January 20 - 26, 2006
MIT C3 INDUSTRY UPDATE
In this issue:
- Henry Jenkins essay on Star Wars Galaxies
- software that predicts hit songs
- systems that rate tv commercials
- everything on harry potter fans
--------------- OPENING NOTE ---------------
THE COLLAPSE OF AN EMPIRE: STAR WARS GALAXIES SHOWS US RIGHT AND WRONG WAYS TO COURT FANS
Shortly after Christmas, a friend and fellow researcher Doug Thomas sent me a link to a fascinating and moving fan-made video http://www.furplay.com/swg/media/together.mov by Javier -- on marking his decision to leave the massively multiplayer game world, Star Wars Galaxies, and commenting on the mass migration of hard core fans and players from this space. Some background is needed to be able to appreciate this video and what it might suggest about the nature of fan investments in MMPORGS. In keeping with the cantina sequences which have been a favorite aspect of the Star Wars film series, the game provides opportunities for players to select the entertainer class as a possible role within its world. Javier helped to organize the Entertainer class players to create an extraordinary series of Cantina Musicals -- elaborate Busby Berkeley style musical numbers which required the participation and cooperation of a cast of hundreds of players.
As you watch the video, keep in mind that each character is controlled by an individual player, hitting buttons in a choreographed manner,who may be separated from the other participants by thousands of miles
of real world geography. The potential for such videos is built into the game -- through the capacity to move characters in certain ways,for players to share common spaces and experiences, and for players to
record their own game play activities -- but no one in the game company imagined that the fans would have used them to create Lawrence Welk-inflected Christmas specials or to protest company policies. In
short, the video expresses the power of the fan community both in terms of how it was made and in terms of what it has to say about the experience of playing the game.
In my forthcoming book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, I devote part of a chapter to a case study of how Star Wars Galaxies emerged from the efforts of long-time game designer and
player rights advocate Raph Koster. I draw a distinction between two very different ways media companies respond to grassroots creative expression -- the prohibitionist position which is dominated by concerns about intellectual property and seeks to restrict unauthorized use of materials and the collaborationist position which is dominated by a recognition of the value fan communities bring to media franchises and seeks to enable and support participatory culture. I trace a series of shifts in the ways Lucas Arts has related to Star Wars fans -- including a more prohibitionist response to fan fiction and a more collaborationist reaction to the gaming community. Raph Koster saw the Star Wars fans as co-designers in the development of the game: actively courting them from the project's conception, sharing design docs and getting their feedback at every step of the way, designing a game which was highly dependent on fan creativity to provide much of its content and fan performance to create mutually rewarding experiences within the game. I and others held up Star Wars Galaxies as a model for how media companies might better relate to their players.
Here are some of the things Koster did right in courting Star Wars fans:
1. He respected their expertise and emotional investments in the series.
2. He opened a channel of communications with fans early in the process.
3. He actively solicited advice from fans about design decisions and followed that advice where-ever possible.
4. He created resources which sustained multiple sets of interests in the series.
5. He designed forms of game play which allowed fans to play diverse roles which were mutually reinforcing.
Here's some of what he had to say about the importance of fans to the franchise's success:
"You can't possibly mandate a fictionally involving universe with thousands of other people. The best you can hope for is a world that is vibrant enough that people act in manners consistent with the fictional tenets...There's no denying it – the fans know Star Wars better than the developers do. They live and breathe it. They know it in an intimate way. On the other hand, with something as large and broad as the Star Wars universe, there's ample scope for divergent opinions about things. These are the things that lead to religious wars among fans and all of a sudden you have to take a side because you are going to be etablishing how it works in this game."
That said, the policies which Koster created were eroded over time, leading to increased player frustration and distrust. In another video [see Cantina Crawl XII], Javier traces a history of grievances and
conflicts between the "Powers That Be" within the game company and the Entertainer class of characters. Some casual players felt the game was too dependent on player-generated content, while the more creative
players felt that upgrades actually restricted their ability to express themselves through the game and marginalized the Entertainer class from the overall experience. At the same time, the game failed to meet the company's own revenue expectations, especially in the face of competition from the enormously successful World of Warcraft, a game which adopted a very different design philosophy.
