What Games Are: There Is No Iron Throne Of Games Anymore

Posted: May 13, 2013 in Gaming, GT

The Rusty Throne This is essentially how the games industry has
behaved for the longest time. It has a history of
generational prize fights, of kings and contenders and
pride going before a fall. It was a place where
previous winners became abject losers, from Atari to
Sega, Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft. And there were many young 3DO-sized pretenders that never got out
of the gate. The real kingmakers were developers. Faced with the
choice to work with one dedicated platform or another,
or try their hand at PC distribution, many would
evaluate based on appeal and conventional wisdom
about the market’s tastes. So, depending on who
courted them best, offering the best tools or the best business opportunities, developers would always
choose and then become locked in. Porting costs
were expensive and difficult. A virtuous circle of audience and developers then
formed, each propping up the other until such time as
the platform started to feel played out. The only
consistent exception to this rule was Nintendo, who
developed both the platform and its games, and so
needed a smaller audience to thrive. Yet the pattern started to shift somewhere around
2005. According to the normal order of succession,
Microsoft’s Xbox 360 should have become king when
Sony fumbled the ball. But actually it was Nintendo,
with the fresh-faced and deliberately cheap Wii, who
rose to prominence and left the other two achieving a kind of détente. A common assumption of the time had it that the
industry had simply moved from a phase of monopoly
to oligopoly, but there were a couple of other factors
at play. One was that – outside of a couple of very
big third parties – developing games for these formats
became prohibitively expensive for most studios. So the platform holders took a greater hand in developing
and publishing the successful games on their own
platforms. This led to smaller choices. A second factor was that, after years of sputtering,
smartphones finally managed to roar into life in 2007,
and in the following year the world learned what an
app was. Apps started to change perceptions of value
around software and games, as did social gaming.
Foundational ideas like how the economics of gaming should behave, and consequently what game
products should look like, raised significant
questions. The numbers indicated stagnation, or even
contraction, of the console idea. The Xbox 360 was
launched eight years ago today on May 12, 2005 and
went on to sell around 70-75 million units. Sony’s
Playstation 3 launched in November 2006 and also
sold about 70-75 million units. Nintendo’s Wii also launched in November 2006 and has sold just shy of
100 million units. These are all pretty good, but none
is close to the Playstation 2 (155 million units).
Meanwhile the iPad has sold at least 100 million units
in three short years, the iPhone is north of 250 million
and the combined sales of Samsung’s Galaxy models probably dwarfs that number. A third factor was technology. Developers don’t really
have to make the choice to go with any one platform
any more. At the high end of the scale, big publishers
opted for Epic’s Unreal engine, which made it much
easier to port between multiple game systems. And at
the lower end, Unity in particular has made it much easier for game makers to get into many arenas
cheaply. That in turn has affected how they think,
such that making games these days is no longer an
all-in business. Now the virtuous circle can, and
frequently does, extend beyond the platform. This leads me to the idea that there is no longer one
Iron Throne of gaming. That the very notion that a
hardware monopoly, or even an oligopoly, will
continue to own the market is archaic. Elegantly Democratic Most of the interesting stories about games have
come from non-traditional sources over the last few
years. Technological innovations like mass
asynchronous social gaming happened beyond the
Wall, and a decline in PC sales and console software
sales corresponded to a rise in tablets and apps. The Wii, despite its initial roar, faded quickly. So did
products like Kinect. The market changed, becoming
much more chaotic and faddish in some respect. But
also much more tribal. Here’s a small example: Five years ago I regularly
bought Xbox 360 games at my local GAME store.
GAME wasn’t my only source of games (Amazon
was another) but I often found it the easiest to browse
and the most immediate delivery vehicle. An average
purchase would probably be around $30, and time from purchase-to-playing could be measured in hours. This weekend, on the other hand, I opened my iPad
and downloaded Running with Friends, Impossible
Road, Oregon Settler, Ace Patrol, Paper Titans, Star
Command and Year Walk. Some of these games
were free (as in free-to-play), some were $2 or $3.
Most of them are pretty good and some of them look beautiful. After my purchase they had all downloaded
and installed in about 10 minutes, and then I was
playing away. It sounds trivial, but that kind of elegant experience
and low price fundamentally undoes many of the
basic precepts of the old way of looking at things. I
