Friday, August 15, 2008

Braid: Battle for Independents Edition


I remember sitting at a DICE conference listening to Seamus Blackley talk about the launch of CEG. The new group was going to change the game industry by making great games. It seemed the market had changed to be marketing driven and Seamus was confident that if he built it, people would come. One portion in particular stood out. His strategy, he explained, was to get the fans to pull the games in. If the press saw the games were great, and the fans demanded them in the forums, EB, Gamestop (they were separate then) and Wal-Mart would certainly stock them and put them in the end caps. Having just left my position at a publisher I couldn't help believing Seamus was overly idealistic, delusional, ignorant or a combination of the three. The friction in the information flow and market inequities were too great for consumer demand to have any impact on end caps. Braid shows Live to be a much more egalitarian market.

Seamus assumed perfect information in the market. He may also have assumed the demo market which gave rise to id's success was still alive and well. The reality is much different. Every inch of promotional space in a Gamestop - including the words out of the counter guy's mouth - is for sale. Publishers buy store windows, end caps, shelf facings, standee placement, space behind the counter, demo space, video screens and phone answers. These purchases have a direct correlation to store orders. It only makes sense. If something is prominently displayed around the store, people are more likely to buy it. Quality of title plays a more significant role with smaller publisher than larger publishers with strong pipelines, but consumer demand is only a distant blip on a store buyer's radar. By the time consumers start to buzz, buying decisions are already made and planograms drawn. When it comes to quality, store buyers will look at title demos and if the demo and marketing support are strong, they are likely to buy more. Publishers with strong pipelines may get strong buy in of weaker title based on Market Development Fund (MDF) commitments, mainstream marketing commitments, and implied short shipment of strong titles. "Do you want all those Guitar Hero 17s you ordered?"

It seemed like the pipeline and MDF issues would carry over to direct distribution as the market traded the Gamestop bottleneck for the Live/PSN bottleneck. The retailer may not move physical goods, but they were still determining positioning and promotion. Conventional wisdom dictates the markets on Live, PSN and PC will be very crowded and attention will be gained only through exploitation of franchise properties and brand names. Conventional wisdom could be wrong and the free market may prevail.

A while ago I was speaking to some folks from K2. They were talking about the release of War Rock, one of the lesser selling titles, but the numbers were eye opening. In my experience, on line sales were great, if you could get them, but they were always incremental. If you really wanted to sell, you needed a physical sku in the store. The stores were where people stood with money in their hand, and if you weren't there, you missed the sale. Expansion of broadband changed the rules. At the time of our discussion, War Rock had sold only about 17,000 units at retail in the US, but there were 3 million free downloads with over 10 percent conversion to payment. This was exactly the reverse of anything I had seen from US publisher's release of a front line title. Numbers weren't being flipped like that on Steam or Gametap. In the past few weeks, broadband connections, coupled with social networks led to the same consumer empowered response to critical darling, cum-breakout seller, Braid.

Jonathan Blow started to talking about the game he was building to gamers. The gamers thought it was cool and started talking about it amongst their friends. The buzz started to grow, reviewers started to review, the game was released without significant marketing, and it sold a lot. There was no Marvel or Capcom license on top of it, it was not launched in the middle of an Orange Box, it just went out on its own, and sold. Some may say 55,000 units is an example of a long tail product, but they are missing the point. The 55,000 unit were only the first week, and more importantly, put the game into profit very soon after launch, and perhaps launching a self-supported game career for it's creator. It also reflects a significant departure when critical and gamer darlings like Psychonauts were still born at retail unless they were supported by a publisher with deep pockets.

I am not saying our future is roses, kitties and bunnies, but quality and community may become a more significant factor in sales volume. Games like Braid, Geometry Wars, Portal, classic arcade downloads, and the PS2 games my son continues to feed into the PS3, show consumers favor the fun over the pretty. Expensive graphics are neat for the tent poles, but they are not imperative for repeat game play. Historically the issue was telling consumers where the fun was in a retail environment driven by marketing dollars. Let's hope Braid is the first example of the power of good games and on line community. More quality in the independent space may eventually raise the quality bar across the medium. The independents are not going to take over the world, and they will not at all diminish the position of the tentpole front line games, but maybe in a direct download world, games like Braid have just as good a chance as the latest sequel to Shitman and Toiletpaper boy.

P.S. In case you are wondering about the picture. . . Billy Tucci wrote about the battle of independent comic book creators in a market dominated by DC and Marvel in his historic Cyblade/Shi crossover. In real life, after his character Shi was rejected by DC and Marvel, Billy and his Mom borrowed enough money to launch the book independently. It went on to sell tens of millions of dollars in books and merchandise and at one time the comics held 3 of 10 positions Wizard's most wanted comics.




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