Why don't you have a decent search facility WiiWare? Why?
It’s true. One of my biggest issues with the games industry as it stands today is with the digital distribution stores (DDS for brevity) in place on the various platforms. I’m not going to jump on the bandwagon with others who have predicted the imminent death of physical retail stores; I think there’s still a large place for brick-and-mortar game shops, and they’re certainly not going away any time soon. But I think a large part of the continuing need for retailers is down to the failings of the various digital providers. Let’s list the most relevant ones:
- XBox Live Arcade
- Playstation Network
- iPhone App Store
Amazon of course isn’t really a DDS, although I believe they’re changing that. It’s really just a retailer of boxed products – the shop-front might be on-line, but the products are generally posted to you; however the problems it faces and has overcome are very much relevant to all of these services. Steam is much more relevant to the discussion here, as it’s a proper DDS, and it has learned from many of Amazon’s lessons; sadly it is let down by uncompetitive pricing and the lack of community integration.
Really though, my irritation comes from the remaining 4 DDS – each of which is the only means of buying product for their respective closed platforms (Wii, X360, PS3, iPhone). All 4 suffer from the same problems, all of which have known solutions as demonstrated by Amazon, Steam and others. And the 4, together or separately, represent a massive market of game-hungry users, with cash to spare, who just want to find the good games and ignore the crap.
Here are the main problems, in order of importance to me (the user):
- Navigation: How do I find games that I want to buy
- Selection: How do I choose when I’ve found those games
- Purchasing: How hard is it for me to buy the games once I’ve chosen them
Navigation is the real fundamental problem here. All 4 providers suffer from the same issue: their services are popular, so developers make many titles; users are then swamped with choices. Without any external information (reviews, friends’ recommentations), all products look mostly identical, with only a superficial information (title, image, etc.) to distinguish them – assuming the user wants to read through every title’s description in the hope of finding something they like. If the average quality of titles is low (i.e. shovelware), then great titles are lost in the noise of rubbish, and customers are forced to take a punt on titles when they have little idea of their quality. Once they get burned once, they’re reticent to come back, and likely to dismiss the entire shop as shovelware.
All 4 holders recognise this as a problem, but take varying strategies to get around the issue:
- Top X lists (sales based): Popular products are easy to find. Great. New products have little chance to generate sales because the titles in the top X list keep selling (because they’re the only ones the user can readily find).
- Title searching: Allow the user to search for a keyword in the title or description. Great. As long as the user knows what product they want in advance. Little to no chance of discovering relevant products.
- Limit the number of titles in the system: The console DDS do this more than the iPhone, simply by maintaining high barriers to entry (requiring approval prior to development, enforced QA standards, etc.). But at best this delays the problem from becoming serious. XBLA recently wanted to implement a policy of culling poorly reviewed/low selling titles which was a clear attempt to tackle this issue, they’ve since backtracked on this in favour of better searching (yay!)
- Highlight particular titles: XBLA prefers this approach – titles get a week of being featured prominently on the front page. Great. Now you have to make enough sales during that crucial week to build enough momentum to get onto the top X list. Miss your week, and you’re shafted. Better hope you’re not featured during the same week that GTA4 comes out, eh?
The approach of limiting the amount of titles in the system is pure short-termist madness. Maybe it is just a short-term fix until a proper storefront system can be made, but XBLA has had what, 3 years now to mature their navigation systems? The solution is one already demonstrated by Amazon. Navigation is the key issue. Searching is only one potential fix. Products need to be categorised into groups so that users can find the set of products they like by interest. Products need to cross link to each other: “Liked this title? Why not try X and Y, also from this developer?” “Customers who looked at product X ended up buying product Y and Z.” “Customers who viewed these titles,” etc.
Random title prominence: this is so underrated. Sure, the front of your store is prime real-estate, and you probably want to sell it, but you can come up with a system which allows games to be featured if they’ve paid, or if the users have rated it worthy.
I can see the DDS people’s defence: “that’s too complicated a UI to put on a console, it needs to be kept simple”. Well maybe you’re right. That brings us straight to point 3: ease of purchase. Why is the game store only on the console (or phone)? It needs to have a properly integrated equivalent on the web. Customers like shopping on the web. They prefer it. They’re used to it, it’s more flexible, and it supports a much more pleasant experience. Ever tried to enter your credit card number using a joy-pad? It’s not fun. Why are you making me do it? I want to be able to browse a game-store on my PC that gives me as much functionality as Amazon, purchase my game, and then press two buttons (Shop, Download Purchased Titles) on my console to get that game downloaded.
Sure, some times it’s nice to be able to buy direct from the console, but it’s not my first choice. Keep it there as a more limited option and I’d be fine with that, as long as the web-store was nice. But as a developer, I want to be able to publish links to my game on a web-store, so they can get straight to our games, and get them onto their console in minutes.
Back to point 2 though – choosing products. I don’t trust reviewers as to what games are good. I certainly don’t trust the platform holders, since they have a financial interest in the products doing well. I trust the customers. Not individuals, because there are clearly nut-cases out there that rate highly or lowly depending on whether they took their medication this morning, but aggregate ratings over time.
Tell me what games sold big in the last week, or month (doesn’t have to include numbers). Tell me the average rating in the last week or month, and how many people rated it. Publish customer reviews, and professional reviews, and metacritic scores. Put all of the rating functionality into the search system, so you can find titles that rated over 4 stars in the last month in the flight simulator genre. Show me the all-time classic RPGs, based on ratings since the store first open. Maybe I’ve a hankering for high quality old-style adventure games, let me find those.
None of this is crazy blue sky thinking. It’s all been done, it’s all been shown to have worked. Build a better DDS, and you’ll sell more products, we’ll sell more games, the customer gets more games, and they get better games so they come back and buy more. I can’t think of any good reason why they wouldn’t want to fix their stores, other than to make little kittens cry.