Games * Design * Art * Culture
Tuesday, February 27, 2007Riccitiello to Replace Probst
So, news today that positive move for EA, and Mike Antonucci says " posted by Greg at Manifesto Games is, of course, that with the spread of broadband, it's increasingly feasible to distribute games online--even multi-hundred megabyte games, like those that predominate in the industry today.
We view that as exciting, becuase the constrictions of the conventional retail market have pushed the industry toward a "best-sellers only" mentality and higher and higher budgets--with the unfortunate result of a virtual end to the creativity and innovation that has been gaming's bellwether since its inception. We view moving online as an end-run around the business constraints that have stifled innovation--and an opportunity to recreate the wild openness and "anything goes" mentality of the game industry's early days.
That's the positive vision--but let's look at a potential nightmare scenario for the future of digital distribution--a scenario that is very possible, and has some important supporting forces behind it.
The first moves to digital distribution for console games has begun, with Xbox Live Arena and Nintendo Virtual Console. At present, these channels are limited to smaller, less commercial product, with "real" games for Xbox 360 and Wii distributed in the conventional channel--in packages at retail. But it's easy to imagine that, five years from now, the console manufacturers could move to selling most games primarily online.
There's a lot of incentive for them to do so, after all; why cut the retailers in for a piece of the pie when you can keep their share yourself? And why undergo the expense of manufacturing goods and warehousing and shipping, when broadband delivery is so cheap? There are problems to be overcome, to be sure--even at cable modem speeds, a 1 gig game still takes a long time to download, but you can imagine Steam-like functionality on the console side, with Firefly-like taste-matching software to make predictions about what games individual consumers are going to want to buy next, with the code for those games downloaded in background, so that most of the time when a consumer goes to purchase, the game is already on the drive.
What's wrong with that?
Well, at present, we have a complex ecosystem of companies in the game industry: retailers, publishers, console manufacturers, developers. All have some clout. The publishers may depend on the manufacturers' approval to get their games to market, but the manufacturers also know they need support from the publishers to ensure that there are enough good games for their platform to make it a success. In other words, the publishers, manufacturers, and retailers jockey with each other for a degree of control, and that kind of contention is what makes for a reasonably free and open market (if not as free and open as I would like).
What we're talking about, in essence, is vastly increasing the negotiating leverage of the console manufacturers--in the first instance at the expense of the retailers (by eliminating them), and in the second instance at the expense of publishers. If publishers depend on manufacturers not only for dev kits and product approval, but also for access to the only path to market for a particular console--their negotiating leverage is vastly diminished.
Even today, the manufacturers are the real winners in the game industry. Yes, independent publishers like EA do very nicely, but remember that Playstation is basically what keeps the whole of Sony afloat, Sega cratered with the failure of Dreamcast, DS and GameCube and Wii make Nintendo vastly larger than it would be if it were just a publisher, and even if Microsoft has yet to see big returns on Xbox, if they can supplant Sony as the largest manufacturer, they will, in spades.
The manufacturers are the big winners not because they make a lot of money off consoles themselves--typically, they lose money on each unit sold, at least toward the beginning of a new console cycle. (Moore's Law does its work over time, so that by the end, they are making money on hardware.) They make their money off the platform royalty--typically $7 for every game manufactured by anyone anywhere for their devices. That royalty has come down over time, because of competition; back in the day, Nintendo hid the "royalty," instead insisting on being the sole manufacturer of carts for NES and SNES and charging much more than the actual manufacturing cost, but they were earning more like $12 on every game made.
If the manufacturers control distribution to their devices, they don't have to be satisfied with $7. They can take basically whatever cut they like. Oh, they still have to ensure that publishers can make money, sometimes--but they can ensure that they themselves earn the lion's share of whatever profits a title generates.
In other words, it's possible that digital distribution, rather than freeing us from the problems of retail, will instead concentrate power even more heavily in the industry--concentrating it into the hands of the manufacturers. While this would be good for them, its a prospect that both developers and publishers should be scared about--and an outcome that could only serve to continue the field's descent into mediocrity and imitation.
