Why game discovery is vital – introducing Games We Care About.

games_we_careEvery few months, I get an urge to try something new as a side project, related to a problem. This time – though I make no claims it will FIX EVERYTHING – it’s intended to address this simple issue:

“I like playing video games, but there are so many damn video games nowadays. How do I find out about video games I might want to play?”

Obviously, the discovery issue isn’t new – though it’s been getting much worse of late. Video game discovery woes extend past mobile to PC and even console, as my indie dev friends are bemoaning. As someone who spends a LOT of time reading about video games, I’m dazzled and very overwhelmed by the sheer amount of beautiful pictures, videos and playables of games made by small and medium-sized teams all over the globe.

Our experience? You see a great-looking game, you see 10, you see 100 – after a point, you can’t situate them all in your brain. (Especially if you have to worry about other things, like making rent or having a pleasant social life or talking to your family.) And many of these titles you read about you can’t actually _play_ yet – you have to file your positive vibes away for when that game is available – and actually spot that it came out.

So where do you go to find out what you might want to play right now? The video game platform holders (iOS App Store, Google Play, Steam, etc) certainly have front pages where you can see a whole bunch of games. But there’s two main barriers to you finding what you want:

1. The Monopoly Of Attention

Mobile game stores are increasingly free to play-focused. (And there’s quite a few F2P titles on PC that act similarly, including DOTA2 on Steam.) Many top F2P games, even ‘casual’ mobile ones are designed – frankly – to be the _only_ game that you play, just as World Of Warcraft pioneered in the MMO space for the last decade. In this market, the immersive and all-encompassing bird gets the worm – there can be only one.

There’s nothing wrong with that – and don’t you dare suggest I’m anti-F2P, because I’m definitely not. Many of these titles are well-crafted and cleverly designed and very social. But the people who make those top-grossing App Store games aren’t really interested in the problem of discovery, simply because they will be splitting their ongoing proceeds with other titles if you play more games. They don’t want you to discover other games, particularly, except perhaps their own. (This isn’t the same situation as console games at retail or even going to the movies  – film directors know you will be watching other films before their next one comes out.)

That wish – for players to keep playing a _small_ amount of well-crafted ‘sticky’ games that they like and play daily – is, abstractly, true for the platform-holders. By letting the front page of their store largely be dominated by the most popular, highest-grossing games, platform-holders are ensuring that the public decides what is popular. And there’s nothing wrong with engaged gamers using their store and/or hardware to enjoy hot, hot video games.

Having the same ‘hit’ top-grossing games up there, month after month, is not a problem for platform holders. Those games will keep people using their platform or hardware, and maximize revenue. And this method even maximizes enjoyment in a raw, compulsion loop stylee – because these games _do_ have a lot of fun and playability in them.

It’s just rough to get people to break away and try other games – because that’s how the games are designed – as an experience, one level beyond a service. Even a lot of the top-grossing non-F2P Steam titles like Rust are designed around these levels of immersion and social interaction.

Thus – everyone is striving for ‘the monopoly of attention’. Curating will always be a secondary concern, because by design, curation cuts against market forces for the developer _and_ the store.

2. Too much good stuff, bundled together, too cheap!

The other issues are more often discussed. Simply, PC and mobile game stores are being flooded by both excessive choice and excessive availability, exacerbated by the ‘bundled content’ trend and the apparent ‘free’ price tag of F2P titles. Let’s break these down:

Excessive choice: this is obvious, and is much explored, most recently by Mike Rose’s Gamasutra article pointing out that there’s been more games released on Steam in the first 20 weeks of 2014 compared to the entirety of 2013. On the iOS App Store, it feels like only TouchArcade and Apple itself even has time to sift through the sheer amount of games that debut. (I once tried browsing every single iOS app/game that went live in a 24 hour period. WOW.) And then there’s the games that don’t even appear in any store – how do you even find those?

Excessive availability: this is badly phrased, but what I really mean here is the following. When you made a Super Nintendo game, how much did it cost you to publish one extra copy of a game? Quite apart from the cost of packaging and the memory chips, you might have to do a whole new factory run of the game.

