Category Archives: Music

#oneaday 36: Small is beautiful

I wrote this in December 2009…..I still think we are in amazing times, no matter what the President of Nintendo says 😉

I consider myself lucky enough to be born in the 1960’s, at school in the 1970’s and started my career (or job as we used to call it) in the 1980’s. I lived through two great British phenomena, Punk and Home Computer Games, although both had their parallel roots in the USA.

Rock ‘n’ Roll was the original disruptive modern youth movement, landing in a cold, paranoid and austere post World War 2 world and it ignited the power and the profit potential of recorded music sales. The music business rose up to rival the film business and by the mid seventies was spawning the much derided, but often purchased and sometimes enjoyed, concept album. Punk smashed that model up in 1976 and brought Low-Fi, DIY music to the ‘blank’ generation. It was an antidote to the excess of the seventies.  The DIY mentality of punk and the emergence of the synthesiser brought us electronic music, and with it a fascination with newly emerging home computers. Suddenly boys had options. Not everyone wanted to make their own music and wear their own fashion indeed the feelings of isolation often manifested themselves in boys taking to their bedrooms and spending hours and hours with their new fangled  home computers,  whether it be the Sinclair ZX81 or BBC Micro, getting off on making sprites ‘move’ on screen.

As these machines started to become popular, so demand for games started to rise and in the early eighties, these home computers, complete  with their cassette tape players and portable televisions spawned the beginnings of the games industry as we know it today. Games were obviously simple, but they were also cheap to buy and had what has now become known as ‘mass market appeal’.  They took their lead from the games hosted on coin op arcade machines, and every boy’s dream of an arcade in their bedroom looked like becoming a reality. The barriers to entry were modest and anyone capable of programming in BASIC could make their very own game. Soon companies who specialised in packaging, marketing, financing and selling the games started to appear and shops such as WH Smith and Boots (the chemists!) sold classics such as Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy by the thousand.  Hardware companies flocked to the festival of creativity, Apple and Commodore being two of the prominent players from the US to put their ten gallon hats in the ring. Down the line Nintendo, Sega, Sony and Microsoft all entered the home hardware fray and the rest as they say is history.

Fast forward to 2008 and the launch of the Apple’s App Store as an update to the digital distribution genre defining  iTunes.   With the worldwide sales of packaged recorded music sales falling like a Led Zeppelin, the music industry has seen the threat and opportunity of online distribution and most of that with Apple and iTunes.  Traditional sales of CDs have been replaced by digital delivery and storage of music, whether paid for by the consumer, given free by the owner or simply ‘shared’ by consumers without payment.  Artists have been able to connect to their audiences through the internet and no longer have to rely on promoters or radio networks to get voice. Apple have given consumers the power to buy lifestyle applications, including games, quickly and simply which can enhance their iPhone or their iTouch further.  They have also made the barrier to entry lower for creatives and consumers. Add in the phenomenon of ‘social networking’ and the places where people network socially, and you have browser based games that are compelling, free or cheap to play and above all entertaining. And this surely is the key. The applications (whether games or otherwise) are both entertaining and innovative. The successful ones are above all, addictive and profitable to their makers.

So, are what we still refer to as ‘next-gen’ games (perhaps we should rename them now-gen) the equivalent of the ‘70’s concept album? Has the games business become over bloated and inefficient, serving only derivative and ‘safe’ subject matter? Do the games take too long to make and cost too much money to sell?  Has the chain between creative and consumer become too long, defocused  and ultimately irrelevant to the consumer?  Indeed is there a parallel universe where new ’can do’  game makers exist without the knowledge, experience and safety first approach of the ‘traditional’ games industry?  Have we become tired by the old models? The model whereby developers are encouraged against taking risk, where the brief is to make a product that is a little bit like Grand Theft Auto, has the shock factor of Modern Warfare 2, is an online experience similar to World of Warcraft and the family appeal of Mario Kart? Last year it was all pink pony games on DS and look where that ended up, this year it is hidden object and puzzle games, what will it be next year?

Even if you do actually manage to develop the game of your dreams, you then have to put up with all the usual rubbish from publishers and the rest. Deductions, marketing initiatives, inflated budgets, ‘you need a minimum of two hundred and fifty grand to get meaningful and ‘seen’ TV ads’ retail is a nightmare’ and so on.  Then specialist retailers will join the party and tell you that ‘the supermarkets and online are killing their traditional business’ and those same supermarkets will point out that it is a ‘competitive market place and our customers come first for price and value’.  The online retailers cite ‘catalogue, choice and value’ but get accused of ‘exploiting tax loopholes, shipping early and giving no customer service’ by their rivals. The same old sales people sell to the same old buying contacts and the same old anecdotes get trotted out, day in day out. ‘Unless you spend thousands on in store marketing and offer full sale or return, no product can be a retail success’. Meanwhile the consumer gets choice and above all, with packaged goods, can trade these in, or simply take them back for full refund, just like they have always done.  Sounds like chaos? Sounds like the business model is badly flawed? Sounds to me like it is.

So consider a world whereby the investment required to make compelling games is perhaps measured in the hundreds of thousands of Pounds/Euros/Dollars and not in the millions. Maybe original ideas gain ground over derivative ‘me too’ products. One where console manufacturers don’t control the manufacturing supply chain and charge inordinate amounts for packaged goods? A world less controlled by multi nationals and more influenced by connected consumers.  People playing games with each other over the internet, 24/7.  People able to build, market and trade their own wares to like minded individuals. That world is here and it is full of very small and nimble footed companies. Being mid-sized is no longer an option, be specialist and make it your business to seek out as many like minded people as you can find and trade with them as best you can.

 The key of course is gaining commercially for what you make or the service you provide. In a world where Britain was known for innovation and trade we have had latter success in making compelling entertainment.  Next to the US, we are the best in the world and everyone wants our products. Making quirky, innovative, entertaining and commercially viable entertainment is in our DNA, think music, TV, film, literature and computer and video games. All we need to do is remember the spirit of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s when our manufacturing industries were on their last legs, when workers were tied to one factory or office and creativity had to fight to get noticed.  In this technology enhanced, digitally connected world, co-operation across geographical, religious and cultural borders is normal and there has never been a better time to be an individual and a consumer, creative or otherwise. Small is beautiful.

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