Posts tagged: Movies

A Trial, A Spectacle, A Marketing Disaster

I’ve been following the trial in Swedish court against three of the guys behind The Pirate Bay (and one of their providers). Initially, I decided not to post about it here, as the trial is mainly political in nature, intensified by the theatrical spectacle that the pirate bay and their supporters are trying their best to fuel. I don’t really intend this blog to be about politics… but the more I’ve heard and read from the trial, the more that decision changed.

It changed not because the trial is less political than expected (or less spectacular, indeed), but because of the involvement of the industry I work in, and because of the way it’s being conducted in our names. It’s become increasingly clear to me that not only the outcome of this trial but also its very existence affects me, regardless of my choices. To explain my view on it, let me begin with some background.

The games industry has had its own battle against piracy, very separate from the other parts of the entertainment industry (Music and Movies) — our very nature is that we’re an interactive media, which differentiates us from them. The grander the interaction, the harder it becomes to do any meaningful piracy, to the extreme of online-only games and MMOs, where piracy of the game client is almost to be considered helpful.

With the emergence of the Internet, the games industry quickly picked up on the budding culture of participation that was thriving with the new possibilities — “user-generated content” as it’s so nicely called nowadays started appearing as level editors and levels for Doom, mods for Battlefield 1942 and Half Life. At first, the unexpected creativity shocked everyone, but then it was all embraced by the game studios and eventually turned into the massive support systems for user-generated content that today exist in games like LittleBigPlanet and the Trackmania games series (awesome games by the way).

Today, there’s basically two problems for the industry (well, winning the “simplification of the year” award here, but anyway): piracy for PC titles, and used game sales for Console titles. Yet if you listen to the internal dialogue in the industry (at least my part of it), the talk about what to do about this is not about punishment, it’s about new business models, and about providing more value for owners of original game copies, like giving away free stuff. I can guarantee that you’ll see more of that in the future.

Contrast this with the Music and Movie industries, who have been happily strolling along with the “shove it down their throat” business model until now. With a tight grasp of the market, distributors have been able to pocket most of the money, sending only spare change to the people doing the actual creative work.

With that background, I find it extremely strange how there are computer games in the list for the trial. It gets even weirder, in that World of Warcraft is one of them. So, one of the games that’s the very poster child for the new business models I mentioned above, that give away their game client on free trial discs, is a part of a lawsuit against a piracy site? Wait, what?

Why does this happen? Simply put: because the studio is one step removed from the publisher, and the publisher is one step from these umbrella lobby organizations. The end result is that the people doing these lawsuits are pretty much lost when it comes to the material they’re representing — they have absolutely nothing to do with its creation. The middle man is behind lawsuits, because the middle man is being cut out in the new world with a new economy, and more of the money is starting to flow directly to games studios, directly to musicians.

The behavior of the industry lawyers in the court has been nothing short of disgusting. With no actual case, they’ve spent the entire sessions trying to discredit the professors who have taken the witness stand, acting like an IFPI lawyer was qualified to pass judgment on who’s fit to be a professor and who’s not. They’re so eager to hide facts that don’t fit into their outdated view of the world that they don’t even realize that not only is it an insult to the Professor in question, it’s also an insult to the entire academic world and everyone who’s had a hand in reviewing and publishing his papers.

I’m proud that I’m part of the sector of the industry that is trying to move with the times rather than ride the lawsuits all the way to the end. I’d like to be able to say that I’m proud that my studio’s products aren’t on the list for that lawsuit — but sadly I think it’s just a question of random selection.

In the end, even if we aren’t associated directly with the lawsuit, we’re funding these organizations and we’re indirectly connected to it by our very profession, and treating people that way is nothing short of a marketing disaster. With the amount of money we spend getting games out there, not having the process sabotaged by a public backlash should be priority.

My conclusion is that it’s time to sever the connections and publicly distance ourselves from anything even remotely to do with suing our customers, and go back to working together with the gamers out there on the net. We have nothing to win in court, and nothing to lose in the market.

The mountain of flowers sent to professor Roger Wallis and his wife by (and paid for by) people following the trial on the net shows how deeply people care (and are obviously willing to pay for things they care about). I’d rather recruit this unprecedented movement of creative energy than die slowly of starvation like the likes of IFPI are going to. After all, there’s only so many years you can spend 75 Million Pounds on jailing your customers — if you somehow don’t run out of money I’ll guarantee you’ll run out of customers.

If you’re interested in the trial, check out the Wired article series or follow #spectrial on twitter.

