Latest Blog Posts

by L.B. Jeffries

5 Jan 2009

To kick off the year 2009, I thought we’d start by looking at the business and culture of video games as it stands to develop now. What are the current trends and possible outcomes? How is the medium evolving due to technology and economic demands? There are some new video game genres developing, some new trends with distribution, and the smoke settling from the console war to gauge. To start, I was stuck at a Christmas Party this year where I met a guy who runs a beverage distribution business. He’s the person who supplies vending machines, stores, and gas stations with soda and beer, in other words. We got to talking shop and he told me that the major trend going on in the beverage industry is what he called functionality. People, particularly people in their twenties and younger, no longer purchase by brand. We’re instead attracted to drinks that perform a service like energy, vitamins, or some other perceived benefit. We don’t care if it’s a Budweiser, instead we ask what is it going to do that makes it better than other beers? This coincidentally sums up the exact same direction video games are headed in. Looking back over 2008, function was one of the major advantages the Wii had with its user-friendly games and Wii Fit. The idea of a console and fitness machine proved more than enough to move units for Nintendo. How will this growing concept play out in 2009?

 

The idea of gauging a video game console by its function isn’t anything new, one of the biggest selling points of the PS2 back when it came out was that it played DVDs. Making your console do something besides just play video games adds enormous value in the consumer’s eye. The trick is that you have to improve on that additional function, not just repeat it. A strong example would be the PS3’s Blu-Ray, because even though the technology is clearly of superior quality, it lacks any major improvement in terms of the DVD’s ability to play movies. I hate to use the dreaded comparison to Betamax, but that’s another case of quality not being a decisive advantage. The DVD was an improvement over VHS tapes because you didn’t have to rewind or risk degradation of visual quality from repeated use. DVDs, in turn, suffer from potential scratching and the ever-present issue of not having access to one when you want to watch a program. The Xbox 360, with its inclusion of Netflix and a downloadable movie service, has upped the convenience of the initial functionality of playing movies on your console. No scratching of discs and instant access to films means the Xbox 360 is the more convenient media center. Blu Ray may be superior, but it’s also still suffering from all the issues of a DVD. There’s still room for improvement in this new media, Netflix’s visual quality leaves something to be desired when watched on High-Def. Yet with Netflix’s growing line-up of digital shows and movies, particularly a superb selection of independent films, it’s hard to argue with the edge that the Xbox 360 has established.

 

Even the act of paying for something is technically a form of functionality when it comes to media. Piracy and the second-hand market for music, movies, and games are a testament to this. As an old essay by Ray Kurzweil on Copy Protection in the Music Industry outlines, the eventual alternative music has already had to accept is going to start applying to other media. In order to beat digital pirates, you have to beat them at functionality. You have to make it so it’s easier and more beneficial to get media your way than their way. An example is the iPod, which made itself an essential mp3 player that led to people buying mp3s for it. Netflix going online is also a good start to this, but its catalog of popular films is still somewhat lacking. Kurzweil noted in his book The Singularity that the new digital distribution method would be characterized by an unholy intellectual property bidding war and you can already see the symptoms. The other problem is establishing a pricing model that still generates enough revenue to make the whole thing worthwhile. Subscription services like emusic, which has now passed 100 million users, are paving the way for this new distribution model. A media service like Netflix will eventually offer a similar tiered subscription service, although regulating the number of videos one can download is creating an unnecessary weakness. Downloading an entire movie and watching it is inane when I can just click and watch it streaming. The best model for profitability while sustaining function would be to use anticipation and time delay depending on which subscription the person has paid for. Gold members get instant access to a film the day it goes online, Silver has to wait, Bronze even longer, and so on as companies find ways to continue to keep the business profitable.

