I’ve been reading a book named Free Ride. Its central argument is that through the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, freeloading pirates, two faced behaviour from a variety of tech companies and faulty prevailing wisdom in the media about the need to be online at all costs, people who make content have been screwed out of a career.
It also asks whether it’s really worth throwing out hundreds of years of professional creation for openness. The author (Robert Levine) posits several solutions to try to recapture, or at least stabilise, a market for professional content, from the walled gardens of app stores through some form of television license for internet access to the blocking of infringing domains. On whole, however, he paints a pretty bleak picture.
Except he forgot one medium, arguably the one with the best plan for the future. The one that has shown massive growth in an age of professional content decline. The one that makes billion dollar corporations seemingly appear out of thin air. Ours.
The Maker’s Lament
Mournful creators from various media (including videogames) make a very simple argument:
Though we don’t love them, publishing industries control distribution in such a way that they raise the price of content far above its marginal production cost. This covers the cost of actually making that content and everyone gets paid. Anything that breaks that control is therefore a threat.
So that’s why they increasingly view search engines, file sharing networks, Youtube and many other services as a threat: They remove control, which depresses value.
Either you end up selling fewer copies and watching many pirates swap your work, or you drop the price below the point where piracy is worth it. So you end up selling for $1 the thing you used to sell for $20. That tends to focus your attention on either selling the things you already made much more cheaply (so you have what Simon Reynolds dubs retromania) or making things much more cheaply (as Levine characterises The Huffington Post).
The maker’s lament is that this is already happening, it’s unfair, nothing that can be done to stop it, and so the age of the professional creator is possibly over. The landscape will be filled amateurs publishing their NaNoWriMo novels on the Kindle, uploading their free music on Spotify, and nobody will be able to pay for quality journalism any longer. And something similar for big budget games too, which leads to sentiments that cheap smartphone games are bad for the industry.
Is it a valid concern? Maybe. Perhaps, like poetry, there just won’t be that much money in some media. Perhaps many industries will increasingly focus on pro-amateur creation, where it’s up to the creator to create their own audience and a publishing company is just a mechanism that makes it easier to scale. Perhaps the future will have to be more about new forms of patronage through brandification.
Or perhaps the maker’s lament is really about this: there is too much choice. Any market in which you can choose from a million works (such as ebooks, iPhone apps, albums, etc) is one where standing out is vastly harder than it used to be.
Free to Play
Seth Godin characterises the broadcast economy as cluttered. Using ordinary examples like flu medication and tofu, he shows how the world is falling down in very similar products and so the problem for the new century is building something remarkable, worth commenting on, which stands out from the clutter.
Creators lament that consumers don’t recognise the cost of their effort, and instead only see media in terms of the marginal cost of production ($0.99 for an app, for example). However there’s a good reason for this: most media products are not worth the money.
However a few are cheap at any price. I personally think Inception is fantastic value, but Skyline is poor. A DVD boxed set of The Wire is worth every cent, but CSI: Miami is not. Someone else may think differently, but media industries charge everyone the same rate. It depends on who’s doing the valuing.
But multiply those choices by ten thousand options. Add in every film, show or otherwise that is currently on release. Now add all of the films and shows that have ever been released, which have had time to build reputations. Now ask a customer to choose some items to enjoy for their money.
The odds are that they will make bad choices, so if every item costs retail prices then they are likely to blow a lot of money on bad product. Perhaps 30 years ago that was ok, but modern media audiences (even younger audiences) are far more savvy than they used to be. So, faced with mass choice they’ll probably go with what they know to avoid the disappointment of making a bad choice.
Media industries have treated this as a tug of war, trying various ways to sue people back into their old behaviour, legislate it (as in SOPA) or copy protect it (such as the Ultraviolet movie format) but the same pattern is repeating everywhere. The short head is getting shorter and taller (Lady Gaga, JK Rowling, Modern Warfare 3), the long tail is ever longer and the middle bit is shrinking.
This is where the lesson of games needs to be learned.
Some sectors of the games industry have figured a way out of this conundrum: They let customers figure out what they want to pay. They give sizeable portions of content way in the hope of selling something else to players, like virtual items for anywhere from $2 to $1000 each. It’s called free-to-play and in the past few years has spawned new publishers already worth many billions of dollars.
So why can’t other media do something similar?
The game of a movie can sell millions of copies but neither is free to play. Each is sold on the same model and so each is vulnerable to the same sorts of pressures as described in Free Ride. It’s a similar story with the film of a book, or the soundtrack of film, etcetera. No point of access into the product’s world is free, so it all ends up stuck in that pile of one million choices.
Unless you’re Games Workshop. Games Workshop sells high priced miniatures, novels, videogames and occasionally even an album or movie, all based on its Warhammer universes. It has a mass of cult-like fans who practically speak their own language and are very proud of their army collections, many of whom Games Workshop then monetises for hundreds or even thousands of dollars worth of goods. How is Games Workshop free to play? The answer is in their stores.
A Games Workshop store has lots of product on the walls, but is organised around a few central tables on which games are played. Teenage boys come into the store, watch games and local tournaments, and even participate. New players are invited to play, with no time limit and no bar on repeat visits. This is all in the hope of selling them some miniatures, paint sets or a game, but it’s entirely up to the players. Some stay, some go.
While Games Workshop stores might seem weird, the business model is smart. It’s not cross-media so much as transmedia. Transmedia is a term which describes convergent storytelling through multiple media, so not the-movie-of-the-book but rather the-movie-and-the-book. It’s less the rigid plot of storytelling and more the softer storysense of a shared canon.
Free to play games basically turn a shared canon a mall, and just a like a mall you are invited to step into the world at your leisure. The mall sells items which enhance their game either functionally or creatively. Players can buy dandy hats, nicer clothes, bigger guns or more productive buildings, but they don’t have to. Unlike the content model, which charges for access and is fighting against the tide of one million choices, the free to play model makes the choice to play consequence-less.
Free to View / Listen / Read
Can free to play work for any medium? I think so. It's all about seeding the world of the idea enough to create a premium market of customers.
Rather than creating a film like Inception from scratch, what if you wrote, published and gave away a prequel novel first? Fiction is one of the cheapest forms of media to produce, and yet it offers enough depth for the potential fan to explore your world before you spend $200m creating the movie.
And if you’re thinking in terms of transmedia then the movie is a part of the continuity. The album. The game. Each is now a qualified choice because the reader already knows what your world is about (compared to the million other choices). If they like it, chances are they really like it. Chances are they will spend like a Games Workshop fan rather than a Toys R Us passer-by.
You could possibly do the same thing with a comic, or an album, or a series of short films on Youtube. Or indeed a game. The idea is the same though: Get the customer over the choice question by making it a non-choice. Let them decide if they like your world before they pay for it. Then let them pay according to how far they want to, not a ticket price which is the same for everyone.
That’s how lots of game companies are making it big in a time when every other kind of media organisation is letting people go, and why investors are keen on games but not content companies. It might not work for every medium, but it's worth examining.
(Today's image comes from pirate internet.)