In part 3 of my series on ARGs and the Economy, I had a throwaway comment about finding the differences between movies and video games, and what that means for ARGs. I actually wrote quite a bit of this at the time, but cut it out so I could focus on the main point (it’s the money, honey). And so here’s my take on why video games are growing like gangbusters and movies aren’t.
For starters, there's a basic difference in the value proposition you get from buying, say, Left 4 Dead, and going to see The Dark Knight. It's easy to speculate that it comes down to dollars per hour of entertainment. We could generously say TDK at $8 a ticket and a 3-hour run time is $2.60 per hour for one person, and conservatively Left 4 Dead at $60 for a 30-hour player experience is about $2.00 per hour for as many people frequent your living room. (TDK isn't quite as long as all that, though, and the play time for Left 4 Dead is theoretically much higher.)
But that's not how people decide how to have fun in the real world. The more important differences have to do with the qualitative nature of the experience being delivered.
Video games are active. This is the difference most people get stuck on; they think people want an active experience and not a passive one. I'm actually not so certain this is true; from time to time, I loves me a good passive experience. Read any good books lately? I think it comes down to personal preference, and even the same person doesn't always prefer the same kind of experience. Still, consumers are getting more and more accustomed to having some control over their leisure experiences, and it would be ridiculous to ignore that. Even TV has bent to this, the result being American Idol-style shows where viewers vote for a winner at the shallow end, all the way to the Heroes and Lost extended immersive experiences at the other end of that scale.
Video games are social. Whether it's rocking out with the whole family in Rock Band, running a high-level raid with your best guild buds in World of Warcraft, or making fun of your sister who can't get the bomb to the right spot in Super Mario Galaxy, games are at their best when you're playing with somebody else. Whispered comments aside, we're strictly socialized not to socialize at the movies. When people are hanging out with their friends, they don’t just want to interact with the experience; they want to interact with each other, too.
Video games are convenient. This point doesn't get nearly as much airplay as it deserves. When you go to a movie, you're stuck with the movies they're showing, the times they're showing them, and whatever seat you can find. If you get a text message mid-film telling you a flaming meteor just destroyed downtown and you hurry to see the spectacle with your own eyes, you're not going to be able to complete your cinematic experience without laying out another eight smackeroos and starting over from the beginning. A video game is there when you want to play it. You don't need to go out in inclement weather, you don't need to worry about being late and not getting a seat, you won't be sitting through twenty minutes of previews and commercials, and you can pause the game if you need to go look at the meteor-devastated downtown. Or, you know, have to go to the bathroom.
So there are some basic and very instructional differences between what the movie offers and what a game does. I've said before that ARGs are active, social, and convenient by nature; but that's not entirely true. Actually, ARGs fall down quite a bit on the "convenience" metric, for several reasons. Which I will address in... a future post!