It's an exciting time for gaming. While NPD reports tell you sales are down and no one is making money, the industry is pushing forward and leaving such news behind. These reports are becoming increasingly less relevant in a digital age, an age where monetization and sales have less and less to do with the retail console market - the only place that data is relevant. In the midst of this turbulent time, with new consoles releasing from the big three within the next 18 months, one oft-ignored market is already changing, and changing fast. The PC market isn't just ahead of the curve, it's paving the whole road, and the people driving that change aren't publishers or console manufacturers, they're you: consumers. Welcome to the revolution.
Before we get into the changes, let's talk about what they're actually changing. To do that you need to understand what game publishers are, and what their goal is. Game publishers are corporations which publish video games either licensed from outside developers or ones created through internally owned studios. They are generally corporate-facing companies, which means while consumers are a large interest, their decisions are generally made to appease partners and investors. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. Many very successful and popular companies like Microsoft, Sony, and Apple operate this way. That said,gaming publishers have one main goal: control. For a corporate-facing company, a company whose primary concern is the bottom line, there is nothing more valuable than a predictable market. The console industry has been very carefully constructed in this image.
To gain market control publishers will push for a few things. While these publishers have and will continue to publish small and sometimes very clever games, their focus, as you've surely noticed, is always around the most predictable market segment: 13-25 year old males, who absolutely love violent action games and shooters. The vast majority of development budgets and advertising go into that "young male" content. There isn't a single offender of this; all of the largest publishers make games primarily for this audience. EA pushes Madden and Battlefield, Activision pushes Call of Duty, Take Two pushes Grand Theft Auto, and Ubisoft pushes Assassin's Creed.
Let's play Name That Generic Military Shooter!
The other things that benefit these publishers are high development costs and a market that buys games primarily on advertising, because it keeps the market insular. It leaves very little room for someone new to come in with a disruptive product and compete... at least without going through them, and that's really the beauty of this system. Everything goes through them. Consumers, developers, and even the platform holders themselves. All of these people depend on the big mega-publishers to sell and drive the market... at least that's how it used to work, but things are changing. The stars are aligning, and the efforts of many different companies and outside entities are removing large portions of publisher power all at once, but ultimately this change is being driven by an incredibly powerful force, one that the publishers worship and fear like a vengeful god: consumers.
So where did this change begin? Well, it’s hard to really say, because the big pieces of it have all fallen into place fairly recently, but the public perception that the importance of publishers had lessened began with Kickstarter, and more specifically with the massive success of the Double Fine Adventure campaign. Double Fine, seeking to separate themselves from the publishers who consistently denied them funding to make the adventure game they wanted to make, single-handedly popularized crowdsourcing for indie developers. They shattered their expectations, and many kickstarter records. The media attention garnered by the campaign attracted many gamers to Kickstarter permanently, and many of the biggest media sites now run regular articles on “kickstarter projects we love” to promote interesting games. Do all games make it through? No, not even close, but it’s become a major alternative funding source, and it’s driven completely by consumers.
Publishers say "no," consumers say "shut up and take my money!"
“But Nick,” you say “That’s not enough. Surely there’s more to your claim!” Indeed eager reader. While Kickstarter is a piece of the puzzle, there are many other places where consumers are taking back the power. One of the best examples is Valve’s Steam service. Steam has always been notably supportive of indies, giving them equal attention to big publishers and tons of exposure in sales and bundles. This is great and all, but the recent push of Steam Workshop and the upcoming Steam Greenlight are where the changes are really showing. In a recent interview Valve expressed how incredibly powerful their community was, and how they had become the driving force in content in many of their games. Steam Workshop is the vehicle for this, and through it mods and other user created content have become a major focus of the service. Instead of hunting down mods on Nexus and having to screw with compatibility and checking for updates, suddenly anyone can search for them and add them, along with other user content like items and weapons.
Let’s talk about Greenlight. So Valve faces a problem many platform holders face. How do they support independent development without publishing so much stuff that the things uninteresting to consumers get buried? Well, their solution is to just let consumers decide for themselves. Steam Greenlight is a service that Steam offers to independent developers to circumvent their normal approval process. Instead, developers put their games on Greenlight, which is integrated with the Steam workshop. There, just like they would pitch their game to a publisher, they can pitch information about it to the consumers on Steam. If a game gets a certain amount of upvotes, congratulations! Your game is now approved to be sold on Steam (barring a final veto by Valve). So there are now two direct ways for publishers to get games to their consumers. One for funding, and one for publishing on the world’s largest digital distribution service, as well as a system where content creation and dsicovery is driven by consumers.
Greenlight is prepared to help you find and promote great games, no publisher required.
If you look hard enough you’ll see this rising in other places as well. Small games are getting massive attention. Ouya was funded in the hopes that it will be free from big corporate domination (something people had originally hoped would happen on iOS and Android, but that market is now dominated by a few large sellers as well). Minecraft and League of Legends rose from the humblest of beginnings to the greatest of successes. Free-to-play, while still experiencing growing pains in some less friendly business models, now allows for a huge amount of consumer choice. Play it before you pay for it. Humble Indie Bundles give the power to choose pricing to consumers, and they’ve experienced massive success as a result. There’s huge potential for game development in embracing the power of crowdsourcing.
Are these things going to kill publishers? No, but they’re leading to some incredible changes and discoveries. Things like Ouya, Double Fine Adventure, Wasteland 2, and Shadowrun Returns which would never have existed, now do! You'll have a chance to discover your own unique projects on Steam, and help games find an audience without the interference of corporations pushing for nothing but formulaic blockbuster games and massive advertising budgets. This is really the ultimate goal of capitalism. This is the purest form of consumer power. You now have direct choice, and publishers, while they won’t be killed by this, absolutely fear it. These systems represent a loss of control. Those blockbusters they feed us year after year (many of which I’m excited about) aren’t the only face of gaming anymore. Upstarts like Riot Games and Mojang can become multi-billionaires without ever stepping foot near a mega-publisher.
It's not just about the games. Content creation for the mainstream is now driven by consumers as well.
The revolution is here. It’s changing the way games are developed, funded, discovered, and distributed, and it wasn’t the result of one major corporate decision or some design on the industry. We, the gamers, have created it on our own. We have banded together and driven this industry forward in new ways. Sure, it’s mostly just PC gaming for the moment that’s pushing these boundaries, but things have changed, and the floodgates are open. Welcome to a new era, and prepare for the amazing new games that will be discovered by ripping this industry wide open.