Not Dancing in Central Square

November 19, 2010
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Last week, Viacom announced that it was planning to sell Harmonix and had already classified the Cambridge-based development studio as a “discontinued operation.”  When Viacom’s MTV Games purchased Harmonix four years ago, the conglomerate was hoping to expand into console gaming.  Executives also likely bought into the then-popular myth that the gaming industry was recession proof.  Viacom’s announcement last week indicated that the hoped-for expansion into gaming did not go as smoothly as executives had hoped.

As I walked by the door to Harmonix on my way to buy pork chops, I thought about all the reports.  In my opinion Harmonix is one of the most innovative gaming firms around these days.  It seemed odd that Viacom would put Harmonix up for sale before Dance Central really had a chance to make a splash (the game was just introduced on November 4).

What kept bouncing around my brain was the quote that echoed through many trade press accounts: CEO Philippe Dauman’s statement that “the console games business requires expertise we don’t have.”  Dauman’s statement illustrates that firms who buy in to the games business (allegedly to target those 18- to 49-year-old men whose hands are stuck to the controller controlling an avatar more often than their eyes are glued to the television screen watching sitcoms) may have little idea of what to do once they have brought studios into the fold of their media empires.

Do conglomerates have the “expertise” to do games right?  Thinking beyond music, dance, and rhythm action games, conglomerates may believe that games may be excellent opportunities for extending intellectual properties or venues for the extension of transmedia franchises.  Regardless of whether game firms are parts of the conglomerate or independent contractors, conglomerates (and divisions) must balance the desire to protect their intellectual property by imposing rules on how characters and narratives may be appropriated and exploited and allowing game designers and game divisions to translate intellectual properties from filmic/televisual experiences to ludic experiences.  Is this balancing act too complex for conglomerates?

Development for multiple consoles, the relationship between retail sales and sales of DLC, and the fact that games only really exist as texts once they are played add layers of complexity to producing, marketing, and distributing a game that are simply not present in the film or television industry.

Despite the industrial rhetoric of convergence and synergy, are the cultural logics of television and gaming too divergent?  Can media conglomerates firmly entrenched in the logic of broadcasting, cable, film, and publishing ever really understand what makes game companies tick?  Or, are the production and economic logics of what makes something fun to play and interesting to watch too distinct?  Can conglomerates be successful at both the televisual and the ludic?  Or must they choose, as Viacom seems to have done?  Is the ludic beyond the pale, so to speak, and does this pose a problem for media firms in what independent game designer Eric Zimmerman has called the “ludic century?”


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2 Responses to “ Not Dancing in Central Square ”

  1. Sean Duncan on November 20, 2010 at 8:27 AM

    What I don’t get about this are the financials — the SKU market has completely tanked within the past few years (there’s a glut of plastic instruments out there, people already have them if they want them, etc.). I blame Activision for this more than Viacom/MTV/Harmonix, as they seemed to want to flood the market with awful band-oriented spinoffs (Aerosmith, Van Halen, Metallica, etc.) more than Harmonix has (just Beatles and Green Day so far).

    But, it was my understanding that the DLC market was still very favorable for Viacom/MTV/Harmonix, and that Rock Band DLC was still selling pretty well. Or, at least was still quite profitable (no physical product to produce, very little marketing, lots of return). Is there any data on this? Could it be that Viacom honestly doesn’t understand RB as a *platform* rather than as a product?

  2. Random mentions « being playful on November 28, 2010 at 11:09 PM

    […] culture” – my idea of the 21st Century being a “Ludic Century” is used in a blog post to ask whether media corporations are really understanding the way the landscape is […]