The definition of a game changer is something which not only dramatically impacts the sector in which it operates, but actually brings into question or alters the basic rules under which that sector has functioned.
It’s no secret that publishing, as a business, is changing, swept along in the seismic shifts in content delivery that the internet is causing across multiple media. The traditional gatekeepers, publishing conglomerates, retail shops, even literary agents — are seeing their scarcity-driven model crumbling. The rules are being re-written on a nearly daily basis — and nobody is exactly sure where everything will end up.
One thing is certain, though: Apple’s iPad, announced last week, has proven that it is game changer even though it hasn’t even been released yet.
Over the past weekend, there was a bit of a corporate dust-up between Amazon and Macmillan (one of the “big six” publishing conglomerates), over the prices of electronic editions for sale on the site. Amazon wanted to be able to force a flat rate on all publishers, and Macmillan wanted some flexibility on the prices they offer. (The best overview of the issue, in my opinion, was offered here on the site of the Science Fiction Writers of America, by Tobias Buckell.)
As a negotiating tactic, Amazon removed all Macmillan product, electronic or otherwise, from the site on Friday. They’ve done this sort of thing in the past, and in those cases, the publishers in question gave in to Amazon’s demands.
Not this time.
The mere fact of the announcement of the iPad — and more importantly, the associated iBook Store that Apple will be running — led Macmillan to tell Amazon, politely, to go pound sand. The existence of another major eBook venue effectively breaks Amazon’s strangehold on that market, which means that publishers don’t have to acquiesce to Amazon’s often heavy-handed demands.
Sure enough, Amazon blinked. The entire event is still unfolding and yet to completely shake out, but SF author John Scalzi offers an excellent overview of where Amazon screwed up, in this essay on his blog.
What does this mean for games publishing?
The biggest take-away for publishers should be this: We need to start moving away from a business model that largely has not changed since the 1980s. We need to be lining up new ways of presenting our products, in various formats and in new delivery methods. The changes that are turning the publishing world upside-down are not going to be limited to the mainstream — and once those changes start altering the way consumers expect their entertainment to be provided, we’d better be ready.
One of the most frightening things about major upheavals like this is that traditional strengths may suddenly become liabilities overnight — but we should remember that the opposite is also true. For very small operations like Adamant and the majority of other games publishers, that smallness — a liability in how things used to be done — will actually become one of our greatest strengths. Because of our size, we find ourselves better positioned to make quick decisions and take advantage of changes in the market– changes which, in many cases, play to our existing strengths (closeness of contact between content providers and the audience, for example).
I have to admit a certain degree of amusement watching discussions on various industry fora, now that the changes are becoming so obvious that they’re impossible to ignore. Now we’ve got game industry folks (publishers, retailers, etc.), who previously dismissed the digital segment and would deride attempts to widen our focus, scrambling to catch up — belatedly launching social media efforts, asking colleagues for summaries of what’s going on, etc.
That sort of developmental cul-de-sac is not a good place to be, and the neighborhood could even get worse in the coming year. Think of it like this: If the waves are so huge that they’re visibly tossing the mega-publishers around, what makes you think they won’t capsize you?
Change isn’t coming. It’s here. The game has already been changed — the scramble now is to learn the new rules.
We’re gamers. Learning new rules? We do that for FUN.