Chopping off the long tail

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.

26 thoughts on “Chopping off the long tail

  1. I’m pretty happy to throw it at the feet of the ESRB, except that they’ll probably sniff at it and explain that even though their licensing fees do indeed make it impossible to make any money off the long tail — the whole point being that lots of little transactions add up, which makes it a really good idea to make it [i]free[/i] to add to the length of the tail — it’s not really their fault that all of the major content providers are incredibly skittish after being the whipping boys of pop culture for going on twenty years now.

    I’ve noticed the similarity between comics and games, too, but I think the difference is that gaming didn’t fuck up so bad that it got saddled with a Comics Code. People seem to keep hitting on this idea, every few years, that the mainstream doesn’t actually object to the *idea* of games, just the execution — so we get things like Pac-Man, Solitaire, Minesweeper, Sim City, Myst, The Sims, Wii Sports, all of which were real crossover hits in their markets. Similarly, I don’t think the public in the 60s actively recoiled from sequential art, but the content therein never made a compelling case for itself until Maus. (And maybe Watchmen. Maybe.)

    I think I mentioned this in my letter to Retronauts, albeit in a way that wouldn’t stand up in a stiff breeze, but of the big cross-overs, one stands out. Myst is the only game recognisable as a video game as we know them – a sequential series of challenges that kind of make a story. The others, while fine games, don’t have narrative baked into it the way Myst does.

    So I wonder if there’s something about Myst that makes a game with a story “acceptable”, although I suspect it’s got nothing to do with it, and what makes all these games work is that even though they’re very complex, the player only has to master a few fairly straightforward inputs to be able to start having fun (except Pac-Man, which still only had one joystick and absolutely no other inputs), and they’re never asked to learn another method of interacting with the system.

    I guess what I’m looking for is the missing link – there’s got to be games that are between the mainstream and the hardcore, and there has to be something about them that means that people don’t stumble upon them by accident. We can make hardcore games, and they’re in danger of disappearing up their own arsehole like adventure games did. The missing link is where I hope the industry will drift – somewhat demanding, but perfect for those who like the idea of games and want to step up, or have played a lot of games but don’t have the time to play them all, and have to step down.


  2. Every time I sign onto Japanese PSN the amount of PS1 titles available makes me want to cry. Now you look at what many of those titles go for on Amazon or Ebay, and it makes you wonder why Sony and other publishers wouldn’t want to make that $6.00 instead of the $60 or more going to someone for a used copy. Very strange stuff.

    Also, I wonder if there is any chance that games Square released under the Square / EA partnership have a chance of coming out on US PSN at all? Does EA own the rights to the localization? I might be able to tolerate a Xenogears play through if it were portable and I could put it to sleep whenever I saw fit.

  3. Graphics: In a hobby that’s obsessed with how amazing things look, something from a year ago looks like ass. Compare this to movies where people always look real, and we can simply laugh at the bad special effects of movies from yesteryear.

  4. As someone who devours videogames AND is firmly entrenched in the world of comics (some of my friends were Minx creators), I’m glad to see someone mapping the obvious-but-nonetheless-legit comparisons between the two industries.

    I’m still convinced that – had the Wii not arrived when it did – this hardware generation could’ve been the tipping point at which gaming found itself sliding into it’s own inescapable hyper-specialized niche.

  5. I’d like to note that it’s not just video game publishers that are slow on the uptake when it comes to the long tail and the potential of electronic distribution. Traditional “words on a page” publishers are slow to get it too, to the point where a lot of people are asking whether “words on a page” publishing can possibly survive. And frankly, when it comes to clinging to outdated business models, you can’t beat book publishing. Ours was cooked up in the 1930s, and hasn’t really been updated since then. Oops.

    Eventually, the long tail’s going to come down to “do or die” for every publishing industry. The blockbuster model simply isn’t sustainable over the long term. Why, I’m not sure – maybe blockbusters are too dependent on a limited supply of cheap tricks? But it’s already burnt out the comics industry, and is well on its way to doing the same to the traditional movie and music industries. We’re living in a world where diverse tastes can be catered to and, more, expect to be catered to. Publishers are going to need to deal.

  6. Retro Gamer is a great mag for those who can find it. I’ve probably learned more obscure gaming stuff from that than from any other source, such as the genesis of Resident Evil and what “R-Type” means.