Internet geeks are likely to respond: "Closed systems never win." And that's been true on the net, at least; the commercial online services are dead, and 'mashups' and Ajax and the rest, the whole construct of Web 2.0, is based on the idea of open APIs and allowing anyone to integrate at no cost. But that experience doesn't necessarily say anything about how the game market will evolve. In the game industry, the closest thing we have to an "open system" is (paradoxically) Windows; you don't need Microsoft's approval, or to pay them a dime, to code a game for PCs. Yet over the last seven years, sales of PC games have declined by half, even as the overall game market has continued to soar. In the game industry, at least, recent experience has been the closed systems do win.
And if you're paranoid, you may even wonder how "open" Windows will continue to be. Microsoft has vaunted Vista's game utility, and it's true that big games with ESRB ratings work pretty well under Vista (though apparently a nightmare for casual and indie developers.
In other words, perhaps it's fair to ask whether Microsoft is pushing to turn Windows into a more console-like environment (in the name of making things easier for consumers, of course), whether "Games for Windows" eventually becomes something very much akin to the authorization process for console games--with similar costs attached for publishers--and with independent games crushed by corporate interests.
Of course, maybe Linux comes to our rescue, and becomes the predominant desktop OS. But there's a chicken-and-egg problem there. The things that people do most with computers--office applications, email, web browsing, IM--you can now do equally well on a Linux box, it's true. The one thing that keeps many geeks from moving to Linux is the lack of good games on the platform, and perhaps if Linux games started appearing in bigger numbers, that would be a tipping point for desktop Linux. But given the small installed base of desktop Linux users, there's little incentive at present for people to do games for Linux. Catch-22.
Now, I don't actually believe this; the Windows scenario here strikes me as unlikely. The problems with Vista more likely derive from confusion at Microsoft than from some evil, nefarious plan. And so far, at least, Microsoft and Nintendo are offering pretty attractive revenue splits for downloaded games. But the thought of console distribution becoming a "walled garden" controlled by the manufacturer has to be a scary one for everyone in the industry.
It will be interesting to see how things play out.
posted by Greg at The Americans: The Democratic Experience, Daniel J. Boorstin
So it's been Previous winners include the Harmonix crew (for Guitar Hero), Wadjet Eye Games, creator of The Shivah, was nominated for the Game Developer's Choice Award in the "Best New Studio" category--which is both heart-warming and amazing since the "studio" is Dave Gilbert's apartment.
posted by Greg at Manifesto Games 40% of the sale of my game?" 60% of the retail dollar is pretty attractive by comparison to what most portals take, but it's a fair question. So I thought I'd run through some scenarios, to give a sense of what options are out there, and what the economics look like.
Let's take the single most developer-favorable option: You sell off your own website. You probably contract with another party (e.g., RegNow) to handle DRM and handle payments (credit card fees, Paypal, etc). The deals of these third parties vary, but Plimus takes 10% of any sale over $9, which makes for an easy calculation. I'm going to assuming going forward that we're talking about a game that retails for $20, with an unlockable installer that is 20MB in size--typical for a casual game (though many of the games we offer have much larger installers).
Here's what it looks like if you sell off your own site, using Plimus:
$20 = cost to consumer
-$2 = 10% charge by Plimus or an equivalent service
=$18 to you
90% developer share
Go for it; this is the best deal you can get, and the more you can sell this way, the better. Upload your unlockable demo to Shareware.com and Yahoo! Games and Reflexive and small ones like, well, us.
And let's start with what I think is the most favorable deal on offer--ours. We pay 60% to the developer, with no hidden chargebacks--we don't deduct credit card fees, DRM fees, affiliate fees, nothing. It's a simple calculation:
$20 = cost to consumer
-$8 -- 40% to Manifesto
=$12 to developer
60% developer share
The only operation I know of that offers a more favorable developer split is XBLA (I've heard up to 75% to the developer), and if you can make a deal with them, go for that, certainly. More typical is 40% to the developer, and I've heard deals as low aso 20% to the developer (big portal, small developer). But let's take 40% as representative.