don’t just mean that the games are cheaper and more
easily accessed (although that’s a part of it). They are
much more disposable. $0.99 spent on Angry Birds Friends is just a lot less of a commitment than $69.99
spent on Call of Duty, and that means players are
much more likely to drop a game if it’s not instantly
engaging. It also means that players have access to vastly
more games and can try tons of them before they find
the one that’s right for them. This means that
marketing stories, as opposed to platform stories, are
more important than ever. Recognition, resonance
and so on matter more because the one thing you (as a game maker) don’t have is the guaranteed attention
that comes with a platform sugar daddy. Almost all the really interesting stuff is happening
anywhere but console because of access and price.
It’s relatively easy to be on iOS (though hard to be
successful there because of so much competition)
compared to Xbox Live. It’s much easier to connect
to fans through general-purpose devices that also sell games than games machines that also sell content.
This applies just as much to the bingo-gaming
business or the frontier of indie development. Some would say that all this proves is that Apple
became the new king, but if so Tim Cook wears a
fairly disinterested crown. The iOS shift was more like
the old computer revolution than a dedicated gaming
movement. And while games certainly make up a
huge part of that experience today, Apple (and Google and Facebook, too) operate a curation/aggregation
marketplace rather than the traditional dictatorial
console platform. There is no king any more, not like we used to know
anyway. And little need for him to return. Nobody Needs The Targaryens In the Song of Ice and Fire, Daenerys Targaryen is on
an extended quest to form her armies and return to
take back the crown of Westeros in the belief that this
is her divine right. At some point I think, perhaps in a
later book, there’ll come a moment when she realizes
that she was wrong. In fact my bet is that the Iron Throne is eventually melted for scrap. I feel a similar
way about games. A common counter-argument to all the new school
game thinking seems to say “Okay, okay, fine. All
these touch-based games are all well and good, but
they can’t do Halo 4.” In other words, phones and
tablets are for casuals, but real gamers know the
score. They know that the mono/oligopoly approach is right, and is where the good games come from. They
are waiting for a new king. Actually, “real gamers” (whoever they are) are actually
often to be found playing indie games on Steam and
funding Kickstarter projects. Many of the most
significant games in that sphere get their first breaks
elsewhere, such as Minecraft. Many of the big trends
happen well outside official platforms, where the conversation is more connected. Meanwhile the
would-be kings operate what amounts to a television
model, while Valve is proposing to create a Steam
Box that gets around the console problem once and
for all. This means dedicated devices like the PS3 are
actually second- or even third-string platforms now.
My friend Mike Bithell, for example, released Thomas
Was Alone first on a variety of small PC-download
stores, then Steam, and only much more recently on
PSN. He doesn’t need official sanction to go make his game, just Unity and some way to accept credit
card payments. And that means Sony comes calling
to him rather than the other way around. In addition, the presumed hardware advantage of
consoles is less impressive than ever. Halo 4 may
weave a big song and dance, tell a story, and also put
you in the game world with haptic feedback. But when
I look at wonderfully stylized games like Year Walk, I
remember that the actual story in Halo 4 felt largely like a re-run of bad Babylon 5 episodes. And as for the joypad factor? Well OUYA, Gamestick,
GamePop and other microconsoles are becoming
more and more interesting. They’re trying to bring a
lot of that app store thinking to your television at a
low price, and while that idea has yet to cross the
chasm into the mainstream, it seems only a matter of time. At the moment, more “royalist” elements of
gaming journalism tend to think of microconsoles as
3DOs (primarily asking who are the devices supposed
to be for) and evaluating their chances based on the
criteria of “proper” consoles. But, as Darrell wrote
yesterday, that’s probably the wrong way to look at them. However what is apparent is just how trivial they
could make the joypad-gap seem. And did I mention
how they almost all work with Android and Unity? The Republic of Gaming It’s highly unlikely that any major console will win the
Iron Throne ever again. Gaming is changing from a
monarchic model to something approaching a
democratic one, where a flood of formats and cross-
platform solutions overcome monolithic ideas of
quality and price, and of the need to choose a platform to be the king. The old kings are still carrying on as though they’re
playing the game of thrones, trying to out-maneuver
one another with a raft of press events. But what
you’ve got ask yourself is whether all of that is just so
much noise and bluster celebrating the emperor’s new

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