  7. I don’t know if it’s fair to say that the mainstream is stuck with an “inability to break beyond superheroes and Hollywood-style science fiction” and then commend the basic idea behind DC’s formation of Minx. DC is also sort of responsible for Vertigo, the imprint most independent companies started in the last twenty years liberally steal from. And nobody has read spawn in fifteen years. It’s one thing to get down on comics if you read them, but you admit that you don’t, which makes the first half of this very condescending. There is a difference between Patton Oswalt making fun of comic nerds (he is one) and Jamie Kennedy making fun of comic nerds (he has never been one and is thus just a bully). Make fun of video game players, but go past Watchmen and the basic, unofficially required in college books if you want the right to spit in DC’s eye.

  8. The fact that a handful of publishers have made some efforts to get beyond the mainstream does not excuse them for their failures. Vertigo has an extraordinary line of books that people only know about because they were turned into movies. The fact of the matter is, Vertigo ended up being aimed at nerds who had slightly more refined tastes, not the mainstream. DC should have been out there, shouting from the rooftops and doing everything in its power to get these books in every nightly news bulletin and bookstore in the country. They had the product, but they simply didn’t sell it. Maybe they didn’t know how any more.

  9. “They had the product, but they simply didn’t sell it. Maybe they didn’t know how any more.”

    Or maybe not as many people as you think are interested in buying it. This is the same argument that is discussed concerning movies. Just because something is “good” doesn’t mean the public at large cares. While Vertigo titles aren’t promoted much now they were hugely promoted when the imprint first launched and beyond a select few titles the line has rarely seen anything that has impressive sales. Why do people not go see good movies? Why do they buy crappy games? Just because you try to sell them “good” stuff doesn’t mean they’re buying it.

    Also, there are “good” superhero comics. Comic book sales are never going to be what they once were for a variety of reasons. Manga sales even have taken a nosedive after most publishers thought there was no ceiling to sales.

  10. I think the problem is that most women don’t give a crap about comics… so even marketing towards them is pretty much going to fail…

  11. You know, kiff1235, just because I don’t read comics doesn’t mean I’m ignorant on the topic. I used to read them weekly until I got sick of their steady decline; and for whatever reason, I still read several comic blogs daily, so I’m quite aware of the fact that the goliaths of the industry are still things like Infinite Crisis and Civil War. And I’ve seen enough of those to know they represent that ingrown, inbred, self-regurgitating tripe that I don’t want gaming to succumb to.

    Of course there are plenty of more creative works scurrying about the edges of Marvel/DC/Image’s skirts, but they’re tiny. On the whole, the comics industry is focused on the crap you see on the cover of Wizard magazine; take those away and it all collapses, and the genuine quality vanishes along with them, because that facet of the medium isn’t self-sustaining. They have to piggyback into speciality shops built around superhero pulp.

    Done right, Minx could have been a vital rethinking of how American comics publishers create, market and sell their work. It didn’t work out that way, but it also didn’t have a chance to correct itself.

    Anyway, great feedback, guys.

  12. Interesting you should write this, because over the past year I realized that the gaming industry is somewhere in between comics and the more popular arts (movies, music and TV). Video games still have that “nerdy” stigma, that is, those that are not mainstream. And due to the major hype machine concentrated on the top 5% or so of video games, which is often focused on a handful of genres at a time as well as franchise or license-based material, and the costs associated with the industry (development, advertising, and printing copies for retail games), it’s no wonder why the niche faction is so big. (Heck, some major gaming journalists don’t even seem to cover or even mention said niche games.) It forces companies like Atlus to be conservative in their approach (i. e. limit their PR, do limited print runs, etc.), which they’ve been very successful at.

    The gaming business just isn’t favorable to a whole lot of companies. Digital distribution would do wonders in giving many games another lease on life, but yeah, Sony and Nintendo aren’t willing to play ball.

  13. DC’s webcomics initiative Zuda is one year old today! Time to pack it up, guys, that’s all you get.

  14. Alright. You make a compelling point here. I’ve held onto the word hardcore, trying to preserve its positive connotations, but now I begin to think it’s too far gone. When I used the word, I was using it in the sense of someone who is open to playing more or less anything and is able appreciate games from 20 or 30 years ago because they’re seriously enamored with the very act of experiencing games. You know, someone who knows their history and generally partakes in the entire breadth of what the industry offers.

    But it seems like I’m in the minority with that definition. I can’t and don’t identify with the set that is only into Gears of War and GTA. I’m not trying to stick up for the people who are rude and hateful on XBox Live. While I still think that Nintendo’s most recent offerings are at best very disappointing, I recognize that the industry as a whole is being made more vital by their existence. So if the word hardcore really only conjures images of sociopathic kids spewing obscenities while teabagging your avatar’s corpse, I guess I have no choice but to drop the term.

