ARTS2090: #3 Is publishing, in itself, inevitably going to be disruptive? [explored with video games publishing] June 10, 2011

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Publishing is to make something public or generally known, and it can be understood in three aspects: archives, forms of expression, as well as distribution and aggregation. The changes in publishing practices and technologies through human civilisation bring about changes in publics, a system enabling assemblages of public and social life together with the engagement of individuals in them. Development of language, writing and especially printing allows for creating and disseminating abstract and complex concepts such as religion and trade, shifting culture and transforming publics through the way humans think about themselves in relation to others as well as interacting with the social aspect of life.

According to Flu
sser, ‘the term “communication” can be defined in a wide sense and in a strict sense. The wide sense is: a process by which a system is changed by another system’ (2002, p.8). A system is ‘a regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole’ (Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2011). Nachmanovitch cites Bateson in suggesting that practices in publishing foster a tangible experience of seeing the world as a network of relationship joint by communication (1982). Communication can be a form of publishing when the sender conveys meaningful information to an imagined public. Human communication is quintessentially artificial in nature, shown in the codified world and structure of communicative systems (Flusser, 2002, p. 3-4, Ong, 1982, p. 40 & 82). The artificial channels, storage or tools used to archive and deliver information and data for communication are media; their presence in the world shapes culture, imagery of the world, and perception of reality to a certain extent, forming the mediascape. Recognising modulations in the mediascape enables one to understand the tangled interrelationships between publishing and publics.

Currently media as a whole is undergoing a period of transition, moving from “traditional” media with a top-down hierarchical system in monopolising information and knowledge, to a state of ongoing change in “new” media that allows for participatory culture and narrowing the distinction between producers and consumers of content. Some publishing models, technologies and tools may be replaced or converged with “new” media, while other models, technologies and tools can still maintain their value of importance and influence to publics in their original format. This proposition will be further discussed by focusing on video games publishing; arguing that publishing, in itself is not inevitably disrupted, but rather, different modes of publishing can coexist for publics.

Distribution and aggregation in publishing are fundamentally transformative: gathering, combining or bringing text, images, sound, code and platforms into a new relationship and increasingly flexible and variable forms of organisation; the very nature of more ongoing reorganisation of data, information and knowledge requires more means of adapting to such changes. ‘Disrupt’ can be defined as ‘to interrupt the normal course or unity of’ something (Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2011); thus, a normal course or unity of publishing can be interpreted as the traditional, rigid structural models and informational flows in publishing. In the past, publishing in general focused on content and communicating certain messages, whilst the modes of distributing and aggregating were left to ‘authority’, referring to the industry and government. Now, the focus of publishing business models tends to be about leveraging distribution and aggregation more than producing content; reaching a wider audience, gaining more consumers, conforming people to adapt to their mode of publishing. However, this is not the entire case for the video games industry.

Video games are also known as interactive entertainment, which are electronic games that involve interaction with a user interface to generate visual feedback on a video device (Wikipedia, 2011). They are gaining a higher status as a mainstream form of entertainment media, comparable with movies. Publishing a video game can be much more complicated than publishing a book. There is differentiation in specific roles: providing capital and licensing, designing and artwork, programming, customising game engines, generating content production tools and management, distribution, marketing and advertising, providing hardware and software platforms. The section most related to publishing is of course video games distribution, marketing and advertising, usually conducted by video game publishers. This type of publishing business model is typical for most major, or “AAA”, retail box video games, in the sense that developed video games go through a publisher and will not be released without financial support from a publisher. It is similar to the traditional publishing business models of books of an author writing up a manuscript, having an editor to makes changes to the text, getting a publisher, designing page layouts, aesthetics and the cover. Video games publishers impose restrictions and control of video game development according to budgets and business plans, meaning this is a relatively closed and limited system.

Nonetheless, “new” media brings in new opportunities and businesses models for video games publishing, and one of them is independent video game development, or commonly known as “indie games”. Independent video game development refers to the process of creating small to no budget video games without the financial support of a video game publisher (Wikipedia, 2011). Indie games can be developed by an individual, a small team or a small independent games company. Taking away the need for video games publisher approval, this allows higher creativity and non-mainstream type of video games to be created. Therefore, in order for indie games to garner popularity and acclaim, the focus still needs to be on the content of the video games, whether it would be gameplay, artwork, genre etc. Independent video game development is largely driven by digital distribution. The current age of interconnectedness of the online web and digitalisation of media allows independent game developers to aggregate and distribute their video games on the Internet by either directly purchasing and downloading from their own website, or through getting onto comprehensive digital gaming platforms (that can also be archives) like Steam. However, physical copies of video games sold in retail stores are still prevalent because of the preference of for owning a physical copy in opposed to downloading gigabytes of video games sold through digital distribution under capped Internet data plans, as well as some games including special collectibles for fans of specific video game series.

