Welcome to the Slaughterhouse: What the new Xbox Dashboard means to developers

At Develop in 2010, Sean Murray from Hello Games described XBLA as a “kind of a slaughterhouse for smaller developers” (his reservations have clearly been overcome as Joe Danger will soon be published by Microsoft Studios). Murray pointed to PSN as a more egalitarian channel for those looking to self publish. Murray isnt alone in noticing the role the dashboard plays in securing the success of download titles on Xbox Live. Before we demonize, we need to understand what role the dashboard plays and the pivotal role of UI.

Xbox Live has always had a fundamental problem. Text Input.

Microsoft has chosen to avoid the input issue by enabling voice search. It works, but doesn’t overcome the primary issue for developers – The fundamental importance of discovery. Potential customers can only search for something they are already aware of, and whilst it makes it easier it is a thousand miles away from a mechanic such as Amazon recommends, or Stumbleupon, which are both highly effective as driving discovery (PSN already utilises this feature).

Controller based input of text is arduous. The solutions are simple (keypad or USB keyboard), but the barrier to discovery (however slight) remained significant. This led to a pervasive influence of the dashboard. This is common to all digital store fronts as iTunes and Steam both have a huge bearing the success of promoted titles. The AppStore and Android marketplace further amplify the problem due to lack  screen real estate. The issue therefore is the consumer, most are passive and  are happy with what is deemed to be ‘preferable’ – ‘The Editors Choice’.  Within a walled garden (as all these storefronts are), promoted content is chosen by the platform holder, based upon potential of commercial  success, platform alignment and fit within the current portfolio. In the case where platform holders are also content creators, the support of Third Party content also has to align with support for First Party titles.

The final piece of the puzzle is paid advertising. XBLA and PSN differ from iTunes and Steam in that they accept advertising. Vocal critics have been vociferous in damming the new Xbox Dashboard as being driven by advertising. These criticisms are a little late in the day, as the previous dashboard was built around advertising, the fundamental difference is the advertising is now more persistent, every slot is currently occupied and clearly labelled. As a Gold subscriber it feels ironic that consumers pay to remove ads from services like Spotify, yet they remain on Xbox Live. The argument would be that the consumer is paying for a subscription service, whereas Spotify is an ad-supported service. That’s a point for another post.

Content creators therefore have a mountain to climb ahead of getting the content live on the service. Awareness. Achievement of supply chain objectives isn’t enough. The chances of success are supported by the few titles that confound sales expectations.

The predefined release schedules of XBLA (usually two titles a week as part of a managed portfolio) provide a focus for consumers, but also create a meat grinder that provides a short window (that is actually reflective of consumers attention spans). XBLA’s pre-requisite for trials for every title, also foster and support a ‘demo culture’ where 90% of consumers are only playing trial versions. This strengthens the platform as it provides a pipeline of free content, and adds value to the platform. This creates a robust consumer offering of varied content that is all try before you buy. A belief this is free to play is misguided as it’s a segment of the full product, whereas free to play is ordinarily a fully realised game, where additional features are purchased for a supplementary fee. XBLA is more akin to being given a free piece of chocolate at the supermarket. The final sale is purely related to the experience of the first taste.

Developers, Independent or otherwise must be cogniscent of the role of the platform and the role of the trial experience they are delivering. A second-rate trial is usually indicative of the quality of the final product. Xbox Live does not owe developers a living, but similarly it owes a huge debt to the content creators who keep the platform alive. Without the content Xbox Live is a server architecture and box of components. Developers can question the restrictive nature of the service architecture and the business models it currently supports, but criticising a platform for being competitive (and therefore destructive) is missing the point, Digital distribution empowers content creators to deliver straight to the consumer, albeit through controlled channels. The alternative is the Wild West of P2P. Ask the Music Industry how that worked out for them …

Whilst there will always be a puppet master, its more about learning how to pull the strings rather than cut them.

Plus vs. Minus: Why Game Creators and their Audience HAVE to Change

Which are you?

In 2011 the web has stratified into two groups. Let’s call them the pluses and minuses.

In the simplest terms pluses are the ones who contribute, who add value, who share their voice and the intelligence they are gifted with. The best example I can think of are TED lectures. An egalitarian way to spread knowledge, incredible insight gained over years often decades shared for the common good. Then there are the minuses, the trolls, the off topic forum posters, the racists on YouTube comments, those who lurk and collect information for personal gain. These are the people using the web in a 1.0 way. They take , they don’t add value. The internet has given birth to magpies, who steal,  repeat and ride the coat tails of others. It’s also given birth to intellectual philanthropists. Typified by the actions of Tim Berners Lee.

Children are taught to share,  as we get older that we amass knowledge based on desire for power, supremacy and the upper hand.

This translates directly into game creation,  game players, and gaming habits.

Some games provide an architecture to deride, bully, hate and destroy. Grenade spam, Camping, Spawn Killing and Wall Glitching typify the desire for an unfair advantage. These games are minuses, as are their audiences. One note murder simulators for the masses.

Other games provide an intellectual frame, a platform or a way to add value, to push forward the medium of video games. These are the games created with intelligence and joy as the main drivers, not commerce. These games are not limited to shareware, XBLIG or Game Jams, it’s not about selflessness, it’s about spark. Minecraft is a plus, as is Notch himself. And Notch is at the Three Million sales mark. It’s not about a digital ivory tower and starving artists. Every publisher, content creator and platform holder has the ability to be a plus. Their variance from this norm is the litmus test. Contribution is key. If you don’t contribute, you’re invisible. You’re a minus. History remembers the Pluses. It derides the Minuses.

Concept: Are Digital Storefronts A Barrier To Entry?

Game Over for Digital Stores?

