The Needs of the Few, or the One

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I've been incredibly critical of the Syfy channel lately on twitter. Mostly, I'm pissed that they cancelled a show I watch; I'm the first to admit that. However, it's not the only reason for my ire. Hell, it's not even the reason that has me motivated most. You see, it's not really rage that makes me critical. It's disappointment.

 When the Sci-Fi channel became the Syfy channel many of the more diehard fans of the sci-fi genre predicted a spiral of decline and decay that would eventually lead to this "new hip brand" being the death of the channel. From their perspective, and maybe from mine now that I've seen it, that's exactly what has happened.

 The channel shows more cheesy horror and wrestling than sci-fi. They seem to care more about them than their flagship shows and the viewers they represent. The truth is that's exactly right, but the reasons should be obvious to anyone who's ever worked on a creative endeavor as their paying job: It's about the money. Their flagship shows aren't bringing in the viewers, but these movies and the wrestling, they do.

 How can you fix that? I mean, if you're a diehard sci-fi fan looking for some place to see new shows like Stargate and to see reruns of your old favorite shows like Firefly, where do you go? How can you create a demand big enough to take your sci-fi channel back from the "greedy clutches of Syfy"?

 The answer is you can't. The mistake that Syfy made, if you even want to call it that, was made long ago and you can't fix it: They gave up one audience (you sci-fi fans who represent some of the lowest ratings on television) for another audience (fans of horror movies and wrestling who represent several times as many regular viewers). Worse for you (and me, I suppose) is the fact that in doing so they very likely saved their channel because the cost of running such a channel is significant and costs more than the money the hard core sci-fi niche represents.

 Now, maybe you see where I'm going with this, but if not, please allow me to call out the obvious parallel: The syfy channel has a lot in common with MMOs and the games industry, doesn't it?

 MMOs are the games industry in a microcosm from the right perspective, so I'm going to start there: When MMOs were just being birthed we had pretty much nothing but virtual worlds, right? Big broad open sim-like worlds based most obviously on their MUD roots. Many of the genre's most hard-core fans remember these games fondly and push for more like them. SWG was probably the swan song, as far as mainstream attempts go and it failed pretty miserably, right? Whatever the reasons you want to call out as to why, the reality is that the market turned towards more guided theme park experiences. Much in the way Syfy has moved towards horror films and wrestling, way from sci-fi.

So, Syfy's Stargate and sci-fi fans are kind of like these MMO old-timers, right? They're basically yelling for the same thing: A return to the things that made them love the genre in the first place. It's a yearning I personally understand, but despite how much any one group of players or viewers might want it, it's not going to happen, because it fails to acknowledge a single, terrible, truth: MMOs didn't consciously turn their back on the past any more than Syfy did. The choices they made are about business, about money.

In other words: You won't see your sandbox MMOs at the forefront of the MMO market, ever again. The same goes for your Stargate franchise or your browncoat space-western, unfortunately.

A friend of mine would say, "That sounds a lot like despair", but I disagree. It's just the reality of the world. Once you know that reality you can begin to ask the important questions:

Knowing that you're not going to turn the entire industry (or channel in Syfy's case) on its ear and return to its old values; how can get these hard-core fans their product, anyway?

The answer, I think, is actually pretty simple. It's simply a matter of perspective; of scope. The problem is money, right? Syfy can't afford to keep SGU on the air because not enough people watch it. Blizzard, Sony, etc. aren't going to make a big-budget sandbox MMO because not enough players will come to spend money there. So, why not make products specifically for those small markets, with appropriately scaled budgets, to match?

Where's or Hell, expanding beyond MMOs, why are there so few niche games in the west? The Japanese make games that we're embarrassed even to admit exist, let alone sell out here in the west. (Think of that one Amazon banned) Why is that? The answer is simple: They figured out how to make that stuff cheap and they exploit that tiny niche to its fullest, selling them what they want at the price they can bear. Why aren't we doing that in the west? I think we're so blinded by the "big  money" you can make with a wow, or a Farmville, that we've forgotten that these niches are viable. We're not happy with just "some profit" we want "hella profits" and I think that unmitigated greed is the reason we have so few exploited niches in western games.

In Russia, there's a publisher named Akella that publishes niche games. They do quite well, as far they're concerned and they impress the hell out of me. Their secret is that they know their market and they know how to take these tiny niche games and celebrate them, putting them in the hands of the players that want to play them.

However small it is, there is very obviously a market for niche games of all types here in the west. Just as there is for sci-fi shows like SGU or Firefly or any other cancelled baby you may be pining for, right now. These hard-core fans, these unexploited niches, they go unserved for no other reason than someone would rather be given $20 than $5.

In other words: The problem isn't finding a market, it's finding a financier who realizes that, while $5 may not be $20, it is still $5 more than he had before.

Maybe what you need is distribution through another channel. If you're in show production, maybe TV isn't the answer. Look to the web. If you're in game production, maybe a box on a shelf doesn't matter - and if that doesn't matter, maybe the publisher itself doesn't matter...

Think about it. If it's all about money, use less so you have to make less. Who's more expensive than that 20th century publisher/channel/boxed good store you have to deal with?

- Snipehunter

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