The future of content

 Posted by (Visited 24486 times)  Game talk, Music
Dec 122005

Bear with me, this is about more than just music; but you’ll have to suffer through my extended analogy first.

Once upon a time, musicians had exclusively local followings. They were relatively mobile, so they toured the countryside in their usual routes, spreading news from place to place and singing songs that were aimed at a very particular audience. They’d pick up tunes and lyrics and adapt them via the folk process, changing them for their local tastes, playing a decades-long game of telephone that changed the words around until sometimes they made no sense. Was the guy’s name Tom Dooley or Tom Dula? Did it matter?

Then came the gradual application of sheet music. Hitting one genre at a time starting with the most refined, it pinned down these folk tunes and created celebrities, it enabled a flowering of complexity in music whilst also permitting greater transmissibility. You could replicate a performance, if you had the skills, even if you had never heard the tune before.

Performance was already a fairly democratic endeavor. All over the world, music was a communitarian activity. Every town had a few folks who were able to participate, and the process of music-making was intrinsic to socialization. Now, it changed subtly, because the music performed was the latest stuff from the richest centers of culture; it was sophisticated, complex music, and the skills required to play it started being out of reach for many of the folks who had no problems thumping a tub or twanging a strumstick. It was the music that emanated from urban centers, where it was the musicians with patrons who got the fame.

A few things were lost along the way — by tempering the scales, some of the sounds of older music went away a bit. But on the whole, the systematization could easily be seen as a good thing, particularly as musicians, who tend to have respect for their predecessors, collected and wrote down the older music, and repurposed it in their newer pieces.

In its heyday, this new world, this new business of music publishing, displaced to a large degree the older folk process, the older way of making music. There was now real money to be had in music, whereas before music was a moneymaker only for the very privileged few.

And then came recording, and radio. Suddenly, we watched the birth of a new industry. Now we had the pre-eminence of the performer and not the piece. A given singular interpretation of a piece of music gradually became the dominant mode of interacting with it, as over time radio moved away from doing live broadcasts to consisting almost entirely of pre-recorded music. This made distribution of the music the huge gating factor on who became famous, and the very concept of fame finished its centuries-long shift from a local definition to a far more global one.

In the unforgiving light of history, we can see that this brief century-long bubble of fame was an aberration. It was the limited space on radio airwaves, the limited space on record store shelves, the limited space for stacks of sheet music, that selected for our musical heroes. Many fine musicians never made the 0.001% cut, and were left unheard, living much like their forebears did, doing tours in old minibuses or station wagons, from D.C. to Baltimore to Charlottesville, Atlanta, and then back, maybe if they were lucky landing in New York City for a gig, or even playing Passim’s in Boston.

This was called grassroots music, independent music. It was also called a horrible way to try to make a living. An indie record moving 10,000 copies is a freakin’ miracle. The savage math of Pareto’s Law gets in the way, and one is forced to observe that while the ability to play elegant riffs on the guitar is rare in the population as a whole, it’s common enough that someone in the top 1% of guitar players in a given city may well never feed herself off of her skill.

But today, ah, we have the Long Tail, the miracle of digital distribution. The bubble of top-tier celebrity is fading. Culture is nichifying, diversifying, and the watercooler moments are becoming more evanescent. The top moments of cultural consensus reach a smaller percentage of the population than they used to. We’ve got more choices. We’ve got cheaper and cheaper access to content (although it may well not be legal).

We all know the result, which is panic on the part of the industries that sell fixed forms of content. The BBC brings news that a publishing rights-holder for music publishing is looking to take down tablature sites for guitar, which is about as self-defeating a move as I can think of for an industry: preventing the young from acquiring a hobby just keeps you from having adults to work professionally in the field later. It’s happened before, of course: the On-Line Guitar Archive has gotten threatened with takedown dozens of times in the past.

What’s particularly ironic about this case is that the tablatures on the Internet are actually reverse-engineered. They are part of the folk process. They are inaccurate. They harken back to the days before the whole industry existed, and are virtual forms of playing a once-heard tune by ear and sharing it around a campfire.

