The Long Tail

The art of the “long tail”. An essay in support. The first time I came across this description was at the time of the sales age threads on the Neogaf forum. This was in the heady days of the Nintendo DS console, where games would, with little PR support, spend weeks/years in the charts, racking up massive sales. Commentators would wonder at how this was achieved. In Nintendo case, it was pretty easy to realise it was just down to quality software. Their stewardship of their key franchises has always been excellent. Games well crafted and eminently replayable, reap the rewards in the long run.

I first experienced this level of support in the PC space with two studios, who at the time were involved in an arms race for the supremacy of the FPS genre. Namely Id Software and Epic Games. Both these studios were not only responsible for pushing PC technology to the next level, but also creating a vast mod scene of bedroom author’s, generating content for their favourite games. Official updates fed into the mix by adding all manner of new modes, online features and extra levels. Over the course of a titles lifetime, a whole ecosystem would spread the good word. Web sites sprung up, dedicated to bringing the latest mods, news and tech support. New words would enter the gamer’s lexicon. “Gib, Monsterkill and bot”

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Fast forward to the current PC landscape. With the rise of digital storefronts like Steam, it’s even easier for development studios to push out updates and content patches seamlessly. Not constrained by the walled gardens of online environments like Apple’s app store or PSN, which burden studios with time-consuming and expensive certification processes.

The buzzword now is “Games as a Service,” Developers can use this to react to audience behaviours and deliver events and features that nurture long-term engagement. Rather than throwing out a 1.0 build and leaving out to dry.

Steam’s much maligned “greenlight” initiative has enabled a few good titles to rise to the top. Kerbal space program, Prison Architect and Portal Knights are prime examples of developers succeeding with a constant flow of content and upgrades.

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When we look at the AAA+ space it’s a different scenario. Constant evolution seems to be focused on Multiplayer titles, which by definition rely on a steady stream of content and updates to combat security and gameplay balance issues. Big publishers seldom support free single player content and go with the DLC model. These are often derided for their brevity and add little to the base game.

Let’s look a prime example of supporting a game the right way. Cities Skylines has had seven point updates that tie with paid DLC releases. These aren’t just the usual bug fixes and tweak builds. They add real content to the base game. The evolution of the title from launch to its current state is awesome. Colossal Order has added all manner of improvements from radio stations, night-day cycles, road formatting tools and traffic management systems. These are not ancillary fluff but solid additions that make the game far more enjoyable and immersive.

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Another dev worth highlighting is Dambuster Studios. They were pressured by their publisher to release Homefront: The Revolution in a broken state, probably due to fiscal year pressure from investors. Instead of abandoning the title and moving on. They have released countless updates to fix the many issues the launch build had. The difference is incredible. The game now runs well and is well worth picking up if you are a fan of Open World Shooters. It is unfortunate that the gaming press hasn’t re-evaluated their reviews in light of this. To me, it marks out Dambuster for any forthcoming new games. I know that if I invest in any future title I can count on their loyalty to the product. This level of support and transparency is hard won and I applaud it wholeheartedly. PC gamers have long memories and always look after honest studios. CD Projekt Red is a prime case study in doing right by customers. Their success is a testament to long and unwavering good business practises.

We are now in the age of the Long Tail. With titles getting ever more complicated and niche. To compete in a saturated market, It is now essential that any title released, whether it has been developed by a one man band startup or a cabal of AAA+ satellite studios, Has to have the correct amount of support and commitment. To kick a game out without any notion of continued support is both short-termism and financial suicide. “Sent out to die” has never been more apt.

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