30 September 2008

The consumer’s perspective

This is in response to Dan Shoe’s articles over on his (and Crispin’s) blog.

While the dance between the publisher/developer and the press is a complex beast at the best of times, the way that the intended audience fits into the puzzle magnifies that complexity and the disparity between what each of those two(three) parties want. On the one hand the consumer is blasted with information from TV advertisements, billboards and buses, in the middle we are courted by magazine covers, gossip websites and enthusiast/developer blogs and on the other hand we have the consumer-consumer channels of feedback. It’s a three tier system.

The first level of assault on the consumer is simple enough to understand. Big marketing has been using and refining their techniques for well over fifty years now and the consumer, for the most part, has placidly let this encroach into virtually every aspect of our lives – in fact it’s pretty safe to say that we couldn’t live without advertising in the same way that we couldn’t live without the internet... we could but we are children of our time and don’t know how to. I’m actually going to say that this level of marketing is effectively screened out enough that it has minimal impact on our purchasing decisions: most of what we buy is based on tiers 2 and 3.

The second level is the most important because, if we’re honest, most of the information from tier 1 and 3 is derived in some form from those outlets were more information can be found. The second level is also where the PR companies and their clients interface directly with the system. Of course, different outlets pursue different functions/ideals and each are as important as the next; a gossip website such as Kotaku or Joystiq maintains overall consumer excitement and interest in upcoming products, analytical outlets like Gamasutra provide deeper insight into the industry for those interested and then there are the straight-up review sites (EDGE, 1UP etc. and magazines) which provide, subjective, but necessary reviews and scores.

I’m going to skip level 3 here because we’re all well acquainted with that and instead take a deeper look at the consumer’s rocky relationship with that second tier. First off: magazines and review sites. These are important interfaces with the general public – people who do not know developer names nor do they even care that a studio/publisher may have made one game or another before making the current game... and they maybe even more occluded than that. I have plenty of friends who are like this and having conversations with them about games or gaming is impossible simply because they do not know. They enjoy the games they have but will generally buy a game on hype from major marketing pushes and magazine covers and I’m sad to say that they probably make the majority of the market and sales for games. (Full disclosure: I have a friend who is a lawyer who did not see the problem with Microsoft having a monopoly on operating systems... he still thinks it’s okay despite me giving him the reasons against)

The problem with addressing Dan’s article is that anyone who read his blog or this blog or participated in the other outlets linking to his blog article cannot know what these people are thinking when they buy a game; what influenced them or drove them to that specific game. I can’t – I can guess, but it could just be that. These people aren’t wrong in their actions: they just don’t care about games or the industry in the way that I don’t care about the soap/deodorant industries. As long as I don’t smell that’s fine! Everyone disregards the man behind the curtain until something goes wrong... and then that’s where the second tier really makes their mark.

Information is power, many people have said, and giving information to people, whether it’s in a concealed or direct form makes a difference. One of the reasons that I believe that EDGE has been around so long is that it holds true to this tenet. Whether it’s covering the new games in previews, current games in reviews, looking at what makes the industry tick or opinions from around the world of developers, journalists and publishers let alone trying to deconstruct a game years after its release happens to make it valuable to consumers. It’s pretty much proven that these virtues make a publication (online and print) successful in the long term and you only have to look to gossip or TV listing mags to see the effects of being too shallow in your approach to a subject: it turns into a never-ending spiral of looking for the biggest and newest scoop you can find – which will be reported exactly the same way in every similar publication. Eventually a news story is published that isn’t entirely true or they trade their reputation on rumours and hearsay rather than actual facts and the next thing you know their readership has jumped ship to the newest and shiniest similar mag because of some gimmick (there was one recently that took the bold step of reducing the size of the pages so that it fit inside a medium-sized handbag. Genius!).

Now, all of this is preamble to the actual topic at hand (I’m a bad writer :/ ) but how does it all relate to the consumer’s experience? It does and it doesn’t. Simply put, whatever is done will be relegated to a successful or unsuccessful footnote in the industry’s history. Consumers don’t care (in the negative way) if one developer says something nasty about another or their (ex-)publisher or that there was a spat between two websites/a journalist and a PR representative etc. These events actually improve the relationship between the consumer and a company – people like knowing what’s going on and they're not stupid. Consumers like having access to scores and reviews and even sometimes both! They don’t hold any ethical questions above the articles in question and they don’t care what history the writer has with the genre or company... they take it at face value.

However, this is where the industry has to be careful. Take that step too far, abuse the intelligence or the faith of the consumer and you will be punished. It’s all to scale. Making bad on one (Gamestop) review will probably drive up your traffic overall and heighten your consumer awareness. Being known for firing the whole bunch of writers because of PR backlash might increase your traffic but also decrease the respect and faith the consumer has in your site. It’s the same with the games themselves. Ultimately, bad and buggy games sell – it’s why publishers/developers will just shove a game out the door – in the long run it does nothing to harm their business because they have a nice, high, protective wall around sales to the consumer. Repeatedly abuse those consumers or abuse them in such a way (the SONY rootkit scenario) though and you will feel their wrath.

I guess that my point is that the consumer enjoys the shenanigans of the industry. They revel in the lives lived and the games played. At the end of the day the opinion of a single consumer counts for little but add them up and suddenly they direct the industry as a whole – (ir ;))regardless of their knowledge of what should be done. The industry might think that they play the consumer but in reality the big game is always won by those who are thought to be controlled.

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