Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Sturgeon’s Law and Curation

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 11, 2013

“Ninety percent of everything is crap.” – Sturgeon’s Law.

This is the commonly rephrased version of an adage by Science Fiction author Theodore Sturgeon, when he was defending science fiction – explaining that it was hardly unique in having lots and lots of bad examples out there.

The thing is, Sturgeon’s Law was coined in the 1950s, when all of these things were curated by gatekeepers, in the form of publishers. Granted, there were often quite a few more (and of varying levels of quality) than there were a couple of decades later, when things got massively consolidated.

Arguably, the gatekeepers – who I’m not a big fan of, as you know – did do an okay job of acting as filters in the games and book biz. If all you are doing is comparing the ratio of gems to crap in the marketplace, then they arguably did their job. The ratio was higher after passing through these gatekeepers than before. And in many cases, they were in a position to help polish the gems.

My problem is that I feel a lot of rough diamonds got filtered out as well. After all, about a dozen publishers rejected Harry Potter. Regardless of your opinion of the books, the success of that particular empire speaks for itself. (While I liked the Harry Potter books myself, I have to grudgingly grant a similar acknowledgement for the Twilight series).  Just imagine if Rowling had quit after the seventh or eighth rejection. The world of fantasy fiction, young adult literature, and the mainstream publishing industry would be a vastly different landscape than it is today.

But the same thing could possibly be said if the editors hadn’t been on-hand to help her polish The Philosopher’s Stone to an appropriate gleam to attract enough of an audience for the book to hit critical mass.

With the modern indie explosion across all media, there’s a distinct lack of curators, which means the gem-to-crap ratio naturally diminishes. But it also means the sheer quantity of titles goes through the roof, and while there might be ten times as much crap out there as there used to be, there’s maybe three or four times as many gems.

As a veteran gamer and indie game fan, I’m very pleased with this. I know where and how to look (well, sometimes), and I’m reasonably well-enough plugged into what is going on that I get delighted by a lot of gems that would never have seen the light of day in the old days. This thrills me to no end. Many of my favorite games of the last five years would never have been released if it hadn’t been possible for indies to succeed making an end-run around the traditional, mainstream industry.

But what about the new gamer? The audience member exploring the indie scene for the first time. According to Sturgeon’s Law, their first experience is likely to not be of very high quality.  In fact, going with the (conservative) 90% crap percentage, from a purely probabilistic random sampling, it’s not until they’ve waded through about seven crappy experiences before they encounter their first gem. How many people will stick with it that long?

This is the argument for a greater need of curation, now that the traditional gatekeepers of media have fallen on their butts. This is exactly why games that are on Steam have far, far more success than others. Steam is easy, well-known, and offers at least some minimal guarantees of quality. Places like GOG.COM do the same, but they are less well-known. By limiting the quantity of everything and increasing the quality of what remains, the curators help audience members find reasonably quality experiences, which is good for the health of the market. People who have good experiences are likely to keep it up.

There are some problems with this view. Number one – I think there is a sliding scale between pure, liquid crap and a gleaming masterpiece. The 90% (or 95%, or 98%) threshold is a bit arbitrary. There are plenty of games, books, and movies that I’ve enjoyed (and even loved) that are unlikely to be among the top-ten-percent of their field even by my own biased estimation.

Secondly… well, back to the bias thing. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. It gets especially weird in an era where rapid communication paired with the relative anonymity of reviewers (it’s another large group with few gatekeepers) encourage something of a groupthink. I know many review sites are under pressure to make sure their reviews of any game aren’t too outside the norm – within the standard deviation – lest their reviewers or process come under suspicion.  The same holds true for any sort of curation or greenlighting – there’s safety in numbers. You don’t want to be the sole cheerleader on a project that later tanked.  I’m sure there was a lot of safety in rejecting Harry Potter, just as there was plenty of safety in heralding the latest Bioshock as a masterpiece. (For the record, I liked Bioshock: Infinite, too. A lot. I just didn’t think of it as particularly groundbreaking – just well-executed).

One approach has been to embrace the power of the masses or of rapid communication (as Steam Greenlight and GameRankings have done) and simply let quantity trump quality in terms of ranking and curating titles. The problem is that this technique may make plenty of business sense, but doesn’t serve the consumer very well.  These systems get gamed and abused pretty badly. They tend to reward less-than-ideal behavior or features, but like the old gatekeepers, they do tend to result in a higher gem-to-crap ratio, so by that measure they are successful.

What I’d like to see, rather than an appeal to the wisdom of the mobs, is the kind of system where potential customers can instead be lead by recommendations by people with similar tastes. Sorta like how Goodreads (or, for all its flaws, Amazon) is going… but for games. In order to reduce the lure of consensus, I’d like to see specific reviewers highlighted. If you find a particular reviewer / journalist who you like – even if your tastes don’t match – I’d like to see that reflected.

What I do not want to see (and I sadly see us sliding that direction) is a return to the bad ol’ days where a handful of gatekeepers pretty much dictate what can be discovered by interested gamers.  I think we need guiding voices more than ever (simply because there are more titles appearing every day than there ever were before), but I want to see these as guidance, not limitation.

