Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
While it’s an interesting rhetorical notion to compare a suburban housing tract to the cloning of games and the banality of today’s online game communities, there are a number of significantly problematic points in Allen Varney’s generally well-written article Attack of the Parasites from the Escapist Webzine. And while bonus points are due for his fantastic invective (such as this excerpt about sterile suburban communities) –
Such ugly, sterile, crass 1950s Chamber of Commerce concrete-asphalt provincial whitebread booboisie burgs count as "communities" only if you believe their marketing literature.
The rest of his thesis is riddled with both factual and philosophical errors, the likes of which our current administration’s spin doctors might most appreciate. At one point in the article, I was half expecting Varney to argue that Al-Qaeda designed and launched freedom-hating Garden Dreams just to compete with freedom-loving Plantasia.
On first reading, Attack of the Parasites seems like a logical and oft-heard diatribe against the sameness of media and games in particular. For as any television watcher, book reader, filmgoer or game player will tell you, no industry is better at wringing every last penny out of a cultural meme – or moment in time – than the media business. And in its mechanic, lies the fundamental story of a free market told in a very clear way.
Witness the last few years of television programming. You couldn’t turn on the television without having to endure some group of overeducated and underemployed people starving, eating larvae or engaging in boardroom drama on one of the hundreds of reality TV programs brought forth by the networks. None of the execs at CBS, NBC or ABC thought twice about littering their lineups with these shows at the expense of real reality (the news), more profound reality (documentaries) or the anti-reality of quality comedies and dramas. Even Bravo – the network that originally tried to be smarter than all the others (except PBS) – is best known for its reality TV hits Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Project Runway.
And while I’m 100% convinced that I never watched more than a few episodes of reality TV, and that I always said consumer interest would peter out after a while, I take no special pride in being right. Because, for a while, America loved reality TV and everyone – especially the networks – made huge profits as a result. And when America finally had its fill, and third-tier reality TV shows no longer pulled the audiences and profits they once did, networks began to scale back their offerings in favor of a more balanced approach to content. But in the meantime, over in the TV biz, Reality TV made some people really rich (the innovators), some people somewhat rich (the mainstreamers) and others relatively poorer (the naysayers).
Just as with the invention of the assembly line, light bulb or any other tangible product, a fundamental market force was at play – providing proportionally better rewards as the level of risk increases. Once the innovator proves the viability of their "heretical" proposal, everyone else jumps in, diluting the value of the innovation and driving the price of the underlying assets higher. At some point, consumers’ interest wanes and prices/demand begin to fall. And the circle begins again. As long as the creators of original ideas can obtain protection for their intellectual property, the free market should provide proportional rewards to innovators, mainstreamers and naysayers.
And this inextricable market reality – the invisible hand of consumers – is the main force that Varney alludes to in his article but completely misses. If Americans didn’t have an appetite for 62 different versions of Bejeweled, and they weren’t cost effective to produce, they wouldn’t get made. Ditto if portals and publishers didn’t violate the ethical (not legal) intellectual property rights of their developers. But as long as the incentive exists, and the economics make it viable, the industry’s unpleasant flirtation with copying will continue.
But the prognosis for game originality is not nearly as dim as Varney would have you believe. In fact, there are 3 forces that will reduce the incentive to make copies, and they will all begin to make their presence felt in the coming years.
First, and most importantly, Americans’ appetite for casual games will eventually level off. I’m not suggesting revenues will decline, but the growth rate will – by necessity – begin to slow. When it does, consumers will become more discriminating about the content they purchase – both aesthetically and economically. This should reduce the incentive for people to create bad and unoriginal titles. Second, the cost of producing a casual game will increase, making it less feasible for great clones to be made in a cheap way – even with third world labor costs as the benchmark. Third, I believe the industry will come up with an easy code of conduct – much like the TV business – that protects the intellectual property of writers from blatant theft. A simple script registry could be used to hold everyone in the value chain accountable for his or her actions.
Whether or not the market reduces the theft of ideas, Varney also misses an important point: consumers don’t necessary identify a clone the same way content creators do, suggesting that they understand that Luxor and Zuma are materially the same game. This is akin to saying that Kenny Chesney and Garth Brooks are also clones of each other. When a form of entertainment (or any meme for that matter) becomes truly mainstream, the market will support a few different iterations of the same idea, providing they each bring something original and noteworthy to the table. This can be in the simple difference between an Aztec and Egyptian setting, or a black vs. white Stetson. Most of this is driven by consumers’ perceptions, rather than marketing – but both play an important role in differentiating content.
And it’s that Jekyll/Hyde balance between innovation and servicing consumer demand that brings out the most interesting conflicts in American business. On one hand, we maintain the most innovative and dynamic creative culture in the world (Steve Jobs). On the other hand, some of our smartest people will go to their graves betting against the inexorable winds of change (RIAA/MPAA). And all that separates the winners from the losers is intellect, creativity, will and timing. A good sense of humor doesn’t hurt either.
There is not a crisis of creativity in the games industry – although we could stand to do a better job. My prediction: this year will bring us at least three breakthrough games, tens of also-rans, hundreds of bad titles and thousands of ideas that never made it out of peoples’ heads. And that’s just what I can extrapolate from the people I know and the things I’ve seen. Something is bound to catch us all off guard this year and surprise the heck out of us.
Most of you would probably be surprised to know that I too grew up in a suburb. My parents, believing in the immigrant (Canadian) dream bought a beautiful, newly constructed home in Toronto that was part of a medium sized subdivision. At that time, we saw the house as being an original, though still more similar to its neighbors than the sixties brick split-level we had just vacated across the street, with its shag carpeting and wood paneled interior. My parents gained some modicum of control over their lives by changing all the floors to hardwood, choosing an original Italian tile and even mixing up the room layout a bit. Today, when I drive through Toronto’s suburbs and exurbs, I’m struck by how original our tract home looks in comparison, and how much of a premium people will pay to live in our little, early subdivision over those just a few miles further up the street.
For my own part, I realized that as soon as I was old enough to leave the comfortable sameness of my suburban upbringing that I had to. And, not strangely, my closest friends reacted the same way, getting as far away from that energy as possible. Today, I describe driving into any one of those neighborhoods as my own personal vision of hell – and I have no desire to live there whatsoever. But I’m sure that Freud or any competent psychologist would have a field day if I did live there and hated it quite as much as I do. It would be unequivocally self-loathing. Unless, as Freud might posit, it had something to do with my mother.
And, like a mother, the current hyperactive casual games industry gives us comfort. It writes us big checks, lets us experiment with simple yet innovative ideas and, even when we make a mistake, it offers us the chance to try, try and try again. But, like all good family relationships, some of us resent that comfort, and we seek to establish our independence – either by being bad or good. But, unlike my mom, the market won’t punish with extra homework or a wooden spoon – it will simply stop writing checks. And when it does, true cloners and sycophants may find it hard to make those suburban mortgage payments.