  15. One major obstacle comics have that differs from other media is that there is very little pass-around growth available. The majority of people reading comics still have it ingrained that the books must stay in pristine condition to be enjoyed. There’s nothing really wrong with this way of thinking except that I’m not going to be at a friend’s place and see the latest issue of whatever-could-be-great subbing for a coaster and have him offer to let me borrow it. Without any real mainstream advertising like movies have, books, magazines, videogames, music, et al all can and are often shared. As it stands, Joe Regular has to for some reason be told of some great comic and then locate a comic shop somewhat close to his home and run an errand to drop a couple of bucks on something to read in one evening.

    Sure, the pass-around doesn’t increase sales of that particular item, but it would improve good will towards and interest in comics. I think the industry is doing their best with the “Free Comic Book Day” promotion annually, but it’s going to be a tough fight.

    Also, as a former “mainstream” comic fan, I can’t see throwing away any more money on a relatively expensive form of entertainment when there’s already so much out there to enjoy on the cheap.

    These are just my observations on an artform/medium with which I used to be very familiar. Maybe I am way off.

  16. Totally off topic, but gas was $2.15 here this weekend, down from $4.25 a few months ago. “As gas prices continue to rise” is no longer a valid argument. Woo!


  17. Like I said: “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. You don’t really think this current dip (coincidentally happening just in time for a major U.S. election!) is anything permanent, do you? Petroleum is a finite resource, which is why oil-rich nations are trying to transform themselves into crazy tourist destinations. And even at current gas prices, national distribution is still an issue that other countries don’t have to deal with on the same level — huge shipping fleets, multiple regional warehouses, so on and so forth. Retailers are dying, and the survivors are cutting back on what they’re stocking this holiday. Digital distribution is a necessity.

  18. Yes, most people only know about Vertigo’s books because they’re being turned into movies. So what? How does that change the fact that DC is willing to go out on a limb and put out American Virgin or Sea Guy and try something that’s never been done? 100 Bullets doesn’t move the paper that a Batman or Superman does, but the people who know about it think it’s brilliant, and DC recognizes that. It’s easy to say that the big superhero books are tripe, but until you’ve read an arc of Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern or Grant Morrison’s Batman, you’re basing that on the books that you read five years ago. Those aren’t hanging by the fringe, those are two top tier titles. That is DC saying “that guy who wrote The Invisibles and who everybody thinks is insane is going to get complete control and free reign over our biggest book.” DC is still running hero books, but they’re putting solid talent behind them, and Vertigo is getting bigger every year. Maybe Minx failed because American manga is almost as terrible as Japanese manga. You can look down your nose at comics all you want, but even manga fans admit that nothing new has happened for a long while. Tokyo Pop isn’t exactly Fantagraphics in terms of new ideas.

    Parish– I was basing your lack of knowledge on comics on the line “[I] 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.” If I said “I don’t listen to music in the place but people seem to think that these Beatles are pretty great,” you would assume that I didn’t listen to music and was repeating what I had been told by people who did. Nobody want to talk to the guy who explains his feelings about records using phrases he stole from magazine reviews, and it sounded like you were openly admitting that that’s who you were.

  19. I think that in many ways as well having TPB’s for the comic industry has hampered issue sales. I’d rather spend $10-15 bucks to get a complete story arc in one shot, than $2-$4 an issue for a 3-6 issue story arc. Everything’s there, and I can have an easily go and read back quickly, or pick up older stories if necessary.

    Are trade paper backs/graphic novels part of the comic book version of the long tail? That’s where you’ll find older stories and actual stock by larger stores (Borders and Barnes and Nobels) with a decent variety at times as well. No more digging through bins, or worrying about the condition of the comic. Easy to trade and share with friends.

  20. Hey m. nicolai, maybe I was making a point. I can be talked down to and told that comics are mostly focused on the stuff that can makes Wizard’s cover, but every fifth post on this website praises some sort of manga, and I was saying that an outsider could say that manga is melodramatic and formulaic but fans of the medium could come up with fifty names of good books off of the top of their heads. Because I’m going to die of a buttery heart attack at 35 but the kid who masturbates to Darkstalkers characters and wakes up under the flag of Glorious Nippon is A.OK. But maybe I just don’t understand that culture because I’m not a part of it and maybe before judging something I lie outside of(but read about daily, so at least I know about other people’s opinions, that’s the same as reading, right?!)I should stop and make a different analogy.

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