In most cases, DRM, credit card fees, and bandwidth charges are taken off the top before the split. Credit card fees can vary, but figure about 3% of the sale goes to that; DRM fees are normally around 25 cents. Let's assume that there's a conversion rate of 1.2% (that is, 1.2% of the people who download the demo actually buy the game--this is, from what I've heard, typical for casual games--we do better, but we also don't charge for bandwidth). Thus, 83 users, or so, have to download a game for each purchase. At 20MB per installer, that's 1660kB, or ~1.62GB. Let's say the portal can get bandwidth for 20 cents per GB (which is low, but what we pay for hosting on Amazon S3). That's a charge of 32 cents--so bandwidth, credit card, and DRM, altogether, come to $1.47. The calculation now looks like this:
$20 = cost to consumer
-$1.47 = bandwidth, DRM, credit card
=$18.53 = before split
-$11.12 = 60% to portal
=$7.41 to developer
37% = developer share
However, in some cases, there's another finger in the pie: some operations (like Trymedia) whitelabel their game offerings to ISPs and other portals (Gamestop's online sales offering is actually a whitelabel Trymedia offering). Reflexive offers 40% to affiliates (and we sell some games as a Reflexive affiliate); I don't know what Trymedia's deal with its whitelabel partners is, but I assume it's in the same range. This has both good points and bad points for their developers--the affiliate or portal's share comes off the top, so that the developer is going to earn less money on the sale, but on the other hand, affiliates and whitelabel partners expose the game to a lot of traffic that might not otherwise encounter it, so your potential audience is larger. But just to run the numbers:
$20 = cost to consumer
-$8 = 40% to affiliate/whitelabel partner
-$1.47 = DRM, credit card fees, bandwidth
-$6.32 = 60% to primary partner
=$4.21 to developer
21% developer share
Update: In comments, Russell Carroll notes that Reflexive's affiliate payment is not taken from the developer share, so actually their deal, even when payment is made through an affiliate, is actually closer to the previous calculation (i.e., 37% to developer).
Even here, we're still talking about what I'd consider a fairly attractive scenario for most developers. Let's assume a worst-case scenario. Let's say you're a developer that has gone to a casual game publisher like Playfirst for funding, and they're paying you a 30% royalty--on net dollars received. And let's say the game is being sold on an affilite or whitelabel relationship through an intermediary like Reflexive or Trymedia--that is, there are 4 fingers in the pie: the actual affiliate/ISP/portal that makes the sale; the intermediary; the publisher; and, way downstream, you. Here's what you're looking at:
$20 = cost to consumer
-$8 = 40% to affiliate/whitelabel partner
=$12 to intermediary
-$1.47 = DRM, credit card fees, bandwidth
-$6.32 = 60% retained by intermediary
=$4.21 = to publisher
-$2.95 = 70% retained by publisher
=$1.26 to developer
6.3% to developer
Of course, in this scenario, the $1.26 payable to the developer is recoupable against development funding, so you probably don't actually see the money until after the game has sold some tens or hundreds of thousands of units.
So what are the lessons developers should learn from this?
1. If you can retain the right to sell off your own site, do, obviously. Even if your traffic is low, you keep 90% of the revenues, and that's gravy.
2. Sure, you should deal with us. Our traffic isn't that huge, either, but it's the single best deal you'll get, over than selling off your own site (or unless you can make a deal with XBLA--and good luck, they're kind of overloaded with submissions, and in any event there's a development cost in doing an Xbox version).
3. If you can reach any of the major portals, it's probably worth doing a deal, if you can do it directly; Yahoo! and RealArcade and BigFish and the like get a lot of traffic, and even though they take a big chunk, the exposure is worth it. But in most cases, they're less eager to work with individual developers, because they have limited business development bandwidth, and prefer to deal with larger partners. Still, if you can do it, do.
4. Operations like Reflexive and Trymedia can also offer you a lot of exposure, but because there is often (or with Trymedia, usually) yet another finger in the pie--the affiliate/ISP/portal/whathave you--the numbers start to look less attractive.
5. Deal with a publisher only if there is really no other choice.
posted by Greg at Raph and whitepaper from Sony Online Entertainment about item trading on Station Exchange.
Background for those who haven't been following it: Sony set up some (but not all EQ II) servers to allow legal item and plat sales, via a trading system they set up. In a sense, in the face of the controversy over real-money trades (RMT), they're trying to eat their cake and have it too: get a piece of the revenue resulting from RMT, while still allowing people who hate the idea of people buying their way to the top of the game to continue to play on non-RMT servers.
