Don’t Step On My Long Tail

Digital distribution and eCommerce are at the heart of what I do for a living. And nowhere is the Long Tail more at home than at the junction point of digital distribution and eCommerce. Someday, when greater volumes of content are featured on XBLA, it should turn into a perfect Long Tail paradise, right?

Well, that’s what I’m hoping for. But there are a few potential issues that muddy the waters. Some of them are issues facing all community-centric online systems. Some of them are specific to video game services. I’ll give you a couple of examples, and hopefully you can give me some ideas in return!

Trust, or lack thereof

There are many things that feed Long Tail sales behavior; one of the most important is an effective user-ranking system. I’m much more likely to buy something obscure if it gets high marks from members of my community.

Unfortunately, I no longer allow anything less than a huge number of positive ratings to influence my purchase decisions when I visit a site like Amazon.com. Why? Because I know the odds are relatively high that product ratings are being generated by businesses and/or their agents. That’s a real shame, because some products simply aren’t going to attract a large number of buyers (and therefore, a large number of reviewers.) And those products are at the heart of what makes the Long Tail so special.

This problem isn’t exclusive to Amazon. Digg.com is constantly struggling against people who seek to manipulate the system, and they (Digg) haven’t found any magic bullets yet. Am I hopeful? Not terribly, no. Look at spam… it’s utterly overwhelming ISPs, despite immense corporate and individual interest in stemming the flood. When there’s big money to be made, and the black hats (unlike the white hats) are willing to use unethical methods to tap into that money, things are bound to get ugly.

So how do you fix this? Aside from binding rankings to actual purchases (making it more expensive to “pump up your stock”), and aside from cleanly exposing all user ranking data to the community (enabling your dedicated “white hat” customers to help you track and fight the bad guys), I don’t have too many ideas. You can try to get fancy (for example, scan for people whose votes tend to contradict the average; reduce the weight of votes made by new users) but the fancier you get, the more you entrap legitimate users. Again, this is a constant struggle for sites like Digg.com.

So what happens when the trust threshold keeps edging higher? How will community systems lift great content (virtual and physical) out of obscurity under an ever greater “burden of proof”?

Multiplayer communities, divided by infinity, equals…

Many games, unlike most physical goods, have a real disadvantage when it comes to the “perfect” Long Tail environment. If only 1,000 people buy an obscure product for $1,000 each, the maker of that product may still be very happy. But a multiplayer-centric game that appeals to 1,000 (or for that matter, 100) people… A) isn’t likely to be sold for $1,000 and B) isn’t going to make its few customers very happy when they can’t find anyone to play with online.

Long Tail theory, taken to its logical extreme, would suggest carrying many, many variants of a given multiplayer game. The idea would be that different niches might prefer different variants, and you’ll make more money (overall) by satisfying all combinations and degrees of interest. But if offering many variants of a multiplayer game results in a serious fracturing of the multiplayer community, have you done the community any favors?

So, for the good of developers and the good of the community, we in XBLA are forced to ask ourselves: how many instances of sub-genre XYZ are good enough? One? Two? Ten? At what point does adding an additional variant subtract value instead of adding it? eBay doesn’t have to worry about stuff like this. Amazon.com does, but to a much, much lesser extent.

What about clones?

This post is getting long in the tooth so I’ll stop soon, but another question is: what about “clones?” This industry is rife with them. But theoretically, clones add value (in the sense that what I call a “clone,” you might call “a subtly better game.”) Should XBLA ever distribute very similar games, even when those games are single-player (and thus, don’t have the multiplayer split problem?) Who defines what qualifies as a clone and what doesn’t? Will we miss out on the next Unreal Tournament (or heaven forbid, the next Halo) because we so rigorously guarded against clones? At the same time, should we ignore the legitimate concerns of developers who hate how quickly their games are cloned in the PC environment?

XBLA will eventually offer much more content on a regular basis than it does today. But until we have better answers to the questions posed above (and some that were left unspoken), we (meaning XBLA, developers, and consumers) won’t be able to truly benefit from the full force of the Long Tail.

