I might be unpopular in this post. If you are a huge minecraft / star citizen / flappy bird and gangnam style fan, look away now.

I think there is a phenomena that is becoming stronger and stronger and I think its bad news for all content creators. Well, for 99.99% of us. That phenomena is the globalization of media, and the concentration of it in a few hands.

Zap back a few hundred years, and you could be the #1 best Lute player in the village. Nobody else could touch you for lute playing. You rocked. 30 miles away there was a better lute player, but nobody ever left their village anyway, so who cared. You could play the lute, and people would pay you to hear it. Happy times.

Zap forward a bit and we have TV and radio. And thats different, because now you can hear that Lute / guitar player from the next village on the radio. And that means everyone in the country can hear him. So that guy gets to be a big national star, and the lesser local people don’t do so well. And thats tough for them, but probably not a total disaster. After all, competing with every guitar player in the UK is tough, but you aren’t competing globally. BBC radio doesn’t play in Islamabad, and  (and this is crucial) even if it did, nobody would like your weird English music over there anyway, due to cultural differences.

lute

The latest transformers movie had a scene set in China, and dialog where people say to trust the government to save them. Both put in to keep Chinese audiences / government officials happy. This is what happens now. Nobody makes a movie based on selling it to people in their country. The stuff is global. It has been, obviously for decades, but its becoming more and more so every year. Now entertainment is predominantly digital, there are literally no borders now. Staggered release dates wont last much longer. Cultural differences are eroding.

So now for the first time we seeing the emergence not just of monopolies on a national level, but an international level. Not just in terms of software and services, but in terms of culture. I never thought I’d see a Korean rap star become a global phenomena. I witnessed middle aged men dressed up as the ugly sisters from Cinderella doing a gangnam style dance one Christmas in Longleat house, England. This is new.

gangnam

When culture is global, and popularity is global, there is only one chart. THE chart. Everyone knows what everyone likes, and what already has coverage gets more coverage. Saturation coverage.

The itunes charts are pretty much *the place* for apps. Get to the top there, and you are laughing. The problem is, because there is less variety in charts / news outlets / media globally now, you are getting more of a centralized consensus on what is good. People who are only going to write about one pop song (the very mainstream non specialist media) would write about gangnam style. One mobile game? well flappy bird obviously (or angry birds…), one desktop game? well obviously minecraft.

And this leads to the crazy irony of the most successful, popular content getting more and more publicity. Thats always been true but its getting much, much worse because now that is global. Why do I care? why is this bad?

I think its bad because it leads to random perturbations becoming exaggerated. A slight boost in popularity of something bumps it from #100 in a chart to #9. it gets more attention so it goes to #1, and then so much attention it stays there, and then the mere fact that it stayed there becomes newsworthy making it even more popular, and the cycle continues, all potentially from a tiny, tiny bump, maybe a single media personality took a liking to it. A minor disruption in a flat surface is exaggerated to a mountain.

348906-7-tips-for-high-scores-on-flappy-bird

What I’m saying is that gangnam style, minecraft, flappy bird and star citizen are not *THAT* good. I’m not saying they aren’t good, or great even, or amazing even, but the level of popularity is totally disconnected from the quality at some point above the ‘ten million copies sold’ level. Stuff is getting bought *because it is getting bought*. And stuff is becoming popular *because it is already popular* and that sucks, because when you produce content, the success of it is too much attributed to luck. And thats bad, bad bad.

One of the bright points in all this is actually steam. Steams front page re-coding is awesome, and exactly what was needed. Beforehand, if a game got a front page feature, it became popular, and sold a lot, and the word of mouth generated a lot of sales which led to a front page feature and…. etc. Now, there is no such thing. If you love complex PC strategy games and politics, you might be staggered at the promotion my game ‘Democracy 3’ gets on steam. But thats just for you. Steam now has hundreds of micro-niches, and lots of developers have the chance to be popular in that niche.

minecraftXCMqB

We need the same for all media. Why do ‘pop charts’ even exist? or movie charts? Why on earth does the fact that ‘fast and furious’ made X dollars have any newsworthy value outside of the industry? Should I go and see it because its popular with everybody else? Fuck no. Charts suck. Charts encourage a homogenization of culture and promote the bland and inoffensive.

So why don’t apple do what steam do and fix this problem? Because *they do not need to care*. As a developer, its terrifying to know a game I make will almost certainly fail, but *might* become minecraft or flappy bird. Thats a very very risky industry. But for people with an online store, they (except steam) don’t care. Why should they? They don’t care if the #1 game is awesome or a fart joke. They collect their slice of *all* the money anyway. Running in app store is the ultimate hedging strategy in games. I wish I owned one :D.

12 Responses to “Implications of a global market on random success”

  1. Oli Norwell says:

    I totally agree. You’re right in that the app store owners Apple/Google/Amazon currently have no need to care, as they’re taking 30% of *everything*, so to them which particular pieces of content are ‘going viral’ isn’t relevant. Like you say this is a serious problem for all content creators in the modern digital age.

