Curmudgeon Gamer
Curmudgeoning all games equally.
15 September 2006
Costikyan: GameTap doomed
So Greg Costikyan (of Manifesto Games) rants a bit about the game market, pricing, and GameTap -- all topics guaranteed to get my attention. Let me see if I can summarize, briefly:
  • Games don't spoil with time, as fruit do - The retail market is geared this way, however, so games go from premium price to bargain bin as they age. Online games, however, can sell for a fixed (lower) price for years.
  • PC market shinking, online market growing - The retail model is the wrong one for online distribution. There are many competing models for online distribution, and one or more of them will ultimately succeed and replace retail PC distribution.
  • GameTap model is bad (for Turner and publishers) - Currently a lot of old "spoiled" games are available for a relatively low (rental) fee. However, this model is built on a PC games market where old games are treated like spoiled fruit, and once things move online, where games will never spoil, that cuts off GameTap's supply. Moreover, publishers probably only get tiny residuals from games kicked into GameTap.
It's an interesting theory, and of course anyone giving decent reasons that GameTap will fail has my attention.

Of course, moving the games online where they don't spoil is contrary to my own interests -- I want a huge library of games and I want it as cheaply as possible. I love physical media, even in this age far past the era when the box and accompanying materials don't get one tenth the attention that Infocom used to put into them. I love used games under $10 and I sometimes luck into finding new ones at that price too. I like sifting the bins of crap (too often crap I already own) for that special gem of a game I've been seeking for months, even years.

Yes, I realize there are advantages to online distribution. I'm not comfortable with them yet, and I like exploiting the system I know. (As Ruffin would say, sticking it to the man...legally.)

There is another bit here that bothers me. Basically, the plan online is to charge $N for a game until the Sun burns out and we all collapse into a black hole. What bothers me about that is that -- with copyright extension -- this means the value of any copyrighted works which have renewable demand is essentially infinite. For example, if "Yesterday" by The Beatles were to stay copyrighted forever and future generations continue to buy it for the audio medium of their time (at essentially the same price, adjusted for inflation) then it would generate a theoretically infinite amount of money. Likewise, a game like Tetris, available through online distribution for a fixed price, not resellable, and eternally in demand would generate a theoretically infinite amount of money.

Something about that just rubs me wrong, but I'm not sure I fully understand why I feel that way.
--Matt Matthews at 14:20
Comment [ 9 ]

Comments on this post:

I'm not sure your summation of the rant is as precise as you would have liked, and it may be in part because his treatment of GameTap seems like it's still in the nascent stages, kinda like the thoughts in this post.

I believe that GameTap-as-bargin-bin is a good idea for Costikyan but that GameTap as a means of initial distribution is bad news. Developers won't, if they go online with a subscription model, get the dough they deserve, he believes.

I can't tell what the logic is there, though. If you get paid by the amount of time a gamer plays your game relative to others, say if I play Madden 15 hours a month and Civ for 5 hours, EA Sports gets 75% of my monthly fee and Firaxis gets 25%, how is that [necessarily] bad if the monthly fee is high enough? This is how it sounds like he means one to take his Civ3 example. You can't trick people into paying full price for bad games as they are initially released -- the hype factor -- but that doesn't seem to be his worry.

Obviously if first-run games get GameTapped, I'm betting the subscription fee goes up too. If they don't, the price remains bargin-bin-esque. There seems to be some disconnect with his arguments and, well, the operation of the market (or I'm reading him poorly, which is quite possible). If new games, which are fruit-like, are released via subscription, the subscription providers will charge out the wazoo to the degree that the market will allow them.

Does Costikyan want all games to continue to be worth a flat amount from release until, well, until FOREVER? It seems he'd like Civ III to be $20 FOREVER b/c, as Joel tells us, code doesn't rust. I don't quite follow that line either. As our resident example of the hard to anticipate game buyer, Zachary, has shown us, Civ 4 with eye candy and wongo-reqs is apparently worth more dollars to some than Civ 3 without, regardless of the fact that he thinks the game hasn't gotten any better or even changed outside of cosmetics and sys reqs. New games do get released, which make the old ones spoil to some extent, like it or not, in part b/c of considerations like the Zach-factor and partially because, well, they're new, daggummit.

In any event, I'm not real sure what your issue is with value FOREVER either. Are you worried about people saying that games don't get cheaper as they spoil/that they don't spoil, and therefore there's never a commercial incentive to have them enter the public sphere (as I'd say there eventually is for any copyrighted work; 'free' Nietzsche means 'anyone' can read and reap value)? Or are you scared that some collective, subscription treatments of game libraries means that, as they are pitched/recut/reedited for new platforms and media, the "new" edits of the games will be forever under copyright, and you'll have never gained the right to continue playing your legacy version? Not quite following, but the second of those does seem somewhat insidious, and the only way to battle it seems to be not to pay. iTunes' current success over Napster and friends should give you some hope there.

By Blogger rufbo, at 16 September, 2006 17:48  

I like that games get cheaper... I know myself that there are a lot of games I would never have bought if I had to pay full retail price for them. I either waited until the price dropped or got them used.

By Blogger Kat, at 16 September, 2006 19:24  

I don't agree that games distributed online won't "spoil," at least not entirely in the sense described.

Even if Half-Life 1 had been released only online, I don't see Valve selling it in original form for original full price after releasing Half-Life 2.

EA could get away with selling Madden one year and offering upgrades for a few years, keeping the base at original price. But they'll want to make money on the upgrades, but need to keep the complete "current" game affordable for new buyers. More likely than not, if EA were to do such a thing, they'd just kill distribution of the old versions when new ones arrived.

When a newer, better, upgraded version of something becomes available, demand for the older version will drop at least a bit. Like some PC programs.