13 responses to “Don’t Step On My Long Tail

  1. Who cares? Where\’s CASTLE CRASHERS? *duck*

    No, seriously — back in the NES days (for yes, I am 8-bit) there was a whole mess of games that could arguably be called clones. Let\’s not forget that what originally set METAL GEAR apart from the dozens of other side-scrolling adventure games wasn\’t stealth, but the ability to swing from platform to platform with a little metal arm. STRIDER just had a slide and one momma of an energy sword that would put FFVII\’s Cloud to shame, and I never could tell the difference between GRADIUS and R-TYPE just by looking at them. Yet most of these games were legendary (okay, well, maybe STRIDER wasn\’t, but you get the point).

    The thing about XNA is that it facilitates small indie development — and since small indie development is probably where the *refinement* of gameplay should take place, much like experimentation in low-budget cinema, send in the clones. (Lord, I\’ve been spending too much time around Henry.) Now, that said, perhaps the answer is to post the clones in a sort of second-tier system and reserve the high-spotlight areas for truly original pieces, sort of like iTunes does. If you go into a genre section in the iTunes store you can still find the gabillions of long-tail content pieces, but it spotlights a number of new works right up front. The same thing happens in Blockbuster, albeit at a much smaller scale — the new release shelves have dozens of copies of the big blockbuster releases, but also dutifully includes single copies of the new genre films that some might call \’clones\’ but others might call midlist, low-budget or – gasp! – indie.

    For XBLA, I think you definitely should add clones of single-player games (at least to the back catalog) because when one of those gets the refinement just right, it might rocket out of obscurity and land in the spotlight section as the next blockbuster smash. (You see the same thing in midlist novels — they might not land on the front table of Barnes and Noble right away, but if Oprah likes it, look out.)

    For multiplayer games, I\’d look to the board game stores like the one in Central Square — even though you probably can\’t find KILL DOCTOR LUCKY at Wal-Mart, they can\’t keep it on the shelves at the game store. KILL DOCTOR LUCKY probably isn\’t cannibalizing sales of SCRABBLE, since most people will still buy a copy of SCRABBLE, but those same people may also want a copy of KILL DOCTOR LUCKY around for when the mood strikes (although possibly far less often). True, the scale is different, but I think the desire for niche multiplayer games is sufficient to warrant making them available.

    The question should probably be broken up into \’multiplayer\’ and \’massively multiplayer\’ — should XBLA sell clones of multiplayer games that use only a few players? Hell yes. (DOUBLE DRAGON, RIVER CITY RANSOM, STREETS OF RAGE…) Should XBLA sell clones of games that *require* massive numbers of players in order to function properly? Yeah, maybe not. But where\’s that tipping point? How many players does a massively multiplayer game need to work? 4? 8? 80? 800?

    Also, the \’what defines a clone\’ problem is spooky. Is it a clone of the gameplay? A clone of the story? A clone of the world? Is one Western game a clone of another, even if one\’s a shooter and one\’s an RPG? What if they\’re both ripoffs of the exact same Louis L\’amour story? Is it possible for a game to boil down what it is that makes that game an individually unique entity? What would the identifier be for CONTRA? Two players? Shooting up aliens in a devastated world? Man, Konami\’s lawyers must be living a nightmare…

    I think I\’d err on the side of making too many available and let the fans decide which games will sink or swim. Viewing too many choices as a \’disservice to the community\’ seems dangerous. As long as the cost of adding a game to XBLA remains minimal, if DOUBLE CITY OF RAGE nails just the right mix that 12 gamers were looking for, I\’ll bet those 12 will be extremely happy campers, and I think that\’s what the real, popular core of the Long Tail concept is all about.

  2. I don’t think indie should mean careful refinements of established genres, I think indie should mean unfettered experimentation of wholly new dynamics. That said, there’s room for both the “grindhouse” variety of indie, as well as the Merchant Ivory, and everything in between. But the kind of indie that espouses lateral novelty rather than adjacent refinements ends up divesting audience segments that are evolving toward niche consumption. Such titles might only make up 20% of your content, but that minority is absolutely crucial in keeping the niche-specific range of titles in the other 80% signficant by contrast. You can also sell some of those experimental prestige titles, but just having them in the ecology is valuable.

