I grew up in music. I began performing in early elementary school. I performed in every band in high school including a rock band I did my best to help promote. I received my undergraduate degree with a dual emphasis in music management and percussion performance. I spent the better part of 15 years working in music retail, a radio promoter, marketer, events planner and continued occasionally performing as well and continuing to study it while achieving additional degrees and certifications in marketing, management and IP law. To this day I’m still a DJ, a music journalist and a basement percussionist. I know the business of music as well as anyone who survived it.
Since ‘retiring’ from music and moving into the tech world as a career I’ve found myself knee deep in mobile gaming and much of the burgeoning business seems all too familiar.
So, is the mobile gaming world the next music industry?
I would say yes. And, I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing.
For starters, they’re both within the entertainment vertical so I don’t find the parallels all that surprising even if it does seem a little blaspheming.
Gaming developers are incredibly artistic individuals who are primarily devoted to creating amazing products. They don’t usually come complete with business savvy and other specialized skills already in place. Musicians are much the same. Great at composing and performing their art but not always as skilled in the complexity of leveraging the most lucrative aspect of their intellectual property – monetization. In order to make money on their music they needed both the capital and expertise to market and distribute it and since most musicians didn’t have that knowledge or possess either the time or the willingness to obtain it they employed others to do it for them. You actually find similarities too with novelists, actors/ress, visual artists and many other creative types excelling at content creation but not so much in what to do with their art.
The employ others to do it for them mentality in music gave rise to music publishers, record labels, artist managers, booking agents, promoters, manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers, merch companies, lawyers and a whole enormous interwoven industry both assisting and picking the pocket of the content creating musicians. Not dissimilar, game development in the early days was heavily dependent on the console manufacturers subsidizing their work. Although individual devs lacked the rock star status of their musician counterparts on the content creation, devs were forced into the same layered system of marketers, manufactures, wholesalers, retailers, lawyers and, yes, even on the rare occasions personal representatives. Again, this repeats itself within the book publishing, movie and visual arts industries too as a tried-and-true way of structuring the division of labor specializations.
Gaming used to have a high barrier to entry. Understanding how to code and having the capital to undertake a long, complex coding process where prohibitive. Furthermore, opportunities were made fewer by the cost of producing the physical items associated with the game (cartridges, game discs, etc.) as well moving product through the limited distribution channels. With the advent of coding tools and language simplification the barrier was lowered, combined with the lack of creating a physical version of the game in the fully digital mobile distribution ecosystem that allowed for ease of entry for almost anyone interested in producing their idea. Music underwent the same change moving from requiring a level of performance proficiency to being able to create music with very little traditional musical knowledge with the likes programs like Pro Tools. Meanwhile manufacturing and distribution changed completely as digital files became the primary consumable lowering the barrier to entry and reducing the apparent need for some layers of specialization. In both cases this moved gaming and music away from the traditional third-party help they’d always turned to increasingly making for independent content creation. The same trend could be found, although perhaps to a lesser degree, in written content publishing with the explosion of blogging, or in AV (film & video) with video services like YouTube, etc.
The lack of a physical product devalued music to near-zero cost status. The original MSRP of 14.99-18.99 for an 8-18 track bundle was eroded to free and then re-instated for a time as a 99c-per-track fee with the monetization schema changing yet again through a number of distribution experiments. The perceived value of music is socially skewed to the point of commoditization, everyone just consumes for the sake of consumption with no relative scarcity to promote effective consumption pricing. Gaming is undergoing the same kind of relative change. The original MSRP of a single game could be upwards of 39.99 with premium titles going for double. The advent of digital distribution saw an effective price drop to zero, at least in up front cost. Players consume for the sake of consumption. Some chose to pay through IAP or are subsidized by advertising but the end user’s perceived value is also socially skewed to the point of near commodization.
Through these digital platforms the gaming community has seen its own release schedule continue to explode, particularly driven by mobile. The shear number of applications appearing in the market places like the Apple App Store or Google Play made discoverability increasingly more difficult. Furthermore, gaming is experiencing a kind of casual renaissance as apparent simplicity is driving market growth further. It isn’t about hardcore guys in their basement anymore and this market diversification had the adverse effect of hiding the “good games” in a sea of simple clones and overly basic designed mechanisms. The inundation of new entrants into the market place increased more than 10 fold the number of available releases in a given year for music. While the deluge of content was initially seen as a boon especially for indie bands, however, it increased the difficulty in discoverability. The old adage of the cream will rise to the top was challenged by an ever increasing number of simplistic one hit wonder social network driven efforts being spawned and thus undermining the notion of quality. In time new niches were carved out in response which provided a different kind of opportunity for both consumers and musicians, but one that neither fully understands or presently appreciates. Generally, the majority of new releases remain unheard through all the distribution noise.