 

Which leaves the question of games themselves and the new market of downloadable games. The perk is that you have no pawn shop losses, no contending for shelf space, and can allow a game to continually make money without an expensive PR campaign. The downside, as Soren Johnson explains, is that you lose perceived market value and potential customers. Not everybody has sixty bucks to drop on a game, so the secondhand market allows these people to participate in gaming where they otherwise would spend the money on something cheaper. There is also the bonus of knowing that when you’re done with a sixty-dollar game, you’re going to get some of that money back. Functionality is, once again, the way they’re going to maintain the profits. Presuming developers have begun to acknowledge that sixty dollars can no longer be the only pricing model for new releases, there are a couple of alternative. The first is the The Force Unleashed experiment, which involved selling an individual level to the player, an approach that has already proven successful for Telltale Games. Since games have already begun to mimic television episodes in their pacing, it stands to reason they’ll just start copying the way episodes are sold. You can buy the entire game for sixty bucks, or you can buy individual episodes and eventually play the whole game that way. Buying the entire game gets you bonus content, buying each individual episode means paying more money in the long run.

Downloadable content is particularly significant in the multiplayer aspects of a game. Adjusting distribution and pricing models is probably not going to come about anytime soon, but there are still ways to maintain profitability by keeping the player from selling the game back in the first place. The trick to multiplayer longevity is to maintain a constant stream of new content while tweaking gameplay so that new players are never discouraged. An excellent article at The Escapist by Tom Endo outlines the downfall of the multiplayer game ARC. The more you allow your game to remain static, the more people become proficient at it and dominate new players in a way that discourages playing online. As a consequence, they’re more likely to sell the game back. Players memorize maps, master unbeatable moves, and generally make the learning curve much steeper than it should be. It also accounts for the fact that no amount of play testing can handle millions of people playing your game and looking for an edge. The gold standard for this is Blizzard, whose games made over ten years ago are still played today because of the constant tweaking. Once you factor in that new maps and guns not only sustain the game, they also earn you money, then it’s easy to see how this will continue as a trend in gaming. Johnson, in the essay above, also noted that DLC ensures sales for both pirated and second-hand games by making sure purchasers still must download the additional content, thus in turn ensuring an extra sale from even these games.

 

Finally, the genre to keep an eye on for 2009 is that of the forum game. Greg Costikyan has recently released a Myspace and Facebook Vampire RPG, and the satirical ForumWarz has demonstrated how easily an RPG game design can be applied to social networks. The two basic systems are to either let people do a few things each day or to incorporate the game’s use into the actual website itself with unrestricted moves. Either design aesthetic has the same goal—find a way for people to play while cruising Facebook or MySpace—but I’m not sure anyone has mastered the formula of how to make money off it yet.  That isn’t a sign of weakness in the market, as you’ve already got people sitting on the websites mindlessly clicking around, it’s just finding a way to coordinate this in a productive manner. The most probable change will be an adjustment in design aesthetic that adjusts its purpose towards generating traffic to the hosting website rather than being a game for its own sake. The most sophisticated website I’ve seen incorporate game design into the actual participation with the site is The Escapist, but others have their own methods that are similar. Forum badges, notification when someone quotes you, and ranks based on number of posts demonstrate a website that has designed the very fundamentals of socializing into a game of its own. Attempts to shoehorn micro-transactions or induce extraneous conduct are a bit misguided here. Functionality and using the game design to improve the actual goals of the website itself is going to be the trait of whoever finds the decisive model. As with all successful innovation, by the time someone is getting rich off of it, it’s too late to copy the idea.

by Jason Gross

5 Jan 2009

An excellent article in the City Arts Seattle describes what readers and artists lose when a publication gets rid of an experienced arts writer and replaces them with empty space (which is sadly happening more and more these days).  Not only does the experience of the writer disappear but also a chance for nuanced context as well as exposure for artists.  As the writer notes, the blogosphere might be filling in gaps with quantity but not necessarily quality yet.

by Lara Killian

5 Jan 2009

Where do you turn when you need to recommend a book or buy a gift – for someone with completely different reading tastes than you have?

