Wednesday, 3 October 2012

RTS notes #3 - games vs TV

I was lucky enough to attend this year’s Royal Television Society Conference at the Barbican and am in the process of sharing my notes from the event. This is number 3 in the series. Having heard about the Olympic Games in the morning, the first afternoon session at RTS focused on games with a small “g”. The panel discussion was hosted by Ed Vaizey – Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries. Vaizey has the odd punchy one-liner, but it strikes me that he knows little about the sector besides an obviously poor quality briefing before the session. I doubt that he plays games or watches much TV, for that matter.

The rest of the panel consisted of Sefton Hill, from Rocksteady Studios, Steven Moffat – the writer of Doctor Who and Merlin, no less - and Henrique Olifiers of Bossa Studios.

Console gaming and TV

The panel discussion was rather rambling. These notes therefore pick out the recognisable subjects rather than attempting to be comprehensive. [The first thing I noticed was the contrast between the introductory video for this session, which showcased fast, violent action games to a backdrop of pumping techno, and the earlier ABC videos, which were cutesy and contained lots of smiling Americans. An immediate difference between the audiences for each genre]

Just as the production technology mentioned in Anne Sweeney’s speech has improved the quality of TV, so advancing technology has drastically improved the fidelity of characters in video games. This is not just a feature of higher resolution but also stronger game engines and (very weak, definitionally) artificial intelligence. It’s now possible to tell rich, emotive stories in game universes. TV and film no longer have an exclusive position in this space.

Despite the similarities, there is no natural competition between the two formats. TV is a passive narrative experience for the most part, likewise literature. As Steven Moffat put it, if you got to the end of a book and had to fill in who the murderer was you’d feel pretty short changed. The two formats don’t really creatively influence each other for that reason.

The panel was generally dismissive of game tie-ins to major TV and cinematic releases. The trouble is it takes 100 people 2.5 years to write a good console game. In the tie-in world you get 1 year, so it’s just not possible to write a good game. This is why the tie-in genre has faded so badly over the last 10 years. Serious gamers don’t want to know and it’s all too easy to find out how bad a game is on the Internet. Batman: Arkham Asylum is an example of a game connected to another media by the character IP. It’s a great game that draws on the universe to tell a longer, more compelling story than the film – 18-to-30 hours of entertainment versus 2 for the film.

There is plenty of engagement in modern games, particularly in games like FIFA, however in the latter instance this is fervour from the real world reflecting on the game environment. Emotions and passions are fundamentally quite hard to create and experience in games. It’s hard to map a feeling of loss or pain or love to a joy pad button. Games can, however, adapt to the changing nature of the audience to create an experience. If the player is struggling, they can help out, if they’re finding it too easy, they can make it harder. Due to their interactive elements, the stories within games can be that much more engaging than TV, even if they lack the ultimate emotional connection of that medium.

Casual games – business models, funding models & future

Away from the d-pad, social games have democratised gaming by bringing it to those unable or unwilling to purchase console or PC hardware. [Ironically, these democratised games are often being played on hardware very much more expensive than a game console – how much is an iPhone versus a PSP?]. We’re also moving closer to a world of games as a service.

[I’m not sure about games as a service. I see the connection between them and Netflix in film or Spotify in music, however there is a big difference. In movies and music the post-performance content is at worst just one of the monetisation sources and in most cases the theatre/ live performance is the primary source of value. Remember that high end games cost as much as a mid-level blockbuster movie and create more value. Giving that away in a subscription seems unlikely to me.]

These casual games are now being crowdfunded. $50m worth of projects have been funded on Kickstarter and several have raised $4m or more. These are free from the publisher, which is clearly a boon to the developer. Although crowdfunding is beneficial, crowdsourcing of ideas isn’t. All creators should be aware of the audience but not tyrannised by them.

Henrique Olifiers claimed at this point that consoles were dead [which is rubbish] and that what the iPad and iPhone did to mobile gaming consoles will happen to big ones. An interesting point he did make was that since consumers spend more of their time staring at smartphones and (to some extent) tablets, the TV is now the second screen. Somewhere to take content that you want to enjoy in high definition, rather than the source of narratives [my interpretation].

The business models of social games are heavily skewed to in-game purchase. 93% of Bossa’s revenues are from this source, with the remainder coming from advertising.

That’s more or less everything I got from this session. As you can see, it wound around quite a bit. Interesting, nonetheless.

1 comment:

  1. A couple of things:

    Ed Vaisey does play games and is pretty good at some of them. I played against him at a Westminster Forum a few years ago and only narrowly won.

    And "what the iPad and iPhone did to mobile gaming consoles will happen to big ones". I presume the analysts are saying that handhelds are dead, as ever. Despite the 3DS seeing better sales than any handheld in history (including the original DS) and software sales for handhelds being up year-on-year (against a market which is generally down). Sure, the Vita hasn't taken off, but one handheld does not make a market. While smartphones now have a huge market share of games (mainly in units rather than value, of course), that's a share of a market which s massively bigger than it was a few years ago.