Want To See The Future? Look To The Games

There was something of a “big deal” event in geek circles last week: StarCraft 2 was released, about 12 years after the release of the original. It’s a “real time strategy” game, which pits factions of aliens against each other in what is essentially a military situation where the goal is to crush your opponents. In gaming terms, it’s a AAA (top of the line, very high production values) title, but it had to be: the original StarCraft grew to be far more popular than anyone ever could have imagined, even becoming some sort of combination of chess and football in Korea, where being an all-star meant you were on the Wheaties box, and had your matches broadcasted on the video-game equivalent of ESPN–while playing in front of a live audience. It took the developers of the original StarCraft many years and iterations to finely balance the different gameplay dynamics, but once they did so, it set very high expectations for the sequel. So, how do you release a game after a 12 year wait to people with sky-high expectations, and deliver on all the hype? Start by giving your product away for free.

Sort of: once StarCraft 2 reached a stage where it was reasonably polished and playable, Blizzard-Activision moved it into a public beta, where anyone could download the multiplayer component of the game for free and play to their heart’s content. Based on usage and feedback, the strengths and abilities of various game pieces were tweaked and refined, and the beta saw continuous, iterative improvements. The beta wrapped up about a month before the official July 27th release of the game, but when the final product shipped, it did so having been vetted by countless thousands of players–players who not only had a chance to make the game better, but had a chance to get addicted to it and line up to buy a copy of the finished product. The game is great and would still have been great had Blizzard-Activision not had their open beta, but the extra time to polish the product made it that much better, and saved them post-release efforts in squashing bugs and tweaking dynamics.

In another smart gaming industry play, one that coincides with StarCraft 2 both in terms of timing and theme, Valve Software also recently released a “marines in space” style game, Alien Swarm–except that in Valve’s case, the game was released for free; not even as a beta, just as a free product. The closest thing to a catch with this is that in order to play Alien Swarm, players need to install Steam, Valve’s content delivery/social network/game storefront platform. Any player who installs Alien Swarm to play with their friends via Steam will see all of the games that their friends have, be updated when and where their friends are playing, and have a very easy to use purchase/upgrade path should they want to buy any games through the platform. By bringing gamers to a platform where purchasing, playing, and socializing take place, Valve has made a very clean and unified user experience, one that seems to resonate strongly and positively with users.

Video games, like movies and music, are readily susceptible to piracy. In a future post I’m going to explore how parts of the gaming industry have opted for a much different solution than the ones explored by movie studios and record labels (litigation): making “going legit” easier and superior to piracy. I’m convinced that across the board, businesses of any type can learn a lot from what innovating gaming firms are doing.