Most here on GD.ie are familiar with the history of gaming, some have participated, some witnessed or studied it. The depth, size and reach of our industry continues to grow, morphing and enriching other industries. Some view this expansion as enhancement, others as infection or even invasion. Nowhere were such polar opinions, insecurities and misguided evangelism more evident than on a recent visit to the world’s most prestigious television market, MIPTV in Cannes. (www.miptv.com)
Although more famous for its annual film festival (& market) the lunches, launches and parties attracted more than 12k television professionals from around the globe this year. They came to gorge themselves, hawk, buy and haggle over the purchase, licensing, co-production and distribution of future content on digital screens. This year, for the second time, games made it onto the menu. The world of television has finally woken up to the potential threat of games and started appointing some ‘heads of digital’ to get their brains around ideas like content 360.
From stage on screen to content 360
Television has been the dominant entertainment medium for the past fifty years. Expensive experimental program making quickly gave way to a safe, familiar and relatively cheap stage on screen approach to content production. By 2000AD, the battle for the living room saw the Nintendo Dolphin (gamecube), the PS2, Xbox and the Sega Dreamcast fighting for screen real estate and cash. With the assistance of soccer, digital TV fought a rear guard action and the internet’s pincher movement succeeded almost unnoticed. So much has changed since 2000AD. With 47% broadband penetration, after iTunes Xbox live is now the second largest on-line supplier of content to American households. Xbox offers shows, films, clips and games too! Those victory laurels have only really been gnawed at by its cousin windows entertainment centre.
Once labelled triple play, i.e. broadcast, web and mobile, TV now lives in its own 360 world. Like some other industries, when the telly industry is stuck for an idea or two, they simply have a competition. In Cannes this year they had several, among them the 360 pitching contest. Companies pitched product/programme ideas that embraced new technologies on offer, pitched for multiplatform but were mindful of the reverence accorded to the social networking phenomena and aware of the semantic web 2.0 mumbo jumbo.
While most TV execs bought, sold and bartered the traditional two dimensional boxware on the main show floor, several with ‘digital’ in their title turned up to the Beeb’s public commissioning 360 content pitches. Irish company RandomThoughts ollied in on the act with a pitch for StreetskillsTV, a mobile project to enable urban skaters to share their tricks and skills – unfortunately they didn’t land their Pop Shuv-it, which doesn’t mean that we may not see something very similar to StreetskillsTV on a very small screen near you.
Enter the new paradigm evangelists: Jason Hirschorn of Sling media and his slingbox promoting anywhere TV. Firstscience.tv, Joiningthedots.tv and a plethora of distribution channels giving viewers the chance to avoid EPG (Electronic Programme Guide) fatigue and discover their quality content via broadband. Of course Joost and babelgum, the latest internet tv darlings, also turned up. Babelgum is setting up in the Digital Hub in Dublin and are offering jobs. (http://www.babelgum.com/jobs/) Their spiel at MIP mentioned paying content creators $5 per thousand views until Babelgum can afford to generate advertising revenue. Dot what I hear you ask?
But it wasn’t only the new kids on the block talking about outside the box opportunities, Gerhard Zeiler, RTL chief executive (in Italy) said having a one channel product isn’t enough anymore. You need to play the field across IPTV, mobile and any other avenue that opens up. Did he mean games too? The largest piece of evidence to prove the existence of a bandwagon had to be the announcement of a partnership between Electronic Arts and Endemol – two major players in their respective channels – collaborating on a second life clone called Virtual Me.
MTV were also looking for a suitable partner to change South Park into a multi-platform digital property. Should they have spoken with Philip Rosedale CEO of Second life who was there doing his bit for virtual worlds? ITN and 3 were doing a mobile content deal, as the week wore on, more and more deals were announced until a sort of deal blindness set in. Bob Geldof turned up in his guise as TV production supremo to announce plans to do a whole box set of documentaries and map humanity into a multiplatform genealogy database called Dictionary of Man. You can never accuse Bob of thinking too small.
The Irish at MIP this year included friendly faces from TG4, Hibernian American, Telegael, Brown Bag, Kavaleer, Monster, RTE, E.I. and/or the Filmboard. I have attended ECTS, GDC, ETC and MIP before, always as a preferred outsider, but this year I was genuinely struck by the hubris pervading it all. Obviously where you get buying and selling you can get a lot of middle men, mostly distributors, who will mostly disappear as new direct digital distribution channels establish.