The whitepaper doesn't try to figure out how much RMT has moved from eBay or other markets to Station Exchange, which would be interesting to know--but my guess is "virtually all of it", with remaining off-Exchange trades mainly for items and objects on the non-RMT servers (in violation of the terms of service, of course). The reason is straightforward; in most auction markets, eBay wins as the source of the widest possible audience of bidders, but in RMT trades, Sony wins, because they (unlike eBay) can enforce trades, since they control the game. Consequently, bidders and sellers have much higher protection against fraud or bad faith.
Some have expressed surprise at the relatively low revenues earned by Station Exchange ($300,000)--this surprises me not at all. I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation years ago, and came to the conclusion that building a system to allow and enforce RMT was a marginal proposition at best, which this bears out. More important is that, per Sony, 40% of customer complaints are related to RMT trades--remember that if you buy on eBay, you're reliant on the counterparty to show up in-game and mail you the goods or meet you in game to transfer them. A real disconnect, which, again, in-game enforcement by Sony can prevent. The volume of customer complaints has apparently fallen--Raph estimates it at
Why? Well, the major ongoing costs of MMOs derive from four things: operating the data center, paying for bandwidth, live team development (that is, creating new content for game updates), and customer support. Three of these four (everything except live team development) scale directly with usage--as the customer base grows, you need more bandwidth, more servers, and more customer support. Only live team development is fixed (more or less), because the same updates can be propagated across all servers. Obviously, you set up your cost structure so that the monthly fee pays your direct costs with room for margin, but anything you can do to directly reduce the three costs that scale with usage propagates right down to the bottom line.
In other words, Sony's real win here is in reducing its customer support costs--and if Raph's estimate is right, it's a big win indeed.
posted by Greg at we have a bunch, some quite nice. Perhaps we'd be better off if we called them "games like Geometry Wars"--which is only partially correct, of course, but the surprise success of Geometry Wars on Xbox Live has revived interest in the genre, to a degree.
The one that's done the best for us is R-type"-ish gameplay. Bullet Candy, a Warblade may be what you're looking for--Xenoblast, from French developer Parallax Factory.
Then again, if something more like Defender appeals, it's hard to do better than Game Tunnel.
Flatspace II, which, like Starscape layers an entirely different game onto shmup-like combat--in Flatspace's case, an graphic adventures, turn-based strategy--but we're proud of our shmup catalog, and look forward to introducing other cool shmups in future.
posted by Greg at a statment from DVD Empire lambasting the game industry for screwing retailers, in explanation for why they (primarily a movie retailer) are going to stop selling games.
The crux of the argument is:
They have a point here, although their margin is smaller than most--typically, retailers pay more like 80% of the retail price. DVD Empire says they're a "small" retailer of games, and purchase through a distributor (which takes a cut), which probably explains the discrepancy.
And I agree that the wholesaler/retail discount structure of the video game industry is about the strangest of any industry I've worked in. Here are some comparisons:
Book publishing: Retail discount is typically around 50%, although it can rise as high as 60% for non-trade outlets buying in large volume.
Hobby game industry: Standard terms are called "50 10 and 5", meaning a 50% discount off the top; an additional 10% off the remainder for purchasing in bulk; and an additional 5% for paying within 30 days, for a net discount of 57.5%.
Toy industry: There's no concept of a standard retail price--toy outlets don't like to be told what to charge. Instead, the manufacturer sells at a fixed price, and the toy store adds whatever they want onto this. (Which is why, incidentally, you shouldn't believe a toy store when it claims that something is X% off; it's X% off some notional price that they might have charged, or that they estimate some other toy store somewhere might be charging.)
In other words, the retailer's margin in the game industry is drastically lower than in most.
How do retailers survive? In two ways. First, retailers often--indeed, usually--make more money off what's called "Market Development Funds" (MDF) than they do off the actual retail sale. And what is MDF?
It's what Dan Schirlis calls channel bribery. Publishers pay for shelf-placement. They pay for front-of-store or cash-register displays. They pay to have posters or other promotional crap in the store. They pay to have staff wear t-shirts promoing a particular item. In general, when you walk into a GameStop, it isn't the manager who decided to arrange things as you see them--everything in there is positioned by negotiation with the publishers, and everything has been paid for.