But the real thing that freaks out the music publishers, no doubt, is that they are lowering the value of sheet music, just as easily available MP3s lower the value of recorded music.

And that, finally, brings us to what I really want to talk about: the future of content.

The first thing to appreciate is the way in which costs for all this have shifted over time. Two inescapable facts immediately surface:

  • The cost to consumers for a minute of content has been dropping steadily over time.
  • The cost to create and package a minute of content has been rising steadily over time.

Check out this blast from the past:

In l906 one paid a guinea (GBP1.05, more than a week’s wages for many) for a single-sided, 3-minute, 78rpm record of Melba singing ‘Si, mi chiamano Mimi’. Forty years later in 1946, The Planets, on six 78s (playing time around 50 minutes) cost about GBP3; Beethoven’s Ninth, on eight records, cost GBP4. The first LPs in l950, playing for 50 minutes or so, cost about GBP2 – almost a quarter of my own weekly pay packet for selling those very LPs! That was in the days when it cost 2.1/2d (lp) to post a letter, a bus ride along London’s Oxford Street cost 4d (under 2p), and a pint of beer was 8d (about 3p). Had their prices increased pro rata, records would today cost between GBP50 and GBP100 each! So the present GBP12.99/GBP14.99 over-the-counter price of a CD – less than an average day’s wage now – is the equivalent of only a few shillings not so long ago, and certainly within the memory of many record buyers.

And what do we get for our GBP14.99? Generally a lot more music, because CDs give up to 80 minutes of playing time – nearly half as much again as the average LP. This extra music affects the cost of a record at the origination stage. In the LP era it usually took two days to make a record. To record it, that is. Nowadays it’s three, or even more, [they’re talking classical music here, folks] because of the extra music (which takes proportionally longer to rehearse and play) allied to such factors as the Musicians’ Union regulation which limits the amount of music usable on a finished record to 20 minutes per 3-hour session. Because of the extra music, and the extra time taken to record it, a record company now has to pay considerably more for musicians, hire of venues and instruments, engineers, producers, editing and so.

Let’s take your barebones studio recording. The room to record in, perhaps with an engineer, probably cost $100 an hour. To get a really good take, plus any additional layered instrumentation, probably took more than an hour. It’s not unusual for one of those indie CDs to cost around $5,000 to $10,000 to make. To do a run of a mere 300 copies, well, that will set you back over $1000. That’s for the CD’s with just the little one panel blow-in for the cover.

But wait! That’s obsolete already. Because while these days there’s folks willing to buy that CD, I had a fun experience at a conference recently. Here’s a paraphrase:

Older panel moderator: So, young panel of random teens from the Silicon Valley area, do you watch TV?

Teens: No. We live on MySpace instead.

Mod: Oh? No TV?

Teens: Well, we do love Desperate Housewives and Lost and Dave Chappelle and Adult Swim, but we BitTorrent all of those. We just don’t watch it on a TV.

Mod: Hmm. Well, what about music? What do you think of iTunes?

Teens: iTunes rocks. It’s a great database to look up songs in so you know what albums to BitTorrent.

Mod: er, yeah. Is that how you get your music?

Teens: We also just copy each other’s entire music collections. I dupe my best friends’ iPod.

Audience guy from Apple: That’s not possible.

Teens: Sure it is, you just grab this piece of software off of, and…

Audience guy from C|Net: Ack!

[scuffle between Apple and C|Net guys]

Teens: Anyway, music is basically disposable anyway, I can always just re-download it.

Mod: What about buying online. Where would you go online to buy, say, a CD player?

Teens: A… CD player… [blank looks] What is that for?

Now, I don’t know about you, but the thought of losing even my old vinyl records makes me cringe. There’s the hard-to-find ones that haven’t been reissued, that I pored through used record shops in Annapolis to find. There’s the radio station promo-only stuff. The copy of Sgt. Pepper with the cut-outs still in it.

