Why Consoles Didn’t Die

Yeah I was wrong. But hey, so were a lot of people. The PS4 barrels ahead with the fastest selling console ever. Microsoft is making a lot of similar but highly qualified statements about the XBOX One which leads me to believe it’s lagging behind significantly. Still, the recent European price cut and upcoming tent pole releases may perk things up.

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Regardless, most console doom predictions haven’t come true. This is because Microsoft, and primarily Sony, changed their business models in response to the looming threat from mobile and tablets. If consoles kept going the direction they were in 2008, we would see a totally different story.

What changed?

No more loss leaders.

Consoles historically launched as high-end hardware sold at a loss–but still quite expensive. This peaked last generation with the ‘aspirational’ PS3 debuting at nearly $600 in 2006. The idea behind this business model was that they’d make it up in software sales and eventually cost reduce the hardware.

This time, Sony took a page out of Nintendo’s book and built lower cost hardware that can at least be sold close to breakeven at launch. The downside being that the tech specs are somewhat mundane. Price sensitivity wins over performance.

Dropping the gates.

The tightly gated ecosystem that dominated consoles for decades would have been absolutely disastrous if left to stand. Sony has largely obliterated their gate and gone for a more authoritarian version of Apple’s curated model. Surely the most significant evidence of mobile’s influence on console to date. Microsoft has also adopted this posture with their ID program. The indie revolution is heavily influencing games, and allowing this movement to continue on consoles is a smart move. Especially when fewer and fewer studios can execute at a AAA level.

Users didn’t move.

A lot of analysts mistook stagnant console numbers for lagging demand. It turns out, there really was just nothing else to buy. Despite hype about core games on mobile–that transition has yet to happen. Most titles console players would recognize as ‘core’ games have utterly failed to gain traction on tablets. Core gamers want core games exclusively on console or desktop while reserving mobile for a completely different experience.

Eventually we’ll see a major disruption in how and where games are consumed. It’s going to take longer than one console generation to transform core gamer habits. It also may be too early to tell. After all, we’re only a few months into this generation.

The fact is, the AAA economy isn’t sustainable. Massive layoffs, even while Sony is basking in post-hardware launch success, shows not all is well with the AAA end of the spectrum.

Game Developers: Don’t Compete, Disrupt.

In the old boxed retail model of games, publishers often waited for an “off year” to capture a hit title’s audience. For instance, a publisher would release a competing open world game the year after a Grand Theft Auto installment to monetize GTA fans who are looking for a similar experience. This successful strategy spawned many hit original properties despite its “fast follow” basis.

Today’s hit games such as League of Legends are constantly updated services and thus never have an “off year.” As discussed in a previous post, we’re in a winner-take-all game economy. Top games consume all of the time and money of their players.

It’s exceedingly expensive to go toe-to-toe with a leading game-as-a-service. Not only do you have to compete with the top game’s deluge of content and social network, but you must overcome the switching cost users bear to move to a new game. A player could have thousands of dollars invested in his League of Legends character. Now you want him to start all over on your new, unproven MOBA?

Competition is possible, but only with deep pockets. The only company posing a distant threat to League of Legends is Valve with DOTA2. Not only have they made an excellent game, but are lavishing massive development and marketing budgets to compete with the frontrunner.

What can you do if you’re not among the most financially successful developers in the world? Don’t compete, disrupt.

READ THIS BOOK.

As described in my bible, Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma, disruptive innovation typically arrives in a form that’s lower quality than the established player, but cheaper or more convenient to use for a low-end customer.

This low end customer is not as profitable, and thus not very interesting to big companies. The disruptive product’s quality improves steadily. By the time the threat is noticed by the incumbent, it’s too late. The disruptive competitor is attracting the old guard’s high-end customers.

A modern example might be what the tablet did to the netbook and is now apparently doing to notebooks.

How does one develop a game disruptive to the established players? Is it even possible to do so? After all, there are flaws when you apply the low-end disruption theory to consumer products. Let’s look at few vectors of disruption and how they may work in games.

Cost

World of Warcraft’s plunging subscriber numbers may be showing that Blizzard has fallen victim to Innovator’s Dilemma in the form of free2play competition.

F2p originally meant lower quality, lower commitment, and (supposedly) cheaper-to-play MMOs. Now, all major releases from Western companies inevitably become f2p. The quality bar has risen to where it’s possible to match or surpass the incumbent combined with a dramatically different business model.

Convenience

How about making a game more convenient to access? One way developers are trying is by bringing established PC f2p genres to mobile. The idea is that by making a MOBA simple to play on a tablet, it’s possible to capture a segment of the desktop customer. This ignores the fact that tablet-owning hardcore LoL players are still looking for an experience uniquely crafted for mobile–Not simply a long-session MOBA plopped into an iPad.

