You don’t need gatekeepers. You need talent.

There is a popular meme being promoted by those with a stake in the traditional publishing business models threatened by the advent of e-readers and the new publishing methodologies being offered to aspiring and experienced authors alike. This meme says without the massive infrastructure and bureaucracy embodied by the big paper publishers there will be no means by which bad product is filtered out and consumer drowning in crap will forsake reading new authors altogether in favor of tried and true name offered by the big outfits, along with the occasional new protégé approved by the System. For the System cares only for the sanctity of the written word as a thing of quality and stands guard against the horde of crap artists.

This from the people who gave the world Stephanie Meyer’s coldly calculated doorstop of porn for teenage girls and women who mentally remain teenagers.

The gatekeeper theory is bunk. Humans are inevitably subject to temptation and corruption ensues. The gatekeeper’s basis for worthiness becomes solely whether an item will sell, not whether it should be offered for sale. Gatekeeping mechanism evolve naturally and can be encouraged but only high capital costs can let anyone authoritatively declare themselves the sole opinion dividing the published from the unpublished.

This happens everywhere. Let’s look at another publishing industry: video games. In the beginning, there was a single gatekeeper of sorts, and that was capital cost. Arcades and other LBE (Location Based Entertainment) made up nearly all of the venues for selling the machines. The first Pong machine went into a bar, the oldest LBE venue in human history, in Sunnyvale, CA a few years before becoming something consumers bought and took home to use with their TV. Costs were very high. A collection of transistors that would be measured in fractions of a cent today ran into the hundreds of dollars, in addition to the substantial costs for the display, coin handling mechanism, cabinet, and on top of all the material items, the then rare technical expertise to create such a device.

At this point when the video game business was comprised entirely of self-contained single-function machines with substantial cost per unit and considerable physical bulk, getting any product to marketable form involved a considerable commitment. It was sufficiently difficult to assemble the capital and expertise in one place that scarcely anything else mattered. If a single prototype didn’t test well, you’d have to be insane to take it into production. A famous example is Radar Scope, the game that nearly killed Nintendo. Despite the way it is usually portrayed, Radar Scope was not a bad game and had some nifty features but it was in a genre that had been thoroughly exploited and had little chance to be the major hit it needed to be to justify the production volume that had been committed. The Radar Scope machines got new ROMs and new artwork on the cabinet to become Donkey Kong, a massive hit that launched the career of Shigeru Miyamoto, the highest revenue generating individual in the game business alive today.

At the same time personal computers were going from hobbyist toys to finished product one could buy ready to use with meaningful software for those not intent on taking up programming. (Imagine if the Kindle was only of interest to those adept in HTML or desiring to learn.) There were no gatekeepers to limit publishing software other than the same investment in hardware anyone would need to use the software you created. But there wasn’t much in the way of places to sell, either. Back then it was floppies or cassettes in a Ziploc bag at your local computer store, with mail-order outlets starting up around the new product category. Anybody could jump in for a fairly low cost. The game on floppy you bought from a home software business might have been produced on the same machine where the game was programmed. It was a genuine cottage industry, with all of the limitations and drawbacks as well as the advantages of being your own boss. But things got organized pretty quickly.

There was freedom and there was a lot of crap. Part of freedom is the freedom to fail. A lot of consumers got to share in this failure as some publishers were a bit disingenuous in their advertising. A decent game produced for the Apple II in assembly language could another version produced for the Atari 800 in BASIC that was a shoddy shadow of the original that could only be taken seriously as the sort of thing one typed in from a magazine listing. (Rear Guard, Adventure International) The renowned Terry Pratchett captured this perfectly in one of his Johnny Maxwell novels, which opened with a magazine ad for a game central to the book’s plot. At the bottom, in small print, was the disclaimer: “Screenshots are from version you didn’t buy.”

Meanwhile, ROM cartridge-based dedicated game consoles were appearing with the exact opposite approach to software development and sales. The product all came exclusively from within the company by full-time employees. If you didn’t work for Atari you were not going to make Atari VCS games. Full stop. There was no mechanism for preventing outsiders from producing compatible games but nor was there any documentation for the chipset functionality or any other aspect published or even offered to prospective second party developers.

Atari and its competitors made their employees wealthy but also lacking the respect they felt they deserved for their creative work. This applies to adaptations from the arcade, too. Rob Fulop conceived and executed a grand technical feat on a dare. He figured out how to make hit arcade game Missile Command work on the Atari VCS console’s severely limited cartridge capacity. He created a circuit that fooled the system in using larger cartridges by using just the part needed at that moment. This came out of a conversation between VCS programmers and was not an assignment by his employer, as the game had already been given up as unfeasible for the VCS. Fulop did this on his own and the result sold millions of units and his circuit design enabled much better games to be produced that greatly extended the platform’s life in the market.

Fulop thought it would be cool to be publicly credited for his achievement but this was against company policy. A number of others had run into this policy. Many left and started new game software companies with their expertise. Fulop’s was called Imagic. The biggest was called Activision and that brand is still a major player today.

So the know-how to create VCS games, along with IntelliVision games and ColecoVision games, became widely known with few barriers to anyone with a bit of capital jumping into the game business. There was very little in the way of any filitering mechanism for retailers against the avalanche of wretchedly bad product that came to market. They were accustomed to buying in a market where capital costs and a closed publishing model made them confident of stocking almost anything that was offered. Unlike other product categories, the buyers for the big retailers had little or no video experience and certainly little judgment as to what was a good product or bad. And there was a lot of really bad stuff. And a lot of not so bad stuff that had little to distinguish it from better known titles. The VCS was an extremely limited platform and a programmer had a very good chance of reproducing existing games in their play and appearance, even if he’d never seen or heard of the other game.