But to these kids, music is disposable. It’s beyond commodity, it’s down to “utility,” taken for granted like electricity and running water.

Now, music is just the forerunner in this. We’re seeing similar effects everywhere. In the process of taking down the shelf-tyrannical, headist, editorially mind-controlling tastemaking industries, we’re also pushing the cultural value of a given piece of content down.

Which brings us, finally, to games.

Game budgets are rising at a ridiculous pace. This is driven, in large part, by content. It’s not the game mechanics that make it expensive to make a triple-A title these days; it’s the content. Have a look at Mark Cerny’s Method through this lens, and you’ll see that what makes the method work is that as much game design as possible is packed into pre-production, and everything thereafter is content, content, content.

But the voracious tide of digitization that has swallowed music, is chomping on TV, and is snapping at the heels of movies is going to hit games with a vengeance in a few years. In the other industries, the response has been to look to the Long Tail for an answer: nichify, attract audiences that are highly targeted for your product, rely on digital distribution and user filters… It’s been observed that the three things that make the Long Tail possible are

  • Digital distribution providing an “infinite shelf”
  • Robust user filters to carry you down the tail to the products you like
  • The democratization of content creation

Ah, on that last one lies the rub.

I’m highly skeptical that the future is going to bring us the democratization of what it takes to make a triple-A videogame. Even the procedural methods espoused by Will Wright for Spore are proving difficult to get working. The Long Tail of videogames isn’t in what we think of as the AAA game today. The sorts of interactive entertainment blockbusters I discussed in “The Pixar Lesson” are going to be as challenging as making a blockbuster Hollywood movie: only worse, because there’s already far fewer of them in a year than there are blockbuster Hollywood movies, and on top of that, the industry has no idea how to make a triple-A game cheaply, unlike Hollywood, which makes high-quality movies for low costs all the time.

This future of a surfeit of content is also a future where content is driven down in price, and that begs the question of how people make a living making content. The path of musicians is to get back on the road, get revenue directly from their tours, and bypass the moribund recording and publishing industries. The day of the troubadour is back.

The path of TV? Of movies? Of games? I have no idea. But it seems clear to me that rising content development costs are incompatible with nichification.

This is part of why we see veteran gamemakers moving to casual indie games on the Web, of course. The path for the arts in general, in which I include all forms of creation of entertainment, is gradually leading us back to the historical norm: the garret. Value will lie in performance, not in fixed recordings, just as the path for the indie musician lies in personal contact, grassroots audience-building, small concerts that hopefully lead to big concerts, and endless touring.

We’ve got two things to look forward to if this particular future comes true: lots of new innovative games coming from the gaming equivalent of John Keats or Michael Hedges; and lots of folks who have to make games on the side while they hold down a day job. And they’ll probably all have to blog like mad because what will sell will not be just the game, it’ll be the experience of the interaction with that content provider.

If there’s one thing that the Web makes possible, it’s enough content to make the typical content creator superfluous. Oh, plenty of people will be willing to play, read, or hear their content. The question isn’t whether they can find an audience — on the Internet, everyone can find an audience. No, the question is whether all forms of fixed content will effectively be donations to the common weal.

  32 Responses to “The future of content”

  1. Raph’s Website » The future of content Raph having a blog is the best thing that’s happened to anyone interested in social software, games and the/any/future crossover. This man is on fire. Hollywood and Games Summit Many deals will be made, I expect..

  2. Blogroll Joel on SoftwareRaph Koster Sunny Walker Thoughts for Now Sex, Lies and Advertising

  3. Raph Koster’s insight into Second Life’s Copybot, exploring the arbitrage opportunity when content production costs are increasing, but it was too generic. See Raph’s comment and his deeper thoughts on the future of content. He clarifies that he thought rising production costs applies to the content industry, not end users. I’d say that platforms will emerge for end users to have their day. Second Life is actually the closest to this, which makes it interesting.