In a recent opinion piece Graham McAllister of Vertical Slice identified a fundamental flaw in the digital revolution. The customer can’t get to the content.

The birth of iTunes, immediately empowered the discovery journey, it launched with a simple and ubiquitous tool at the time. Search. As a PC based client it also had another useful ally. A keyboard. This melded a familiar mechanic with the perfect tool for the job. Searching on iTunes unlocked a world of music a click away. All of the tribulations of the early P2P days wiped out. If you wanted to buy ‘Africa’ by Toto you were seconds away. in 2011, if you’re a consumer looking for Galaga Legions DX, you could be traversing the store, driven by genre clues or an A-Z listing on Xbox LIVE, or tortuously using the search function on PSN. It’s laborious. McAllister is damning and correct in his piece.

He points to a 44 minute transaction. 20 minutes to browse and 24 minutes to purchase. This was a first timer, confused by a counterintuitive platform, with minimal guidance. McAllister extrapolates this to an endemic problem. In some respects he’s right, but he also doesn’t allow for the fact that humans learn over time. Agreed the purchase funnel is far from smooth, but regular transactors overcome this, week in week out. To that point I agree with McAllister, purchase intent should never be fulfilled by overcoming adversity. There is a problem.

McAllister turns to PSN and identifies issues with core mechanics on the platform. Agreed, PSN has challenges to overcome. Neither XBL or PSN are perfect, but McAllister’s comparison to traditional retail, is a fundamentally misleading comparison. The content of XBLA, PSN and Steam overlaps and augments physical goods, it also replaces them. Xbox LIVE Indie Games (as McAllister instructs) don’t exist in retail, neither do most of the XBL and PSN ‘starpowered’ games. The failure of these titles in packaged form, alludes to differing audiences. There’s also a core concept, in the future there will be no need to visit the stores, its likely they wont be there. The traditional retail experience of 2011 is a throwback thirty years, its tired, broken and on the way out.

Like an explosion of Venn Diagrams. It all points back to Chris Anderson. The man who proved ‘niche’ is a viable digital model.

In essence its misguided to think that Grandma and Little Johnny can’t adopt new ideas, but they certainly need help, McAllister and Vertical Slice are clearly perfectly suited to smooth the path. A ready reference to iOS and it frictionless delivery model, infers that the revolution will be digitized (with ease) but ignores DRM, Continual amends to T&Cs, the rampant piracy and jailbreaking on iOS, and that fact that the App Store is drowning in a mire of content reminiscent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The App Store is as much gristle as ‘secret sauce’

Widespread adoption of digital games may have a glass ceiling (but the ‘all digital’ ecosystem of the App Store would refute that claim), and it might be that there is a bifurcated future, of packaged for one audience and digital for the rest. Gifting, Second Hand and Budget ranges might be the things that keep physical goods alive, and as those falter and wither its imperative that Digital Storefronts have adopted the lessons McAllister points out.

Will Games Kill Google+?

Google+

Watching Google+ grow is like watching the faltering steps of a young child, albeit a billion dollar funded child who’s been amped and tuned for 12 months before taking the first steps. Its clear G+ is currently a haven for nerds, geeks, ex-hipsters and creative people super charging a new social idiom. It’s exciting. In three weeks I’ve encountered more interesting people, learnt more and seen more amazing things that I ever did on Facebook. People on G+ are ebullient, throwing around animated GIFs like they are candy at Carnival, there’s a playfulness on G+

However, there are no games. Yet.

In recent days a trend has emerged for polls based on simple options. Baby Steps. Over the coming weeks the collective mass imagination is surely capable of something spectacular. Rumours abound about the evolution of Google+ as a games platform,  the news being greeted with trepidation more than excitement. Seems G+ users aren’t ready to unpack the virtual spades and start virtual farming just yet. The 600 million drones on Facebook, seem less discerning that the 23 million on G+. Facebook = Hive Mind. When the news broke a couple of days ago my stream  flooded with Digital Refuseniks, repelling the idea as if they were the barbarians at the gate. I can see why.

Facebook gaming went from novelty to blight overnight whilst creating social gaming supernovas. Typified by one note gaming experiences that defined and confined their audiences.

Stolen ideas and archaic RPG grind mechanics underpinned an insidious micro-payment model, that gave birth to new kinds of language and metrics. For traditional publishers the lunatics had taken over the asylum, they were broadsided.

It’s common knowledge that Google invested $100 Million in Zynga. Zynga are a creative locust laying bare the ideas and imagination of 30 years of game design that came before them, dumbed down ultra-tutorialised games are more concerned with effective on boarding than rewarding or engaging the player, beyond virtual crop harvests or meaningless virtual currency. It’s a third-rate gaming experience. If you think, I’m being sniffy. Hell yeah. I’ve spent three-quarters of my life watching games start to fulfill their potential. Zynga razes that notion to the ground.

The giants of the social gaming world are circling G+, enticed by lower revenue shares and another channel to augment Facebook. The Chrome App store hints at whats to come, despite being an underperforming vanguard of creative apps for many months, its starting to show worrying signs of future direction:

Angry Birds is the First Horseman of the Gaming Apocalypse and has north of 1 million users on Chrome. Banality infecting another host. The video gaming equivalent of ‘Outbreak’ (minus Dustin Hoffman)

G+ has the chance to revolutionise social gaming and rescue it from a disastrous gestation period on Facebook. G+ has the potential to deliver meaningful, intelligent and profound social gaming experiences powered by limitless community imagination. Imagine G+ introducing experiences comparable to Heavy Rain. Imagine G+ games powered by imagination not commerce. Imagine if G+ could resist the temptation to pollute and dilute under the auspice of ‘entertainment’. I fear not.

The locusts are coming. It’s time to weather the storm.