The blame couldn’t be placed entirely on opportunistic newcomers. Atari had produced a number of games that had a lot of marketing and big names like E.T. behind them but lacked essentials like enjoyment, fun, etc. They were cynically rushed products with quality an afterthought. The gatekeepers failed themselves. This flood of bad product and other bits of mismanagement brought the console industry to a crashing halt. (Some historians like to claim that the very future of interactive gaming was in doubt but this completely ignores that the anyone can play computer game business continued without missing a beat.)

In 1985 Nintendo’s entry into the US market with a game system launched in 1982 in Japan brought console games as a business back from the dead. What did it was not technological sophistication, as the NES was a pretty dated design similar to 8-bit home computers launched years earlier. Nor was it the software stable, with Mario still a spin-off from Donkey Kong rather than an iconic titan of game sales who’d appeared in dozens of titles. What really made the difference was the business model that incorporated third party publishing as a source of revenue for Nintendo.

The model was, in Las Vegas parlance, the house always wins. The console was designed with a lock-out system. Only authorized product incorporating the security mechanism could run on the NES. The only way to get cartridges manufactured was through Nintendo. And Nintendo collected a nice fee on every unit produced, in addition to the profits from the manufacturing itself. If a third party game was a hit, Nintendo made lots of money. If it was a turkey, Nintendo still made a good pile of money. The cost of the failure fell entirely upon the third party company and the retailers.

Nintendo, of course, promised to avoid the worst failures by placing strict quality requirements on games submitted for publication approval. They placed strict quality requirements on a lot of things. The company seemed desperately afraid of anything that might give offense, to the point of the ridiculous. In one vampire themed game, high scores would appear on a tombstone. In the Japanese original it had a cross carved on top, in a style common in Eastern Orthodox cemeteries. For the US the cross was removed for fear of repercussion from the Perpetually Aggrieved lobby. This timidity provided competition with a target for their counterattack against Nintendo’s total market domination in the late 80s.

Some other policies had less to do with the quality of software than with the quality of Nintendo’s earnings. Some of these will sound familiar to those with long experience of book publishing. No third party publisher could have more than five titles in a year. This meant that no one company dominated the NES library and especially didn’t become more prominent than Nintendo itself. To get around this the companies openly adopted the equivalent of pseudonyms. They started new brands to produce more titles, often with a thematic difference from the main brand. For example, Konami’s Ultra brand mostly produce titles based on media licenses (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) or popular computer games, like my then-employer’s Defender of the Crown.

Another limitation Nintendo imposed was that a title for the NES could not appear on a competing console for a minimum of two years, by which time hardly anyone would care anymore. This was just for the US market. In Japan third parties frequently offered far superior versions of their games for newer, more powerful machines like the NEC PC Engine aka Turbo-Grafx 16 in the US. NEC could have litigated over this but Nintendo was one of NEC Semiconductor’s biggest customers. They kept quiet and the Turbo-Grafx was at a distinct disadvantage for the its entire US lifespan despite taking the 3! Position for over a year in Japan. Sega did eventually sue Nintendo once they finally realized how critical third party support was. Nintendo settled out of court and the Sega Genesis library swelled nicely within months.

Not only did Nintendo impose a lot of artificial constraints on the content of games, entirely aside from whether they had bugs or were just no fun, but the company was frequently accused of coercing third party publishers into placing far larger orders than they wanted or denied them the manufacturing capacity they needed in favor of a competing title. The former was regarded as Nintendo bolstering the bottom line when a quarterly report was due to be presented to the stockholders. The latter was just Nintendo picking winners and losers rather than letting the market decide.

Either one could be a disaster for a publisher. If Nintendo made you order too many games it meant $millions in sunk costs and an inventory that might need to be heavily discounted to be rid of. If Nintendo denied you the numbers you estimated you could sell, the game might sell out and then take months to get another production slot. (Changing out masks on a ROM production line can require a complete stoppage and significant costs, so two orders of one million units each done three months apart ends up with a higher per unit cost than a single run of two million units.) By the time you got new unit to the retail channel the demand for your game may have faded, and again you’re stuck with deep discounting to liquidate the inventory.

Ever get dinged for returned books by a publisher who knowingly produced far too many in the first place?

Things have changed since then. The most popular consoles switched to optical discs for game distribution, then added digital downloads to the mix. CD/DVD production is a fraction of the cost of mask ROM chips. The production line can start, stop, change masters, etc. with very little penalty. Leveraging this played a very big role in Sony ascension to the top of the market for the PlayStation 1 and PlayStation 2 generations. Sega dropped out of the hardware side of the business, and Microsoft stepped in but had a number of severe stumbles before getting things right.

Everybody today offers digital downloads of game add-ons and entire games, Sony and Microsoft far more than Nintendo. This is a huge change for developers because they now have a console venue that only charge them for games sold with no advance costs for media production or royalties. This is limited to smaller games that are practical to obtain by download but that is a moving target as average broadband speeds improve. Upfront capital investment is hugely reduced to almost solely the development component. Producing a good game is a far costlier prospect than writing a good selling book but there are definite parallels in how digital delivery has made great changes in cost of entry and how developers and publishers relate. Entirely new platform options have appeared in the form of Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android, with Windows Phone a distant third.

Nor has the PC fallen by the wayside. A much smaller market in terms of pure revenue but an immense market in terms of installed base. Pretty much anyone with talent can produce a game and peddle it off their own web site. Or go through services like Steam, which seek to balance the advantages of PCs and consoles while minimizing the problems.

There are truly no gatekeepers if you’re willing to go it alone and do the work. There are hoops to jump through and hurdles to clear if you want the advantages of a managed environment like a console but the treatment the talent receives is generally better than most of the industry’s history.

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