  4. , trends Playing Zelda for Wii on Xbox360 Adam Betts has the amazing ability to play Nintendo Wii games on hi Xbox 360… go see how he does it! (also read the disclaimer). Keywords: gaming, funny Raph Koster on the “bleak” future of content Two inescapable facts immediately surface: The cost to consumers for a minute of content has been dropping steadily over time. The cost to create and package a minute of content has been rising steadily over time.

  5. Raph’s Website » The future of content

  6. […] Game budgets are rising at a ridiculous pace. This is driven, in large part, by content. It�s not the game mechanics that make it expensive to make a triple-A title these days; it�s the content. […]

  7. […] Sources: Kim Pallister – Games Industry 2.0, Raph Koster – The Future of Content. […]

  8. […] Game budgets are rising at a ridiculous pace. This is driven, in large part, by content. It�s not the game mechanics that make it expensive to make a triple-A title these days; it�s the content. […]

  9. Some funny stuff going on in the comments here 🙂

    The problem, as I see it, is the distribution systems that grow after innovative offerings. The people who come after creation has happened aren’t interested in further creation. They’re there with their business management degrees and transplantable job roles to exploit the creation, mainly by distributing it in new ways (and I use “exploit” in the non-derogatory sense). Distribution is predictable, controllable, and easily manageable with the right relationships. It also means that the biggest cost savings generally come from gutting the creation itself, and spacing out new creation followups to ensure each pays for the next one.

    The height of this problem was the dominance of brick & mortars (which seem to cycle between boutiques and mass goods places each generation of society). They won’t be going away anytime soon, but some of their wares are decidedly changing. The focus is shifting away from distributors dictating terms of sales with the rise of digital distribution. And it’s happening in one of the biggest industries. Aside from games, all entertainment content is looking to get away from the dictatorship of the brick & mortar establishment.

    This comes at a price of course, because the onus of communication is entirely on the publisher now, and their ability to capture passerbys much less. Aside from the space-strapped banners ads in a few well-known places, the web has spread everyone all over creation and back, all but guaranteeing a lower forecast for any good sold online.

    The cost to produce games has gone up partly because people thought it could. I think we’re realizing now that this is no longer the case. Some companies will react by looking even closer at guaranteed-win solutions, resulting in more knockoffs than ever, a very Red Ocean strategy. Others will look to the Blue Ocean though, which to your point, may mean migrating away from AAA packaged titles and going for more niche and less expensive titles they can focus on. And along the way deliver a game their identified target wants.

  10. Those comments are automated pingbacks…

  11. Pop will eat itself?

    Certainly the availability of content in digital format has sent producers scurrying for their lawyers, and spawned whole new industries in copy protection – Speaking of games, Half Life 2 is a prime example, requiring (at least when I bought it), online registration, and then 20 mins of file decryption to play!

    Inevitably then, producers of content look for new ways to retain their market. This may involve ‘indy’ artists going it alone, setting up an online circus stall to pull in punters – but for some, perhaps this may simply be a manifestation of a longstanding battle between the artists and their ‘labels’ (in music or other industries) for position as top dog. In the music industry it seems that those artists who stand the test of time generally start their own indy label, binning the likes of EMI et al… Those who were already big remain so, and those who weren’t? Roll up, roll up, see the dancing bear.

    On games, I think the mainstream big players will continue to avoid the ‘bittorrent’ effect for some time due to their complexity, and the fact that they can push gamers a little further with copy protection (in one form or another) than you could music consumers. It is hardly a leap for even a single player game to require online connectivity and authentication (*cough*HL2*cough*), perhaps with the enticement of changing content, but expecting Joe Schmoe to ‘plug in’ every time he wants to listen to Britney?

    Maybe if ‘Britney’ becomes a subscription token instead of a static CD, updating with the latest tracks every time you plug in. Buying ‘Band X’s latest hits’ could really mean that. Does this model favour the individual artists who may only produce new content every few months/years, or the big fish labels who churn out masses of content of varying (and indeterminate) quality?

