The Future of Gaming Is Purveying Sin, Says VC Tim Chang
“Gaming will save us all,” proclaimed Tim Chang this morning. A principal at Norwest Venture Partners, a venture capital firm out of Palo Alto, CA, Chang spoke at Casual Connect Seattle, the three-day casual video game conference that ends this evening. Chang’s topic was emerging trends in casual gaming, and as a proud gamer since 1980, he was happy to tell the crowded room that casual games, integrated into larger “metagames,” are not only the future of gaming, but the future of digital media as well.
Essentially, Chang said, instead of games and other media being sold and consumed in one lump, there have to be different kinds of activities available across different platforms to get and keep customers. Thus, Casual Connect is more important than ever, because other meetings, like the annual Game Developers Conference, are not taking notice of the rising meta and casual game trends. “GDC is stuck in old crusty console land,” he said. Rather than just developing a game and selling it, companies now have to use add-ons, episodic storytelling, and other ways of encouraging people to keep playing. “Everything has to be an ongoing service,” Chang said—and companies have to provide that service and make money from it.
It’s not just gaming that has to change the way it thinks, though. “Traditional media is dead,” Chang explained, as are their business models. The interactive and social components of gaming are rapidly becoming the obvious solution to the loss of interest in old-fashioned media formats. Guitar Hero and Rock Band are particularly good examples, Chang said, because people who wouldn’t pay 99 cents for the MP3 will gladly fork over a couple of bucks to pretend that they are a rock star playing the song at a concert. “We gotta get into gaming because we sure as hell can’t sell CDs anymore” is the only conclusion music label executives can draw, Chang said. And that approach applies to casual games just as much as console games, he said, because it’s the “affinity of a flashy lifestyle” that attracts customers, not necessarily the quality of the music.
Gaming’s real success, though, and the answer to the future of digital media is its “formalization of key human behaviors and addictions,” Chang said. Social games are an innate part of how people act, from children during Valentine’s Day trying to figure out who got the most or best cards, to getting a date or a job as an adult. All of these are social games, and gaming has done a lot to “formalize and drive those compulsion loops,” Chang said.
The surprising key to addicting people to games, Chang said, is hell. Every level of hell in Dante’s epic poem, The Inferno, is another way to appeal to a consumer and get them to buy things. But, “how do you embody the seven deadly sins?” Chang asked the crowd as he went through the list. “Lust is an easy one, it fuels most of the social Web,” he said. Anger matches well with player-versus-player fighting games, he said, and pride explains why people buy premium subscription services to get more out of a free game, especially if there are limited supplies. Making money through ads is no longer a viable option, so online and social games have to appeal to people’s vanity so they will buy things like improvements to their online avatar. “Virtual goods is the new ads of 2009,” Chang said.
Even with these kinds of motivations, there needs to be more on offer to make money in the age of cloud software and micro-transactions, Chang said. Rather than just porting a game from one platform to another and judging each platform’s success independently, Chang said, mobile, online, and other platforms should serve as legs for an overall game so that customers might play a game on a computer and check their friends’ stats for the game on their smartphone, and thus make the product available all the time. This is the multi-platform model that is becoming a major trend in gaming.
Lastly, being a game developer is no longer just a matter of making a good game. “The power of old publishing is crumbling really fast,” Chang said. Nowadays, a game maker must think as a behavioral psychologist, a social economist, and, as Chang put it, a “purveyor of sin.” Success now, in gaming and other forms of digital media, comes less from the idea that “content is king,” but from making that content so pervasive and versatile that people will use it on every format and platform. As Chang put it, “Distribution is God.”