Did you see that Beyonce released an entire album the other night, completely out of the blue?
Yep, in a stunning move that makes Radiohead's choose-your-own-price release of In Rainbows look like risk-averse toe-dipping conservatism, the 32-year-old started selling a collection of 14 new songs online, complete with 17 music videos. "Surprise!" she wrote in a press release -- the existence of which appears to have been her main concession towards industry convention. Apparently she was "bored" of releasing stuff the traditional way.
The games industry, of course, is hardly short of new and exciting distribution methods. Over the past few years we've gone from CDs and DVDs to shareware-style digital downloads, alphas, betas, free-to-play, freemium, paymium and all sorts of other things that sound like elements on Gordon Gecko's periodic table. But these things are always still a little experimental or independent, however big they then blow up to be. Waking up on Friday to a new Beyonce album is more like saying "Xbox, on" one day and discovering that Halo 5 isn't just happening; it's already on Xbox Live.
I'd love to see more of this, and although I commentate on the games industry rather than working within it, I know a few people on the inside who believe in this sort of thing as well. A few years ago I found myself talking to a marketing director at a major games publisher (don't worry, I killed him as soon as I realised who he was) who told me about an abandoned plan for a triple-A game that would have seen it announced in a whirlwind of traditional publicity -- you know, press previews and viral videos and so on -- and then, with a magician's flourish and a "ta-da!", announced for release a mere six weeks later. It was a risky idea, but just imagine the buzz it would have generated.
Instead, the closest thing I can remember is when Sega released the Saturn during E3 in 1995 and nobody could afford it. The distinction, though, is that a $399 expense is the kind of thing that you need to prepare your finances for. Its failure isn't really relevant to this debate unless Beyonce's charging 400 bucks on iTunes.
Unfortunately, recent years have seen big game developers going in the opposite direction. Since it was Doom's birthday this week -- although it felt more like a memorial service -- let's take Rage as an example. Id Software's game was promoted so far in advance of its release that even Bethesda's millions couldn't resuscitate interest in it by the time it limped into stores in late 2011. OK, Rage was a slightly special case, but (and sorry to keep picking on Bethesda) there's also The Elder Scrolls Online, rumored forever, announced in mid-2012, and finally set to go live next April.
Meanwhile, those big studios that are engaging with things like Early Access are, if anything, lengthening the period between first look and final product. Rather than turning up out of the blue with a new album, they're turning up with the promise they'll record some music and maybe let you access a webcam feed in the studio while they adjust the levels. Even the Wasteland 2 Early Access beta, which is live this weekend and looks a bit special, was introduced to the public consciousness via Kickstarter nearly two years ago.
There's no guarantee Beyonce's stunt will be a success, of course -- although given that she has 13 million followers on Twitter and every news organization in the world has made her album front-page news, now including this one, there is a decent probability. And there's no guarantee it's a repeatable trick. But in one sense, the creaky old traditional games industry is actually in a perfect position to pull this off and make some hay out of it in a way other creative mediums simply can't.
Let's return to E3. Picture the scene, one June in the not too distant future, as Shuhei Yoshida strides onto the stage in whichever metropolitan arena Sony has borrowed from Los Angeles for the evening, disarming grin on his face. Andrew House has already given us the graphs (and a larger hard drive would be nice as well, Andrew) and all is rosy in the land of PS4. So Yoshida settles in to the traditional demo reel, introducing developer after developer. Some of them are indie, some of them are bankable triple-A veterans; some of them are David Cage. All of them have something new to show us.
I don't know about you, but whenever I'm in E3 mode -- whether I'm sitting in the arena itself writing a text commentary and running out of synonyms for 'gritty', or sat back in the office staring at the live stream -- the thing I most want to do is play the games immediately. What's more, the developers and publishers at E3 all want the same thing. They hate it when we play one of their games for a few minutes at E3 -- or only get to see a few sizzling seconds of it in a poorly choreographed demo where the developer accidentally says something offensive -- and then dare to draw conclusions based on the material they've decided is representative of the work in concert with our years of experience. They would rather we could sit there for a few hours and experience it properly.
At this near-future E3, then -- a show that, for all its flaws, still has a unique ability to capture the attention of the world's media -- Yoshida comes back on stage after all the demos, leads the polite applause, and then pulls out his phone and makes a call.
"I just released all those games on PSN. Happy E3."
Drop. The. Mic.
So, if anyone from Sony or Microsoft is reading this, how about it? Remember, you don't have to say anything. You can pretend you never read this and I'll delete it from the website. Maybe just give me a wink. Or play All The Single Ladies.