    Sorry, I ramble 🙂

  12. I think Kim Pallister’s post might make a good first step before reading my post. He’s a bit more optimistic than I am though. 🙂

  13. Something that we haven’t really seen yet is significant migration from established promoted artists to Internet minstrels. That’s coming, although in the transition, artists who carve out a niche online will be lured to the recording contracts by industry A&R men. What is more visible, partially because we know their names, are artists who have gone from more mainstream contracts into a niche market, and have found that with the help of the Internet and their own private labels they are able to do better than they would using conventional record companies. My friends Pallas are an example of this. Picked up by EMI, they fell foul of the record company’s tendancy to focus on popular trends and split up. Several years later they became aware of how large and loyal a following they had on the Internet and started producing music together again – and while they all have ‘day jobs’ now, they’ve never been better.

    At the moment, the iPod generation are helping themselves to shared copies of music in much the same way that the compact cassette generation did when they were poor school kids. The problem that the industry has is that 20th generation copies of digital rips sound as good as the first generation ones, and all sound better than anything a compact cassette could manage. However, the situation is the same – whether using compact cassette or MP3, these youths were never going to spend thousands of dollars a year on buying music. Yet these people are the ones who once bought 7″ singles and created the ‘pop’ phenomenon. Even back when the 7″ was still considered viable and everything people needed to chart popularity, we’d buy them as a community. Even though I loved it, there certainly was no point in me buying The Damned’s “Smash It Up” if my pal had it, so I’d buy The Undertones’ “My Perfect Cousin” instead. Even before we got into taping, we’d hang around together and listen to each others’ records or we simply didnt have enough music to listen to. Home taping is killing music indeed. It was promoting it. Same old, same old.

    What is keeping the industry going is the myth that this is the way music needs to be sold, and the myth that the artists being sold are in some way exclusively better. Let’s not take anything away from the old codgers – Elton John and The Rolling Stones are kingpins of the pop music industry and hot property still because they’re pretty good. Even if Sir Elton records something as good as Yellow Brick Road again, you don’t need the industry crack pipe. There are a thousand great arists who will never see a major record label out there who just need a little listener feedback before they create their Beggar’s Banquet. For every James Blunt that gets snapped up by the A&R men, there’s a whole lot of artists out there whether they be getting play from listings on sites like IUMA or through word of mouth.

    However, the biggest problem for artists is that it does take some money to produce music, even if it’s just MP3s of a solo performance with limited production. To play your guitar and sing in a room requires just the guitar and a few strings every so often. To get that perfomance on the web requires a quality microphone, a stand, isolation, a decent sound card in a reasonable computer, some software, and some sort of Internet connection. It’s not very expensive, but its more expensive than just busking. It probably involves a bunch of skills that the artists dont really want to master too. That’s something that’s a small, but still significant hurdle for musicians, but for a games developer, its probably more extreme.

    If I write a nice tune and hack together some words to go with it, and also have some friends who’ll play the parts I can’t, we can go and try the song out on other friends, or play it at a local gig, perhaps even making a litte money off the unfinished versions. If on the other hand I come up with a game design and have the friends who can write the parts I can’t, its not so easy to perform the rough drafts. Basically, due to the nature of game development, the feedback cycle is longer, which means more money to feed the starving artists for longer. As a result, I think its more of a challenge to at least start an indie games company than a in indie band, given both having the talent to be viable. That said, perhaps the gaming market is in a better position to accept more small niche games than the music market is, simply because of its immaturity.

    As an aside, Michael Hedges’ Aerial Boundaries was one of my vinyl ‘test discs’ for when I was auditioning expensive bits of hifi. Not only is it a well recorded album full of subtleties that show up minor differences in equipment, but its a great album that bears frequent repeated listens.

  14. Darniaq:

    Aside from games, all entertainment content is looking to get away from the dictatorship of the brick & mortar establishment.

    Whaddaya mean “aside from games”?? You forgotten about Steam, SOE direct downloads, Miniclip, Popcap, Direct2Drive, FilePlanet, XBox Live Arcade…?

