Long Tail economics, as made possible by the incredibly cheap distribution powered by the internet, has had a huge cultural impact on music, the medium that currently takes the most advantage of its structure. It has fueled, I believe, the indie boom; and is challenging the hit-making model. The diversity of music widely available on iTunes or Amazon.com or any other retailer is astonishing - it's so much more impressive than the well-stocked Amoeba records I used to frequent as a music-loving teenager.
So, when can we apply this to games? I've been thinking about this for a while, and recently David Edery wrote a post about it, detailing some challenges we still need to overcome in order to transform Xbox Live Marketplace into a place for smaller or older games to live healthily.
On the same day, Harvey Smith wrote me to point out that Deus Ex just came out on Steam. That's the Long Tail at work.
But will it work for games the way it will for films and music? I think there is at least one other problem than those that David wrote about.
Consumers cannot move backwards in graphics technology.
Pick up Deux Ex today and see what I mean. We've been next-gen spoiled. I love the game, but it can't help looking awkward and primitive next to current releases. This may be overcomable: black and white films may have looked "primitive" when the transition to color was happening; but now filmmakers use it for effect, and film buffs appreciate the black and white medium for its own merits, its own beauty. Music doesn't have this problem either - those recordings made forty years ago still sound good, and in fact modern bands are playing around with recreating that garage style, that recorded-with-a-mic-in-a-coffee-can sound. Will games go retro like this too?
There are some games that don't age: Wind Waker is a stunning example of this. Because of its cel-shaded art and stylized animation, it looks just a fresh as it did when it was released. This problem is a version of the uncanny valley - the more "realistic" a game tries to look, the less successful it becomes as a representation of reality as graphics technology overtakes itself.
I have other questions about the long tail as it applies to games, too. Do game companies care enough about it to release their back catalogues? In other words, are they being paid enough to do that? Services like GameTap are of course doing a superb job of collecting and releasing a wide collection of games. I don't know what sorts of deals they are doing - for the companies, if GameTap pays anything, it's pretty much free money, so that's wonderful.
On the other hand, imagine in five years after the next console cycle that you want to play Guitar Hero II because you love Sweet Child of Mine (a very realistic scenario for me). You'd better hope the next console is backwards-compatible, because otherwise how will you manage to connect a unique peripheral to your GameTap service? Either that or you hope that Activision will have the prescience to release all the past Guitar Hero songs online so you can download and play the entire catalogue from your Xbox next-next-gen. I'm not sure Activision would do that, though I would gladly pay a couple dollars to have Sweet Child of Mine in my repertoire.
Of course, there is the whole realm of games that are smaller, more casual, and therefore much less subject to the vagaries of graphics technology or peripheral availability or outdated AI or anything like that. M.U.L.E. remains, to this day, a fun and challenging game. So does chess. Are those the games that will eventually take over the market as budgets become increasingly strained? Will the prevalence of long tail economics create an environment that kills off the big-budget dinosaurs allowing the little adaptable games to flourish in their niches?
Are the fittest games for the next era the casual and indie games?