How to Destroy a Universe in Order to Make Money in 6 Easy Steps

The games industry is often accused of having a bad case of sequelitis. Most big games are sequels, or in some other way part of some franchise. I think it’s a bit simplistic to blame the industry for this — looking at sales and income, the games industry has understood (just as Hollywood has) that the way to make lots of money is to make a sequel. Not necessarily because it’s cheaper, but because that’s what people buy.

So having established that we’re in the business of making sequels (and yes, I am), we need to look at lore. With each sequel, there’s a new story, but also an extension of the universe that story takes place in. Fans of series don’t generally love the stories themselves — more often fans are in love with the universe. The magic that surrounds something like the Star Wars universe (or did, until the prequel movies were made) or Lord of the Rings stems from the depth of the universes they take place in.

It’s easy to forget this and only focus on the new story you’re trying to tell. Even if this succeeds, and even if you make a fair bit of money from it, you may be lessening the total value of the universe by breaking the lore.

So without further delay, I present 6 ways to easily spoil the magic and destroy a universe:

  1. Un-ending an end, or forced resurrection. This happens when the decision is made to make a sequel to a story that has been ended, thus altering the lore or coming up with convoluted ways to explain the miraculous continuation of a storyline that had been conclusively and definitely ended.The effect is that fans feel cheated and the value of the previous ending is reduced. Two good examples of this effect are the Terminator franchise un-ending of the end in Terminator 2, and the Alien: Resurrection movie.
  2. Accommodating a new target audience by changing the universe. This happens when a spinoff, sequel or prequel changes the universe in order to accommodate for a new target audience — often a childrens’ version of the series.A perfect example of this is how many Star Wars fans felt that the Star Wars universe was tainted by the introduction of children’s movie character Jar Jar Binks and elements like the Hutt Pod-race. The prequel movies undoubtedly made a healthy profit, but destroyed some of the Star Wars magic in the process, lessening the total value of the franchise.
  3. Not doing your research. This tends to happen when a universe changes hands, like a new author finishing a book series after the death of the original author, or a franchise being handed to a new games studio by a publisher. The new authors then make mistakes that lessen the credibility of the universe by simply not knowing or understanding some aspects of it.For instance, in the prequels to Frank Herbert’s “Dune”, written by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, an invention is used several thousand years before its invention in one of the original books of the series.
  4. Killing your core. Most universes are built up around some core occurrence. Star Trek is built up around the exploration of a vast mystical universe by crews on space ships, for instance. Removing the defining characteristic of your universe is a bad idea.This happened as the Wing Commander saga unexpectedly ended the war that was the core of the universe, removing the core component that had powered the lore. A few games were released after this, introducing a new enemy but the momentum of the universe had failed. Another good example of this is when an action movie was released based on the adventure series Mission: Impossible, even including a betrayal committed by the beloved protagonist of the series for good measure.
  5. Forgetting your core. Sometimes, what makes a series special is taken for granted during the production of a sequel, to the very point that it’s forgotten entirely. Games are especially open to this phenomenon — in the rush for technological innovation the heritage is somehow forgotten.Doom 3 is a good example of this. With all the cool dynamic lighting and shadows in focus, the game completely failed at following up on the style of the previous games. Instead, the gameplay degenerated into a form of technologically advanced “Boo!” with monsters appearing out of nowhere in rooms with blinking lights.
  6. Diluting your story. Charlie Jane Anders calls this “Being a story slut” — feeling the need to tell a lot of stories that may not fit in to the universe you’re telling them in. The end result is that the fans lose track of what the universe is all about.I’ll repeat Charlie’s example for this: The Matrix. By losing focus on the issues and story in the first movie, the entire Matrix universe is tainted by this dilution, losing some of its magic.

Often, these errors are immediately obvious to any fan. Why are not spotted and fixed?

Sometimes, the simple answer is that they’re accepted damage. For instance, if you want to make money out of a new Alien movie, you’ve accepted the fate of the lore the moment you started. This can happen because the franchise is in the hands of people who don’t care about the universe they’re extending, or because the people doing the sequels have simply lost track of the context for what they’re creating.

More often, though, I suspect the mistakes are the responsibility of a single person in charge, who either refuses to listen to others or who rules with such an iron fist that others don’t dare to sound the alarm. This appears to be the case of Jar Jar Binks, where the production team waved the red flag but were ignored.

So if you’re going to make a sequel, make it a good one — and don’t repeat these common mistakes. That way, you don’t have to be responsible for the next expression like “Jumping the Shark” or “Nuking the Fridge

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