Late last year, the company announced plans to radically revamp the game's rules and content, a decision which has led to the wholesale alienation of the existing player base and massive defections. It remains to be seen if the plans will draw in new consumers; it is clear that they have significantly destroyed the existing fan culture. Javier is not alone in seeing these decisions as the end of the road for his community.
The statements made by Nancy MacIntyre, the game's senior director, at LucasArts to the New York Times http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/bizfocus/archives/2005/12/11/2003283983 illustrates the huge shift in thinking from Koster's original philosophy to this "retooled" franchise: "We really just needed to make the game a lot more accessible to a much broader player base. There was lots of reading, much too much, in the game. There was a lot of wandering around learning about different abilities. We really needed to give people the experience of being Han Solo or Luke Skywalker rather than being Uncle Owen, the moisture farmer. We wanted more instant gratification: kill, get treasure, repeat. We needed to give people more of an opportunity to be a part of what they have seen in the movies rather than something they had created themselves.''
MacIntyre's comments represent a classic set of mistakes in thinking about how to build a fan community around a property:
1. Don't confuse "accessibility" with simplicity. As Steve Johnson notes in his best-selling book, Everything Bad is Good For You or educator James Paul Gee argues in his new book, Video Games Are Good
For the Soul, contemporary media audiences are searching for complexity, not simplicity. The video games that succeed in the market are the ones which demand the most of their players -- not those which
require the least. The key to successful games is not dumb content, but complexity that is organized and managed so that users can handle it.
2. Don't underestimate the intelligence of your consumers. Gamers are not illiterate. They are not necessarily simply kids. Industry statistics suggest that the average gamer is in his/her late 20s or early 30s and all signs are that the game market is expanding as the initial generation of gamers ages. Star Wars Galaxies consumers skewed older and as such, they wanted something different from the game play experience than younger Star Wars fans. And if you do think your consumers are idiots, it is not bright to say so to New York Times reporters. The fans do read newspapers and as members of a collective intelligence community, they have an enormous network for circulating information that matters to the group. These comments have come back to haunt the corporate executives many times over and probably did as much as anything else in creating a mass exodus from the game.
3. In an age of transmedia storytelling, don't assume fans want the same experience from every installment of the same franchise. There are many films, books, comics, and games out there which focus on the
experience of the central protagonists of the series. Koster wisely recognized that while individual players might want to BE Luke Skywalker or Hans Solo, a world where everyone was a Jedi would be boring for all involved. Instead, he created a game world where there were many different classes of players (including the Entertainer class) and where each of those roles interacted in a complicated ecology of experience.
4. Don't underestimate the diversity of fan cultures. Contrary to what is often claimed, successful media properties do not appeal to the lowest common denominator. Rather, they draw together a coalition of micro-publics, each with their own interests in the material, each expressing their emotional bonds with the content in their own ways. Accordingly, Star Wars has a large, diverse audience interested in everything from the flora and fauna to interrelationships among characters. Given such diversity, why would you assume that the core market only wants to blow things up? The real sweet spot would be to /tap into/ these diverse audiences and sell even more copies. Why, given the richness of fan creative expression around Star Wars, would you assume that Luke Skywalker is the only role people care about? The goal should have been to expand the range of experiences available in the game rather than dismantle what appealed to one audience in hopes of attracting another.
5. Don't underestimate the value of fan creative contributions to the success of contemporary media franchises. Will Wright, the creator of The Sims, the most successful game franchise of all time, has suggested that his success can be traced directly back to player contributions: "We see such benefit from interacting with our fans. They are not just people who buy our stuff. In a very real sense, they are people who helped to create our stuff…We are competing with other properties for these creative individuals. All of these different games are competing for communities, which in the long run are what will drive our sales…. Whichever game attracts the best community will enjoy the most success. What you can do to make the game more successful is not to make the game better but to make the community better." Conversely, when you alienate your most active and creative fans -- folks like Javier -- then you severely damage the franchise as a whole. These people play valuable roles as grassroots intermediaries helping to build up interest in your property and as performers helping to shape the experience of other players.