    While “retail is dead” isn’t quite a mantra across all segments of the gaming industry, it’s certainly gaining currency in the PC games market in particular.


    However, the biggest problem for artists is that it does take some money to produce music, even if it’s just MP3s of a solo performance with limited production. To play your guitar and sing in a room requires just the guitar and a few strings every so often. To get that perfomance on the web requires a quality microphone, a stand, isolation, a decent sound card in a reasonable computer, some software, and some sort of Internet connection. It’s not very expensive, but its more expensive than just busking. It probably involves a bunch of skills that the artists dont really want to master too. That’s something that’s a small, but still significant hurdle for musicians, but for a games developer, its probably more extreme.

    It’s hugely more extreme for the typical game developer, actually. I’m lucky — I can actually cobble together a prototype of a simple game myself, including enough art and sound to know what the final product might look like. But that’s getting to be a rare set of skills in the game industry as large teams and huge projects have forced specialization.

    By comparison, a song is still really cheap to make.

    And hear, hear, on the Hedges. 😉

  15. I find it silly how the game industry, of all industries, keeps whining about the scourge of piracy.

    The game industry is one example of an entertainment industry that has *always* had rampant piracy. Zero-day wares aren’t something invented with bittorrent. Perfect digital copies of games were swapped on cassette tape back on the 80s.

    One may claim that the barrier to entry to piracy is smaller – perhaps picking up a burned CDR from a friend is harder than configuring Bittorrent and finding the appropriate illegal site. First, I am not convinced of that. Second, back when copying a game may have been more technical, the audience of computer games was likewise more technical.

    I’d be much happier if the game industry would realize some day that they are already selling games *despite* piracy, and hence lift the crippling restrictions on commercial games that drive people to the cracksites. For example, “You must have the original CD in the drive to play”, a truly wonderful feature on a laptop which doesn’t have a CD drive. (I have a laptop which can play Doom III just fine. I have a 60gb extra hard drive I can swap the DVD drive with. Of course I can never use said hard drive as video games require me to have the DVD drive installed… A pleasant reward for having purchased the game)

  16. Whaddaya mean “aside from games”?? You forgotten about Steam, SOE direct downloads, Miniclip, Popcap, Direct2Drive, FilePlanet, XBox Live Arcade…?

    It’s because of those services that I said aside from games. They’re much further along, having started earlier. And personally, I don’t see those all the same way. I break it down into two categories:

    • Digital Download. This you know you’re getting a game that gets saved on your computer. It’s basically the brick & mortar distribution without the checkout clerk. The whole middle-man financial aspect remains. Included here would be: Miniclip, Popcap, Direct2Drive, FilePlanet, SOE download, Shockwave (the digital download part), MSN, Yahoo, etc.
    • Entertainment Provider. This is a total service, a place you go to play any number of games, maybe joining a tiered pricing schemes per your level of enjoyment. Here I’d place Shockwave (the rest), parts of Fileplanet, what GameTap could become, XBox Live, Steam in the future, and the licensor portals like CartoonNetwork, Disney, Nick, etc.

    I separate them because it’s the latter where I see things going. It’s not just about games. It’s about entertainment, which can include them.

    In particular, I see GameTap as a fairly Web 2.0-ish with a Long Tail strategy and the convenience of a monthly fee. I have no idea if it’ll be as huge as Time Warner thinks it’ll be, but they’ve got the advertising dollars and the raw content to give it a go. It’s a game service with embedded commercial opportunities all transparently online.

    These total offerings are capable of replacing not only the brick & mortar, but the very concept of buying an experience outright. What MMORPGs started doing can be applied to all forms of medium. Why have canned linear games at all? Even the shortest-play ones can get new levels, music, and themes if you can work out the finances for it.

    I see these as the future really, because they redefine what Content is. Content doesn’t have to be about going somewhere to experience something. It’s what you can experience on a periodic basis you define. It’s the freedom to choose and the customization and ownership that results.

