I’d like to say that I’ve never run ads on my blog out of a principled stance against them but the reality is I just wouldn’t make enough out of them to justify their existence. Sure this blog does cost me a non-zero sum to maintain but it’s never been much of a burden and I wouldn’t feel right compromising the (now) good look of the website just to make a few bucks on the side. This hasn’t stopped me from wondering how I would go about making my living as a blogger, although unfortunately pretty much every road leads back to advertising. However that model might be set to change with one of Google’s latest products: Contributor.
The idea behind it is simple: you select a monthly amount you want to contribute to the sites you frequent and for sites participating in the Contributor program you’ll see no ads from Google AdSense. It’s a slight tweak on the idea of services like Flattr with a much lower barrier to adoption since most people have a Google account already and most sites run AdSense in some form. You also don’t have to specify how much goes to each site you visit, Google handles that by counting up the pageviews and dividing up your monthly contribution accordingly. In a world where AdBlock Plus has become one of the most installed browser extensions this could be a way for publishers to claw back a little revenue and, of course, for Google to bump up its revenue.
This isn’t Google’s first foray into crowd funding publishers as just a few months ago they released Fan Funding for YouTube channels. That was mostly a reaction to other crowd funding services like Patreon and Subbable whereas Contributor feels like a more fully thought out solution, one that has some real potential to generate revenue for content creators. Hopefully Google will be scaling the program into a more general solution as times goes on as I can imagine a simple “pay $3 to disable all AdSense ads” kind of service would see an incredibly large adoption rate.
On the flip side though I’m wondering how many people would convert away from blocking ads completely to using Contributor or a similar service. I know those AdBlock sensing scripts that put up guilt trip ads (like DotaCinema’s Don’t Make Sven Cry one) are pretty effective in making me whitelist certain sites, but going the next step to actually paying money is a leap I’m not sure I’d make. I know it’s nothing in the grand scheme of things, $36/year is a pittance for most people browsing the Internet, but it’s still a barrier. That being said it’s a lower barrier than any of the other options available, however.
I think Contributor will be a positive thing for both publishers and consumers in the long run, it’ll just depend on how willing people are to fork over a couple bucks a month and how much of that makes its way back to the sites it supports. You’ll still need a decent sized audience to make a living off it but at least you’d have another tool at your disposal to have them support what you do. Meanwhile I and all the other aspiring small time bloggers will continue to fantasize about what it would be like to get paid for what we do, even though we know it’ll never happen.
But it could…couldn’t it? 😉
The AAA game industry is unquestionably a hit-based business and consequently that means there isn’t a lot of room in the market for dozens of companies to compete successfully. Whilst there are many companies making a rather good living from such games, able to deliver title after title that will sell 10 million+ copies, they’re predominately sequels in established IPs who’s success stems largely from their dedicated fan base. Smaller publishers with larger aspirations are still quite numerous though with many of them burning through untold amounts of capital in the hopes of replicating such success. As far as I can tell this way of doing business isn’t sustainable but that doesn’t mean that quality titles have to disappear.
Square Enix recently published its sales figures for its last 3 big hit games and for plebs like me they don’t look too shabby. Indeed there are many titles I know of with lesser sales figures that were considered wildly successful and I’m not just talking about runaway indie hits. Heavy Rain, for example, would be considered easily around the same level of quality as any of the above titles and it has managed to snag some 2 million sales over the course of its life. Quantic Dream had said previously that their expectations were more around the 200~300,000 mark so the order of magnitude increase was completely unexpected, showing that big sales aren’t required to produce polished games. Turning back to Square Enix then you have to wonder what drove them to expect much higher sales, especially in light of their past performance.
I think the main reason is the amount of capital they invest in these titles, thinking that will have a direct causative effect on how many sales they’ll get out of it at the end. Whilst this is true to a point I don’t think that Square Enix is doing this efficiently as whilst their games are objectively good (on par with those who’s sales are much higher) most of them simply lack the dedicated community which drives those massive sales. In that regard then Square Enix needs to drastically cut either its overall sales expectations and rework their game development budgets accordingly because if selling multiple millions of copies isn’t profitable¹ then you’ve got to seriously reconsider your current business practices.
Indeed I feel this is a major issue with the games industry today. Many of the bigger titles are developed with big sales in mind and that means both developers and publishers aren’t willing to take risks on titles that might not perform. Sure we get a few token efforts from them every so often but it’s a sign of how little innovation there is from the big guys when the indie developers are able to churn them out by the truck load. I’m not saying its better or worse if either side of the industry does the innovation, more that the big developers and publishers are stuck in a rut of churning out sequels or, in the case of Square Enix, thinking they’ll make it big if they copy the formula.
¹They haven’t said that any of these titles weren’t profitable but their predicted $138 million dollar loss this year would seem to indicate that none of them were. The loss could also be heavily influenced by the redevelopment of their failed Final Fantasy MMORPG FFXIV, but the breakdown didn’t go into this unfortunately.
There’s little doubt that the majority of the games industry is skewed towards the male gender. Primarily this is because it was a male dominated industry in both production and consumption for much of its nascent life. Depending on your platform of choice this is still very much the case (although strangely 40% of PC gamers are women, compared to 25% on consoles) but overall the balance is much closer to the actual gender split than it ever has been before. With that in mind you’d think that the choice to use a female protagonist, something that isn’t exactly a new idea, wouldn’t be exactly controversial.