6. Don't Sacrifice your existing fan base in search of a totally different market. The kind of robust and creative fan cultures Wright and Koster describe in their comments above are hard to build and even harder to rebuild. To some degree, fans have to find media properties which meets their needs, even though companies can adopt policies of fan relations which will make them more receptive to fans and can help to sustain such communities once they emerge. Koster worked hard to win over Star War fans who were skeptical about his efforts given the history of fairly simplistic action-oriented solo-player titles within the Star Wars franchises. Koster, himself, was fully aware that you could not institute large scale changes in such a game world without damaging the kind of trust he had helped to establish. Here's what he told me when I interviewed him for my book: "Just like it is not a good idea for a government to make radical legal changes without a period of public comment, it is often not wise for an operator of an online world to do the same."
I have just scratched the surface here. I suspect the rise and fall of Star Wars Galaxies will be studied for years to come as a textbook example of good and bad ways to deal with fan communities. Certainly our member companies should draw on it as a reference in framing and evaluating their own fan relations policies.
For more on Star Wars Galaxies, see Kurt D. Squire and Constance A. Steinkuehler, "Generating Cybercultures: The Case of Star Wars Galaxies"
--------------- TRANSMEDIA ---------------
SOFTWARE PREDICTS HIT SONGS
MIT grads Brian Whitman and Tristan Jehan have developed software that they claim can forecast whether a song can be a hit. The Echo Nest (that is now moving under a start-up umbrella) analyses the context of
the song, how fast or slow it is, and whether it is loud or soft. "The result is a sophisticated profile of a song that allows more accurate categorization than simply labeling a song as rock, pop or classical," writes Guardian. Whitman claims the Echo Nest has accurately predicted the US Billboard top 10 for several weeks.
- An article in Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/news/story/0,,1688017,00.html
- Tristan Jehan's home page with more on the Echo Nest research: http://web.media.mit.edu/~tristan/home.html
- Brian Whitman's home page: http://www.variogr.am/
SODERBERGH'S MOVIE DISTRIBUTION EXPERIMENT KICKS OFF
Steven Soderbergh's "Bubble" is drawing outrage from theatre owners, in light of the fact that it's being aired on high-definition network HDNet the night of its release, and is being made available on DVD four days later. The studios argue that changes in the traditional "windowing" system, where movies are rolled out to theaters, then Pay-Per-View, and finally DVD, are necessary to combat revenue losses stemming from
piracy, but theater owners (and some directors, notably M. Night Shyamalan) vehemently disagree. While the movie industry clearly needs to adapt its business model to address the realities of the new media landscape, it remains to be seen whether simultaneous release of the DVD and theatrical versions of a film will solve the industry's recent woes.
- Soderbergh's "Bubble" release plans: http://news.com.com/Soderbergh+does+a+DVD-theater+release+combo/2100-1025_3-6026218.html
- Shyamalan's opposition: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1001391595
YAHOO, AMAZON TO CREATE ORIGINAL TV CONTENT
Yahoo has filmed a pilot for a reality series called "Wow House" that will be broadcast online within the next few months. The program follows two families as they refurbish their homes with $10,000 in new electronics. Amazon said it planned to launch a half-hour Web-based talk show this summer hosted by Bill Maher and featuring author and celebrity interviews and musical performances. "Amazon Fishbowl with
Bill Maher" is produced by Amazon and will be streamed live on Thursdays beginning June 1.
CLOSE-CIRCUIT TV COMES TO TV
Residents of a London neighborhood are tuning in the first British TV channel - Asbo TV - that beams feeds from the CCTV cameras in the surrounding streets.
VIDEO GLASSES NOW AN IPOD ACCESSORY
Icuiti is betting that its new $549 set of video glasses that support both the 2D and 3D stereoscopic viewing is a good fit for the video iPod.
WEB USERS JUDGE SITES IN SPLIT SECOND
A new study published in the latest issue of the Behavior and Information Technology found that it takes Internet users one-twentieth of a second to make aesthetic judgments about a website that influence the rest of their experience with the property.
2005 GAME REVENUE RISES 6% ON PORTABLES
Total 2005 revenue in the video game industry rose 6% to $10.5 billion thanks to strength in portable hardware and games, but the market for flagship game consoles and related software shrank, according to a new
report by the NPD Group.
--------------- ADVERTISING ---------------
RATING SYSTEMS FOR TV COMMERCIALS EMERGE
You are about to know which half of you ad budget is going down the drain as Business Week runs a story on the new systems that measure ad viewership. "PreTesting, a NJ-based company, expects to have 35,000 households in four to seven cities wired with boxes that monitor how audiences respond to ads, both on live TV and in programs taped on digital video recorders (DVRs). Daily "ratings" of TV ads -- tallies
of how many people are watching or skipping -- from the service, called MediaCheck, will enable advertisers to determine quickly whether spots should be yanked off the air or at least switched to other time slots."
