January 5, 2007
MIT C3 WEEKLY UPDATE
Weekend of January 05, 2007
*Opening Note: Parmesh Shahani on Hitting the Right (Conference) Notes, Part II
*Glancing at the C3 Blog
*Closing Note: Geoffrey Long on Winning the Console Wars with User-Generated Content
--------------- EDITOR'S NOTE ---------------
Welcome to this week's Weekly Update from C3. As usual, this week's update includes links to all the entries published during the week on the Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog. Also, the site now features tools to favorite the blog on Technorati, so be sure to do so if you read on a regular basis.
This week's update features an opening note from C3 Research Affiliate and former research manager for C3 Parmesh Shahani, who writes about his recent visits to conferences in India. This week, he writes about a conference called The Indus Entrepreneurs (TIE) Summit 2006.
The closing note this week is from C3 Media Analyst Geoffrey Long, who writes "The C3 CES/Holiday Special: Winning the Console Wars with User-Generated Content." This is the longest piece that has ever appeared in a single edition of the Weekly Update, but, given the already-promised conclusion to Parmesh's piece and the timeliness of Geoff's writing, we present both here this week in an extended-length edition.
If you have any questions or comments or would like to request prior issues of the update, direct them to Sam Ford, Editor of the Weekly Update, at email@example.com.
--------------- OPENING NOTE ---------------
Hitting the Right (Conference) Notes, Part II
By: Parmesh Shahani
Last week, Parmesh Shahani wrote about his experiences at the second annual Global Voices Summit, a "funded non-profit organization [ . . . ] which began at a small room in Harvard as an effort to rectify the "disproportionate information flow" from the developed West, and from the perspective of the developed West, to the rest of the world." Parmesh urged the newsletters' readers to track the project "not just because it's a good cause, expands your mind and is really great fun, but also because this and similar citizen media projects can throw up a lot of interesting ideas that can be adopted/adapted into our day to day lives, or even commercially, for the corporate-minded among us." This week features his notes from the TIE Summit 2006, which stands for The Indus Entrepreneurs.
A fogless Delhi-Mumbai flight later (Thank God! At this time of the year, this sector usually involves a 3-4 hour airport delay, if you’re lucky), I'm with another open laptop, in another conference room full of ideas. This time, it's the TIE (which stands for The Indus Entrepreneurs, a very powerful international Indian networking and lobbying organization) Summit 2006 (http://tiesummit.org/). I am surrounded by hundreds of aspiring entrepreneurs in the cavernous lobby of the Grand Hyatt hotel, who've each paid the rupee equivalent of between US $ 120-180 for a chance to network and attend panel discussions headlined by their successful counterparts.
I've been to several such entrepreneurship events in the past and what touches me most about this one, is its scope – here, social, cultural, rural, and women entrepreneurs all have their own tracks. The most compelling stories I hear are not those told by big fish like Vijay Mallaya (owner of Kingfisher Airlines and Breweries, and India’s version of Richard Branson), KV Kamath (CEO of ICICI Bank, the country’s largest) or Narayan Murthy (Chief Mentor of Infosys – India’s software company posterboy) or well documented successes of companies like Naukri.com (the leading job portal that successfully IPO’d recently) or Big Bazaar (India’s Walmart equivalent, currently on a crazy expansion drive before the real thing enters the market), but lesser known anecdotes like Vikaas Gutgutia’s (Ferns and Petals) consternation at being considered a mere phoolwala (local flower vendor) by his future father in law, Abhi Shah’s (Matrix Venture Partners) hilarious account of selling bibles in Arkansas to pay his way through graduate school, or Vineet Rai’s (Aavishkaar) determination to get his social entrepreneurship venture capital fund going, come what may.