    At least in theory 🙂

  17. Hmm, the List hypertext doesn’t want to render. My right arm for an edit button! 🙂

  18. I fixed your list… looks like the list tags are getting stripped from the comments for some reason. I’m gonna remove the buttons in the meantime, since they’re misleading. 🙂

  19. The brilliance of Korea’s micropayment/microcontent strategy comes through again!

    By making game play free, but incrementally adding small amounts of content for small payments, you can protect your revenue stream. Since online games are services not products (a fundamental difference from music… today), the ability to simply copy the data does not provide value to the consumer. A copy of a +5 Sword of Coolness is of no value if it can’t be used in the game and cannot be traded.

    This is part of the motivation for some of the work we are doing for our upcoming anti-piracy product.

    For music to really work online, the artists or companies need to create an ongoing “service” relationship that the consumer values and can be tied, financially, to the valid purchase of a performance.

    As to big budgets killing or warping the industry… art and engineering are both about creativity under constraints… and dollars is a constraint. If you look at the modding scene, it is obvious that people can create substantial games with little funding.

    A basic problem is that we combine funding a game system/engine with the game itself. This screws up the ability to amortize the costs of large engineering developments over multiple games… also driving costs

    Few movie makers require the development of their own cameras. Also, we need “prop departments” and “back lots” to further reduce costs… shared/commodity basic art assets, animation assets, etc.

    Question: do console licensing fees warp development budgets by forcing prices on games that they cannot support? If I wanted to develop a $10 or $5 game could I?


  20. On a console? No way, not even close. These days, it’s very difficult for a AAA game on a console to break even if it isn’t available on all the consoles, actually.

  21. Few movie makers require the development of their own cameras. Also, we need “prop departments” and “back lots” to further reduce costs… shared/commodity basic art assets, animation assets, etc.

    This is a good point, a question I’ve always had:

    Why is it so many games require brand new graphics engines? It seems to me we have a dichotomy between acceptable graphics from licensing existing engines and blow-away graphics on systems not available yet only deliverable through an entirely new graphics engine. What’s really the difference to the average gamer, the one that makes up the bulk of your sales?

    – Is it tied to the game experience so directly nothing else will do? I can see that, for example, Planetside having entirely different needs from Star Wars Galaxies. But EQ2? Can no other engine be retooled for dynamic spawns (given the constants that are texture/normal maps and whatnot)? Do they not all over various levels of water tech (which, while way impressive, is still just pure ambience)?
    – Is the need for ultra-realism not delivered in any other engine?
    – Does buying an engine require learning arcane tools so complex that building your own is just easier?
    – Is building your own engine cheaper over the long haul than licensing one?

  22. Often the needs of a given game result in tailoring the engine to suit. The restrictions here may be things invisible to players, such as the fact that a given engine might handle dynamic mesh generation poorly, or might have pipelines that flow through only a particular 3d tool, or might not support morph targets, or some such.

    Yes, you can in theory adapt any engine to do anything, but at some point you’re doing a total rewrite.

    Historically, for example, the middleware engine market consisted largely of FPS engines, which handled outdoors poorly, assumed a particular organization in memory for the map, didn’t have heightfield support (which can provide big economies, at the cost of losing overhangs), and had embedded AI in the render engine, thus making it not work for client-server applications. There’s lots of stuff like that.

    Generally, licensing an engine gives you a massive leg up — as long as you are making a game that has the same fundamental assumptions as the engine you licensed. If not, then you have some pain.

  23. Ah ok, so the needs of MMOs are just that different from what the current middleware environments offer.

    Without getting into your NDA level of course, do you envision the chance a middleware environment could be developed to support the traditional needs of MMOs? There’s a lot of features specific to a game, but I wonder if there’s enough commonalities too.

  24. There’s a few out there already. is now Emergent Game Tech, which also has Gamebryo — DAoC was built with the predecessor to Gamebryo, NetImmerse. There’s Multiverse, which I blogged a week ago. There’s BigWorld.

