It’s old news now, but a couple of months ago DC Comics announced its plans to shut down the Minx imprint. The comics blog realm underwent a week of hand-wringing about the label’s failure and then quietly forgot about it, but it’s stuck with me for a while — mainly because I see in comics an example of what I really don’t want video games to become; but which would almost certainly be the medium’s outcome if so-called “core gamers” were to have their way.
Minx, you see, was DC’s attempt to reach out to the young female demographic. I can’t speak for its success, since I’m not a young female and don’t read comics in the first place, but the general consensus is the Minx was well-intended but generally fell wide of the mark. It was founded as a conscious response to the fact that manga seems to draw in female readers just fine, while American comics remain as ever redolent of unbathed fanboys and musty basements thanks to the mainstream press’s inability to break beyond superheroes and Hollywood-style science fiction. Minx was therefore significant, because it represented a major publisher finally realizing that eventually its core market will die of buttery heart attacks by age 35 or else be crushed beneath shelves of perfectly-cataloged and never-touched-by-human-hands issues of Spawn the next time an earthquake hits.
The brief life and untimely death of Minx suggest that maybe comics isn’t an industry that deserves to survive, because despite having the success of manga to use as a template DC’s hugely-hyped efforts still missed the mark. It had problems. For instance, only a trivial minority of the creators tapped had ever actually been young females themselves. And one questions just how sincere the company’s efforts really were when the label was given about a year to live — realistically, not nearly enough time to build an audience, adapt to the market’s needs and make improvements based on retail feedback. But really, it just goes to show that the comics market is too overspecialized to survive; the retail market is ever a creature of Darwin. The forces that rule the comics market simply can’t adapt, so instead they’re left squeezing as much money as possible from their aging core market. The mainstream comics market shrinks every year, because, well, it’s not really mainstream.
This is why gamers should be grateful for the likes of Wii Music and other popular whipping targets like The Sims. Every time you see a billboard for Wii Fit, you can rest easy knowing that gaming really is going mainstream, and so-called core games of the Blowin’ Things Up II: Blowin’ Upper ilk aren’t all the medium has to offer. Of course, there’s more to comics than superheroes and their refrigerator-bound girlfriends, but the alternatives are poorly promoted and hard to find outside of a specialty shop.
But the expanding nature of the gaming market makes me wonder why American publishers seem terrified of the concept of the long tail. Games are still at a peculiar juncture: they’ve avoided incesting themselves into the niche that comics inhabit, but they’re still a long way from being a simple fact of life the way film, music and books are. And a lot of that has to do, I think, with publishers’ inexplicable terror of catering to niches. The medium’s mainstream audience is well-served, and the genuinely mainstream market is being catered to as well. But the industry consistently falls down when it comes to filling in the little gaps; look at all the audio obscurities you can find on iTunes or Amazon, and then compare gaming’s equivalent digital delivery services: Steam, Virtual Console, PSN, GameTap, etc. Each is hamstrung by rights limitations and platforms and general thick-headedness on behalf of the content providers. PSN is especially disgraceful; Sony has released roughly 200 PlayStation 1 titles as inexpensive PS3/PSP-compatible downloads. Here, we have about a tenth of that. But even the Wii Shopping Channel, which has a respectable library, is one of the most user-unfriendly services imaginable — the interface is obtuse, Nintendo actively obfuscates advance information on upcoming retro or WiiWare titles, and there’s no publicity for the thing.
Digital delivery services make more sense in America than anywhere else in the world, because unlike the other major gaming markets (i.e. Japan and Europe), America is huge. Moving packaged goods back and forth across the country takes time and costs money. America’s enormity is why we can’t have brilliant niche magazines like the UK’s Retro Gamer and Japan’s Continue; the market is simply too spread out. As gas prices continue to rise — and you can be certain that the current price dip is not a reflection of a long-term trend — moving games around will only become more expensive. Tiny games like the Artstyle series didn’t make sense as retail releases here, but they’re perfect as downloadable selections. LIkewise, we don’t have a convenient nexus for retro-game hunting a la Akihabara, but everyone who wants to play Suikoden II would pony up six bucks to get it on PSN in a heartbeat.
So why are American publishers so slow to take up the cause of promoting the long tail? I wish I had an answer. Unfortunately, I’ll have to settle for dreaming of making a tour around the country which involves me kicking the guilty parties in the face until they promise to recant. That’s what I’ve learned from video games, you see: violence solves everything.