Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

The Best-Kept Secrets

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 15, 2014

I once heard a veteran of the arcade-game industry talk about how the arcades were a great place for business Darwinism: Rapid turn-around, and the successes quickly rose to the top while the lesser games – and it was implied these were “not great” games though not necessarily bad games – quickly disappeared. According to this veteran, this caused a rapid “evolution” towards better games, as the best features of hit games became emulated.

I was too young to really see what was going on, so I can’t comment on that. But it does make me wonder if it was the quality or style of the games themselves that were truly the cause of the rise and fall of games in the arcade, or if it was more of a case of marketing and external elements. I don’t entirely embrace the “evolution” argument. Did games truly become better, or simply more similar? Perhaps the overall quality did go up over time – but I don’t believe that the barrier to success was restricted to game quality and appeal.

A friend told me about an experiment in inequality and the “cultural” marketplace. Test audiences were exposed to new music, and invited to download and keep some songs. The songs had indicators of how much they’d already been downloaded. Some of the songs had an artificially inflated number. What they discovered is that the artificially inflated number helped the popularity of some songs within the controlled audience, but could not others. In other words – some songs had hit potential and others did not. If a song had both hit potential and an apparent wave of popularity behind it, it could take off. A song that sucked rarely did well. Hit potential could not guarantee success, but it’s lack could guarantee the lack of success – or at least a large success. In other words, the distorted perception of popularity had some effect, but was not the sole contributor to the success or failure of the song.

The brave, new world of indie games completely dwarfs the arcade era in its heyday. In terms of both audience size and quantity of games getting released to the market, the difference is staggering. We have the Darwin machine on fast-forward once again, with success rapidly emulated (how many “Flappy Bird” clones have we seen in the last three months?) and failures lost and forgotten in no time.

I suspect that the more crowded a marketplace becomes, the higher the impact of the “distortion” the experiment references. Nobody can keep up with all the releases on mobile or PC. That’s both exciting and overwhelming. But it means that the audience becomes increasingly dependent upon some kind of filter to limit their choice to only those titles they are likely to enjoy. As a gamer, I don’t care so much about giving all games a fair and equal chance – I want to know I’m not wasting my own time.

This means that an increasing number of really good games are flying underneath the collective radar.  As a game developer and someone with an interest in the industry as a whole, this bugs me. It means that only a subset of games are really getting a chance – and a lot of stinkers are getting much more opportunity than some far superior titles.

I don’t know how to combat this. One of my great loves is to discover one of those unknown gems, and just have a delightful time playing a game that nobody has ever heard of. But it’s not like I have a very loud voice, or a lot of time.  I guess that kind of defines the problem – the guys with the time and broad audience are by definition the filters that get used.  What is a good mechanism to help people discover these “best-kept secrets,” particularly in ways that are not subject to massive “gaming of the system” by developers / publishers?

Filed Under: Biz, Indie Evangelism - Comments: 8 Comments to Read

  • McTeddy said,

    I wish I knew.

    The world is full of scams, tricks and ways to game the system. Everything seems to start with good intentions until some jerk realizes a “Technically legal” way to make more profit.

    The closest I can think of to a “Solution” is to make more friends who dabble in unknown and share your experiences freely.

    Maybe we could try a #HiddenGem or something on twitter where people who want to share lesser known games? But I assume that’d be overrun by people gaming the system within a week or too.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yeah. It would be hard for me to resist posting Frayed Knights as a hidden gem every month. 🙂 But it’s a start. I don’t want to just throw my hands up in the air because I can’t find a perfect solution.

    Some of it comes down to having a trusted filter or voice – the group of friends, as you said. Traditionally, that’s the role of the gaming journalist – but that whole industry is in the middle of a bit of an upheaval too. Possibly a bigger one that we’re seeing in the games biz.

  • Gareth Fouche said,

    The answer, IMO, is curatorship, the trusted intermediary who helps to direct your attention.

