Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

The Downsides of the Long Tail

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 23, 2016

The “Long Tail” is a glorious thing in the modern world. Thanks to global markets, digital distribution, and so forth, things don’t really have to retire from the marketplace. Wanna buy a tested, working, good-condition Commodore 64? It’s out there. Want to buy a copy of a book published in the 1930s? There’s a chance a digital version exists, or that someone, somewhere, has a used copy for sale. A copy of a PC game published more than 20 years ago? There are several places you can go. An indie game or book that maybe only sold a few copies several years ago? Hey, if it’s digital, there aren’t many reasons for the author or studio to remove it. Might as well keep it up for the one-a-blue-moon sale.

As a consumer, it’s wonderful, if perhaps a little damaging to my wallet.

As a creator of digital content, it’s mostly awesome. One of the phenomena of the long tail… the “backlist” as the authors call it… is that a new release boosts the sales of older, related titles (titles in the same series, by the same author / studio, etc.). It means older titles continue to generate a trickle of income which may be insignificant on its own, but collectively may be worth a pretty hefty revenue stream.

But there are a couple of downsides to be aware of:

#1 – Long-term support: The advantage of cutting off the long tail is that you don’t have to worry about supporting ancient products. Let’s face it… if MS-DOS 6.x was still for sale, the insignificant amount of income it generated wouldn’t be worth the cost of supporting the product for Microsoft. While an “as-is” clause in the EULA helps, there are still the costs of supporting the purchase page every time there’s a website update, etc.

#2 – Competition Against Older Titles: This is a biggie, and it’s what I preach to all indies who are hell-bent for creating clones of favorite “classic” titles. The bottom line is: In the modern world, you are still competing against that old, classic stuff. Maybe 10 years ago, you could get away with that to a point, because the classic you are imitating wasn’t available. But that’s not the case now. In a very real way, you are competing with EVERY SINGLE SIMILAR PRODUCT EVER CREATED IN THE HISTORY OF FOREVER.  And yes, this means the field gets more and more crowded each month, without the relief the consoles enjoy when they release a brand-new generation of hardware.

Video games have traditionally enjoyed a little bit of an advantage with #2 because they have been so technology-driven. A real-time rendered human character today will probably look and move far, far better than one from 10 years ago. And it probably works on modern systems much better, etc. But especially in the indie realm, this is becoming less true.  Since they avoid the cutting edge, they age much better. And even in the AAA arena, we’ve been hitting the law of diminishing returns for a while now with conventional gaming. It’s taking far more powerful technology and far more content development budget to make a noticeable difference. The tech-curve is flattening… which means we’re back to facing #2.

The bottom line there is that we need to keep making better stuff, and different stuff.  Titles that are not just a “me, too!” imitation. Not only are you competing against the original, but against all the other “me, too!” derivatives that have ever been released. What makes yours stand out?

Neither of these problems are insurmountable or even all that significant in the face of all the advantages of the “long tail” of distribution. But it rewards those who know how to play to its strengths.

Filed Under: Biz - Comments: 3 Comments to Read

  • Kyle Haight said,

    C.f. the short story “Melancholy Elephants” by Spider Robinson.

  • Cuthalion said,

    How does music do it? Or even movies, for that matter?

    Is it just as simple as most people not wanting to worry about looking further than the list of new releases?

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Marketing the new stuff, mainly. The old stuff can market itself.

    In the case of music… I was reading just the other day how the major music labels are bemoaning the drop in sales of their “evergreen” classic labels. The problem they noted was that they are used to having a constant churn of the old stuff because of format changes (8 track / cassette / record / cd ), and the fact that the old media would wear out and people would have to re-buy the same music over and over again. So in essence, they’ve always lived with the long tail, but it was artificially smoothed out.