Yet despite the talk about social networks, the need for personalisation and the need to embrace new technology opportunities – the vast majority of those attending seemed to miss one central point. We no longer live in a purely push technology paradigm; users, viewers and especially gamers prefer to genuinely interact with properties, it is my view that they want interactive entertainment that is genuine pull technology. A lot of what I heard, read, saw and witnessed at MIPTV was really just a slow movement to a kind of ‘prod’ technology, pushing users towards pre-packaged, albeit user generated, content with little regard for agency.
Many in TV foolishly think that storytelling is agency – which IMHO it most certainly is not. Agency manifests itself most prominently in our games industry as gameplay – we know and live the proven commercial fact that no amount of visual trickery or number crunching can compensate for genuinely engaging gameplay. Aristotle may have mentioned spectacle as an essential element of drama but even his classical unities were eventually scrubbed by TV. In these times of change did I witness the professional TV industry become a bubble rather than a box? I currently have semi-professional, mash ups, totally amateur and personal content on my phone, my Wii and my PC right now. Hands up anyone under 25 who has not put something on youtube, let alone watched a couple of hundred minutes of entertainment there.
The TV industry has already embraced the ARG (Alternative Reality Game) recently with the JR style ‘Who Killed Tom King’ in Emmerdale. Yet anyone flicking late night UK TV channels will have seen those appalling phone-in hangman style word games, not even a poor cousin of interactivity. Although obviously making someone money, they appear content to merely patronise an already dumbed down (or drunken) audience ? So where can the industries fit together? Are there genuine opportunities for game developers to add value to an ageing increasingly partitioned and struggling TV industry? Gina Jackson of Eidos told the audience in the conference on the role of games in cross-media entertainment: ‘we are good at repurposing our content for different platforms.’ It sounds like a services pitch, give us your proven content and we will work our gamer magic on it.
In a month when Spiderman 3, both movie and game, sat in the top five of their respective charts, we do get a successful model, ok an expensive model, from a company some might say is in decline due to a PS3 fiasco. It remains a commercial example of joined up thinking on the subject, let me call that thinking ‘holistic’. While the Virginia tech atrocity was underway on the other side of the world, the most common and unconnected observation I heard at MIPTV was ‘the Koreans have taken over.’ While perhaps somewhat xenophobic, the pre-eminence of their advertising and sponsorships was evident to the most myopic of attendees. They were the major sponsors of many of the headline events.
Korea as a whole, including its government, agencies, business and banking communities, has enthusiastically embraced the new pull paradigm. Obviously somebody sees the potential synergies and has invested heavily in skills training, infrastructural development and solidly supporting many indigenous companies to help build an industry. Those exact actions were proposed several years ago to allow the building of the Irish Games Industry. However in my own geographical area, different priorities were pursued. The IDA in their wisdom decided to give Xerox over 40 million of Irish taxpayers money to buy a landbank of 100 acres to locate here – rather than spend that money on growing local industry, skills and long term capability – ironic too perhaps that Xerox had to restate their earnings from around the time of their IDA courtship. When the inkjet facility closed, the IDA had the temerity to ask for 8 million euro of our money back.
So assuming that ‘enrichment’ and evolution continue and traditional broadcast culture embraces these changes. Assuming Irish games, mobile and digital media companies identify opportunities and decide to pursue holistic approaches, assuming media consumers continue to evolve into createsumurs (ok I made that word up – think of it in terms of wreaders – internet readers who write, contribute, edit as well as read on line, somebody more complex than a mashup maker). Assuming commercial and academic research identify, recognise and document these emerging trends – will this enrichment and evolution in the new pull paradigm create further buses of opportunity for Irish companies to miss?
The three major difficulties faced by Irish companies in relation to these new opportunities are replications of the same difficulties faced when the Irish games industry struggled to get off the ground in the early nineties:
Ignorance: back in the nineties, companies, agencies, institutions and individuals could throw their hands up and say they simply did not know about the games evolution. The difference today of course is the information and research is all over the web 2.0 internet and also in the hands of the broadcast industry. The difficulty lies in the complexity of these changes, the average GD.ie reader may already be bored with this. BUT….there really is a critical mass of decision makers out there who do not know, who do not understand. Can we then perhaps educate them ?….see two of the previous GD articles by Tony Kelly, or Dave Bustard, Darryl Charles and Emmet Kilbride for some contextual understanding of the challenges of educating the non decision making strata.
