I had an anger inside, much like Nick in the sitcom New Girl with a persistent, almost comical, fire burning internally.
It took me some time to realize what I was angry about – an anger stemmed from the sharp contrast I’ve observed between the Opportunists and the Craftsmen.
I operate in two related yet different worlds – the passionate, enthusiastic intellectual developer community, and the financially motivated fast-talking business world. Each group has its own sub-groups and individualities, and some developers are very business-savvy while some business people are very product focused. But if you pick one person from each group and put them in a room, it wouldn’t take you half a second to know which world they belong. In the developer community, people talk about technology, tools, interaction and experience design. In the business community, people talk about money, markets, and opportunities.
When you get people from both worlds working seamlessly together, it’s a wonderful sight. The craftsman-like developers work their magic in creating the best products the world has yet to see, while the businessmen find the markets and convince the world to get behind the ideas. It’s the pairing of Steve Jobs + Steve Wozniak, Masaru Ibuka + Akio Morita. It has made their companies a fortune, and the consumers satisfied.
The matching of the best craftsmen and the best businessmen doesn’t happen often. The matching of profit-seeking Opportunists and the perception of opportunity however, is plenty. With every new platform and marketplace, a new wave of marketers comes in for the gold rush from eBay, mobile apps, eBooks, Facebook apps …etc., often armed with cheap products and knockoffs flooding the market.
Some of them make a fortune from it by exploiting the inefficiencies in the marketplace and the labor market. There is demand for cheap alternatives to LV handbags, Grand Theft Autos, Angry Birds, and a skilled Opportunist can extract value by hiring the cheapest labor and creating low-quality products to serve the low end of market.
There is value in that. This is why we have dollar stores and fast food chains. Low barriers to entry commoditizes the market. This has been happening in game development, especially on mobile app stores, in the past few years. And just as you wouldn’t hire a Michelin 3-star chief to manage the kitchen at a McDonald’s, to make more of the same games and apps, you create an assembly line for development and hire cheap.
“I see developers as commodities.” said one marketer I met recently. I will be the first to admit I am biased towards the creatives and developers, but the change brought upon us from globalization cannot be ignored. The problem is; it pains me to see clones and copies in the marketplace, most of them much worse than the games and apps they try to clone in the first place. When you see developers and the products you are creating as commodities, you create crap that the world doesn’t need.
And yet, they are making a killing. A marketer showed me his latest game – a terrible clone of a game on the top chart but with added ads and IAP spam. It’s a game that I would be embarrassed to show fellow game developer friends. However, he is making a living creating these games, while many game developers that are creating new and unique games couldn’t even buy coffee with the amount of money they make from their games.
The hollowing out of the middle-class means we are going to see a lot more rich people and a lot more poor people, and not many in-between. This is the force behind Citigroup’s Hourglass theory, where investors focus on serving the super rich and the super poor.
Look at the three lines at the bottom – the majority of people (gamers) are poorer than they were a decade ago! Then of course we are going to see the rise of the equivalent of “Dollar Stores” of games. Cheap and uninspiring, games you play once and regret the minutes spent.
So is it time to put away our loved SDKs and Wacom’s?
Quite the opposite I’d say. More than ever, now it’s the time to go all-in. The Opportunists make their fortunes finding the best opportunities. The Craftsmen will then have to make their fortunes perfecting their crafts.
Go back to the chart above and look at the line at the top. Pay attention to these folks – they are hungry for quality content. In fact, they are hungry for the absolute best in the world. When is the last time you saw a millionaire buying paintings at a swap meet? No, they are at Sotheby’s, competing with each other to be the one who pays the most to the craftsmen.
“But video games isn’t art” some might say. That’s besides the point. Games HAS to be art so it can be both Takashi Murakami and Toys”R”Us.
This is where I calmed down from my anger. The Opportunists making cheap knockoffs isn’t wrong. They are merely doing their job. What about the struggling developers? Keep your heads down and keep pumping out unique ideas. No one can copy what’s inside your creative mind. And if you are not doing that, you are making commodities that didn’t get made fast enough nor cheap enough.
Games has to be art, and it only becomes art when the Craftsmen perfect the craft.