    Now turning my business analysis hat inside out, to its Dr. Suess-esque inverse – design analysis.

    When you’re dealing with a community multiplayer game, the players ARE the content, whatever level patterns our mechanical updates you have are secondary to facilitating your primary content of human behaviors. Any kind of variation, a co-op team contest mode, new formal objects, goal parametrics, should serve that greater ecology. Typically this means discouraging bottom-feeding (griefing being a base example), but it also can mean encouraging cross-migration of gameplay styles, to delay the death of niche adaptation. Encouraging that kind of cross-migration means going outside the game, and exercising design experiments in the social space that transcends the automated system. Kathy Sierra had a great post on hueristics for that a while back, before that unfortunate business (which kinda serves as an example of a maladaptation in the blogger community space).

  3. Honestly, I don\’t think the value in XBLA is added to by distributing clones at all. If it\’s the next Halo, they\’ll publish it themselves through normal retail channels. XBLA has seen so far what I feel to be a mixed bag of titles, some are excellent, others simply ports of games I bought 10 years ago for a different system. I think the magic possibility in XBLA comes from the brand new concepts, the brand new ideas, the risky ones that no sane publisher would ever risk, being put up for the world to see. It\’s those really well done, innovative, independant titles that I\’d like to see thrown up on XBLA, and Microsoft does seem to be moving in that Direction with DreamBuildPlay, and XNA, and initiatives such as these (I\’ve got a write-up about it

  4. On ranking, in general
    A great ranking system is not only an efficient tool to help the community parse the long tail, but it can also help build the very community that we’re all chasing after – one that happily contributes and does “work” for us. People like to rank things, as witnessed by the Wii’s Everybody Votes Channel, or by the countless hours people spend rating movies on Netflix just for fun… especially when they feel their rankings are impacting the community.

    And this “work” shouldn’t be taken lightly – other industries pay for this type of information on their customers. If only there was a better way to tap into and use this information in our game designs….

    Yesterday I read that Sega is making Nights 2 for the Wii. On one hand, I cried out in pain as one of my company’s concepts (which used the original Nights as a reference) just hit the shredder. On the other hand, I marveled at Sega’s plans to use the Wii’s Weather Channel to affect the in-game weather according to the player’s local real-world weather conditions. My next thought, of course, was “Can we use data from other channels in games too? Ooh, what about the voting channel?” Games could incorporate user’s votes subtly, where games choose colors based off preference (red vs. blue)… or massively, where a game becomes a completely different experience depending on this data.

    I’m not suggesting a poll voting channel for Xbox Live. But what if an XBLA game could know what other types of XBLA games you like? And what kinds of TV & movies you like? A great content ranking system could answer these questions. Games, after all, are interactive entertainment, self-modifying themselves based on user input. We’re accustomed to that input being limited to controller manipulation, but games like flOw self-modify its own difficulty settings for the player’s given skill level.

    Integration with XBLA games aside, I believe that a good ranking system can help build a community, not just help it find content. And who knows, maybe you can even get the community to help you improve the ranking system itself.

    On preventing artificial ranking pumping
    What’s wrong with just making it more expensive to “pump up your stock”? Binding rankings to actual purchases sounds fair and effective to me. Or what about binding rankings to Gold subscribers? Or periodically resetting the rank so that black hatters would have to diligently re-rank their content.

    Also, would a Netflix-like ranking system that focuses more on generated recommendations and friends’ rankings be less prone to artificial pumping?

    On clones
    I’m a firm believer in the long tail theory, but I also believe that there is a point where value can be subtracted from the overall service instead of added. Adding value to one part of the long tail (a niche game) might subtract value from another part (who are now confused by too many “clones”). If the sum is negative, it could be argued that the service was better off without the game.

    With that said, game development is expensive, even for a clone. If a developer wants to spend its limited resources making a game that a small audience wants, won’t the long tail and free market take care of itself?

