Market Share

[I had planned to post this on Tuesday, but I have been distracted during my lunches this week watching various videos of people playing songs from the upcoming Guitar Hero 2. Oh, how I long to play this game! The fervor of anticipation gnaws on me. There will be absolutely no productivity in my household during the month of November. (My only negative comment thus far, is that, unfortunately, the Alice in Chains song doesn’t appear to be covered very well. I guess only Layne Staley can do Layne Staley. Stupid druggy…)]

Late Monday morning, Penny Arcade’s Gabe posted his thoughts on the new Splinter Cell Double Agent demo. His post is significant for two reasons. First, Gabe’s posts, infrequent to begin with, usually favor brevity, and content is often in the guise of purdy pictures. Gabe’s post, however, rivals Tycho’s post in verbosity, nearly equaling the word count of his more linguistically favored compatriot. The second reason is that I had just finished a conversation with a coworker on the very issue that sits, like a writhing tangle of heartworms, at the core of his post.

To borrow from The Crow (said with the wonderful rasping intonation of Michael Wincott), “A man has an idea. The idea attracts others, like-minded. The idea expands. The idea becomes an institution. What was the idea? That’s what’s been bothering me, boys. I tell ya: when I used to think of the idea itself, it put a big ol’ smile on my face. Greed is for amateurs. Disorder. Chaos. Anarchy. Now that’s fun!”

While disorder, chaos, and anarchy are noble pursuits, perhaps for this discussion it might be better to substitute creativity and passion. Gabe’s post talks about how, to his grievous disappointment, core gameplay elements of previous Splinter Cell multi-player iterations were abandoned in the new installment. The result appears to be, despite auxiliary improvements elsewhere, a game diluted to appeal to the masses to such an extent that, while the trappings remain the same, it no longer plays like a Splinter Cell multi-player game. And no, it doesn’t appear that the change is an upward step on the evolutionary ladder, but an example of the dreaded voodoo of Corporate Entropy.

There is a very definite stigma associated with corporate properties. The visceral reaction that involuntarily affects a gamer at the mention of EA is a good example. The perception is that the corporate entity cares only about making money, and will milk its properties – usually acquired – for all their worth and then some. The quality of the product is secondary, if not altogether irrelevant. We hold independent talent in higher regard, knowing that, while perhaps not as polished as a competing Squenix product, the creators of that property are making it (usually) out of love and a desire to share what they hope is a good/innovative/fun idea with us, the discerning populace.

The conversation with my coworker was specifically about comic books, but the observed rule is applicable to industry in general. Someone creates a property. The property, due to its innate quality, attracts a market. As the property develops, the market continues to grow with it, establishing itself firmly as an economic entity. Now, the independent mind would take the profit from the first venture, having developed it to its full, intended realization, and invest it into creating a new property. The corporate collective, however, has a more taxing dilemma. The market for the existing property has peaked, but the corporation still needs to generate income, preferably in ever increasing amounts. Creating a new property is cost-prohibitive, requiring a massive investment of time and money to develop in the first place, aside from the fact that it is a risk, often times not deemed worth the projected payoff. Or, for very little investment and perceived risk, it can alter the property to make it attractive (in theory) to a larger market share. Economically, a no-brainer. (Often literally.)

The math behind this philosophy is the root of why the Corporate Paradigm is perceived as evil. In order to force a property to appeal for a larger market than it was originally intended, it has to be modified. That modification, by its very nature, will abandon a percentage of the property’s core followers, as the original property has now been perverted. The game that the Corporation plays is that the percentage of market gained will be greater than the percentage of market lost. They know that some people will stop buying their product. They don’t care. They don’t have to. So long as the net change is in their favor.

Of course, “greed is for amateurs,” and sometimes Corporate screws up, successfully mangling a property such that it is appealing neither to its base market, nor to the new market for which the mutations were performed. And we all lose when that happens.

So how do we protect our beloved independent creative-types? We support them and their work (when it is worth supporting). Yes, an Ouroboros lurks nigh. If we support them, then they succeed, then they are bought, digested, and shat out, leaving us back where we started. But we need to keep supporting them once they’ve been assimilated by Corporate, and we need to not support Corporate when they start being stupid. Just because Square-Enix pumps out a glossy game with the words “Final” and “Fantasy” scrawled across it followed by a bunch of Xs, Is, and maybe even Vs, doesn’t mean it is automatically worth buying. At the end of his career, Picasso could scrawl his name on a used scrap of toilet paper and people would pay huge sums for it. Be discerning. And spread the word. Money is everything, and if creativity is profitable, then companies like Clover Studio won’t be getting closed by Corporate, but will be embraced and nourished.

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