"Four misconceptions of the online world"

David Braben

By David Braben

September 20th 2010 at 8:00AM

David Braben condenses the social evangelists' hot air statements into cold drips

Over the last year or so, I’ve heard all sorts of statements about the possible transition to an online world, and that it might be the saviour of our industry. Four statements stand out. Much of what is said sounds a little like wishful thinking, rather than being based upon sound fact, but each is worthy of some thought:

1. ‘The online world changes week-by-week – dev cycles need to be measured in small numbers of weeks to respond’:
Perhaps if paraphrased as ‘throw any old rubbish out there, and only develop further the ideas that gain traction’ we can highlight where the problem lies – as on the face of it this sounds like a good idea – but if you do that, you expose yourself to a mêlée of unscrupulous companies simply weighing in, responding slightly more quickly or at least dividing the market.

We have seen this with the multiple shockingly similar farming games on Facebook, like Farm Town, and the slightly later FarmVille. One or two may make it, but it is rarely the original creator. This should change as soon as we start to see more high quality games arriving in this space.

We saw something similar at the very dawn of our industry in the early ‘80s – where there was also a cavalier attitude to other people’s IP, and successful games were copied mercilessly, but this changed too.

2. ‘You don’t need a publisher to publish online. It’s great – developers get the lion’s share of the money’:
These two are often said in virtually the same breath, but the naivety this shows is pretty surprising. The route to market is the key element here.

It is true that services like XBLA, PSN and WiiWare potentially offer a great deal of freedom, but we should not ignore the primary publishing function – that of bringing a game to potential customers – is being done by Microsoft, Sony, or Nintendo.

It is true that it does bring a great deal of freedom, and yes a greater share of the revenue, but that too may change. It may go the route of the Apple App Store or Google’s Android Store; where 99c games are commonplace, or there may be an attempt to maintain and increase quality.

The route to market is still the issue, and whoever owns the portal is in a strong position.

3. ‘Piracy is easy to combat with online gaming. Pre-owned will no longer be a problem’:
Again, this is true, but experience shows it is unlikely to last. There are quite a few worrying aspects to this.

Some of the online distribution services are already now damaged by piracy – look at the recent ruling against Apple, suggesting ‘jail-breaking’ the iPhone is legitimate (though I’ll be surprised if Apple does not appeal, it has not happened at time of going to press).

That is a very dangerous precedent. The standard answer that is brought out is that online play is the answer. This is of course, true – look at Warcraft. The downside to this is the maintenance of back-end servers for each game; not a problem while the game is new, but when are the servers and support turned off?

Eventually this time will come, and where are the genuine players left then? And what about single player? The key thing is to make sure common platform functionality – offered by Live and PSN –  is used rather than bespoke servers, but this currently doesn’t address the pre-owned issue.

4. ‘Web-based games are a new platform’:
This is another misconception. There are many ways to bring a web-based game to market. Flash and Unity for example, but each of these only cover a subset of the web, and offer a lower performance than many players now expect.

In effect the web is a collection of new, rapidly-changing platforms which are a challenge to monetise, and like with the mobile world of the ‘90s, only a few will win out.

All of the above statements have elements of truth within them, but if we accept them at face value we expose ourselves to huge problems, as it is unlikely to pan out as indicated above. To most people, online equates to ‘free stuff’, and for many there is little compunction to downloading games ‘that I probably wouldn’t have bought anyway.’

Online distribution makes this easier, not harder, as it dispenses with the obvious symbol of collecting bought games. These changes are also big opportunities; we simply need to avoid complacency, and co-operate.

As an industry, we have rarely had a sustained period of stability. Let’s embrace it as we have before, but do so with our eyes open, to dodge the mistakes of the past.