    Ultimately, I’d like to see more games given a chance, but a second-tier system (as Geoffrey suggested) might be a good way to manage any issues in transitioning to a longer tail. At least at first, until things work themselves out. Then again, isn’t this already the eventual plan for XNA GSE & Creator’s Club (“Community Arcade”, as I’ve seen it named)?

  5. Good thread.

    Two thoughts.

    On TRUST:

    I\’ve had this discussion in a number of different circles. Each has their problems (aside from the massive amount of data it adds; each can be gamed but is better than the first-order system).

    One approach is \’rate everything\’. You\’ve seen \’was this review useful to you?\’ approaches, but extend taht to everything. Rate the ratings, rate the raters, rate the comments, rate the ratings of the raters…

    The other approach (easier, and my preferred approach) is the network of trust. i.e. I don\’t care what the masses thought of this book, I care what my friends thought of it. Seems a closer reality for XLA given teh friends list approach. You could couple this with given people\’s tastes, forming ad-hoc trust circles (people that rated games similarly to you also rated THIS highly). You can also do \’web of trust\’ where it\’s a weighted scoring by degrees of separation.

    On long tail: We\’ve had this discussion before, but it\’s also different in a medium where costs of production are higher than, say, a book or a music album.

    On clones: Difficult point. We\’ve said no to a couple titles on MSN games, but very few. What\’s \’different enough\’ to be different. Could be theme or treatment that\’d make it enough for some folks (e.g. Bejewelled – WITH PIRATES!).

  6. On Multiplayer: there are ways of creating a multiplayer matchmaking system that can tolerate low-volume and low sales.

    First, allow viral invites and guest passes – if you own a game, you can invite and play with anyone, even if they don\’t have the game installed or have a gold subscription. Once the game is over, they\’re left with a trial version which they can later choose to purchase.

    Second, fix matchmaking so that it presents a clear indication of the expected wait time. With a good interface, I might be willing to wait ten minutes to find a match if I know it will be ten minutes. (Especially if there\’s an audible chime when the match kicks in.) AI opponents to fill the extra seats is a plus.

    Third, create a way that users can easily see which variants are being played when. A natural schedule will evolve where, for example, Tuesday nights are Kill Doctor Lucky Speedmatch night and Thursday lunchtime is the 7-handed poker peak.

    This will get you well beyond the requirement for 1,000 simulataneous players needed to play a low-volume game. And don\’t even get me started about the awesome potential of continuous, asynchronous cooperative and competitve games (next-gen play-by-mail sims anyone?)

  7. A far more significant barrier than any of the ones you mention is actually getting a tail full of content on XBLA in the first place. Microsoft is acting as a distributor with XBLA… in an ideal world it would carry EVERY game, which means making adding a new game to the service virtually free. This works through Amazon.com with Marketplace. It kinda sorta works on iTunes with the aggregators that bundle lots of smaller acts together to get them on the service. It\’s a very long way from working on XBLA because of the certification step required of all XBLA games. That\’s a very human intensive process that scales ok to hundreds of games, but is doomed when the first hundred thousand XNA games hit it.

    It seems like requiring a purchase before allowing a rating is a fine idea. Even better is the sort of \

  8. I don’t know if this discussion is still active, but this is definitely an interesting post, and something I’d like to give my 2 cents on.

    The multiplayer issue is actually a pretty simple one to solve, since a solution already exists. It’s called Halo 2’s matchmaking service. Bungie brilliantly created a design that scales from a very small to very large number of simultaneous players. The system can be refined to automatically reduce the number of gametypes that people play as the number of simultaneous users decrease. So people would put in their preferred game types, and then the system would handle everything from there.

    Now, games could still take a little while to create (10 minutes is a long time for ANY game, let alone XBLA bite-sized stuff) so developers should make the waiting time not exist. Not by getting people into a match instantaneously, that’s impossible, but by giving people something to do while waiting for a match. A perfect situation? I tell the game “Ok, I want to get into a multiplayer match” and it puts me in the matchmaking system. Then I can go and start playing the game in some simplified arena mode (think of EA’s pre-startup modes for Live and Fifa) or better yet, being able to play the full blown single player game, with automatic state saving when I get launched into the multiplayer mode.