GOOGLE VENTURES INTO RADIO ADS DISTRIBUTION
Google is buying dMarc Broadcasting, a provider of automated ad delivery platform for radio stations.
AD-SUPPORTED MOBILE VIDEO: LOVE ME, LOVE ME NOT
"A new survey by Starcom shows that users would rather pay for ad-free mobile video than enjoy it for free at the price of having to subject their iPods and cell phones to ads."
"A new survey from the Points North Group shows people prefer to watch ads on free video rather than paying for access, opening up the possibility of ad support for the content now coming online. The firm
found that users prefer watching ads versus paying the now-standard $1.99 for commercial-free programs, by a margin of more than three to one."
SCARE TACTICS PUSH NEW KING'S BOOK
Stephen King is promoting his new book "Cell: a Novel" with gloomy ringtones, wallpaper and short messages of the kind "The next call may be your last…".
HOME PAGE MILLIONAIRE ATTACKED BY HACKERS
The One Million Dollar Homepage that last week had auctioned off the last block of pixels fell victim to Russian hackers who demanded a ransom after unleashing a denial of service attack.
--------------- FANS ---------------
ANTI-FANS CREATE ANTI-ADVERGAME ON KINKO'S
Someone deeply disaffected with Kinko's lashed out at the company with a game "Dissaffected" that was quickly recognized by the commentators as the first anti-advergame. The game puts players in the shoes of
virtual Kinko employees, trapped in an apparently terrible working environment.
AMATEUR FILM AWARDS CELEBRATE CREATIVE STAR WARS FANS
Fan culture ahoy! AtomFilms hosts the 2006 Star Wars Fan Film Awards, with prize packages including $2,000, a trophy from Lucasfilm, official recognition at Comic-Con and on StarWars.com, and a taped message from George Lucas announcing the winner.
HARRY POTTER FAN COMMUNITIES STILL MAJOR CASE STUDY AREA
As the books continue coming out and the movies follow shortly thereafter, the Harry Potter franchise remains one of the most profitable not only for all of the cultural producers involved but also for those interested in studying fan communities. Since this franchise has sparked such a great volume of research, it seemed appropriate to outline some of the recent publications or areas of interest in the Potter fan community over the past year.
MIT'S OWN STUDIES--CASTANON AND JENKINS
An MIT undergraduate student, Victor Castanon, is currently looking at podding in the Harry Potter fan community and the effects it has on information being spread throughout the community. Further, Henry Jenkins dedicates a chapter in his forthcoming book "Convergence Culture" on prohibitionist company response to activities of the Potter fan community. Jenkins looks at the fan-driven stand taken against overly prosecutorial stances of companies toward their fans for use of copyrighted material.
HARRY POTTER AND THE FAN FICTION PHENOMENON
In addition, Lelia Green and Carmen Guinery wrote about Potter late last year in an essay entitled "Harry Potter and the Fan Fiction Phenomenon.," published in the e-journal "M/C Journal: A Journal of Media and Culture," an international journal of cultural studies. Green and Guinery outline the desire for fame in the world of Harry Potter fan fiction which prompts some of the production of fan-generated content within the Harry Potter community.
THE IVORY TOWER AND HARRY POTTER
Rebecca Sutherland Borah publishes about the Harry Potter fan communities in her 2004 essay "Apprentice Wizards Welcome: Fan Communities and the Culture of Harry Potter," an essay in Lana A.Whited's "The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter: Perspectives on a Literary Phenomenon." The book combines multiple academic viewpoints on the wide popularity and developing fan community around the Harry Potter films, books, and merchandise.
DON'T FORGET WIKIPEDIA
To learn even more about the international fan community surrounding Harry Potter, look no farther than Wikipedia, where users have provided a detailed look at the development of and organization of the
Harry Potter fan community, including commentary and debate in the community, as well as fan fiction and fan art.
Compiled by Ilya, Sam, Alec, Geoff, Ivan and Parmesh
Edited and signed off by Ilya (email@example.com)
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