I have been prompted to write this by a leader column in the Economist and it is something I have alluded to in previous articles. This is something that has been brought about by changes in the technology of production and of distribution. It is something that will increase further with time. And it is something that effects all popular media. Consumers are buying massive block busters and they are buying niche products. But increasingly they aren’t buying anything else.
In video games the blockbuster are titles like Grand Theft Auto, Halo and Modern Warfare. They are primarily on current generation home consoles. And they can be the biggest media launch events on earth, now running up to half a billion dollars at retail in just a few days. They are more than just games now, they are events in popular culture that touch on many millions of people. And whilst these are good games, this is not what makes them succeed. This is easy to prove because there are equally good games that don’t become blockbusters. And the non blockbuster games sell a fraction of the numbers.
So the games that make it to blockbuster status and the ones that don’t, being of similar quality, cost pretty much the same to make. But there is an immense difference in revenues. The non blockbuster may only take a few million dollars whilst the blockbuster will take many hundreds of millions. So it has become a very high risk marketplace where a single game can make you a fortune, or a thumping loss. Which is a major reason why certain publishers are posting thumping losses.
Of course the defining factor of what makes a blockbuster is principally marketing. In this case manipulating mass conciousness to make a new game a global event of some excitement and importance. The Zeitgeist must be caught, or more correctly, manufactured. People must feel left out when they are not a part of it. And this is not about spending money to create this, it is about marketing as a craft.
Away from block busters the market is all about choice. We see this with Amazon, with iTunes and with the various application stores. Whereas the obsolete, high street, retailers are limited in their choice of offering by physical space these online retailers can carry a near infinite range of inventory. If you want a cultural history of Patagonia or financial instrument pricing using C++ there is a book for you at Amazon.
If you publish a niche game you are entering a market with many thousand, maybe tens of thousands of niche games. What defines yours is, quite simply, the niche that it is in. So, having walled yourself into a niche it is impossible to attract massive launch sales. But you do have something that the old high street retail model didn’t offer. You have a long tail. As popularised in the book by Chris Anderson. Effectively your sales could continue for ever.
This requires marketing. Remember that zero marketing results in zero sales. But niche games require a different kind of marketing. You need to target the people in your niche. And you need a substantial and permanent online presence, so that people who could be interested will always find your title.
So if you are involved in the game industry in any way ask yourself the question, am I making a blockbuster or a niche title. And if the answer is neither then you are certainly wasting your time. We have seen this as middle ranking publishers with middle ranking titles flounder in the marketplace when a decade ago they could have made a respectable living.