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Learning from the games industry

14 Mar

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Publishers are struggling with the digital world. I don’t feel the need to add any caveats to that, because it seems to be an almost universal truth that from international news media organisations through to educational course book publishers (ELT included), everyone’s desperately trying to work out how they’re going to survive and flourish. At present, it’s the smaller, younger, more agile businesses that appear to have the upper hand, but with so much uncertainty and seemingly constant change, you’d be brave to do anything other than spread your bets.

At a recent conference, a talk on what we could learn from the games industry caught my eye, primarily because I was vaguely aware that this was an industry embracing change and innovation. As it turns out, the global industry is embracing it to the tune of $90 billion plus, though that number is being regularly revised. Upwards.

Now maybe it’s because I grew up with Binatone, Atari and the ZX Spectrum, but the talk, which began with some personal anecdotes about games in the 1970s and 1980s, really struck a chord with me. However, I’d like to think it was more than just nostalgia, as it reminded me that the games industry is so successful (it was described as an ‘economic phenomenon’, growing much faster than the music and film industries) because of the magic combination of creativity, talent and genuine innovation, or what the speaker, Dr Jo Twist (CEO at ukie), perfectly coined as the ‘power and beauty of games’. Some footage at the end of the presentation from a new game developed by The Chinese Room took my breath away and, as someone who has dipped in and out of games over the years, reminded me of the pure joy of discovering how the industry has moved on every time I stumble upon something new.

In brief, here are a few facts from the talk (which may or may not surprise you) and some valuable lessons all publishers could learn from an industry that was ‘born digital’:

  • The top five game spenders are the US, China, Japan, Germany and the UK
  • Six billion people globally are game players (don’t call them ‘gamers’!)
  • The average player is 30-something and 52% are female
  • The biggest mobile game market is China
  • Mobile game companies are most commonly less than five years old and have fewer than 25 employees

And what can we learn?

  • Respect your customers. They’re people, not ‘gamers’, not ‘users’, not data. Speak to them on equal terms, involve them in product development. Understand the importance of online collaboration and communities (see steam and twitch).
  • Embrace and actively seek out ‘evangelists’ for your products. ELT publishing is unlikely to ever inspire a character like PewDiePie (for the uninitiated, have a look at the number of views before dismissing the video), but the principle of getting publicity from experts in the field, who have no direct affiliation with the publisher, is far more powerful than publishers merely pumping out their own marketing messages.
  • A tiny piece of the Chinese market can translate to massive success. But you’ve got to be thinking mobile, and never forget that it’s complex and volatile, especially for foreign publishers. See this recent Outsell notice as a warning.
  • Being agile, taking risks, diversifying, experimenting, learning quickly from mistakes, all of these things have gone from desirable to essential. No publisher is going to survive the next few years by plodding along and making half-hearted nods towards agility and flexibility. This ELT Jam post illustrates just how tricky that may be for some.

Clearly this talk has had an impact on me, as one week on, I’m working in St Petersburg (my first time here) and rather than filling my free afternoon with a wander around the beautiful streets, taking in the amazing architecture, I spent it exploring the Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines. Though given the number of 10p coins I shoveled into arcade machines in the 1980s, maybe we can put that one down to nostalgia.

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