What good fun to watch management thought leader (University of Michigan business school professor) CK Prahlad being treated like a god and getting mobbed for his autograph – I’m not kidding, even if Bollywood stars like Aishwarya or Hrithik had passed by the crowd at that time, I doubt, they’d have left their opportunity to touch skin to Mr. Pyramid Bottom. I am thrilled to note the vision and entrepreneurial spirit of people like Madhusudan Agarwal and Alankar Jain. Madhu is a young San Francisco returned film maker, and his first event – the Genesis Film Project (http://www.mammovies.com/genesis/about.html) – will be underway even as you read this note. It’s an ambitious venture that calls for 101 filmmakers to make 101 five-minute films on 101 Non Government Organizations in 101 hours flat. Alankar Jain runs India Acts – a venture that aims at connecting TV watching and social work in a whole new way.
Folks like Alankar, Madhu, and the Global Voices gang are demonstrating that there is a need for an alternative kind of media universe out there and also willing producers and consumers of this innovative media content. Because of the convergence age, these producers and consumers find creative ways to connect with each other, bypassing traditional media channels that may either find their vision too radical, or unprofitable. They are also savvily using networking opportunities present in hitherto hard-core business spaces like the TIE Summit to attract attention and perhaps funding. Forward looking and forward thinking companies like India’s TV 18 are embracing these citizen media efforts, and co-opting them into the fabric of their own existence. (Thus their smart CNN-IBN news channel continuously provides a space for user generated news content and has also launched an annual citizen journalists’ award.)
I am very impressed by TV 18; I wrote about them earlier and I want to repeat that it might provide a workable model of a 21st century media company that can successfully navigate the confusing waters of convergence and give the current Indian media giants – the Times of India and Star – a good run for their money. But for the true innovations of the magnitude of say YouTube or Google, or Grameen Bank (http://www.grameenfoundation.org/) whose visionary founder Muhammed Yunus won this year’s Nobel Prize for his work on microcredit and microfinance – something that fundamentally changes and affects our society and culture – I'd still lay my bet on one of the small, soft, global voices I was privileged to listen to during the two conferences I attended earlier on, or something along their lines.
C3 research affiliate Parmesh Shahani urges you to celebrate the holidays by seeing the latest Bollywood sensation Dhoom 2 :-) It's been shot in Brazil and Nigeria and has the hottest Bollywood screen smooch yet. Reached him at firstname.lastname@example.org for more, and happy 2007!
---------- NEWS FROM THE C3 BLOG -----------
What Are the Most Popular Hits for "Fan Community?" Yahoo! and Google bring some interesting insight into the question of what the most sought-out online fan communities really are.
Merging WB and UPN into the CW Network: What Did the Fans Have to Say? Looking back at fan reaction surrounding the announcement of the formation of the CW Network, as fans debated whether their shows would be cancelled or not.
These Fans Will Follow You...Through Rain and Sleet and Snow and... While cycling teams and stamp collecting might explain some of the goodwill, what can we make of fan expressions expressly dedicated to the mail carrier?
(Not) Interesting Brand Communities? Fans of the Quotidian. Fan communities exist for brands from Pringles and Pillsbury to a MySpace group for Windex.
No Actor Left Behind: On Vincent Schivaelli's Legacy Page and Paul Lynde Fan Sites. An online dedicated funeral guestbook for Schiavelli and a variety of sites dedicated to long-departed Lynde demonstrate two ways that the Web can provide forums for expression that would never have otherwise existed.
Fan Followings for the Comic Strips of Yesteryear. Dick Tracy, Flash Gordon, and The Yellow Kid are documented throughout the Web as longtime comic strips, kept alive largely by fan nostalgia (although a reader points out in the comments section that there are still Dick Tracy and Flash Gordon comic strips produced).
Dirt/Pontiac Further FX Model of Sponsors for Premiere Episodes. FX continues the sponsorship model with the debut of Dirt, this time not interrupting the show at all for sponsor information.
Henry Jenkins on Congress, MySpace, and DOPA. Henry Jenkins' recent Boston Globe article focuses on the Congressional activities relating to teenage use of MySpace.
Localization in Video Games in The Escapist. An article looks at the complicated process by which games are made for multiple cultural markets, transferred into multiple languages.