  25. […] Addendum to last post Someone pointed out some similarities between my last post and Raph Koster’s Future of Content post. I hadn’t read it until just now, but agree there’s some overlap.Raph’s is certainly a better and more thought-out post, but I think mine makes a nice complement to it. His is the meal, mine is the appetizer or deser, depending on your preference.Bon appetit! […]

  26. Isn’t part of the future of MMO content to open up some version of the world-builder tools and object libraries to the players?

    Honest question (even if it looks like bomb-tossing, :D).


  27. […] Link · Comment? · Add to Memories Raph’s Website » The future of contentFriday, 16 December 2005 @ 07:21 amposted by crystaltipslink having a blog is the best thing that’s happened to anyone interested in social software, games and the/any/future crossover. This man is on fire. […]

  28. Jess, I do believe you’re looking for this post. 😉

  29. Is it realy a good idea for the lower end developers to go for the niche market? I’ve heard that coming up very often, but I always wondered if they shouldn’t go right the opposite direction.

    Looking at single player games, it’s always easier to just code a Doom clone, or Command & Conquer Clone, than to try to find your own blockbuster idea like Tetris did for example.

    If I would be a producer willing to spend money on a MMORPG, I would head for the EverQuest 1 route. Start with a solid fantasy world. Add elves, dragons and whatever stereotype I can find in the genre. Tons of them. Make it just a solid hack & slay game (or old school Mud, if you prefere that) and get it finished. After that, you can go on to add your unique selling points, content, quests, scripted events etc. – as long as your funding lasts. But never head for a niche. Head right for the bulls eye of the market.

    Granted, you can never compete with a AAA title on that route. But until now, no MMORPG is realy in hard competition with another. More with themselfes.

    When I look at the market as a whole, it all started with games like EQ, UO, Meridean, AC1 etc. But these times are over. Today we have a lot more niche games on the market than “high fantasy” titles. And the pure fantasy games are getting older and older.

    Many games head for niche markets or start out with very unique (to put it mildly) ideas. Sometimes I even think there is a new law prohibiting to go for the mass market. But when it comes to games that make profit AND stayed on the route as planed, I see just very few.

    I think there is still – even after WoW – maybe even MORE after WoW – a broad market right in the middle even for low cost titles.

    I’ve seen players discussing that all new MMORPG have the same boring ideas, very often. But in fact, I have seen even more players staying out of MMORPGs at all because they can’t find a new game they like to play after they left EverQuest or Ultima Online, because they got simply too dated for example. They are constantly looking for new games feeling like the old ones they left – but never find anything. I expect this to even grow with more players leaving World of Warcraft in the future.

    So I would think to head for this market might be a better way than to add another niche game nobody asked for.

    Of course, that is only if you are in the business for making money, and not for making your dream of a world of science fiction ducks preventing an invasion of space fly’s MMORPG come true 😉


  30. Wilfried, it’s generally considered to be a bad idea to try serving a well-served audience unless you can seriously outdo the top product on the market. For a lower-end developer, that’s usually impossible.

    A niche might well be very similar in a lot of ways to a current product, but still have a major difference — I think Guild Wars is a good example of that…

  31. Raph, I do not doubt the rules of business. But do they apply here in that way?

    One could think we have a well served audience in asia for hack & slay type of MMOs. But still, there are new low budget hack & slay titles coming out nearly every day. Only very few of which are AAA titles. And they do quite well from what I can see.

    We have proven markets for EQ1 or Diablo II for example. Would it realy be that hard to produce a Diablo Clone that can outdo the original from the year 2000? Or another EQ1 to compete with a 7 year old game? Can Ultima Online from 1997 realy still serve the audience in a saturating way?

    So what I like to put into question is if looking for a niche far away from first generation MMO’s is the right place to go?

  32. Actually, what I hear from Korea is that a lot of those little games are failing, as it’s gotten to be a very very competitive environment. That’s why there are so many innovative and different games coming out there now — people pushing away from making clones.

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  34. […] Raph’s Website » The future of content Nothing terribly revalatory in here, but there’s a few nice turns of phrase and a couple of interesting and new perspectives on some old stuff. […]

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