But if you made a game a year ago and somebody wants to put it in a bundle, how much does it cost you to pass it along? Essentially nothing. The near-zero cost of incremental digital goods – plus the inability of those goods to go ‘out of stock’ – is warping the entire structure of media as we know it, in good and bad ways. (And the cost of making games has come _way_ down at the same time.)

The ‘bundled content’ trend: an interesting issue, and a trend that I freely admit to participating in through Indie Royale and via Storybundle. Firstly, I still believe bundling can be a good thing – especially compared to the value erosion around ‘monthly subscription’ or free streaming services in music/movies. But the danger is around the value gamers assign to the marginal titles in the bundle.

Generally, when you buy a bundle (of games, books, or anything) you’ll really be interested in one or two pieces of media in the bundle. On Storybundle, you might pay $12 for 7 books, but only really be interested in 2 of them. For those two, you’ve ‘paid’ $5 each, but the other 5 not only sit in your backlog to be read, you’ve ‘paid’ 20c each for them. Obviously, everyone is interested in different books or games or music, which is why bundling works. But the ‘near-zero cost of incremental digital goods’ problem is exacerbating the difference between release prices and bundle prices for games. (Release price: $20. Effective bundle price if you don’t care much about the game: 20c.)

And then, the danger is, bundles become curation events that actually _dissuade_ you from taking a close look at games when they release, because you might as well get the titles pre-curated at a massive discount, a few weeks/months down the line. That’s not good, long-term.

The apparent ‘free’ price tag of F2P titles: the hourly cost of playing F2P titles _is_ actually low compared to historical costs for playing video games. This is because a smaller percentage of players – the whales – make up a majority of the revenue. Again, this is not a judgment, just an evaluation, but it makes it more difficult for those who charge once and once only for their games.

And when people are charging less for their game in bundles, that further muddies the playing field. We need people excited about paying the creator for a game when it comes out, because games cannot exist on Kickstarter & bundles alone.

So, my idea? Turns out it’s a Twitter account, Games We Care About – http://www.twitter.com/games_we_care – and it’s fairly simple. Four times a day, somebody will recommend a video game that they care about (or think you should care about), with three or four words about why it rocks. The entire concept fits in 140 characters (including URL and a screenshot.)

The only rules? That the title is out now, purchasable standalone, and you might not have heard about. No bundles, no special offers, no Kickstarters to fund. Just games you can buy now from its creator(s).

There are plenty of other sites out there and social media posts talking about games that you will be able to get soon, or games that came out a while ago and are now cheap. But Games We Care About is simple – it’s focused on playing games now. The additional twist? We’ll get lots of guest curators – so far including Adam Saltsman, James Mielke and Colin Northway, with LOTS of diverse folks to come – to pick the games, alongside me. When smart people can discuss the games that have fascinated them, you get a unique cross-section of titles.

Of course, I’m not expecting Games We Care – which already has in the high hundreds of followers – to have any significant effect on the sales of a particular title in the short or medium term. In general, it’s only popular YouTube streamers – with viewers in the hundreds of thousands or millions – that really move the needle on game sales.

But talking about games like this does two things:

– Firstly, it reminds an actual human being that another actual human being (several, including retweets!) digs their game. Having worked on PlayStation 1 games where I literally never met anyone who bought one of my games, and only found out later via YouTube that people have fond memories of it, that means a lot. Same is true here.

– It may help, virally, to get other people who have greater reach talking about your game – the standalone version, not the ‘it’ll be great in the future’ version or the ‘available with 11 other games and you barely look at it’ version. That would be nice. And maybe some of those new players will identify with the developer, follow him or her, and pick up their next game.

So it’s not just the recommendation itself, it’s what we are telling the game-playing community that’s important. It’s about reminding people they can just enjoy (free or paid!) games in isolation, as a work of art or a mighty fun time, at any point. Not a Kickstarter. Not a bundle. A single thoughtful recommendation, four times a day, in perpetuity. We’ll see how far it gets.

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