Online Intern Contest Providing Extension for The Apprentice. A contest provides an extension of the show by asking for viewer predictions in turn for the chance to be an intern for the Apprentice once she/he is named.
Boston Globe Summary of 2006 and Complex Television. Yet another attempt to explain the year of complex television and a modern map to the serial dramas throughout broadcast and cable.
Video Sharing Sites Filling In Niches Around YouTube Censorship. Three sites have taken on the content that YouTube won't touch for political, economic, or perhaps even pressure from child safety lobbyists, such as web cams for teens, footage from Iraq, and more clearance to post copyrighted content.
--------------- FOLLOW THE BLOG ---------------
Don't forget - you can always post, read, and carry out online conversations with the C3 team at our blog: http://www.convergenceculture.org/weblog/.
--------------- CLOSING NOTE ---------------
THE C3 CES/HOLIDAY SPECIAL: WINNING THE CONSOLE WARS WITH USER-GENERATED CONTENT
By: Geoffrey Long
Well, the 2006 holiday season is over and the smoke from the next-generation console wars is finally beginning to clear. Who came out on top? What system, if any, did you decide to buy? And, perhaps most importantly now, what does 2007 hold for Nintendo's Wii, Sony's PlayStation 3 and Microsoft's Xbox 360?
The numbers for the holiday season are still out, and reportedly won't be in until next week at the earliest. Still, one preliminary report falsely attributed by CNBC to research group NPD suggests that Microsoft took the cookie with 2 million 360s sold in the holiday season, followed closely by the Wii with 1.8 million and trailed by the limping, battered PS3's paltry 750,000. A second followup report by Lazard Capital on NPD data suggests that the 360's total 2006 unit sales will be around 4.5 million, Wii sales will exceed 1.2 million and PS3 sales will be somewhere around 700,000. At CES yesterday, Microsoft announced that they've sold 10.4 million consoles in 37 countries; Sony countered this by announcing that they've actually sold a cool million consoles in North America already, making this the best console launch Sony's ever had and a bigger success than Microsoft's launch of the Xbox 360, which apparently sold 600,000 consoles from November 2005 through January 2006. As all this brouhaha might suggest, analysts and fanboys from all three camps are shouting back and forth about supply shortages and measurement windows -- for instance, NPD's 'holiday season' ran from November 1st through December 25th, which means that Microsoft had a little under three weeks' head start on Nintendo, yadda yadda yadda. Whatever. NPD's official numbers are scheduled to be released on January 11th, and even then I'm sure the bickering will continue.
So which system did I purchase? I tried repeatedly to get my hands on a Wii, but I ultimately failed -- even the morning that I woke up super-early to get in line at a nearby Target, which blew through over fifty units in less than ten minutes. I did get to play one several times and I always walked away grinning, so I'm definitely looking forward to landing one eventually. That said, I did pick up a system this holiday, although not for the reasons one might think. Those reasons hold some clues as to what 2007 might hold in store for all three systems -- and the announcements at CES this week only sweeten the deal.
2007: THE YEAR OF INDEPENDENT GAMES AND NICHE MEDIA
In his personal blog at http://www.henryjenkins.org, C3 head Henry Jenkins recently posted a series of interviews with luminaries in the video game industry. The focus of these talks was the rise of the 'indie' games movement and the backlash against the increasingly constrictive environment in which most console games are currently developed. As the hardware capabilities of the new gaming system skyrocket, so too do the budgets for each game. Gone are the days of one lone programmer turning out a blockbuster game like ZORK or KING'S QUEST -- games like Bethesda's OBLIVION, Epic's GEARS OF WAR or Blizzard's WORLDS OF WARCRAFT require hordes (no pun intended) of programmers, artists, producers, writers and designers. According to Manifesto Games' Greg Costikyan:
"As recently as 1992, the average budget for a PC game was $200,000. Today, a typical budget for an A-level title is $5m. And with the next generation, it will be more like $20m. As the cost ratchets upward, publishers becoming increasingly conservative, and decreasingly willing to take a chance on anything other than the tired and true. So we get DRIVER 69. GRAND THEFT AUTO SAN INFINITUM. And licensed drivel after licensed drivel. Today, you CANNOT get an innovative title published, unless your last name is Wright, or Miyamoto...."