Access to finance: if you wanna make food for thought, develop a recipe, buy yourself some ingredients, cooking utensils and equipment, get HACCP approval and cook your stuff, package it up appropriately and bring it along to a distributor, wholesaler or buyer and if they like the taste, the profit margin and sales potential, you are in business. Now what distributor or buyer can give you a deal if you can only present a recipe and a couple of ingredients? Superficially an idiotic analogy but the standard situation Irish media technology start-up companies find themselves in when trying to get new product ideas off the ground.
Bear in mind that very few new cross platform/360 product prototypes can be developed by anything less than a small multidisciplinary team and we enter into costs in a big way. Costs need to be funded. Assume only three people on an average industrial wage of €600 per week for let’s say 18 months, throw in a few overheads and some expenditure on hardware and software and we already have a basic finance requirement of 150K minimum. Who is going to give you 150k for a recipe and a few ingredients?
Well actually if you are making a film, the Irish Film Board may lend you the money, if you are creating theatre or sculpture the arts council can provide levels of funding. If you are making a television programme you can apply to the BCI or seek a commission from a major broadcaster. Most Irish financial institutions will give you finance if the project is actually bricks and mortar. Does all of this boil back down to the risks and ignorance associated with betting on our industry? Have a go creating a digital media recipe and decide for yourself.
Inertia: How often have we seen success stories come along and shake us up? We have been fortunate here on GD: Demonware, Havok and Upstart are all companies that progressed through the recipe stage to establish themselves in the field. Most making the technology furrows, most five to ten year overnight successes. Start-ups are subject to technology cycles and the ebb and flow of financial markets – markets which consist of one third trade and two thirds speculation. The bets made in the technology field cannot be safe bets, speculators who are attracted to technology punts equally must be prepared to loose their money if they are prepared for large returns on the next potential killer app. These bets need to change in tandem with the changing dynamics of their target industries, but they don’t appear to, they stand still, we see old thinking being applied to new imperatives. Brian Cowen did his bit, despite the protestations of the unions, the BES scheme has changed to something approaching realistic levels to fund a 360 project punt. So where are these punters? Where are the funds and funders and the tuned in infrastructure to enable it?
MIP happens again in October 2007, like Arnie the Koreans will be back, the rest of the world will also be there. Will anything change for Irish companies looking for breaks in the mobile or multiplatform pavilions? I.e. now that the Irish housing boom has slowed down, our games industry is no longer the large teenage elephant in the room and waves of recognition are beginning to settle on our traditional media shores. Will things change for the next wave of games/digital/multiplatform/360 start-ups?
Oddly enough I am personally optimistic about the future, there is a lot of ground level development and activity in these fields. Seed capital is again coming on-line, the Digital Hub, the Digital Media Association, our IGDA, new blood or renewed vigour within support and government funded agencies, a greater drive towards innovation, more private cash and greater understanding of the issues, Steve and his Trinity course as main evening news, digital technology shifting to the centre and mainstream and of course the most significant of all, the emergence of a new generation of Irish technology entrepreneurs free from old bogged down eighties bollix of belt tightening and blind pessimism.
If new opportunities are to be grasped, if we as an industry or nation are to ride the next wave of cultural and technological convergence then we can only drive that as individuals – if you already recognised that, then you can combine quotes by Bill Gates, Adam Smith and Oscar Wilde to support it in the appendix of your next 360 business plan. Let me finish by offering this old but somehow apt Douglas Adams quote to any over thirties or TV people that might inadvertantly read this article on a lunch break: ‘A computer terminal is not some clunky old television with a typewriter in front of it. It is an interface where the mind and body can connect with the universe and move bits of it about.’
clevercelt went to MIPTV 07 with Irish company Dime under the EU Media Programme Sponsored ‘Marketplace’ Programme. Mick is a father, husband, son, creative director, writer, designer, director, programmer, producer, student, commercial researcher and management professional with experience in theatre, multimedia, TV, games, education, technology, digital media and pitch and toss. He’s a member of the IGDA steering committee, the digital media association, the international High IQ society, the woolly jumper liars appreciation society and lots of other stuff. PM him if you want to annoy him.
Links and more info:
Digital Media Association
The Digital Hub –
Babelgum – http://www.babelgum.com/jobs/