Who’s Curating Who?

Who should be curating content anyway? And should we trust them?

I recently read this essay about the state of publishing and the literary world. It’s a long read, but well worth it, with multiple points relevant to the games industry as well. One of the big questions it raises, and one that has also been picked up by the wider games industry, is just who’s job is it anyway to curate content?

Journalists and reviewers are professionals who we pay to get their opinions. They may be experts in their field, but more often are simply excellent communicators, able to articulate a point in an eloquent, amusing or concise manner as per their audience. While they speak with authority stemming from their status, they are a hangup from a time when we lived in a content poor world.

When games were expensive, and limited to what might fit on the shelves of the shops selling them, it made sense to spend time considering each game’s merits before making a purchase decision. Journalists and reviewers are great at helping decide if a game is good, but not at selecting which games to consider in the first place.

Publishers by their very nature as the middle man in the content distribution chain need to decide what is worth the cost of physically printing boxes and burning disks for. However, historically, publishers have vertically integrated back down the chain, acquiring game studios or having huge influence on the content being produced itself.

We can assume if a game comes from a publisher, it probably has a high level of quality, but as games publishers have evolved towards producing fewer, bigger budget games, they don’t do much for helping pick out those better games already swirling in the wider content pool.

It’s interesting to note that new publishers, such as Chillingo, on purely digital distribution mobile platforms, due to the skewed nature of the market, have found it most profitable to pick a small, select number of games and maximize profits on those. Where curation is needed most, publishers are at best, of limited use to consumers navigating the ocean of apps.

Platform Holders have traditionally had an interest in highlighting the best content on their systems. That which will drives their own sales or where they take a direct cut of the profits. However, in a content rich ecosystem, there is not the same incentive to do that. So long as enough quality content is available, there is no real need for the platform holder to find the hidden gems or give consumers the tools to do that themselves.

Publishers concentrating on profitability provide this minimum quality volume whilst maximizing profit for both themselves and the platform holders.

Even without great tools, The Crowd can be very effective at finding a diamond in the ruff and through viral or social media channels, elevating it to a high status, getting the message out about it and ensuring it receives the success it deserves.

However, whilst great at digging deep into the piles of content, the crowd again won’t produce the volume of finds required to be truly useful. If you don’t like whatever is flavour of the month on social media, or have specific needs and niche interests, the crowd is unlikely to solve that problem.

Algorithmic Recommendation systems are far better than humans at dealing with scale, able to take data not only about the content itself, but the people consuming that content, their habits and usage patterns. What it lacks is a way for new content to gain initial traction.

While giving extra weight to new content can give a partial solution, it precludes content that is given a soft launch or beta release and encourages marketers to front-load all their efforts. As seen on the app stores, having one opportunity, on launch, to make it into the new and trending games leaves a vast scrapheap of perfectly good apps that for whatever reason (from poor understanding of the system, to low budget, to having the misfortune to come out on the day of a big franchise) missed their chance.

The easy answer is to combine all these so that each curator can compliment the overall system with its relative strengths. This is of course completely wrong as few or none of them deal effectively with the large amount of good but not great content.

This is something observed by Nash in the essay I referenced at the start. When competing on a global level, all those who on a local level excel in their field, come across as average at best when placed next to the elite, world-beating, best of the best.

It’s also easily identified in the current status of the games industry, with the stratification of content into super-top end (and super-budget) AAA titles, and the vast seas of small scope games produced for mobile.

The solution is still to have the tools, but to put them in the hands of professionals, who are faster and more skilled at using them to find a wider breadth of content, highlight it, but otherwise leaving it to the crowd to do the detailed analysis and review where required.

The caveat is that those professionals should not be journalists. As they are providing a service, it makes no sense for those curators to be paid like salesmen, on commission for the most traffic to their websites.

Quite how you do it instead is the big, unsolved question. There are no financial incentives for the platform holders, publishers and other stakeholders to provide a better curation service. Until there is a danger of total market failure, we will continue to tread water in the ocean of content

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