I've always been a fast reader, and in the last six months my rate of devouring books has massively accelerated. It's gotten so bad that I've had to consciously limit my spending in the Kindle store because seriously, I was blowing $50/week on books at one point. I am outspending my games budget probably by a factor of ten. There are a lot of reasons for this that have to do with the formats of the content (I'm a super super fast reader; I'm a much slower gamer) but I'm also finding a fundamental difference in the ways the marketplaces for the two kinds of content are constructed. I'm splitting this post up into two parts: the first is looking at the consumer perspective, and Part Two will explore what these same factors imply for a self-published content creator.
The digital games marketplaces I most often frequent are the XBLA game downloads store and the Apple iTunes store. Both are ackowledged to be broken to various degrees by many developers, and possibly by other consumers besides myself as well (although I am less in touch with those voices.) There are a number of problems but the key that comes up again and again is that of discoverability.
My hypothesis is that one reason I am spending a lot more money on Kindle books than on games and apps right now has to do with discoverability and the related notion of browsability.
The fundamental philosophical differences in the two styles of marketplace go back to their origins in brick and mortar stores. Think about a video game store. Did you ever go into one not knowing exactly what you wanted to get? I never did. In fact 90% of the time I went in to buy something I had pre-ordered. If I ever did want to browse, how would I do that? Games are organized by platform, not genre; the structure of the store allows me to easily see which games my technology could play, but not necessarily which ones I personally might like to play.
Contrast this with a bookstore, back when there used to be such wonderful things. I almost never went in with the notion of getting a specific book. Usually I went in because I wanted a latte to find a new book to read that I might like. So I'd go into a section -- say, History; then, to the subset of East Asian history; modern, or pre-modern? Ancient? Now I had zeroed in on a topic area that appealed to me. I'd browse the authors, my eye caught by those I recognized, whose books I had read before. I might find a new book by one of them; but more often, I might just pick up a book shelved next to one I already knew, look at the cover, read the back, flip through it, and on the basis of those actions, I'd make my purchase.
This experience is essentially replicated in the Kindle Book Store, and it serves the consumer beautifully. Where the App store, the Steam store, and the XBLA store tell you, "This is what's popular/featured, you should get one of these," the Kindle book store asks you, "What are you in the mood for? Can we help find you something that you might like?"
The significant differences are:
1. Greater use of genre and categories. It's partly a function of how new games are as a medium that the genres and categories for them are still limited and not well-defined. In the Steam store, there are only ten genres of games. There's an entire section for "Casual" but what does that mean? It's a mish-mash. When I go to the casual section, I don't see anything like Bejeweled, a super popular title and for some, the definition of what a "casual" game is. There's no other way to drill down on any subgenres within "Casual" even though many of the games are tagged with several genres (casual + RPG for example).
Contrast that with the Kindle store, and how rich the genres and categories are. Not only can I search for "Romance" but there are eighteen categories under "Romance". In fact I can specifically search for "Romance" -> "Historical Romance" -> "Love Triangle" -> "Pirates". YES. (OMG one of the books it found is called To Sin with a Viking. How can I not get this?!? Do you see now how I could spend $50/week on books?? I have a problem.)
Kindle makes browsing for books in itself an entertaining experience, in exactly the same way that MyHabit, Gilt, BlueFly, Zappos, etc., make online shopping as much about the experience of finding and discovering and imagining as it is about the act of acquiring something.
2. Recommendations based on purchase patterns. Some people tell me they hate this, but I have discovered many books I didn't know about through the simple feature of listing what else other people purchased. I love going through those lists and seeing if there are interesting gems there. Since everything is sample-able (which is discussed in greater detail in point 3), I use that feature as a way to source hundreds of samples, load them up, and then read them later to decide whether it's worth a purchase. I only wish there was a one-click "sample now" feature.
I have not noticed this as a feature in digital game marketplaces, but please point it out if I've missed it. These days I make purchases so rarely that I may easily have missed this feature.
3. Samples of everything. No exceptions. Anything in the Kindle book store can be sampled. Some game marketplaces do this -- and increasingly more as we move towards free-to-play models. But there's a fundamental difference between free-to-play and a sample of a Kindle book: in one, the very name suggests that you can play without having to pay anything, ever, and naturally consumers are irked when they find a micropayments scheme embedded in the game. (As an aside, "free-to-play" has got got to be one of the worst choices of nomenclature for game development, in the expectations it sets for gamers.) In the Kindle store, there's no expectation that an eBook should be free.
Next time: What all this means for indie writers/publishers, and possibly some lessons for indie game makers.
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