Musicians began making that same realization not long ago and it’s created a new type of industry assistance for musicians. Ot has shaped the way many musicians are forming their relationships in order to craft inner circles that can assist with the new tasks of marketplace discoverability particularly, be it in digital distribution or on the road or via social media. Both new technology tools and new business partnerships are happening to assist musicians in reaching at first the most targeted of fans and then in broadening their marketing appeal to reach a wider consumption audience. It has not been easy and many are still unsuccessful but it’s the current trend. In order to overcome both commoditization and discoverability problems game developers are increasing turning back to third-party assistance rather than continuing to go at it on their own. For the mobile community has gone much the same way with publishers and marketing firms popping up and even now developer representatives (like artist agents) getting involved adding more layers of complexity to the creative process. Again, you find similarities within written content, AV and the visual art world in how those content creators are branching out and asking for specialized assistance in order to grow their presence in the market.
Gaming’s transformation over the last few years seems like a seismic shift compared to the apparently slow pace of change the music business experienced over the last decade and a half, however each represent paradigm shifts in the established and prevailing logic about creating, distributing, marketing and monetizing that are effectually very, very similar. What gaming can learn from music is both in the mistakes and failures that musicians and the industry as a whole have experienced.
That includes how to interact with one’s fans as one of the most important drivers to success. Musicians began this process back in the days of MySpace and since have had numerous communities sprout up to help bridge that gap from ReverbNation and Last.FM to Bandcamp now as well as the social stalwarts like Facebook , Twitter and YouTube. This direct line to the fans has proven invaluable for everything from tweaking song compositiosn and recording demos to planning tour dates to generally marketing themselves as an endeering brand to their most ardent and evangelical fans. Developers are finally getting this same kind of directly line to their most interested players be it through early experiments with setting up their own demo sites with message boards to communities like Steam, Kongregate or Google Plus Beta Test Communities or again leveraging a presence on the big guns of Facebook, Twitter and especially YouTube. The key is closing the product feedback loop earlier to optimize the game, build a trust with fans around their brand and soften the release schedule so it’s more participatory which creates more buzz.
And, this last part is key because buzz used to be the design of a publicity campaign hitting up traditional print magazine’s specializing in gaming in order to preview what the next big game might be. Now, that privilege is more democratized as the most ardent fans on YouTube channels showing real time footage are the gatekeepers of new game info and not journalists, who for years, have seem some of their sway erode across the board to bloggers. As the genrefication of games continues to fragment the bloggers are able to fan out and define niches giving more games better coverage than only a handful of mags could possibly have done before. This falls much in line with musicians who have been leveraging the fanzine for decades as it moved from self-printed, hand staple bound one color handouts online to bloggers. As big as any journalist is there’s a number of genre specific music bloggers who command the same kind of reverence in their respective music communities while doing more music more justice in their coverage. While, there are stronger and weaker gatekeepers within the music world there’s more overall due to the proliferation of technology and musician’s embracing those who embraced it.
And that to me is just the beginning of the more obvious comparisons. Game devs would be well worth to look closely at their musician peers. Discuss how artist management and record label contracts are structured with rights ownership, advancement & recoupment schedules, profit sharing, marketing spends, etc. since game publishers are using the same templates that music has relied on for years. Compare notes on marketing channel opportunities like ad networks, SEO/ASO, Facebook & Twitter campaigns, etc and related metrics like CPD/CPI, ARPU, LTV because these have been floating around marketing savvy musician’s vocabularies for years. Keep tabs on how musicians are changing the conversation with their fans and approaching alternative distribution channels because these are probably coming to gaming too, for example it won’t always be Google Play for Android, just ask anyone who’s dealt with China already, and understanding how musicians have compensated with distribution diversity could prove the most valuable lesson yet to come.
If history has told us anything, it’s both not worth reinventing the wheel and detrimental to repeate mistakes. Thus, to achieve the ultimate success we first must be aware of those who have already made the learning and study it first. Game Devs, this is your task, learn from musicians who spent the last 100 or so years making ALL the possible learnings for you, particularly the mistakes part.