The problem when applying business model advice to the games industry is that most are based around solving a problem. The only problem games (and entertainment in general) may solve is boredom. When you aren’t solving a problem or “pain point”, you are selling based on other emotional qualities such a branding or user experience.

Lessons can be applied–but perhaps not literally. Which is fine. Slavishly following any business model or development methodology ends up in the creation of a process cult.

2012 Wrap-Up

It’s that time of year again–the obligatory year-end wrap up post. I figure I’d do some bullet points about stuff that happened that may or may not have been foretold by this here blog…along with some other random musings.

Canaries in the Coal Mine

Two new consoles were launched this year–one handheld and the other is the first traditional console release since the mobile disruption. Fortunes are looking bleak for both. The Vita had 3 quarters of dismal sales figures leaving Sony with junk bond status and totally mystified as to why nobody is supporting the last dinosaur at a mammal convention. Nintendo has been spinning the Wii U launch figures, but it’s too early to tell.

Hey, it’s not all bad. ZombiU was a close call for my game of the year pick! I also really like the Vita–there have been some games of astounding quality on it. Too bad nobody is there to play them.

Social Gambling Supernovas

Social games such as FarmVille and its ilk are frequently criticized as nothing more than compulsion-driven skinner boxes. So, it’s no surprise that in an increasingly desperate quest for hockey sticks, 2012 was the year all subtlety was dropped and social gaming companies built straight up slot machines for mobile and social platforms…as previously predicted by this blog.

Social gambling ARPUs are through the roof, but investors are still waiting for the legal structure to change for real-money-gambling to thrive online. Zynga has been loudly proclaiming their interest in the sector since before their disastrous IPO–perhaps because they realize they are far better at optimizing pure compulsion loops than building fun-based games.

Crowdfunding Explodes

By the end of 2012 famous game developers and studios successfully used Kickstarter to fund large independent projects. Sparked by Double Fine’s wildly popular campaign, the frenzy hit its peak with Chris Roberts’ $6.2 million haul for Star Citizen. Some of this may be due to a crowdfunding bubble that may burst when high profile games show up late, or not at all.

The real story here is that investors have largely abandoned the game sector as ZNGA’s IPO left a blast crater that scattered the herd…as previously predicted by this blog. For many, crowdfunding is the only remaining source of financing. What are you going to do–go back to a publisher?

2013?

Next year will be fascinating as we watch Sony and/or Microsoft (and perhaps others) defend against disruption with the introduction of new consoles. Disruption is a force of nature. Fighting it is like fighting earthquakes.

Also, production values on mobile will continue to rise and tablets will continue their breakout as a unique platform…as previously predicted by this blog.

Oh and while we’re at it…

* Best Album: good kid, m.A.A.d. city / Kendrick Lamar
* Best Game: Dragon’s Dogma / Capcom

The Best and Worst Gaming Startup Cities

San Francisco and the Bay Area seems to be the first thing people think of when the word “start-up” is uttered. However, there are successful startups everywhere. In the case of games, it seems a few cities have all the attention for good reason.

THE BEST

Seattle is the secret headquarters of the video game industry. It’s a place where console dinosaurs roam the earth casting a shadow over scrappy little start-up mammals scurrying beneath their feet. Giants of the previous generation are making bold new moves in secret. Not to mention Valve–a company who has consistently been able to capture and monetize disruption–has created some of the greatest games of all time and makes enough dough from Steam to invest in off the wall projects that will usher in another era of money hats for Gabe and his cohorts. Low taxes and living costs in addition to the developer culture of the area make the Pacific Northwest somewhat ideal.

USED TO BE THE BEST

The San Francisco games revolution may be over, but that just means imploding social giants are creating an exodus of talent that will form the next disruptive startups. That is, if they rein in the MBAs from designing games. Real estate prices and intense hiring competition make it tough to staff up a startup, but SF is one of the few places where investors inherently get the f2p gaming business model. Raising money and selling out in this town is still easier than anywhere else on the planet. Although, with Zynga stock well under $3, investment activity in games has started to shrink.

THE WORST

Los Angeles was the capital of the video game industry during the console heyday. When I first moved here in 1997, the boom was just beginning. The result of 15+ years of multi-million sellers has generated a culture of game developers accustomed to AAA cubicle veal pens despite the all-too-common “crunch & dump” cycle of big budget game development and rarely fulfilled dreams of profit-sharing. The entrepreneurial spirit seems vacant in most Los Angeles game developers, despite the raging success of Riot and Benchmark Capital’s winning string of investments. When one of the top Los Angeles start-ups is a shoe rental company, you know there’s a lot of wasted synapses out here.

If there’s anything Indie Game: The Movie showed, it’s that the next big success can come from anywhere. Still, there’s no substitute for face to face communication amongst a core team. This requires a city where like-minded developers can meet and collaborate. Where you choose to set up shop may have profound consequences for your game.