So maybe game companies aren’t tech companies. As much as game companies seem to borrow from tech firms, tech firms run a bigger deficit in borrowing from games. If Netflix, a subscription service with over 10,000 movies and TV shows, has its biggest competitor in a single game, Fortnite, then perhaps there’s more for tech to learn from games. And how games deal with The Content Problem is its defining characteristic. Of all forms of entertainment, games present the most compelling answer to the problem.
The Content Problem
The fundamental axiom of economics is unlimited needs and wants and only limited means to fulfill them. The parallel for entertainment might consider that core content demand nearly always outstrips supply. For example, large swaths of Game of Thrones and Harry Potter fans are underserved by a couple of books, movies, and TV seasons. Executives try to fill the void with licensing: Harry Potter backpacks, Game of Thrones beer, etc. But filling the core content demands are impossible: it takes far more than 1 hour to produce 1 hour of Game of Thrones, while the same is not valid for games.
Consider the following:
The content consumed in a game like Overwatch or Clash Royale is the pursuit of strategy equilibrium and/or mastery of mechanics. A new unit in Clash Royale changes how players organize their decks, even if they don’t use the unit directly (they must counter it). The new units provide hundreds of new hours of content to consume relative to the near 1 man-week of labor to produce the new unit. Therefore, the marginal content output of a given member of the 16 people (!) Clash Royale team is astronomical.
The genius of PvP (Player v Player) environments is how they necessitate the emergence of a meta-game. PvP environments resemble game theory models where it has been shown strategies evolve in an evolutionary process. In mathematics, Player vs. Environment (PvE) resembles optimization where strategies are static – one and done. Each balance change reshuffles Equilibrium in PvP environments; the search for dominant strategies in an ever-shifting equilibrium is the game itself.
The marginal product of labor for a given game developer completely outclasses a given producer on a movie or TV show by virtue of the medium, not the individual. Unlike games where assets are infinitely replicable, films and TV face fixed constraints: Emilia Clarke or David Benioff can only be in a single place at a given time. They must also eat, sleep, socialize (sigh). Meanwhile, Captain Price faces no such constraints. There’s no more Game of Thrones to consume after the last episode cuts to black while there’s always another hour of Fortnite to play. How can Netflix and others adapt to the reality of these mediums?
The most straightforward strategy is a content arms race. Netflix continues to spend over $17B a year on original content while scooping up oodles of back catalog content. Of course, viewers must be interested in this content to be “effective,” and the recommendation engine plays a vital role in this. But the last episode of Stranger Things shows that the recommendation engine cannot fill the void while operating on the same indifference curve. The “more bodies” strategy to solving the content problem is expensive to execute and, as we’ll see in part 4, struggles to achieve Marginal Cost = Marginal Benefit.
Reality TV is a response: it needs fewer writers, editors, and CG to produce a given hour of content. Shows like The Amazing Race, Big Brother, and Survivor can do 20+ seasons of 22+ episodes, while Game of Thrones struggles with seven seasons of 10 episodes despite having so many more crew members. Netflix’s speed of investment here is breathtaking. But the addressable audience is more limited in scope than traditional dramas. Netflix needs a bolder evolution to combat games: TV-as-a-service.
The forgotten genre of soap opera TV provides a near-perfect blueprint. For those unfamiliar, soap operas are near year-round weekly serialized television shows. The unrelenting pace has resulted in popular series like General Hospital having 14,000+ episodes over 57 years. Netflix needs to invest in moving performances to a similar format: year-round production with weekly releases heavily. There’s always another piece of content to consume right around the corner while the back-catalog for a given show continually expands for newcomers. In many ways, this mirrors match-3 level production. The number one reason why players churn from match-3 is a lack of new levels, and a glance at community pages confirms this.
King mitigates content churn using an increasing difficulty curve such that it takes players longer to reach content exhaustion as they progress through levels. Another strategy is also possible, however: branching narratives. Reality TV faces no such option.
Increasingly, Hollywood is shooting movies back-to-back. It’s cheaper to continue production rather than stop and go. Why not do something similar to produce more content? In this case, shoot multiple perspectives in a given series simultaneously. Lord of the Rings production operated similarly with two production crews but with a singular end product. Game of Thrones also operated with two film crews, but the end product was a single episode. Why not dedicate an hour to each perspective rather than splice the two in a single episode? A multi-perspective production multiplies a 10 episode season to 30 while holding down cost. Netflix can’t solve The Content Problem, but it can mitigate it.
Interestingly, Youtube has solved most of this problem via a two-sided marketplace. The smattering of volume helps the supply-side problem even if a particular creator has a finite number of videos (remember, you can still play a given game for an unlimited amount of time without “running out” of content). Youtube has encouraged users to subscribe to many different creators, accounting for regular release cadence.
Diminishing returns for linear content are incredibly steep; few users will watch a film or movie more than once. Increasing and prolonging the LTV of a viewer is most elastic with more content: a costly proposition. To compete with games, TV, and movies need far more supplies. If technology and business models can change innovative products rather than be a vehicle for them, now has never been a better time to explore changes in storytelling.