The main reason I'd see for online distribution not reducing prices is not that the games haven't "spoiled," but just that they very well might not care if an older game ever sells another copy. It takes effort for them to change prices, and no effort or thought to keep them the same. Other than making money, they have no incentive to actually push old games. They don't have warehouses or shelves occupied by excesses, just space on probably an overlarge server.

By Anonymous Baines, at 17 September, 2006 04:12  

Well, the way copyright is supposed to work in the U.S.(and the reason it is that way is because it has seemed "fair and reasonable") is that it is supposed to protect the ability to generate revenue for the life of the author plus some small amount - or for 75 years (?) for a company-created work (which has been horribly abused in recent decades).

As far as full-price is concerned - well, I think in the long term the market will find what pricing "works." I think people will realize quickly that trying to charge $30 for Pong isn't going to work. Unfortunately, it means we customers are dependent upon publishers / developers actually getting a clue and actually trying to find a reasonable charge. But that's the right of the copyright holder.

I think less current games will generally seek a lower price, but as they don't "spoil", I think that there is a floor to that price. It really depends on the game. I would have a tough time paying more than $0.50 to own the original Pong. But Final Fantasy III? That might be worth a few dollars.

By Blogger The Rampant Coyote, at 18 September, 2006 01:16  

Well, the way copyright is supposed to work in the U.S.(and the reason it is that way is because it has seemed "fair and reasonable") is that it is supposed to protect the ability to generate revenue for the life of the author plus some small amount - or for 75 years (?) for a company-created work (which has been horribly abused in recent decades).

But what happens when you continually license a subscription and update your delievery with each new system? At what point does what pass into the public domain?

Free [Steamboat] Willy.

By Blogger rufbo, at 18 September, 2006 01:29  

Personally I'm adversant to almost all forms of physical media. I hate paper mail. Anything on a disc has a decent chance of getting lost or ruined in my hands. I don't like constantly finding new creative way of storing a library of stuff I barely use.

Oddly, I own a lot of books I refuse to part with. Just weird that way.

Still, current models don't thrill me. I hate Steam. Nothing about GameTap has gotten me to try it. I really liked for a while - but their library really withered.

By Blogger Josh, at 18 September, 2006 10:43  

Responding to rufbo, I guess that either Costikyan thinks the current Gametap monthly fee is way too low, or that the monthly fee is unworkable any other way -- that is, if it were high enough to provide adequate revenue for developers, then no one would pay it.

This seems to ignore similar schemes such as satellite radio and cable tv. [see ASCAP; see Sopranos] I agree with Ruffin that the market could probably find a suitable price point for monthly fees.

My understanding is that Costikyan thinks that logically a game should have a flat price and be worth that forever, because software isn't fruit (meaning it doesn't go bad).

This is superficial. Lots of things drop in price for reasons other than physical decay. New cars at the end of the model year, for example. The second run of movies.

Depreciation is a result of novelty (we like new), but also constant obsolescence. Civ has been used as an example -- one might ask, if Civ were making ongoing income, why develop Civ II at all?

Because if you don't, someone else will. The market doesn't stay still -- new games are developed to eat the market share of old games. Which lowers demand for the old games. Which, I have been told, will encourage lower price.

This ties in to jvm's worry about infinite revenue generation. For as long as I've been alive, "Yesterday" has been copyrighted, and has been bought on successive audio media. And while the copyright holders have made themselves a heap of money, not only are they not at "infinite", but I predict the amount they make from "Yesterday" has shrunk significantly since the 60's.

Even infinite copyright term can't guarantee infinite revenue, because generally there's always more stuff out there, and we're not all that picky about what stuff we consume. "Yesterday" is good, but it's not _so_ good that a significant percentage of kids today feel they _must_ have their own copy (distinct from their parents). If it costs the same, maybe they'll get that Pink song instead...after all, they can always get "Yesterday" some other time...

Don't get me wrong, I hate me the ridiculous copyright term. Insofar as a copyright encourages creation, it's good; but the longer it is, the more it restrains the distribution of and access to those creations, and that's bad.

But I don't think either an infinite copyright term or GameTap is necessarily going to destroy civilization.

By Blogger Bob, at 18 September, 2006 17:06  

I always felt that a lot of the problems in the U.S. come from the fact that corporations have too many of the rights of an individual. If corporations weren't able to hold a copyright, there would not be copyrights of 70+ years, or even more extensions to the copyright term every time certain media outlets' earlier IP is about to go into the pulic domain.

At some point, you have to admit that "Yesterday" no longer belongs to the Beatles, and especially not to the current copyright holder. At some point, "Yesterday" belongs to the world. It is part of our history, woven into the very fabric of our culture, and the idea that we will forever have to pay to know it is morally repugnant.

The corporations are not even targeting their destruction of our cultural heritage, but take a slash and burn approach to it, on the idea that some minor IP may some day be worth even meager profits. They rob us of... well, everything, in the hopes that some bad,t wice removed, ripoff of a Mike Hammer novel will some day be worth a few bucks.

Hell, I'm even pissed about forever taking that bad novel. It may have affected far fewer people than Pong, but who can say what might have sprung from the seeds it sowed. Who knows if one day it will be analyzed and shown to be an important inspiration for "Cien Anos de Soledad".

And what of the works that are truly lost? How many films have rotted in their containers because those interested in preserving them were not allowed to copy them?

I just think the world would be a little better if corporations weren't allowed to hold copyrights, and the copyright terms were dialed back a bit.

By Anonymous Tony, at 20 September, 2006 04:07  

Wow Tony, I couldn't have said it better myself.

By Anonymous mordrak, at 22 September, 2006 17:55  

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