Monday, April 23, 2007

Freedom Is Bad

Well, not all freedom, but to paraphrase British Rail the wrong kind of freedom can be very bad indeed, at least in the entertainment industries.

A friend emailed me a Slashdot link to the BBC's lament for the future of the videogame industry, nothing really new but interesting in that it parallels similar stories about music, cinema, literature and newspapers in recent months. CDs, DVDs, books and papers are all suffering drops in sales lately and all four industries are blaming the internet in some way.

I've never really understood how people can blame the internet for social phenomena. The internet itself doesn't do anything except house information: that people can access that information and use it to do things that businesses find inconvenient is not the fault of the internet, but of people. You might as well blame education for making people less stupid... it's the same vitriol that used to be levelled at television (and still is in some quarters), and I daresay the printing press before that: giving people freedom is bad, because freedom allows free will and free will allows people to do bad things.

Gaming is having an odd week where this aged debate is concerned - Jack Thompson somewhat predictably (and tastelessly, and with no evidence whatsoever to support it) blamed videogames for the Virginia Tech shootings, whereas the BBFC is on the verge of relaxing its guidelines for age-rating games in the UK after research found that the interactive element of a game actually limits the effects of violence compared to a movie. In other words, Thompson wants freedom of choice curtailed to prevent harm: the BBFC are considering extending freedom of choice to prevent harm.

Most gamers will already have made their decision about who is right - Thompson is well-connected politically but is demonstrably an extremist, one whose increasing hysteria has made even some of his allies shuffle away from him publically; the BBFC, for all their faults, does genuinely try to be fair in its dealings and rarely shows any sign of an agenda. A rogue lawyer just doesn't compare to a legal body, and the BBFC's quiet note in their report that hysterically negative press about games encourages their purchase does rather put the tin lid on it. But that's not really my point: this argument isn't about games specifically, it's about freedom.

Leaving the political arguments of freedom-versus-law to one side for a moment, this is a serious problem for businesses whose model depends entirely on a lack of freedom. Music has long been trapped in the physical form of CDs, tapes and vinyl: now it is no more than software, software that almost anyone with the wherewithal to wield a mouse in anger can manipulate. In an age where everybody has a connection to everybody else software cannot be controlled in the way that physical items can, and this has scared the crap out of the music industry. DRM is a technology that cannot possibly succeed - an attempt to force the ethereal to behave like the physical. No wonder music all sounds the same these days - the first casualty of cost-cutting is creativity. The music industry cannot continue to function in its present form without a steady stream of dead certs, and creativity is the enemy of such predictability.

The same can be said of the book trade. Margins are shrinking as chain booksellers squeeze the publishers ever harder, making it less and less profitable to sell even those dead certs, let alone anything new - hence the explosion in tepid celebrity biographies, a genre which has great appeal for the publisher as it doesn't need to be a good book to sell. If it's tough to make a profit on the next Stephen King then how the hell can any new author expect to get published? Publishers can't be blamed for this, nor agents, since they are at least adjusting their business models as best they can to fit the climate they're in: it's the retailers that are refusing to change, pursuing the online market share by trying to outdo the virtual retailers with physical stock. Which, of course, they can't. We have freedom to buy any book we like and Amazon has the freedom to supply any book they like: because the bricks-and-mortar stores cannot force their physical operation to behave like software they are failing. It's no wonder customer service is so dismal in many of these places: for them, customers are the enemy and freedom their deadly weapon.

With videogames it's a little different. The market is technology-led and so has no qualms accepting change: take Steam for instance. No, for the games industry the problem is too much freedom.

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, the cheap 8-bit microcomputer that not only helped jumpstart the first home videogaming boom but also provided the platform for many of today's best-known developers to learn their mad skillz, including your humble narrator, I might add. The Spectrum is the reason I am doing IT now, the reason I learned Java, the reason I can problem-solve, and not because it provided freedom but because it didn't. The Spectrum was horribly underpowered by modern standards, yet not only did it provide some of gaming's most iconic moments but some of those moments have lived on - the 360 has just seen Jet Pac reissued, with jazzier graphics and sound but still the same gameplay; Manic Miner was remade for the GBA, as was Sabre Wulf; even 3D Ant Attack has seen a spiritual successor in Earth Defence Force 2017. It's partly nostalgia, of course, but mostly it's just that these were good games, good ideas, forced into being by the constraints of the hardware. Now developers pressure hardware makers to up their specs to suit them (yes, Epic, I'm talking to you) and publically blame lack of memory or lack of disk space for the limitations of their software, lambasting the question instead of trying to find an answer.

Now they are having problems staying in business because the sheer power of modern machines requires teams of a hundred or more and dev cycles of at least two years just to get a game out of the door, let alone a good one. Freedom's a real bitch. Unfortunately the customers, as always, suffer: why do an Ico when another incremental FIFA update is a dead cert?

The answer to each of these problems is the same: these businesses have to change their model. They have to learn that profit is not everything: the most profitable course of action is not always the best for the business. Take Hollywood, where major blockbusters still drive the money engines but where every major studio has a minor subsidiary making cheaper, weirder, more original films - films people can discover and love, films that make the whole industry richer, films that give us a reason to love cinema and respect it. Without the respect of the customers a business has a finite span, because in an age of freedom we need a better reason to say yes than 'because it'll make your CEO richer'.

I wanted to find a way to link this to the French election, but I couldn't. Kudos to the French: in an era when British voters eschew political philosophies for individual manifesto commitments it's good to see a nation that has more brains than that. People should vote for their country's future, not their tax credits, and the French clearly get this.

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