Now, the same thing happens in other industries--supermarkets, in particular, are notorious for shelf-placement fees, and the front of store display you see at Borders is also paid for--but in most industries, MDF is small by comparison to net revenues received via actual sales.
DVD Empire blames "publisher greed," and there's some truth to that; essentially, as retailers gained clout, they negotiated MDFs as a way of redressing the small net margins publishers were offering. It works, sort of, but there are several unfortunate impacts.
Small Retailers Are Screwed
Why? Because they're too small to be able to negotiate an MDF deal with the publisher. In fact, they're too small for the publisher to be willing to sell direct either, so they wind up dealing with a wholesaler, who naturally takes a cut. Seen many mom-and-pop videogame stores recently? Now you know why--and why, also, the ones that remain sell mainly used merchandise.
But DVD Empire's claim that retailers as a class are screwed is wrong--Gamestop and Wal-Mart do just fine with games. It's non-chain retailers who get screwed.
Retailers Push Used Games
Publishers, and many developers, hate the fact that Gamestop pushes used games so heavily--and resent the sales they feel they're losing as a result. In fact, there's been a lot of talk over the years about how to reduce used game sales, or even find some technical way to make them impossible.
But their own discount structure push retailers toward used game sales, because the margins on them are so much higher--they typically buy a game for half or less of what they sell it for. That's why the clerk at Gamestop will always offer you a used version of a game when you take the new one to the counter, if they have a used copy in stock; you'll save a little money, and they'll make a lot more. Notice that Borders doesn't sell used books, Virgin doesn't sell used CDs, and while Blockbuster may sell its rental movies when they get old, they don't purchase used DVDs and resell them.
In those markets, it's not worth their while; if they did bother with used product, the margins would be no better than for new product, and dealing with thousands of people bringing things in to sell back and tracking all this inventory would be a nightmare. It's easier just to sell new product.
There are markets in used books, CDs, and movies, of course, but they're marginal, mostly handled by small mom-and-pop outlets.
If the game industry wants to reduce the impact of used games, there's an obvious and simple way to do it: Change the retail discount structure.
Small Publishers Get Screwed
Why? Because they don't have megabucks to throw around on MDF. In book publishing, say, a small publisher like Four Walls Eight Windows might well be able to persuade the buyer from Barnes & Noble that a new book they're publishing is a potential best-seller, and get them to give it a little promotional push--B&N will benefit if it does indeed sell, because they make money by selling books, not by selling shelf space.
In game publishing, by contrast, the retail buyers have no incentive to make similar decisions; since their product is shelf space, the main thing they care about is selling that, and EA has bigger pockets than, say, Strategy First. Might a new game from Strategy First be a potential best-seller? It might--but unless they can scrounge up enough money to pay substantail MDF, it's pretty likely to get lost in the store.
It Reinforces the Industry's Hit-Driven Mentality
In every other industry, there's such a thing as a sleeper hit--a product that doesn't receive a lot of marketing attention at first but that, through word of mouth and good reviews, starts generating some sales velocity and ultimately--months, sometimes even years later--becomes a best-seller.
Additionally, other entertainment media try to keep older classic product around--it doesn't sell at the same level, but it's a service to customers: the browsers at the science fiction shelf like seeing classic works there, and a music fan who likes a new album will often decide to pick up a previous one from the same artist. So things stay on the shelves longer, and there's at least the possibility of letting word of mouth do its work.
This doesn't happen in games. In fact, it can't happen in games, because the retailers are selling shelf space, and if a game isn't acheiving velocity in the first few weeks after release, it needs to be removed to make room for the next title. As a result, the sales window for the game industry is vastly smaller than in most others: two weeks typically. Even mass-market paperbacks typically get six.
So yes, game retail is kind of screwed up. But it also works for the largest players on both sides of the equation--the chains, and the larger publishers. These kinds of business practices are very hard to change once established; indeed, because anti-trust laws prohibit collusion, the only real way they can be changed is for a dominant player to change them. EA might be able to do it, or Gamestop--but of course, both do perfectly fine off the way things work today. So it's not likely to change.
About the only thing that might change things fundamentally, really, is some fundamental disruption--like, say, a move to distribution by direct download. But of course exactly how that will play out is unclear, and there are no guarantees that the ultimate result will be better.
posted by Greg at MY SITE - PARANOIA