    Since your attention is limited but the available content seems to be growing exponentially, this type of middleman role will become more and more valuable, I think. We’ll see/are seeing the real rise of the digital “librarian”.

    Your friend network already acts as a crowd-sourced method of curatorship, as do review sites and youtube bloggers.

    And as competition increases along with the content load, I think you’ll see more specialization and niche focus, people distinguishing themselves by being “the strategy guy” and “the rpg guy” (ala Matt Barton). I’ve already seen youtube bloggers who only do let’s plays of indie games, for example. We’ve already got Table Top, an online tv show about board games, about as niche as it’s possible to get.

    Patreon, Kickstarter and other, perhaps yet-to-be-invented financial mechanisms may make these viable and valuable full-time careers, if it hasn’t already.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    As long as that curatorship is not concentrated in the hands of a few, that’s cool. As much as I hate having middlemen come between the creators and their audience, there’s definitely a useful role there. Anarchy only works for very small systems, and then usually not indefinitely.

    But there’s still the issue of *HOW*. Matt can’t keep up with the RPG releases. Matt, Craig Stern, and I *combined* might be able to tackle the PC side of things for RPGs, but still not keep up with mobiles & microconsoles. There’s not a lot of financial incentive to do so, certainly, so it’d exclusively be a labor of love.

  • ShadowTiger said,

    I think that this problem exists across all media and what we need is a service designed around automated recommendations based on your social circle, preferred genres, and various other influences. This could all be done with statistics if you had s large database to work with. (I”ve designed such a thing but the implementation would be filled with challenges even with unlimited resources. In the meantime we must spend time and energy filtering through the crud

  • McTeddy said,

    One of the things that concerns me about curators is that THEY too can be gamed.

    We see it all the time with standard review sites. They “must be unbiased” so they focus entirely on the technical side. Great game’s still fail to gain notice because the reviewer is focused on what THEY deem as important. Big budget devs make pretty and technically proficient games that make no attempt to be worthwhile.

    Even tabletop… it’s EXTREMELY biased. My own board game will never be on that show because it doesn’t fit into their needs. No matter how good certain games are they’ll never be on that show… with the exception of his videos showing games that will never be on the show.

    With close friends, they know me and what I consider acceptable. I can trust that they won’t send me in the direction of mass effect or the elder scrolls… or at least they’ll warn me up front.

    Asking a stranger to curate doesn’t do me any good because they don’t know what people like me enjoy. Instead… I’m stuck only playing their idea of fun.

  • Dataferret said,

    Evolution is pretty apt. Note that evolution isn’t necessarily a straight-line towards better and better biological lifeforms. The arcade ecology suffered a local minima problem where the games started self-selecting based on one goal only, gaming quarters. Unfortunately, given a finite number of coins, and a shrinking margin for arcades that got passed down to manufacturers, the climate around it shifted. That local minima everyone was working towards no longer was optimal, nor even supportive and thus it collapsed.

    The silver lining of it all is that like natural evolution, the industry creates many sub-optimal solutions. The Webbed feet perhaps. While technically a flop (pun intended) compared to the optimal solutions, it finds its niche in the wetter ecosystem over beyond the hills. Or perhaps the climate changes enough that amongst all possible solutions, it becomes the new favourite.

    That leads to the solution to find the best-kept secrets. Go somewhere else more appropriate to what you want or just hope and wait it out. (Also known as don’t fight the inevitable – just let it play out)

  • Gareth Fouche said,

    “Asking a stranger to curate doesn’t do me any good because they don’t know what people like me enjoy.”

    Well, the point is you will need to spend some time finding curators who do share your opinions. In the same way that I know certain game reviewers tend to like the types of games I like, or certain forum communities, so if those reviewers and those communities give a recommendation, I pay attention.

    Yes, that does involve some legwork on your part. You will need to spend some time learning whose opinions gel with your own. This is slightly easier when you see these individuals discussing which games they’ve played, what their favourites are, and why. This gives you a sense of whether you value similar things.