Imagine, for a moment, if other entertainment mediums had reacted to copyright threats as the television industry has of late to the potential crisis of YouTube, Google Video, DVR, Bit Torrents and peer-to-peer networking, not by firing off endless lawsuits, but by embracing the technology as a means to broaden distribution and make it inclusive. In the face of an overwhelming threat from easily accessible streaming video, the television industry seems focused on adapting their business to take advantage of a new medium while making their product more compelling. It is a surprisingly novel approach to dealing with a changing consumer base, and every other entertainment medium could learn from the way television is adapting to online media consumption.
It would be like Sony/BMG suddenly granting music fans instant and largely free access to their libraries by leveraging the power of peer-to-peer networking and online advertising to their advantage rather than flogging well-intentioned customers with the heavy-handed threat of litigation and DRM. Or, more familiar to our particular niche, like being able to get the latest version of Madden or Halo, at a cheaper price, streamed directly to your console along with the ability to back-up your purchase, rather than having to go through the trouble of reserving it, waiting in line at some midnight opening and giving a cut of your money to the retail, packaging and distribution chains.
Instead, as always, we as gamers have to wait for third party companies to shove the potential of new retail technology down the tight, choked throats of publishers. We have to watch as customers flock toward Microsoft’s Xbox Live arcade to prove a point made years ago by Popcap, that people will pay for even sub-premium product with restrictive size limitations and complicated purchasing schemes. A lot of people.
Even as Valve’s often problematic Steam service collects new products and customers almost despite itself, the rest of the industry bogs itself down in endless concerns over traditional retail avenues. It sweats pennies on questions of copy protection when it could be gaining dollars circumventing the expensive retail maze, and expanding its consumer base by offering online convenience. For an industry that claims the most critical period for selling games is at release, it seems to be missing the boat by not providing as many avenues as possible for consumers to get content day one.
Maybe what we need is a good old fashioned crisis. Certainly the last one, the great videogame crash of the 1980s, kicked the industry hard enough to recreate itself in the form of the Nintendo Entertainment System. And, the PC gaming crisis, which has been touted for nearly half a decade now, has birthed a genuine resurgence of independent titles and new methods of content delivery. The gaming industry, which has been flying on autopilot for the last decade or so, could use a good old fashioned scare of impending doom to really get the creative juices flowing.
It’s amazing that one of the oldest electronic mediums is so better meeting the challenge of an advanced digital age that I can go to websites for NBC, ABC or CBS and get instant access to their most recent broadcasts. But with Electronic Arts, Sony or Microsoft, I find only troubled delivery systems for less than premium product, if there’s digital distribution options at all. It is a flashing scarlet badge of shame for these supposedly forward thinking tech corporations. That Microsoft’s Xbox 360 does a better job of delivering television content than it does demos for its own system should be clue one that the job of meeting consumer demand is not fulfilled. Even more troubling, Microsoft, with its aforementioned deficiencies, is constantly held up as a leader in the field.
It feels odd to be praising television. Historically speaking, television has been the quality whipping boy of entertainment media, and I grew up in a time when it was simply presumed that TV would rot my brain. And, I suppose, as long as Paris Hilton’s likeness is fired from electron spewing guns and projected onto anyone’s retina, some part of the industry is still slipping through the muck at the bottom of a rotten barrel. But as I wander through the programming available, I find more and more television of a higher quality. I have better access to better shows from more sources than ever.
In the digital age, television is everywhere. I load up my iTunes and am reminded that if I missed the latest episode of Battlestar Galactica, I can download it for a nominal fee. I hit YouTube and there are endless clips of favorite scenes from favorite shows. My TiVo is brimming with hours of television, all waiting to consume me as much as I consume it, and an industry that might have been entirely threatened by the seeming uncontrollability of these new mediums might end up being the most prepared for the changing landscape forced by digital distribution.
Perhaps it’s a function of having already fought the hopeless fight against consumers, and in the process discovering the unavoidable futility of trying to contain technology. The widespread access of VHS recorders in the early ’80s was considered to spell the certain doom of broadcast television, and much as the RIAA and ESA have taken their war of intellectual property to the courts and congress, so did television a quarter century ago. What the television industry eventually realized is the genie will not go back in the bottle, and considering the continued expansion of television in the intervening years, there’s really no reason that anyone should want it to.
I’m willing to concede that the situation for the game, music and movie industries is more complex with the retail and distribution complexities that do not burden the direct-to-consumer nature of television. But, by bringing the creators of new technology on board, and combining efforts to create sustainable and fair technologies, the television industry is finding out that easy access increases demand. It’s simply a bonus that edging the complexities of the current retail model out of the way in favor of the more direct-to-consumer approach saves everyone some time and money.
In an era when retail outlets require reservations, waiting in lines, dealing with supply issues and restrictive copy protections (which both alienate and, frankly, piss off customers), the lessons of television seem like they should be required reading.