This scenario is exacerbated by a delivery channel that can only showcase a few titles at a time. Unlike a Borders or a Barnes and Noble, most GameStop stores can't afford to stock a huge catalog of older games, niche games or 'classic' games. Instead they spend their floorspace on games they know will sell, and games that don't sell insanely well in their first week of release are ushered quickly off the shelves.
As I noted earlier in my article "Uncommon Wiisdom" on the C3 Notebook page (shameless plug #1), it's this insular thinking and lack of innovation that is damaging the industry right now. The 360 and the PS3 both offer amazing graphics, but Nintendo is the one currently gaining the most coverage in the press for innovation. The motion sensitivity in the Wii resulted in the console's jaw-dropping success as an all-ages market expander -- stories abound of elderly relatives spending hours playing golf or bowling in Wii Sports -- and Nintendo's DS portable system is a runaway success across the globe, positively trouncing Sony's PlayStation Portable and topping Amazon's game hardware sales. (In Japan, the DS is the runaway favorite platform period, with 485,584 units sold total, compared to 138,588 for the PSP; the Wii has sold 279,277 units, the PS3 has moved 76,882 and the 360 comes in last with 17,213.) Further, the excitement over these innovations isn't waning. I've already had more than one conversation with my friends along the lines of, "And wouldn't it be great to play CASTLEVANIA with the Wiimote? Cracking the whip? Or basketball! How would you play NBA LIVE with a Wiimote?", and DS games like BRAIN AGE, PHOENIX WRIGHT: ACE ATTORNEY and HOTEL DUSK: ROOM 215 have innovation leaking out their ears.
That said, Nintendo is still very much a walled garden when it comes to development. Surprisingly, the company taking the initiative here is Microsoft. In December, Microsoft released XNA Game Studio Express, a new development environment that enables anyone with a PC and a retail Xbox to start banging out their own Xbox games. There is a $99 annual fee to make the hookup (developing games for Windows in the setup is free) but this is a huge breakthrough for would-be game developers. Traditionally development kits for consoles are cripplingly expensive, with Sony's PSP dev kit running around $4,200 and Nintendo's Wii dev kit previously making news with its low, low price of only around $1750. XNA is still very much a 1.0 release -- there is not yet any support for networking capability in the games, to share one's creations with others currently requires the games to be distributed as source code with assets for each would-be player to download and recompile (which also requires each player to pony up the $99 annual fee themselves), but Microsoft has already stated that their end goal is to provide a sort of "YouTube for games". Back at the Austin Game Conference in 2005, I was blown away by the promise of the Xbox Live Arcade system for just this purpose -- couple that with Microsoft's partnership with GarageGames, makers of the entry-level game programming toolkit Torque X, and Microsoft is only a few steps away from becoming the first console with the most potential for real, true, continued innovation by opening up to possible innovation from millions of different sources: their users.
ENGLISH MAJOR GAMES?
Video games got their start from computer programmers looking to create something fun on their machines. "Old-school" game developers were programmers first and foremost, who ventured into making games because they wanted to do something new and interesting with their computers. My friend and fellow C3 researcher Alec Austin and I are both storytellers interested in games, but Alec's mathematics-and-mechanics background makes him more of an "old school" game developer and my art-and-design background makes me a member of the demographic that Microsoft and GarageGames are trying to recruit. Alec's combination of narratives and numbers qualify him as a brilliant candidate for designer-hood (employers, call now!), but since most of my programming skills come from developing websites and user interfaces, my best hope is summed up by an observation Christy Marx makes in her new book WRITING FOR ANIMATION, COMICS AND GAMES: you don't need to know how the engine works in order to drive a car. Microsoft and GarageGames are trying to turn game-players into game-makers by facilitating game development for non-traditional developers like writers and artists. In other words, people like me.
