Shelf Space

2920993639_173d82738e_o.jpgOne of the more memorable chapters of Scott McCloud's Reinventing Comics - his somewhat obscure followup to the paradigm-shifting Understanding Comics - is a critique of how much of the comics market (outside of Japan, anyway) is given over to superheroes. While acknowledging that he'd launched his own career with superhero tales, McCloud described the frustration that a comics creator faces when they wish to tell any other sort of story: that a graphical medium of boundless possibility should fail to have significant sales for anything other than the ripping adventures of flying musclemen in longjohns.

This came to mind for me as I recently started exploring multiplayer online games. Leaving aside certain Facebook games and other capital-c casual exercises, the space seems clearly dominated by either first-person shooters or MMOs. Wandering through discussions on web-based forums, or browsing the games that people were playing together on networks like Xbox Live or Steam, I found very little activity that didn't involve a picture of a gun poking out of the lower-right of the screen. This leads me to think about connections between these games' predominance and the consistent rank-and-file of men in tights on the walls of the comic shop.

Now, I'm not here to despair that other people have the nerve to buy media that I don't like as much as them. There's a perfectly natural reason for these sales patterns. Both superhero comics and first-person shooters are, for their respective media, probably the best known delivery vehicles for adolescent power fantasies. And adolescent power fantasies sell very well indeed to their core market, which comprises both actual adolescents (usually male) as well as adults seeking escapism. (And a glance at my own game library would suggest that I at least occasionally belong to the latter group.)

That's well and good, but it becomes a problem when one genre, adolescent or not, crowds everything else out of the marketplace. In Reinventing Comics, McCloud focused on the question of shelf space. When comics' primary sales channel involves people buying books at a store, then everyone in the publication chain after the creator -- from the publisher who chooses what to print, down to the retailer who stocks the shelves -- has an interest in maximizing the effort put into selling what's known to move. Only a bare minimum becomes invested into experimenting outside of that safe zone. Why take the risk?

I have to wonder whether the shelf-space question is as relevant to video games as it is to comics. There are shelves involved, after all; GameStop seems to be doing good business. But a place that sells video games is not like a bookstore. For the most part, one doesn't browse, picking up something that looks like it might be interesting. It's far more likely that one visits a game shop with a short-list of titles in mind, and will walk home with one of them or nothing at all.

Browsing does happen online, the location where an increasing number of game-sales occur. Increasingly, savvy game creators - including indies - make free demos available, and game buyers can make purchases with more knowledge and confidence in what they're getting, leading to a real everyone-wins scenario (at least for games that are smartly designed enough to hook potential players within five minutes). So, if the "shelves" of the internet are infinite in size, and the potential for variety of online games is similarly limitless, why do boyish explodey games continue to dominate the online space?

My totally uninformed conjecture of the week is that the store-based sales model for digital games is being artificially extended due to the greater entertainment industry's long since figuring out how to ring the fanboys' dinner bells, playing just the right notes so that they work up a good froth over a film or game that they won't be able to even see for another six months. The act of visiting the store to buy the game becomes the climax of an epic story that they get to be part of. (Actually playing the game is the resolution, and the story fades away quickly thereafter.)

Therefore, there remains a problem of finite space, but instead of physical shelving, the container is the market's total attention capacity. The whole market of game-players is quite a bit larger than the "core gamer" demographic, the fans salivating for the next shooty-shooty coming down the conveyor belt. But the message about these games, as picked up and propagated by the mainstream media, is large enough to cover the whole pie. The next Halo or Modern Warfare game now receives as much popular attention as the next big-budget superhero film does. The notion that there is a new solitary Game To Play Online -- inevitably a shooter or MMO, because these are the known sellers -- bleeds back from the general public into the game-player community, and numbs them to the fact that there's all this other great stuff to play with their friends.

Even as indie games, much like indie comics, find increasing success working the interstices of the online marketplace -- I am pleased to know a growing number of quit-their-day-job creators -- their art, at its best, tends to focus on creating sublime single-player experiences.

Making a successful multiplayer game in today's environment remains very difficult, because it requires crossing the additional hurdle of gaining the critical mass of players necessary to make the game playable as intended. This means getting word of your game heard over all the rattling gunfire of the predominant genre, and the independent, self-marketing developer's voice is usually strained enough as it is. (This isn't helped by the fact that making a working demo of an online multiplayer experience is a far harder problem to solve than creating a trial mode of a single-player game.)

That said, there are games finding ways to work around this problem. I plan on examining their ideas further in the near future.

Image credit: clevercupcakes, via Flickr.

This entry was posted in Essays, Jmac on Games  and tagged  , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Shelf Space

  1. David S says:

    I think the tides are turning, with services like Steam gaining popularity with the more savvy gamers, but the "AAA" market is still dominated by boxed copy sales on shelves.

    The "shelf space" problem is worse than you think. Game publishers are effectively renting shelf space from stores, especially the giants like WalMart which still make up the bulk of sales. Publishers are often required to BUY BACK copies of the games that do not sell. From end to end, the system is set up to viciously punish risk. And so, go into any game vendor and you will see exclusively:

    1. The current blockbuster titles (power fantasies for young men)
    2. Impulse purchase titles for ignorant parents (games based on licensed power fantasies for boys, unicorn dress-up adventures for girls, sudoku puzzles for everyone else)

    This is compounded by the publishing arms at most American publishers being run by people from the very stores that operate this way and you have a retail cycle that's extremely hard to break.

    Still, I'm optimistic. Indies continue to prosper as the tools improve and they get better at publicising their work. There is the occasional stand-out hit like Bioshock that at least tries SOMETHING new and raises the audience's expectations for AAA titles. Even the shooty-shooty games are experimenting with a bit of moral ambiguity, even if they are mostly fucking it up. Games CAN get smarter, if gamers and developers demand it.

  2. Of course, we have the larger problem mounting that even that online 'infinite' shelf space is not as infinite as it could be.

    Take XBLive's Indie Games interface, for example. It's shunted off into a sub-menu of a submenu. If someone is lucky enough to find it, the most recent games will be a mix of horrible JDating sims, vibrator apps, and one good game hiding in the middle somewhere. They don't come back!

  3. Andrew Plotkin says:

    I suspect there's an even stronger "shelf space" effect which is hidden from consumers, which is game studios selling themselves to large publishers. (In order to get the money to create a AAA title.) (But this applies at lower levels to midrange titles -- everything beyond shoestring, self-funded, totally indie developers.)

    In the printed book industry (where, by the way, that "publisher must buy back unused copies" rule is universal law, at least for paperbacks), it is a truism that the customers of a book publisher are not readers -- they're book *distributors*. Whose customers are big-chain bookstores. Human-beings-what-read-books only affect the system in an indirect and ass-backwards way. The same must be true in games: the publishers only have so much time and money, and they want smash hits. Or things that have the same shape as smash hits.

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