Convergence of media technologies and platforms also changes the dynamics of video games publishing. Free-to-play flash or Java-based games have been around for more than a decade, but the influx of high quality casual games on mobile application or touch-screen tablet platforms available at a cheap price is somewhat affecting the full-priced console, portable and personal computer video games market. Such casual mobile games can be termed as ‘disposable games’. Christ Anderson, author of
The Long Tail and Free, suggests that market segmentation, having a range of varying prices, is crucial in surviving the digital age: initially allowing free-to-play or charging very little monetary value, then put in a conversion rate after play utility has been ascertained, followed by creating an engaging gaming experience for the player or gamer to establish game value. He provides the example of Club Penguin, a online kids game, where the game is initially free-to-play, but one can pay for arbitrary items, like a virtual pet, in the game. Anderson claims that potential game consumers will feel natural to pay more to build upon their already formed gaming experience (p. 7). This theory links back to the proposition that publishing business models focus more on distribution and aggregation rather than content. Media convergence also opens up a window of creativity in using multiple publishing platforms, technologies or tools in publishing a new form of video gaming. For example, the iPad 2 is a multimedia computing device that is also capable of gaming. ‘The appearance of HD resolution video games on the iPad that work on your HDTV whilst using the iPad as a sophisticated controller represents an unexpected challenge to the likes of Sony, Nintendo and Xbox’ (Brown-Martin, 2011). A decision in whether to favour a publishing and distribution platform over another or release a video game on multiple platforms will change the flow of distribution and aggregation.

Video games themselves often contain meta-publishing, whereby the game developers communicate certain data, information, knowledge or ideas to the imagined public. There are three forms of embedded persuasion in video games: one type is advertgames, meaning that video games were created solely for the purpose for advertising real-life companies or products; another kind is in-game advertising in the form of virtual billboards or incorporated in gameplay itself yet not overtaking other game elements, and such in-game advertising may sponsor game development to a measurable degree; the third kind is called incidental advertisement that is meant to either portray a sense of realism or satirising real companies (Lan & Marinucci). Furthermore, game narratives are a important sector of in-game meta-publishing; video games will often imply a determined historical, cultural, or even moral background contexts that may echo with some gamers, but alienate others with cross-cultural differences.

Video games as a form of socialisation and community involvement are getting more prominent as well. There is the category games based on the platform and system of Facebook, such as Farmville by Zynga, that recommends the player to continuously publish Facebook news feeds in asking Facebook friends to mutually assist each other in getting most out of the gameplay experience. These type of games reward higher social mobility and influence of individual with positive in-game visual feedback (such as extra virtual items), and are higher geared towards distributing the games and aggregating players. Party games have also been developed mostly on gaming consoles, such as Wii Party, and various current Xbox 360 Kinect video game titles; this type of video gaming transforms real-life social interactions and relationships into virtual visual feedback on screen. Another genre of video games that reconstructs one’s perception in relation to the world (real or virtual) is social simulators, such as the globally popular The SIMS video game series, as well as various types of role-playing games, also known as RPGs (Lan & Marinucci). Besides, gamertags or usernames, co-operation modes, multiplayer modes, score leaderboards and game achievements are in the wider definition of publishing in expressing one self through the public space and sharing a sense of being part of an imagined public. By joining a specific gaming community, one is identifying himself or herself with a specific aspect of culture brought about by video games.

In summary, video games publishing is an extremely fragmented sector of publishing. There is not a clear divide in which types of video games publishing will concentrate more on content and which types are more driven by distribution and reaching out to a wider public. The competition amongst a multitude of game genres and gaming platforms may disrupt the market domination of high-budged not-so-creative AAA video game titles; yet, “new” media, digitalisation and media convergence allows smaller game development teams or individuals to easily catch people’s attention. Different published video games cater to different publics as a matter of personal preference. The video games industry is quite a consumer demand-determined market, hence, the video game industry should try to publish video games appealing to different sets of publics. Consequently, all participants in video games publishing, whether it be developers, publishers or individuals, ought to be aware of the transformative properties of publishing; especially people working in the game industry should develop strategies in facing enhanced and more flexible aggregations and distributions in video games publishing nowadays. Video games are unique forms of publishing because of the interactive, immersive nature in this media technology and form of entertainment; in addition, content variation is somewhat determined by the gamer or player’s decisions, actions and reactions, allowing room for creative potential; and the increasingly intertwining of video games with other forms of “new”, digital and convergent media asserts the sustenance of video games publishing as a whole that will not easily be disrupted.