Will this work? The closest analogy may be the written word -- the democratization of publishing afforded to us by the Internet and the blogosphere suggests that Sturgeon's Revelation, "ninety percent of everything is crap," still holds absolutely true. When anyone could sign up for a free GeoCities page or Blogger account, the Web was flooded with, well, crap -- but the ten percent that wasn't continued to expand proportionately as the whole schebang continued to expand. The same is happening now with both music and video -- legends will swirl in the next couple of decades about superstar musicians and filmmakers that were discovered on MySpace and YouTube, and it's entirely probable that the same will happen in the game space. Google makes its trillions serving as a crap-sifter, the term 'coolfinder' has become a critical term in our 21st century vocabulary, and I'm willing to bet that before too long we'll begin to see a new tier of the Xbox Live environment appear -- a place for would-be game designers to upload, share, rank and comment upon each others' games, with the best of those showcased in the Xbox Live Arcade.
The question is one of definitions -- writers, musicians and artists succeed through websites on the strength of their stories, songs or works. But what is a game? Game theorists bicker about stories in games, about whether what makes a game great is the playability or story or whatever, but I think the beauty of games is that they're sort of like any other multimedia creation. A film can succeed based on the strength of its visuals, the strength of its story, perhaps even the strength of its music. I perceive the game space as largely the same way. Even if the XNA-Torque X combination only facilitates an explosion of games based on an identical engine, be that a 3D shooter or a side-scroller or whatever, facilitating the creation of games by writers, musicians and artists can only be a good thing. Hardcore gamers might be horrified by the results, but it's entirely possible that a game designed by someone passionate about story, music or art instead of game mechanics or hardcore 'game playability' will attract players more interested in story, music or art -- thus expanding the market beyond just those hardcore gamers. Visually innovative games like SHADOW OF THE COLOSSUS or OKAMI might not have fared very well in the market compared to GEARS OF WAR, but that may only be due to the still-nascent status of gamers whose primary interest is the visuals. It may be a small market, but the existence of that market is important -- and the cumulative effect of dozens of small markets adds up to some fairly sizable numbers. If things like XNA and Torque X facilitate the creation of affordable, beautiful, intriguing works by new imaginations, which are then made available on platforms that are openly accessible and affordable themselves, the landscape may change for the better. Capcom shut down Clover Studios, the minds behind OKAMI, because their work wasn't lucrative enough -- but what if OKAMI had been produced much more affordably and released on the Xbox Live Arcade?
I bought a 360 not for GEARS OF WAR or TOMB RAIDER, although both of those are currently sitting on my shelf. I bought a 360 because of its potential. I bought it to see what comes of XNA and Live Arcade. I bought in part to show my support for this new direction of gaming, and I hope to the high heavens that Nintendo and Sony follow suit with similar initiatives. I myself am largely bored by most of the me-too hardcore shooters and knockoffs that spill off the shelves at my local GameStop, but as a storyteller I'm jumping at the chance to tell my own stories in games -- and see what other storytellers do in the same medium.
THE XBOX 360 AND IPTV
In his keynote speech at CES yesterday, Bill Gates unveiled further evidence that Microsoft just might 'get' the concept of niche media through the integration of Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) into the Xbox 360 before Christmas 2007. The press release quotes Microsoft Devices Division President Robbie Bach as follows: "Our goal is to make entertainment more personal, more interactive and more social. IPTV on Xbox 360 and Xbox Live are powerful examples of ways we are bringing together the worlds of gaming, TV viewing and community to make it easy for people to access and discover their favorite content and share their personal experiences with the communities they are part of." Take note of that last part! Microsoft is not only enabling IPTV on the Xbox 360, but it's linking it up to its existing social network system of Xbox Live users (and possibly Windows Live users as well) to make IPTV social. This could be huge.