    DONE!

    As for trust and long tail. This is an issue that has plagued MANY systems, most notably is Google’s search ranking. And as you’ve accurately pointed out, it’s two separate issues: 1. how to get the niche stuff attention, and 2. the matter of trust.

    Well, number 1 isn’t too bad, it’s all about giving games a chance and then constantly measuring their conversion rate (which I’m MS does religiously). Google using sandboxing, Digg uses the Upcoming Queue. There are many different ways that you can accomplish this, each of them being pretty good.

    As for the matter of trust. MS is in the fortunate position of being in total control of the ENTIRE system, and having everything linked and tracked through GamerTag’s. Why NOT limit rankings to people who have purchased the game? You could also incorporate a bit of a weighting system, those who have only played the demo have their ratings worth only a fraction of what the purchased people rank. Or you can let things spread virally, which MS has already introduced with the whole “tell a friend about this game” feature. I mean, XBL is already pretty viral, you can tell when a game is pretty good by your friend’s list, so having a specific ranking feature may really not be necessary at all.

    Ok, this feels like it’s getting longer than the original post, but whatever. Malcolm Gladwell has a FANTASTIC presentation that he gave at the TED conference (link: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/20) that shows why clones are actually necessary. He doesn’t actually say that specifically, however, it’s easy to deduce from his talk about segmentation, that while people may like a game such as Geometry Wars, they’ll like particular FLAVOURS even more, and that’s where the clones come into the picture since they’ll bring their own uniqueness in that will appeal to the people’s segmented tastes. Obviously inundating the system too early will make things too flooded too quickly, but that’s up to you guys to figure out the proper introduction rate. And you’ll probably mess it up a couple of times, but learn and it’ll happen eventually.

  9. Good stuff…

    Just quickly, want to reiterate Joe’s comment about stuffing the tail. Current one-game-a-week approach for XBLA is way too gated. It will only ever approach long-tail effects if the doors are swung wide open and MS totally backs off from content control (other than bug control stuff).

    Also, FYI, Wired ran a fun little piece of hacking social networks last month:
    http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/15.03/herding.html

  10. First — a disclaimer: what I’m about to say is meant 100% as a snarky/quirky little observation and not at all meant to take away anything from the quality of David’s initial post.

    With that said, isn’t it interesting how when the worldwide portfolio planner for xbox live arcade starts
    talking about longtail theory the comments thread explodes with opinions. I think David has just discovered the secret to keeping his comments sections even more active then usual: just make sure that every blog post touches upon some element of the Xbox Live service so that in commenting on the post users can effectively give their own opinions about how best to run the service. ;)

    Okay — /snark off.

    In all seriousness though I really enjoyed all of the comments here and find it amazing just how much there is to think and talk about on this subject. You think you ‘get it’ when suddenly someone comes along with a point that you had never thought of before and your whole understanding of the subject has to be re-evaluated.

  11. Hey, I’m not really into sports, so this is the only Sunday afternoon armchair quarterbacking I get. ;)

    The part of my comment that got cut off was this:
    Draw most of your suggestions from “you liked A and B, and a lot of people liked A, B, and C so you will probably like C” systems instead of just a raw star ranking. If you drive people to rank more stuff to get better results from the system, you’ll have a much large amount of data to draw from too.

  12. On ranking:

    Online game media has the luxury of having built-in ranking. If you’re playing it a lot, you probably like it. If you play it once, you probably don’t. Elaborate ranking systems and filters may be less important then time in game or achivements earned or some other simple implicit metric. Filter it by people who purchased the game to help reduce gaming the system.

  13. On Halo 2’s matchmaking system:

    Yes, this is a much better system than most out there, but it doesn’t entirely solve the problem. Building a matchmaking service for a game that a bazillion people play all the time is a far easier task than building a matchmaking system for a game or game variant that few people play.

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