After the gold rush

After the gold rush
David Braben

By David Braben

November 1st 2011 at 9:00AM

Too many digital developers have their eyes set on money rather than innovation, says David Braben

By ‘Gold Rush’ I mean the delightful ‘wild west’ anarchy of digital download games, especially the App Stores for iOS and Android, and to a lesser extent Steam.

We have seen a great many individual developers and micro-teams creating content for these channels. Some of it is genuinely new, but much is sadly derivative and pretty poor.

Some of the early innovators have made a great deal of money, and it was well deserved. Many others have followed on, seeing the attraction of the money but not the innovation needed to earn it – which is absolutely vital given how crowded this market now is.

Much as with the 1849 gold rush, most of the people that heard there is ‘gold in them there hills’ arrived too late. The gold was still being mined, but spread over a great many people, and many of those people earned barely enough to feed themselves.

Unfortunately, this is how nature works. There will always be a balance, with the imitative latecomers not scraping together enough to live upon.

NEVERMIND THE CROWD

The trouble is, there is a certain inevitability to this. While there are not conspicuous failures, other wide-eyed individuals will continue to flock to the flame; to the imagined nirvana.

Our industry is pretty fast moving, but success stories from the early triumphs are still very visible, even though success now is much harder.

The excellent Markus ‘Notch’ Persson even called this out at this year’s Develop Awards ceremony. There is a parallel in the music industry where unsuccessful bands vastly outnumber the few successes but there too, the numerous failed bands are rarely reported.

Some failure is inevitable; as in most walks of life, if success were certain then people would continue to flock to it until it was not.

Many of the new ‘young-guns’ are looking at games released in the last year, thinking: ‘I could do that’. Well, perhaps they can, but ‘that’ is not what they need to do anymore. ‘That’ is what they needed to do a year ago.

Now, they need to compete against what those people they admired went on to do afterwards; the things they are making now and have not yet released.

There are now many teams of significant size working on digital download games, and we are just starting to see the change now in resultant quality and content.

CLOSED FOR BUSINESS

There is another very important point to bear in mind, too – remember that the available platforms are mostly ‘closed’.

By this I mean there is a gatekeeper to what will (and will not) be released. Take Apple, for example. Up to now, just about everything has been allowed through, but that is through Apple’s choice, not the developers’ right.

The iOS sheriff is in town, but is currently choosing to turn a blind eye to much of what is going on – this can change, just as it changed on console platforms as they became established.

I believe it is the software content that makes the platforms. Excellent platforms have failed due to lack of software, and mediocre platforms have been kept alive by excellent software.

The recent patent spat between Apple and Samsung – and others – over tablets, and specifically the Galaxy, shows how the gloves come off when it comes to platform rivalries.

As the current spate of new platforms continue to increase their share of the gaming audience – and increase the audience size – familiar tactics will continue to come into play.

Special deals for ‘platform exclusivity’ will inevitably be a battleground in the future, as will relationships with the key players.

Stretching the original analogy beyond breaking point; those new guns need to make friends with the sheriff before the railways come to town.