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Friday, 18 October 2002

Under your spell

Adrian decides that whilst immersive fiction hasn't been demonstrated as viable at present, that doesn't mean it can't be in the future:

"I think that of course it could be demonstrated that immersive fiction games are commercially viable - if you took the AI game, moved it forward 12 months and threw in a few product placements and targeted ads in it, that would've been perfect. As it is, the AI game is not the be-all and end-all, and none of what I've said should dissuade independent developers (who don't need the OK from the bigger, perhaps more conservative, players) from taking the moderate risk of making an immersive fiction game." [more]

... which doesn't seem that different from what I've been trying to say. We all know that what he's suggesting--"throw in a few product placements and targeted ads"--can be a source of funding. It was enough for Push, Nevada's online arm. That said, Push, Nevada the television series (as opposed to the online arm) failed spectacularly. Pitched by ABC against CSI and Will & Grace, it wasn't exactly in the best timeslot, and being billed as a Twin-Peaks-esque drama probably didn't help it either (the curse of genre programming striking again). Fine. Push, Nevada may have been cancelled midseason, but that doesn't negate the fact that companies paid Ben Affleck's production company a hefty amount of money to actually get enough content out there for a game. What Adrian is suggesting is a free play, promo and advertisement funded game. Advertisement paid for Push, NV and the AI effort. When you have an advertisement funded game, it's hard to see whether (apart from in audience numbers) you have proven anything to be commercially viable. Given the current advertising climate, I wouldn't be too optimistic about this method.

As far as outsiders viewing the genre as unproven, I'd imagine that that's a given. It's not as if my assessment is coming in from the perspective of someone who's wearing blinders. Adrian argues that nothing is going to happen until someone can demonstrate that the genre is commercially viable, which seems to me to be somewhat of a chicken and egg situation. The fact that MMORPGs make money is not supposed to be conclusive proof that immersive fiction games will make money--rather that it's evidence that gamers are willing to fork over the required $10/month for a gameplaying experience.

One issue is that MMORPGs provided a persistent world, whilst immersive fiction--to date--has been packaged into discrete episodes, leaving the possibility of a lull between periods of interest. What I'd argue is that it's not quite so simple: one of the attractions of immersive fiction when done in the manner that requires tens of thousands or more players is that the community dynamic opens up. Content starts being generated not from the game itself, but from the community members (and we all know about the implications that large communities have as regard to stickiness).

Adrian likens the problems right now to the situation when Ultima Online appeared on the scene. Ultima Online was released in 1997, and by 1999, more than 125,000 copies had been sold at $50/copy, and a monthly subscription revenue of $10[OJR]. Note that what he says is it's fine to crack open the genre with a small franchise like Ultima, but you wouldn't want to take any sort of risk with a large franchise. Well, that's the nature of risk - the larger the franchise, the larger the risk. So far, no problem. He points out that once the first mover has gone in (in this case, Ultima), the larger franchises will move in (LOTR, Star Wars and so on).

What with all the discussion about how Buffy's fanbase is small, dedicated and vocal, one might realise that Buffy isn't a large franchise at all. There may be one movie (a cult hit, i.e. not incredibly profitable), and seven television series (a critical hit, i.e. not raking in the eyeballs), numerous books and action figures, but when it comes down to it, Buffy is not a large franchise. At all. In that respect the Buffyverse might be ideally suited to crack open this market and let what Adrian calls the "big boys" move in. Think of the Buffy fans as a rabid test market--the revenues may not be enough for Fox executives to salivate, but I would argue that the potential for revenue exists.

One quick note: I said before that one method of funding would be driving eyeballs. I'm not entirely sure now whether this would work. It's always possible that you'll persuade someone to part with money for diverting eyeballs to their content, but I'm not convinced that it's a long-term solution for the reason that not everyone needs to see the content: if the reason for the shepherding to the content in question is to solve, say, a particular puzzle, then once one person has seen the required clue, that's it. No more. The example given where an in-game character posts and box ad in a newspaper doesn't really work to boost sales of the newspaper: take into account the people who would've got the newspaper anyway and your numbers are already low. Then take into account that in this day and age all it takes is for one person to scan in the advert and make it available online, you've got a problem.

1. Blurring the lines
2. I've got a theory
3. Once more, with feeling
4. Give me an axe and show me where to point it
5. I lied (so many posts ago)

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