Don’t Step On My Long Tail

Digital distribution and eCommerce are at the heart of what I do for a living. And nowhere is the Long Tail more at home than at the junction point of digital distribution and eCommerce. Someday, when greater volumes of content are featured on XBLA, it should turn into a perfect Long Tail paradise, right?

Well, that’s what I’m hoping for. But there are a few potential issues that muddy the waters. Some of them are issues facing all community-centric online systems. Some of them are specific to video game services. I’ll give you a couple of examples, and hopefully you can give me some ideas in return!

Trust, or lack thereof

There are many things that feed Long Tail sales behavior; one of the most important is an effective user-ranking system. I’m much more likely to buy something obscure if it gets high marks from members of my community.

Unfortunately, I no longer allow anything less than a huge number of positive ratings to influence my purchase decisions when I visit a site like Amazon.com. Why? Because I know the odds are relatively high that product ratings are being generated by businesses and/or their agents. That’s a real shame, because some products simply aren’t going to attract a large number of buyers (and therefore, a large number of reviewers.) And those products are at the heart of what makes the Long Tail so special.

This problem isn’t exclusive to Amazon. Digg.com is constantly struggling against people who seek to manipulate the system, and they (Digg) haven’t found any magic bullets yet. Am I hopeful? Not terribly, no. Look at spam… it’s utterly overwhelming ISPs, despite immense corporate and individual interest in stemming the flood. When there’s big money to be made, and the black hats (unlike the white hats) are willing to use unethical methods to tap into that money, things are bound to get ugly.

So how do you fix this? Aside from binding rankings to actual purchases (making it more expensive to “pump up your stock”), and aside from cleanly exposing all user ranking data to the community (enabling your dedicated “white hat” customers to help you track and fight the bad guys), I don’t have too many ideas. You can try to get fancy (for example, scan for people whose votes tend to contradict the average; reduce the weight of votes made by new users) but the fancier you get, the more you entrap legitimate users. Again, this is a constant struggle for sites like Digg.com.

So what happens when the trust threshold keeps edging higher? How will community systems lift great content (virtual and physical) out of obscurity under an ever greater “burden of proof”?

Multiplayer communities, divided by infinity, equals…

Many games, unlike most physical goods, have a real disadvantage when it comes to the “perfect” Long Tail environment. If only 1,000 people buy an obscure product for $1,000 each, the maker of that product may still be very happy. But a multiplayer-centric game that appeals to 1,000 (or for that matter, 100) people… A) isn’t likely to be sold for $1,000 and B) isn’t going to make its few customers very happy when they can’t find anyone to play with online.

Long Tail theory, taken to its logical extreme, would suggest carrying many, many variants of a given multiplayer game. The idea would be that different niches might prefer different variants, and you’ll make more money (overall) by satisfying all combinations and degrees of interest. But if offering many variants of a multiplayer game results in a serious fracturing of the multiplayer community, have you done the community any favors?

So, for the good of developers and the good of the community, we in XBLA are forced to ask ourselves: how many instances of sub-genre XYZ are good enough? One? Two? Ten? At what point does adding an additional variant subtract value instead of adding it? eBay doesn’t have to worry about stuff like this. Amazon.com does, but to a much, much lesser extent.

What about clones?

This post is getting long in the tooth so I’ll stop soon, but another question is: what about “clones?” This industry is rife with them. But theoretically, clones add value (in the sense that what I call a “clone,” you might call “a subtly better game.”) Should XBLA ever distribute very similar games, even when those games are single-player (and thus, don’t have the multiplayer split problem?) Who defines what qualifies as a clone and what doesn’t? Will we miss out on the next Unreal Tournament (or heaven forbid, the next Halo) because we so rigorously guarded against clones? At the same time, should we ignore the legitimate concerns of developers who hate how quickly their games are cloned in the PC environment?

XBLA will eventually offer much more content on a regular basis than it does today. But until we have better answers to the questions posed above (and some that were left unspoken), we (meaning XBLA, developers, and consumers) won’t be able to truly benefit from the full force of the Long Tail.

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