12 May 2006

COMMENT: A Lesson for Comics?

The current issue of Time magazine has an interesting article about the upcoming Nintendo Wii that makes a few good points that I think can also be applied to the comics industry.

A Game For All Ages

Video games are an unusual medium in that they carry a heavy stigma among nongamers. Not everybody likes ballet, but most nonballet fans don't accuse ballet of leading to violent crime and mental backwardness. Video games aren't so lucky. There's a sharp divide between gamers and nongamers, and the result is a market that, while large and devoted--last year video-game software and hardware brought in $27 billion--is also deeply stagnant. Its borders are sharply defined, and they're not expanding.

And even within that core market, the industry is deeply troubled. Fewer innovative games are being published, and gamers are getting bored. Games have become so expensive to create that companies won't risk money on fresh ideas, and the result is a plague of sequels and movie spin-offs...

But the name Wii not wii-thstanding, Nintendo has grasped two important notions that have eluded its competitors. The first is, Don't listen to your customers. The hard-core gaming community is extremely vocal--they blog a lot--but if Nintendo kept listening to them, hard-core gamers would be the only audience it ever had. "[Wii] was unimaginable for them," Iwata says. "And because it was unimaginable, they could not say that they wanted it. If you are simply listening to requests from the customer, you can satisfy their needs, but you can never surprise them. Sony and Microsoft make daily-necessity kinds of things. They have to listen to the needs of the customers and try to comply with their requests. That kind of approach has been deeply ingrained in their minds."
First, let's make it clear that the comics and gaming industries are very different when it comes to raw numbers. The article estimates the gaming industry to be a $27 BILLION market, but according to the NPD Group, it's actually only $10.5 billion, with another $1 billion coming from PC gaming.

On the other hand, according to Comics Buyer's Guide's John Jackson Miller, the estimated OVERALL U.S. Comics Market ("including estimates for newsstand comics and bookstore TPB sales, not counting manga") was $400-450 million in 2005. Publisher's Weekly noted manga sales in 2005 as being $140 million through bookstores and $67 million through comics shops, for another $207 million, or an approximate total of $650 million.

$11.5 billion vs. $650 million does not make for an apples-to-apples comparison, of course, but considering the average price points of videogames vs. comic books, you can make a solid case for their being some clear parallels between the opportunities and pitfalls both industries face.

In particular, Grossman's points about the stigma around gaming and its sharply defined borders, the general lack of innovation, and, perhaps most importantly, the idea that a company should not listen to its customers are all things that apply equally to the comics industry. The fact that an established company like Nintendo is willing to take the kinds of risks they do should be an example to, if not Marvel and DC, then certainly Image, which experienced a similar fall from grace. While they certainly put out a good bit of "risky" material, I've never gotten the sense that they have any real plan to reach beyond the direct market, to bring that material to audiences who might be more inclined to check it out. Instead, they seem content to be little more than a subsidy press and distributor for up-and-coming creators with the financial wherewithal to take the risks themselves, choosing the safe business model over the innovative one, and that's a real shame.

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