While details are murky, the press release also states that IPTV content "will be offered by providers that are deploying TV services based on the Microsoft TV IPTV Edition software platform". The page at Microsoft.com on this platform -- http://www.microsoft.com/tv/IPTVEdition.mspx -- suggests that it's primarily aimed at big cable companies like RCN and Comcast, but what if this is only a step towards the facilitation of truly independent content developers creating their own IPTV "channels"? Instead of using YouTube to find independent content, what if users could tune in to IPTV channels launched at a fraction of the cost by niche markets even narrower than are already provided by standard cable? Gamer-centric channels like G4TV have fared poorly in the broadcast market, but what if G4TV was delivered exclusively as IPTV content through the Xbox 360? What's next? A channel dedicated exclusively to comics? A channel dedicated exclusively to indie comics? Bring it on!
Perhaps 'channel' is the wrong concept to use. Also built into the Microsoft TV IPTV Edition platform is support for Video on Demand (VOD) -- while Apple has been slow to open up its iTunes service to facilitate paid podcasts (something that may change as soon as this week; Steve Jobs is expected to make a number of announcements at his keynote speech at the Macworld conference tomorrow), it's possible to imagine independently-produced video content being delivered and supported by a system similar to the iTunes video store or the Xbox Live Marketplace, which a recent Variety.com article reports is faring better than Amazon's Unbox digital download service. At only a few bucks an episode and made available to everyone with a computer, 'nichebuster' shows like Firefly may gain an all-new lease on life, shows catering to even smaller niches may prove sustainable (if not mind-blowingly profitable) and much-improved metrics should be fairly easily attained. While Apple has remained fairly tight-lipped about its numbers, its easy to imagine advertisers will soon be turning to Apple, Microsoft and Amazon for their metrics instead of Nielsen.
CONTENT FIRST, 'USER-GENERATED' A DISTANT SECOND
I'll admit to misnaming this piece as an attempt to draw in readers, but this independently-produced content isn't really user-generated content any more than content produced by the typewriter or the Gutenberg press. User-generated content is a module I might create for NEVERWINTER NIGHTS or a chair I might create for SECOND LIFE. No, I think what we're seeing now is the continued democratization of content creation for previously closed systems, much the same way as the rise of independent filmmaking shook up the Hollywood studio system. Many of these independent filmmakers have been tapped to work for the big studios, which can be a wonderful thing -- the studios provide these filmmakers with additional resources to facilitate bigger and better projects and the clout to promote those efforts to a wider audience. There's a delicate dance at play, of course, between aesthetic sensibilities and corporate desires, and that's the same dance at play in the independent press and the independent music scene as well. It's a tension, sure, but at least in these fields there is some infrastructure in place to enable those new minds access to the field at all -- and that is what I believe we're seeing now in the game space and soon in the IPTV space.
Sure, ninety percent of everything may be crap. Bring it on! Bring on the wailing and moaning of indie gamers about selling out! Bring on the narcissistic games about teenaged self-discovery! Bring on the overwrought dramatic games about drunken single mothers living in trailer parks! Bring on biographical games, non-fiction games, art games, music games... And bring on each of these genres in IPTV as well! If Sturgeon is right, then let us open the floodgates and let the crap flow freely -- for only by expanding the amount of content that is given the chance to exist at all can we expand that fantastic ten percent, and in so doing expand the amount of really terrific stuff that many more people -- gamers, writers, artists, musicians, whoever -- can enjoy. With a little luck, I'll be watching, playing and generating right along with them. Scale down the costs and scale up the quantity, delivery methods and coolfinding systems and 2007 will be a year of magnificent content, period.
Geoffrey Long is a graduate student in the Comparative Media Studies Department at MIT and a media analyst with C3. He has worked extensively in web production, graphic design, and various forms of storytelling, including audio pieces available through iTunes and his work as editor-in-chief of an occasional journal of literature.
Compiled and Edited by Sam Ford (email@example.com)
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