Thoughts on the Contemporary Gaming Landscape

On: April 27, 2011
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About Laurent Hubeek
Laurent Hubeek is currently participating in the UvA New Media Master’s program. He has also spent time studying at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam where he received a Master’s degree in information sciences. Before making the switch to the UvA, Laurent worked at Accenture, a large multi national IT consulting company, and participated in a variety of projects focusing on HR systems automation. Activities ranged from functional design and requirements elicitation to offshore team coordination and system configuration. Having left behind the world of business IT, Laurent is now exploring his interests in Web culture, social media phenomenon, the security and privacy aspects of IT use, cloud computing and (online) gaming and its design principles. Having an appreciation for old media (and old curiosities in general), he is also developing his skills as a writer on Masters of Media, Xi and his own blog.

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This post is a bit of an experiment. Basically, it’s a summary of what I would like to write my thesis about. In the spirit of open collaboration, I’d like to know what you think of this idea. Obviously, it needs to be fleshed out further and could use more examples, but I’m hoping the gist of it is clear. I’m already aware of a couple of gaps or possible retorts, but I’d like to see what some fresh eyes can come up with. So, in advance, thanks for reading and any and all comments would be very much appreciated.

The rise of digital technology has been a high impact event on the major media industries. Producers of film and music have all been confronted with users (illegally) downloading, copying and remaking their products. Companies still struggle with finding appropriate business models that strike a balance between accessibility, user freedom and profitability. As a relatively young industry, the gaming industry is in the business of producing natively digital content, whereas the other major media industries have had to deal with a conversion to digital formats. Regardless, the gaming industry is struggling with many of the same issues as the music and movie industries. Additionally, the gaming industry cannot rely on its own equivalent of the live concert performance or the cinema going experience to lure consumers. Being natively digital, it is worth investigating how the gaming industry is currently dealing with the ‘digitally liberated’ consumers and how the industry is at the forefront of developing new business models that take into account the numerous available platforms and shifting patterns of use.

To provide context for this investigation, the nature of digital technology and the history of software development will be briefly examined. Like analog technology, digital technology has its own materiality. Theorists such as Manovich have attempted to define the specific characteristics of digital technology in order to understand its use and applicability. In order to better understand the changes currently taking place in the gaming landscape, a quick look into the history of software development is also in order. Early software development took place in an ad hoc fashion. At the risk of generalizing, every programmer was a hacker, sharing work and ideas within a like minded community. They had to figure out for themselves how to make these machines work. As time went on, software development became more standardized and commercial companies started to sell ready made packages of software. This dichotomy between tinkering and sharing on the one hand and commercial product development can still be seen today as proprietary products are juxtaposed against open source communities and the free software movement. Of particular interest is how this history has influenced gaming culture and its use of digital technology. The gaming industry is of course a commercial industry, but there has long existed a tradition where games are bought and modified (i.e ‘modded’) by gamers themselves. These mods are often freely distributed and on rare occasions they are absorbed into the original game officially and develop into full fledged games themselves.

Another historical concept worth discussing is that of the Californian Ideology. Born on the sunny slopes of Silicon Valley it is a curious blend between hippie anarchism, economic libertarianism and technological determinism. The new digital economy that would results from this ideology is based on free market mechanics and a blend of commercial products and non-commercial gifting – what Richard Barbrook calls the Hi-Tech Gift Economy. It is important to note however that these notions of product and gift have arguably become dated. Economic theorists such as Jeremy Rifkin argue that global economies are moving into the ‘age of access.’ In this new age the notion of a product as an object one can possess – be it a computer, a piece of software or a car – is being replaced by the notion that one can buy access to such products in the form of a service. The most obvious development in the gaming industry relating to this change is the massively multi-player online game, or MMO. These types of games traditionally rely on monthly subscriptions enabling the developers to maintain virtual worlds and occasionally add new content, creating what is essentially a never ending game. Of related interest are the rise of DLC content (i.e. small chunks of downloadable content for games one already owns), episodic game formats and the free-2-play model (i.e. providing a free ‘basic’ game and receiving income from selling in-game extras and advertising).

The ‘age of access’ is not a standalone theory. The concept fits well within more broadly oriented theories of social change described by the likes of Deleuze and Castells. Alexander Galloway’s work relating to the concept of protocol is particularly interesting. Focusing on the materiality of digital technology, and the workings of the Internet especially, Galloway describes protocol as a two-faced concept based equally on hierarchical control and distributed freedom. Protocol is a structuring agent in an age where distribution has become the dominant diagram of power. Galloway’s theory combines nicely with Rifkin’s concept of the ‘age of access’ and its focus on how the materiality of technology exerts power, make it an excellent aid to analyze the more recent developments in the gaming industry. The ‘age of access’ has redefined the relation between consumer and producer and has led to the creation of several new forms of intermediary, all of with a distinct protocological flavour to them. Take for example Valve’s Steam platform. Steam is a blend of store, gaming community and library and now dominates the PC download market. As a platform Steam is undeniably useful, but it also regulates content, access and is in fact one big DRM (i.e. digital rights management) scheme wrapped inside a layer of convenient service. Other examples of protocological control include the main gaming consoles (Xbox 360, Playstation 3) and their proprietary player networks (Xbox Live, Playstation Network), or how Facebook and Apple’s App Store are positioning themselves as the middleman of (social) gaming and thus enforce their own brand of control. Perhaps the ultimate form of regulated distribution today, platforms such as OnLive and Gaikai stream games ‘from the cloud’ to their customers, completely changing the concept of what it means to own and play a game. Here games are fully redefined as services and access control is outside of player control. The material focus of Galloway’s protocol, combined with the work of Lawrence Lessig, also allows for the discussion of DRM and the unprecedented levels of built-in media control this provides. Online authentication and login schemes allow developers and publishers to monitor gamers remotely and can sometimes be used to unilaterally revoke access to legally purchased content.

In summary, it is safe to say that the gaming industry has wholeheartedly moved into the age of access and employs protocological control on a large scale. This has implications for the traditional balance between free and commercial content and what it means to own a game. All together, looking at rise of the different new distribution platforms for downloads and cloud gaming, DLC, DRM and of course the MMO in general, the change is undeniable. Games are becoming more like services, delivering a constant drip feed of new content in exchange for additional payments and increasingly rely on regulated platforms for distribution and control.

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