News came last week however that Dontnod Entertainment, an independent developer based out of Paris, struggled to convince publishers to accept their game which features a female lead character:
“We had some [publishers] that said, ‘Well, we don’t want to publish it because that’s not going to succeed. You can’t have a female character in games. It has to be a male character, simple as that,'” he told Penny Arcade. “We wanted to be able to tease on Nilin’s private life, and that means for instance, at one point, we wanted a scene where she was kissing a guy. We had people tell us, ‘You can’t make a dude like the player kiss another dude in the game, that’s going to feel awkward.’
I’ll admit that given a choice between playing a male or a female character in a game I’ll choose the male one. For me the reasoning is simple, if given the choice I feel like I’m projecting myself into the game and thus want my avatar to represent me (and, given the choice, will recreate myself in the ultimate form of narcissism). However my experience doesn’t really differ that much should that choice be made for me one way or another as then I’m playing as that character in the story, not as a direct representation of myself. Thus the idea of having my character kiss another guy (or girl) in the game won’t make me feel awkward unless that what was intended.
What gets me though is the idea that the publisher thought that a game wouldn’t sell due to the female lead. Sure if you’re targeting consoles there’s an argument to be made that you want to target your largest available audience. However with titles like Tomb Raider breaking its own sales records, even on consoles, that kind of logic doesn’t really hold up. It’s not just the success of that particular franchise either as things like the Dreamfall Chapters Kickstarter showed that there’s lots of demand for these types of games and not just from the female gamer crowd.
Honestly when I first read this my anger was directed at the general gaming populace as I felt that that’s where the publishers would be drawing these conclusions from. Digging deeper into it however I feel that it’s more the publisher making those decisions for us as there are many examples of great selling games that have female protagonists or even just strong female characters. Personally I feel that us gamers are far more comfortable with the idea than the publishers give us credit for, especially with all the recent success stories. Hopefully it’s just one naive publisher executive making an incorrect call as I and all my gamer friends certainly have no issues with strong female leads.
I remember my first mobile phone well, it was a Nokia 8210 that I got myself locked into a 2 year contract for mostly because I wanted to play snake on it. After having the phone a month (and subsequently having it stolen) I grew tired of the game and resigned myself to just using at it was intended, as a phone. This continued with all my following phones for the next few years as I favoured function and form over features, even forgoing the opportunity to play old classics like Doom on my Atom Exec. However after picking myself up an iPhone early last year I started looking into the world of mobile gaming and I was surprised to see such a healthy games community, grabbing a few free titles for my shiny new gadget.
Primarily though I noticed that the vast majority of games available on the App Store were from small development houses, usually ones I’d never heard of before. Whilst there were a few familiar titles there (like Plants vs Zombies) for the most part any game that I got for my iPhone wasn’t from any of the big publishers. Indeed the most popular game for the iPhone, Angry Birds, comes from a company that counts a mere 17 people as its employees and I’m sure at least a few of them only came on since their flagship title’s release. Still the power of the platform is indisputable with over 50 million potential users and a barrier to entry of just one Apple computer and a $99 per year fee. Still it had me wondering though, with all this potential for the mobile platform (including Android, which has sold just as many handsets as Apple has) why aren’t more of the big names targeting these platforms with more than token efforts?
The answer, as always, is in the money.
Whilst the potential revenue from 50 million people is something to make even the most hardened CEO weak at the knees the fact remains that not all of them are gamers. Heck just going by the most successful games on this platform the vast majority of Android and iPhone owners aren’t gamers with more than 80% of them not bothering to buy the best game available. Additionally games released on the mobile platform are traditionally considered time wasters, something you’re doing when you don’t have anything better to do. Rarely do you find a game with any sense of depth to it, let alone does such a game strike it big on the platform’s application store. Couple that with the fact that no mobile game has gotten away with charging the same amount as their predecessors on other platforms has and you can start to see why the big publishers don’t spend too much time with the mobile platform, it’s just not fiscally viable.
For the small and independent developers however the mobile scene presents an opportunity unlike any they’ve seen before. Whilst there is much greater potential on other platforms (The Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 both have user numbers rivalling that of the iPhone and Android platforms) the barriers to entry for them are quite high in comparison. Microsoft, to their credit, has reduced the barrier to the same level as the iPhone ($99/year and you bring your own console) but thus far it has failed to attract as much attention as the mobile platform has. Other platforms are plagued by high investment costs for development such as any Sony or Nintendo product, requiring expensive development consoles and licenses to be purchased before any code can be written for them. Thus the mobile platform fits well for the smaller developers as it gives them the opportunity to release something, have it noticed and then use that to leverage into other, more profitable platforms.
I guess this post came about from the anger I feel when people start talking about the iPhone or Android becoming a dominant player in the games market. The fact is that whilst they’re a boon for smaller developers they have nothing when compared to any of the other platforms. Sure the revenue numbers from the App Store might be impressive but when you compare the biggest numbers from there (Angry Birds, circa $10 million) to the biggest on one of the others (Call of Duty: Black Ops $1 billion total) you can see why the big guys stick to the more traditional platforms. There’s definitely something to the world of mobile gaming but it will always be a footnote when compared to its bigger brothers, even when compared to the somewhat beleaguered handheld, the PSP.