    The only flickering light at the end of the tunnel might be that the content on people’s phones becomes so homogeneous that there’s a backlash and social forces dictate that it’s very “uncool” to have a top 10 app on your phone. Currently the masses are very happy with Clash Of Clans, but will there come a moment when such an alternative movement (e.g. in music, grunge in the early 90s, rock’n’roll in the late 50s) means that youngsters don’t want to be associated with popular culture.

    If that were to happen, Apple/Google/Amazon, might, just-might, move to a front page which is far more personal, dictated by your recent searches and most probably by your previous downloads. They would do this if there was a backlash to the idea of ‘universal popular culture’.

    I guess for us game developers, and indeed all content creators outside the top 1% in every category, the sooner this happens the better.

    (Note: As much as I don’t trust Google with their data recording/mining – I would love them to customise the front page of Google Play using a user’s web searches and *choke* even gmail content. Somebody discussing cricket with a friend might then for example find my cricket game appear on their Google Play homepage – everyone wins that way as they’d presumably find that app recommendation more interesting that a bland list of King.com games).

    Anyway great article, I’ll get around to writing some of my own someday!

  2. One extra thing I think Big Fish and perhaps others do is to remove the items you’ve already purchased from their “charts” – so if you really love a certain genre, then everything in that genre will eventually be exposed to you as buy or ignore games.

  3. Tom H. says:

    As the best lute player in my neighborhood, I have to ruefully agree.

  4. Shay Pierce says:

    I think these are important thoughts but they miss some of the subtleties.

    I won’t argue whether e.g. Flappy Bird is s good game, or whether it’s better or worse than X or Y other game that got less recognition. It’s not about something being “good”, or about one thing being “better” than another.

    No, it’s about someone liking something more than something else.

    Hypothetically, let’s say there are two games released at the same time. They’re both essentially the same concept. They both have essentially the same qualities, the same appeal, they’re targeted towards the same audiences, and the experience and joy of playing them is very similar. The potential audience for this game is 5 million players.

    Now suppose that one of the following things happen:
    – One game gets more press than the other, and/or the press is more favorable, for whatever reason.
    – A celebrity plays one game and tweets about it to their millions of players.
    – One game has a feature that the other doesn’t, and (at least among a vocal group of players) this feature causes that game to be considered “better” and become more popular.

    These days, in any of those scenarios, one game becomes the popular successful one, and the other becomes completely neglected and mostly forgotten. In other words, when people prefer one thing over the other (even when the actual difference between those things is small), this tends to be reflected as a landslide of popularity of one over the other. Although this doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game, it mostly ends up being that in practice, and it’s usually one in which the split of popularity is far more dramatic than the split in actual quality.

    On the Internet, when one thing is more popular than any other thing of that type, it tends to be an avalanche of popularity. This isn’t fair, it’s just how humans behave in large homogenous herds, and the Internet has allowed us to clump ourselves together into the largest and most homogenous herds ever seen.

  5. ac says:

    What if the big marketplaces had something like this:

    When item reaches enough downloads or whatever, then it leaves the charts / the more a product is bought, the lower it drops in store visibility.

  6. With capitalism ruling the game industry the balance between profits and making great content is sometimes gone. Luckily there are people like yourself that point to the matter, and people have a choice in what they want to buy / play.

  7. Hunter says:

    All of what you say is true, and it has some serious implications for every business and industry, not just indie game making. However, the glass is half full. Overwhelmingly for an independent game maker, the quick availability of markets and capital is a good thing.

    Of course, capitalism brings intense competition, and global capitalism brings great inequality (most successful takes the great rewards, second best takes little, 100th best almost none). Within a nation state, this problem can be overcome by redistributive tax and transfer systems, to ‘soften’ the impact of capitalism. In a global sense however, we do not have global government, and are not close to it, so that kind of redistribution cannot happen.

    Should those involved in this industry (say, Steam) start behaving like a government….for the “good of the community”? It is a big leap, from their role as a profit making company.

  8. ac says:

    Just came across interesting video

    “Paul Tudor Jones II: Why we need to rethink capitalism”

    youtube.com/watch?v=dvJSK4viVMs

  9. ac says:

    I would add that hearing a lot of the billionares support more taxes and what not is really annoying since it cements them staying rich relative to anyone making money paying the taxes they were able to avoid.

    So a suitable “act of righteousness” would be that all baby boomer billionaires and their funds and big coprs would shut down shop. If they don’t, then I’ll surely seek same sort of tax advantages they used.

  10. Matt says:

    Great post!

    I partly blame this situation on the over-abundance of entertainment itself; the fact that there’s too much choice for the consumer to wade through, so they let the media sort out the wheat from the chaff, letting them make the choice for them.

    In a way I can’t blame them. Now that competition is global there is just too much choice for the consumer to even contemplate thinking about. And so the gatekeepers stepped in, just like the paperback book publishers, although that is now changing with self publishing.

    The only way I see an e-creator being able to compete in this new global digital distribution era is to work the niches and create e-products for markets that want something different to the mainstream. Not ever consumer is a one-size-fits all entertainment buyer. There are consumers who are sick of all this mainstream stuff too. Maybe the answer is to focus on them and satisfy their particular needs instead of trying to please everyone and complete with the world for their attention.

    Mainstream stuff is overrated anyway.