day. But

Hollywood has learned that a certain amount of

experimentation is essential to its survival.

Entertainment is first and foremost a field in flux, and

an industry that cannot support experimentation in an

organized fashion is a dead industry. Such is the case

with computer games.