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Trends of this Generation: Digital distribution

Feb 20 // Daniel Starkey
This may not seem like that big of a deal at first. After all, where people buy their games has never really been that big of a deal, but if we really think about everything that’s changing now, almost all of it can be traced back to, in some way, the rise of digital distribution on the back of burgeoning broadband networks in almost every section of the globe. To truly understand just how important this is, you first need to understand a bit about the game industry itself. Generally speaking, most developers operate through a publisher that creates the physical discs, encodes them, creates the packaging and ships them out to the retailers. And that all takers place after the console manufacturer (Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft) approve the game for publication on their system. Everyone in that process gets a cut of the game’s final sales -- devs, pubs, console manufacturers, the shipping infrastructure, and the retailers. If the game is successful, then that translates into least money on the developer’s side for investment in future projects. Developers still risk almost everything while the potential rewards from that gamble are gobbled up by everyone else. Now, in many ways, this system helps subsidize the cost of consoles, and does provide extra capital to publishers who occasionally bankroll projects that might not otherwise ever see the light of day, but many developers would still prefer to see the largest percentage of sales come back to them as possible. While certainly not the first platform of its kind, Valve was able to get the ball rolling with the completion and distribution of Steam in 2003. Through it, players could search for, purchase, and download any games that were currently available. Valve, in some sense, acted as a publisher of sorts, by taking a small chunk of any sales -- after that though, the developers were allowed to keep whatever else was left. There was no retail store to deal with, and because Steam was only available on the PC, there was no one to approve of and license the game for distribution. That one change started a revolution, whose effects are becoming more and more apparent every day. After the release of the Xbox 360, Microsoft established their digital storefront called Xbox Live Marketplace. Nintendo and Sony followed suit with the Wii Shop Channel and PlayStation Store, respectively. While the console crowd was a few years behind, their entrance into the digital distribution market would be no less influential. In the years since, each of their stores has seen an exceptional list of exclusives, and in an era where multi-platforms are the norm, that is no small thing. Fez, Journey and the entire BIT.TRIP series, were for a time, at least, exclusive to a different platform. While none of these stores completely overthrew the traditional publication model, they outlets seemed to favor smaller, cheaper games that were a bit more successful than their full-priced, AAA brethren. A new set of price points became the norm -- $5, $10 and $15, certainly a far cry from the $60 gamers were accustomed to paying. At those prices, consumers would be a bit more likely to take a risk on an untested product- even one that they had never heard of. Indie games like the ones I mentioned earlier plus dozens of others have become more and more common. In many ways this matches the general trend we’ve seen in all forms of media over the past decade. Instead of buying whole albums, customers can pick and choose tracks they like. People can get Netflix and try out all kinds of movies and television shows with very little financial risk. Ebooks and the ability of authors to self-publish online has given many, many more people a variety of options for media consumption. The real game changer here, the bit that has already started changing how the vast majority of people plays games has really only gained traction in the past two or three years. Games like Temple Run have been downloaded tens of millions of times, with Angry Birds recently topping one-billion downloads. That reaches a level of cultural ubiquity of which most can only dream. The PS2, the single most successful game console ever, has been around for 12 years and moved 150 million units. Android alone has 500 million devices in hands, with 1.3 million more activations per day. These numbers are absolutely ludicrous, and while I know many “core” gamers aren’t too thrilled about it, Nintendo and Sony, with their relatively modern handhelds, are still light years behind the new face of the market. It’s difficult to say exactly where all of this will end up, but portable gaming is here to stay, and the old guard has never seemed more incompetent and more resistant to change. A few closing thoughts If there's one thing that we should really be taking away from all of this, it is that this past generation has been nothing if not superlative. Our medium is growing, and it is doing so at an incredible rate. Yes, retail sales and the like have been in decline and yes, more than a few studios have seen their doors close earlier than they deserve, but the mainstream adoption of gaming in all its forms is incredible.  These days, everyone's a gamer.
Gaming trends photo
This changes everything
Leading up the possible PlayStation 4 announcement on February 20, I've been looking into some paradigm shifts we've seen over the past generation. This is stuff that will likely be with us for a while; these are things that ...

Trends of this Generation: Gamification

Feb 19 // Daniel Starkey
The Xbox 360 got the ball rolling on gamification with Gamerscore. Sony and Valve added their own achievement tracking systems. Each of these companies, in one form or another began rewarding players for in-game accomplishments with a cute sound effect and a small bit of text. There’s a lot of commentary and discussion about whether or not achievements and systems to track them have been good or bad for the industry as a whole; there can be no doubt that Valve, Microsoft and Sony have some major precedents, creating, in essence extrinsic motivators for in-game tasks. “Gamification.” People devote quite a bit of time to explaining and trying to understand how achievements can be used to encourage certain kinds of actions for the player. Since the discussion began among academics and game designers, countless people have implemented these subtle psychological tricks into their systems and into their software, especially in the realm of social media. Websites like Klout and the prevalence of social games have only accelerated the spread of these techniques. Hell, Raptr even gamified games themselves.  Gamification is used to help add to traditional MMOs, free to play games, not to mention the potential real-world applications. It’s a big world out there. And, bit by bit, we’re turning it into one big game. I'll admit to falling into the gamification trap, to a degree. Earlier this generation I was steered way from Wii games because there was no way to track my progress and show it off to friends. I use services like Yelp to try to get some of the badges, and that encourages me to check-in everywhere and earn coupons.  These kinds of achievements are a sort-of sucker punch to our ancient monkey brains. They use little traits that we have picked up over the years to help us combat laziness. When we receive small rewards for things, we're more likely to keep doing them. It help keeps us engaged and active, and is a small safeguard against boredom.  The issue here is one that relates to a lot of free-to-play titles, in that players are drawn in, then kept there by manipulating the natural way their brains are wired. It is disingenuous and manipulative, but as I see more and more studios closing their doors or getting bought up by the juggernauts, I can't help but think that for many it's their only choice.  Achievements and such aren't universally bad, though. Valve, forever the innovator, has layered them into its games in ways that encourage exploration, unique ways of play or even using them to reinforce the events of a game.  For example, in Half-Life 2 there's quite a few achievements for finding random things. This is used to encourage more lateral thinking as well as exploration of the environment. In Portal 2 (minor spoilers ahead) there's a chapter called "This is the part where he kills you," a character that says "This is the part where he kills you," and right before "he" kills you, an achievement pops-up with the same message. Similarly, at the end of the game, there's an achievement called "Lunacy" with the text "That just happened." Anyone who has finished the game knows just how ridiculous that scene is, and having that little friendly sound effect accompanied by some hilarious text, only serves to reinforce the experience.  Achievements are something I guess I've learned to live with. I don't really like them, but at the same time, having some method of tracking progress on a website like Fitocracy has actually been pretty good for me overall. I've used gamification to my own advantage whenever possible and I feel like I'm steadily becoming a better person because of it. That said, I know now to avoid those products which I feel will try to manipulate me into investing more than I am ready or willing to.
Gamification photo
Achievement unlocked!
Leading up the possible PlayStation 4 announcement on February 20, I've been looking into some paradigm shifts we've seen over the past generation. This is stuff that will likely be with us for a while; these are things that ...

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Gamify launches network to help make a game out of life


Jul 13
// Victoria Medina
Gamification is a term that has sprung up fairly recently, though it only serves to label a trend which has been growing in popularity for years. One of the largest networks to get on board with this movement, Gamify, has bec...

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