Filed Under: Biz - Comments: 8 Comments to Read

  • kevin0xf said,

    I believe that Steam’s curation is why I have liked it so much, and why it has been more successful than other online marketplaces. Steam has always seemed to have a base level of quality that makes buying an interesting looking game seem safe, even if it turns out to be a game I don’t like. Of course Steam seems to be determined to throw that away with recent titles like Citadels and the RoK:Blade of destiny remake. I wouldn’t be so pissed about it if I didn’t expect a base level of quality from Steam, and it wasn’t(in the case of RoK) a blatant money grab for nostalgics. I am still hoping to get store credit for RoK as it is over a month from release and close to 30 patches and the game is still buggy/missing huge pieces of content.

  • Corwin said,

    In principle, I totally agree with you. There are certain reviewers of books, movies,games, etc that I trust even if I disagree with their opinions. However, with so much paid reviewing it’s difficult to see the forest for the trees. I trust the reviews we put out on the Watch and I’ve found the Codex and Banshee fairly reliable as well. However, we are small fry and the general ‘populace’ has likely never heard of any of us. The problem then is getting a central site which can link to these independant and definitely unpaid for reviews.

    PS, don’t forget to send me a fiver when FK2 is released. 🙂

  • Felix said,

    It might take a few more tries to stumble upon a gem among all the crap nowadays, but it’s also a lot easier to try out more games when each of them costs $10 instead of $60. So the chances that you’ll last long enough to find the hidden gems may well have increased, even without curators.

    As for ordinary people acting as curators for each other, isn’t that what blogs are for? You’ve been engaging in some of it yourself.

    More generally, I always make a point of recommending things to those friends who might be interested in them and nobody else, so I don’t overwhelm. There’s Twitter, instant messaging… lots of possible channels, but they all work the same, or so they should. Too bad people have been conditioned to expect their friends to share every stupid little thing that catches their eye, and so no longer trust genuine recommendations.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    @kevin – Right, exactly. I’m not satisfied with it personally, as Steam’s filtering blocks way too many niche games that appeal to me. But I think for a newcomer to PC gaming and indie games, Steam’s a good place to start, as the average quality tends to be higher. It’s “safer.” And you can’t say there’s not enough selection there.

    But I’m actually really liking Desura these days – it’s loaded with a lot more crap than Steam, admittedly, but it also has a lot of weird, quirky, cool, and sometimes ingenious games. You have to dig a bit more, but it’s there. But even Desura has some level of curation, and there are some incredible indie games that have mysteriously never made it to Desura.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    @Corwin – Really? You guys need to expand your audience so you can charge bigger bribes… 🙂

    Actually, sometimes I wonder if it’s the honesty of certain gaming sites that limits their appeal. When you aren’t willing to bow down to the gods of AAA gaming and riding on those coattails. But who knows?

    I know that there are several reviewers / journalists that I trust – again, not necessarily in agreement with all their opinions (sometimes, like in the case of Leigh Alexander, I have some very strongly differing opinions), but they are simply fun to read and honest about what they think.

    Whereas I have a close friend who was once a game reviewer for a couple of sites, who was heavily pressured to change her score on a game after the site got calls from the president of the game studio ripping them a new one for their outlier score (which was in the 80s instead of the 90s). Eventually, they convinced her that she’d reviewed a pre-release with more bugs than the actual release, she re-played it a little bit, and succumbed to the pressure to give it a few more points in the end. She did a couple more reviews after that (I think they only sent her “unimportant” low-visibility games after that), but then quit. She lost all interest in reviewing games.

    Now, I personally disagreed with her opinion in this case, as it is one of my favorite games, and extremely worthy of being in the mid-to-high 90s IMO. But as she’s a friend, even though our tastes don’t always align, I like to hear what she says.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    @Felix – But it is as hard to find these voices as it is to find some of these games. 🙂

    As I wrote this post (and pondering on it afterwards), I kept thinking about GarageGames’ aborted Great Games Experiment. I guess the experiment failed… it just kinda lost all support after a few months.

    What we don’t need is another review score aggregation site… I think GameRankings has done enough damage. What we really need is a place (or places) with high traffic and an emphasis on customized discovery. How do you find those obscure games that *YOU* might personally find awesome?

  • kevin0xf said,

    @Rampant Coyote Yeah, Steam does miss a lot of things that appeal to me as well,(FK for one!) but it’s a lot easier to get a friend to go to Steam to buy a game than random indie company website #3453.

    As far as Desura goes, I really want to like it, but the interface is so awful. I really only buy games there when there are no other options.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yeah, I wish you were wrong on the Steam vs. random website thing, but… it’s Truth. It’s frustrating.

    I really don’t want Steam to gain a veritable monopoly on the indie games scene, though. ‘Cuz when they are hungry and fearful of the competition, they will stay fair to customers and creators. When that’s not the case and they know they can get away with it, things will change for the worse, in spite of “best intentions.” It’s simply how things work.

    I haven’t had too big of a problem with Desura’s interface, other than not having a refresh button. Have you sent them any suggestions for how to improve things?