This holiday season I was looking for something to give to a somewhat reluctant reader who has enjoyed everything Chuck Palahniuk has ever written – and little else for a number of years. Personally, I loved the Fight Club movie, but haven’t read any of Palahniuk’s books, and don’t quite have my head around the gritty-macho-sensationalist-violent-comedic genre enough to recommend other authors with confidence.

On Christmas Eve, I visited the central location of the large public library system in the mile-high US city where I spent Christmas, and asked for help. Public librarians can of course be a great resource for reader advisory – the ‘if you loved this, then you’ll like that’ argument. I spoke to several people before I found one with the resources to help me. After a bit of searching, he recommended John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces and Carlton Mellick III’s Electric Jesus Corpse. I took a look at both and decided that they were quite different from each other, as well as too niche to seek out for my Palahniuk fan.

Another factor in my search was that in an ideal world, I would come across an author who has published a number of books, and who preferably is still active in authoring new stories, as every avid reader’s dream is to encourage those who drag their feet to discover new writers to love. With that in mind I went to plan b: the nearest big box downtown bookstore, where I inquired at the help desk. Without hesitation, the staff person I spoke to recommended Christopher Moore’s novels, and pointed out Lamb as a particularly popular one. I recognized the cover of Moore’s You Suck from bookstores everywhere throughout 2008.

I decided to let all this information settle in my brain before making a decision, and later in the afternoon finally picked up Lamb from a smaller, totally non-big-box store. The book was gifted that evening and well received, though it’s hard to tell when the recipient will have time to open it.

image

A few days later on the opposite coast, while visiting a small New England town, I strolled into a used bookstore hawking the overflow from the local public library’s wealth of donations. I stumbled across a special edition, signed copy of Lamb (gilded pages and leatherette black cover reminiscent of a certain holy book) for a third of the price of the new paperback I’d purchased a few days earlier and had to laugh. Giving a signed special edition copy of a book would probably be sure to turn off my reluctant reader friend, but perhaps I should have picked it up in anticipation of the day when an actual Moore fan crosses my path.

by Rob Horning

5 Jan 2009

In Shifting Involvements Albert Hirschman cites this 1971 paper by philosopher Harry Frankfurt (who has since gone on to mild mainstream notoriety because of his treatise On Bullshit), in which he calls attention to “second-order desires”, or the desires we have about our primary desires. These are what we want to want and, according to Frankfurt, make up the substance of our will, and whether or not we experience it as being free. Frankfurt theorizes that “the conformity of a person’s will to his higher-order volitions may be far more thoughtless and spontaneous” than it is for others, who agonize over being able to act on their preferred desires (e.g.: I want to read Marx; I end up playing 1942 on a video game emulator). “The enjoyment of freedom comes easily to some,” Frankfurt notes somewhat depressingly, “others must struggle to achieve it.”

Hirschman cites Frankfurt’s surprisingly accessible essay merely to highlight the fact that we often have multiple sets of preferences simultaneously, which foils the more simplistic models of neoclassical economics with regard to consumer demand. If we want contradictory things at any given moment, it’s not clear where we will find our marginal utility; if our wants change in the process of satisfying them, then our incentives are in perpetual flux, flummoxing the calculus that is presumed to drive rational decisionmaking. We end up having to commit now to wants we may not possess in the future, or we may reject one desire in favor of another now, only to find they have switched places later. And so on.

But Frankfurt’s essay seems also to have a bearing on the larger question of how the persuasion industry (marketing, advertising, and to some degree, entertainment) scuttles our sense of selfhood, which, Frankfurt argues, hinges on our expression of will. The persuasion industry is seeking always to confuse the communication between our first- and second-order desires; it’s seeking to short circuit the way we negotiate between the many things we can conceive of wanting to come up with a positive will to want certain particular things at certain moments. It seeks to make us more impulsive at the very least; at worst it wants to supplant our innate will with something prefabricated that will orient us toward consumer goods rather than desires that are able to be fulfilled outside the market. This can occur without our having been persuaded directly by the advertising messages, simply by overloading us with information and unleashing the “paradox of choice” and worse, optional paralysis. Frankfurt describes it this way:

