The Long Tail of People

I recently finished The Long Tail, which posits that the Internet is changing the entertainment business by making the sale of niche products viable. In other words, iTunes can derive significant revenue from the extra million tracks it keeps around compared to a bricks and mortar retailer. This effect has yet to make a significant dent in the gaming market – although Live Arcade, Virtual Console, GameTap, and Steam are all quite promising – often because older titles aren’t in a standardized format, unlike older film, music, and words.

Nonetheless, an important Long Tail effect is occurring within the games industry, just along a different axis. It is the long tail of online gamers. For publishers of standard boxed games, the world outside of North America, Western Europe, and Japan – approximately 5 billion people – might as well not exist because of rampant and accepted piracy (see previous post). However, piracy is a near non-issue for online gaming because players have to connect with the game’s servers in order to get the real experience. Further, pricing can be easily adjusted for local markets so that WoW costs one thing in China and a very different thing in the U.S. The essence of this shift is that these 5 billion people are now on the map. I’ve personally seen Internet cafes in countries like Lebanon and Brazil filled with people playing WoW. I’m sure this pattern is repeating itself the world over.

Usually the Long Tail concept describes ignored media or products, which have small audiences but cumulatively add up to a big number. The vast majority of the 5 billion people outside the retail game market are not going to start playing online game, but if a tiny fraction of them does, it would still add up to a big number.

Take Travian, a Web-based PHP strategy game which has attracted huge international audiences by localizing to as many languages as possible. Checking the “Total Players” category on each country’s server, there are big numbers from some unexpected places:

  • 160,000 Poles
  • 130,000 Russians
  • 320,000 Czechs
  • 90,000 Slovakians
  • 300,000 Turks

That’s a lot of people, and they have over 30 other localized servers, including ones for Chile, Portugal, Norway, Slovenia, and even Bosnia. It’s a whole new world!

One thought on “The Long Tail of People

  1. It’s time for manufacturers to realize that viable markets exist outside of North America, Australia and Western Europe. Yes, piracy is rampant and widely accepted in countries such as Russia, China or Brasil. But look at the numbers, silly! Brasil has a population of 180 million, Russia of 145 million. It’s worth to turn attention to these markets, and I’m not even mentioning China with its mad population.

    One of the things that piracy shows is that demand exists in those countries. Russians, Poles and Brazilians want to play games, too! Some pirate them because pirated games are free/dirt cheap but others because there’s no other way to get games. Retailers won’t even ship there and services such as Direct2Drive won’t let purchase from those countries.

    Game publishers should look at those countries. If they make retail games easily available in the former USSR and Eastern Bloc countries, the numbers will add up. There’ll be less buyers, proportionally, than in the US, UK or Germany, but they’ll add up.

    Ideally, they’d also figure to adjust the prices for these local markets. Selling games for the same price in Russia and US doesn’t make much sense given the discrepancy between income levels there.

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