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Gametap grows, but is it changing for the worse?

posted on February 5th, 2008 by christian

For the longest time, Gametap was a confident and persistent service that had a vision and, at least content wise, seemed to be making good on their promises. In the last year however, the service has changed considerably. They began supporting original projects, such as the critically loved Sam and Max episodes. They offered a select few games for free every week for anyone to play. Their community site exploded, and now rather than merely offering forums and commentary on their own games, the ‘tap has reviews and commentary about the industry as a whole. Blogs like Joystiq now cover the weekly releases with some semblance of seriousness. Not bad for an idea that no one thought would catch on. As for myself, I have been impressed with Gametap ever since I signed up in the summer of ’06. The selection of games was good and growing, and more importantly, I could tell that at least someone working there knew their games. Even before the massive growth, Gametap had some compelling documentaries on various industry names and series, and certain games were sprinkled with insightful descriptions and historical (and accurate) trivia. It was also host to some import games, the most notable being Alien Soldier on the Genesis. As their popularity and membership continued to grow, I saw no reason to worry. How could you when they were doing writeups about America’s arcade scene and recently allowed you to play Psychonauts for free.

Not so anymore. I don’t want to make reactionary hipster proclamations of Gametap starting to sell out, but along with all the good there has been some worrying news. The first is from a few months back, when it was reported that the service would be losing some big games from EA and Interplay, including their stock of Ultimas, Wing Commanders, and both Freespace games. Eventually we learned why; as expected, Gametap licenses the use of all its games, but at least some of those deals are not for the life of the service. With EA and Interplay it was time to renew, and it is not hard to believe that the renewal costs were higher. The question is, were they asking for loads too much, or did Gametap simply balk at the idea of not getting the same deal? Whatever the case, it was a stain on the service, which had recently offered its 1000th game, a count which they technically no longer have.

This week we learn of another lost game – this time it is Uru Live: Myst Online. Uru was canceled in its original form years ago, but Gametap saw fit to get Myst creator Cyan Worlds to remake and re-release the MMO on Gametap, complete with fresh monthly content. Now, due to “business reasons”, the servers will be closed.

I find myself curious about this decision. Just like the original Uru, Myst Online looks to have garnered a dedicated following of mature players; I once checked their message boards to find 50 year olds with perfect grammar seeking and finding help about how to play the game. The push behind it was strong, and it seemed Gametap wanted this to move forward, come hell or high water. I really am curious as to what the “business reasons” are. Were there really not enough players? Or did execs want resources put into something more lucrative? Whatever it is, you can tell it has to do with costs. While, of course, any business has to keep costs in mind, these two news pieces are very different from the usual Gametap attitude, which very much seemed oriented on listening to fans and using their feedback to create a better service. Just recently, a new version of the ‘tap player was released which not only loads in a third of the time, but removes all of the interface woes that users complained about on the forums. Who the hell does things like that these days?

Perhaps these are not signs of anything at all. Gametap could very well trudge along into unprofitable oblivion doing whatever the hell they feel is best. But the lack of solid explanation on both these deals seems typical of a company that is starting to see the money roll in, and is finding subtle ways to slowly increase that revenue at the expense of customers. After all, we live in the world where a legal racket like the RIAA is allowed to sue bars for playing music off an iPod and wants to lower royalties to artists so as to give more of it to record labels. I do not want to see a future Gametap where even payed subscribers get a week’s chance to play a game before it goes away, and ads are sprinkled into old PC games where they once didn’t exist. For now I will remain a customer, but the loss of Uru has shaken my confidence in Gametap. I will be watching them closely, and won’t be afraid to call them out for anything in the future.

3 Comments

  1. Max said on February 6, 2008:

    Yeah, business is a bitch :) It’s all about the money, sonny, and I am sure that GameTap, being a part of Time Warner (a company with many troubles), feels the corporate drive to deliver profits in a very real way. You can get away with giving stuff away for free and being extra responsive to the fans (even at a cost to revenue) for a while, as part of a strategy to “gain market share”. However, after some time, the good will with the corporate wigs expires and you’ve gotta face reality – money coming in and money going out need to add up. Now obviously licenses are one of their major operating expenses, and the price of their success is that game publishers now want more cash for the IP. When you are in a business of selling other people’s products, there is only so much that you can keep as a middleman, and you are very much at the mercy of your suppliers. I guess I am saying that I feel their pain, although obviously seeing financial considerations reflect upon the user experience is a sad thing. Obviously it would be better to see them add some kind of surcharge to play the more expensive games as opposed to removing them alltogether. But it can be hard to keep financial considerations and user experience totally independent, and it takes some really smart management to execute that kind of strategy. Let’s hope they get some soon :)

  2. Max said on February 6, 2008:

    I guess the other thing I am questioning here is this: are you sure that they are even a profitable subdivision of TW right now? Those licensing costs, plus the substantial infrastructure costs required to host these games can add up to big numbers, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find that they are actually in the red. In that scenario, the belt tightening measures you are describing would make a lot more sense.

  3. Christian said on February 6, 2008:

    Thanks for two great replies Max. I have no idea if Gametap is making profit. In fact, I was positive they were not with their plan of offering ad supported free play. Seemed to me to be an easy revenue stream to help them out. However, with their (formerly) growing support of original games, and the massive growth of their web presence, I started to wonder if maybe they were making some genuine coin. Gametap has been around for a while now, and considering this is Time Warner, I don’t think they’d be so incompetent as to allow Gametap to bankroll a ton of game projects, a game-site level writing staff, original video productions, etc. unless they actually could. If it was wasting money, I figure they would have ended the shenanigans a long time ago. Time Warner may not be the most savvy when it comes to technology, but allowing one of their services spend like a dot com bubble startup doesn’t sound like something that would slip by them.

    In any case, it is likely a compromise. Whatever the situation, people there seem to still care, but someone higher up on the corporate ladder is making sure certain things are rearranged.

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