People are generally far more complicated than my sketchy account of the structure of a person’s will may suggest. There is as much opportunity for ambivalence, conflict, and self-deception with regard to desires of the second order, for example, as there is with regard to first-order desires. If there is an unresolved conflict among someone’s second-order desires, then he is in danger of having no second-order volition; for unless this conflict is resolved, he has no preference concerning which of his first-order desires is to be his will. This condition, if it is so severe that it prevents him from identifying himself in a sufficiently decisive way with any of his conflicting first-order desires, destroys him as a person. For it either tends to paralyze his will and to keep him from acting at all, or it tends to remove him from his will so that his will operates without his participation. In both cases he becomes, like the unwilling addict though in a different way, a helpless bystander to the forces that move him.

In short, optional paralysis eradicates our identity, especially when we are conceiving of it as being expressed by marketplace decisions. We may argue that it is foolish to found our identity on such stuff, but that doesn’t render this sort of anxiety, this being “destroyed as a person,” any less existentially terrifying. (It’s a good reason, however, to question why identity has become so bound up with consumerism and explore alternatives.) Heavily marketed goods in the competitive marketplace translate into eroded confidence on the part of consumers in what they want and the ultimate meaning of their desires.

Exacerbating the problem, and heightening our ambivalence and akrasia, is that the condition of being a “helpless bystander to the forces” that move us is perpetually in the process of being redefined in marketing discourse as a pleasurable, desirable state; i.e. as a second-order volition worth embracing. Passivity—an instinctual and inevitable response perhaps to being overloaded with information—is entertainment, is convenience, is relaxation, is anything but helplessness and alienation from ourselves.

With passivity toward the operation of our will encouraged and celebrated, it’s no wonder that we experience more and more of life as being governed by “addictions”—by compulsions beyond our ability to control—and that we routinely describe ourselves as becoming addicted to things that are not actually physically addictive (shopping, sex, the internet, World of Warcraft, Facebook, Jamba Juice, etc.). It may be that we want not to be able to control ourselves, as this resolves the contradiction inherent in wanting to will passivity. Our attempts to rationalize our desires fluctuate between pleasurable surrender (we are serenely impulsive, with the speed with which our impulses are gratified serving as an index to our prosperity and to our autonomy) and medicalized despair (we are addicts who are not responsible for our actions, which we stand removed from but which we can’t alter to reconcile with our other better desires as yet only vaguely formulated but having something to do with conquering impulses). Our inability to know what we really want ends up being either the illusion of freedom, of keeping options open, or it ends up feeling like a pathological condition that we vainly await the cure for.

by Jason Gross

5 Jan 2009

Not exactly a humble guy, FCC chairman Kevin Martin is leaving behind a huge pile of sleaze as he prepares to leave his office and in a recent interview, he honestly feels that he’s done everything perfectly there.  Like his boss GW Bush, he wants to rewrite history, avoid admitting mistakes and look professional even though all the facts are against him.  Even in the Broadcasting & Cable interview, the writer doesn’t let him off the hook, noting that he’s been criticized for his heavy-handed, slanted work from within and outside of his own agency but he just brushes it off, certain that he’s right. 

Also like Bush though, he’ll be rightfully seen as a pathetic failure.  It’s not just Martin’s anti-cable stances (also noted in the article) but his failed attempt to let media conglomerates get bigger and fatter (by letting them own more and more companies) in the supposed interest of the public.  Of course, he never proved that and cut down on public comment and reports that went against that as much as he could.  Thankfully he lost that battle.  Now he can gear up for a job at Fox News or a conservative think-thank.

While it’s good that he’ll be out the door soon, we shouldn’t give an automatic pass to the next FCC head.  They’ll still have to deal with the thorny issues of media ownership and the FCC fines for ‘obscenity.’

//Mixed media
//Blogs

PopMatters is on a short summer publishing break. We resume Monday, July 6th.

// Announcements

"PopMatters is on a short summer publishing break. We resume Monday, July 6th.

READ the article