The importance of consistency for the quality of digital content distribution platforms

Any suggestions for shortening the title are appreciated 😉

User experience consistency is something that many companies in the media business — especially the game industry — disregard but, as I’m going to show, has accounted for the success of some of the greatest and most profitable content distribution systems.

Consumer media formats such as music CDs, video cassettes and even good, old vinyl owe their popularity, among other things, to the ease-of use and reliability. If you’ve bought a standardized CD, you could be sure that your CD player would play it since all CDs share the same technical properties. However, this form of consistency and resulting ease of use was a merely a by-product of the main development goal: efficiency. At the time the audio-CD was introduced, most CD-players were embedded systems and without standardization, they system wouldn’t have worked.
Now, 30 years later, embedded systems still take a large part in our everyday media consumption. Talking about the game industry, console games are far more popular than personal computer games.
Now why is that? Why would anybody play a game in far inferior quality if there is a pc version?

Because quality, from a consumer standpoint, doesn’t primarily mean technological superiority but consistency and ease-of use.

The problem

Computer games, however, are made for an open platform, where every developer can release any piece of software in the quality they want, following only their own rules. Big publishing companies have created a set of rules for their own titles in the past years. For example, you can log into the community component of every EA game released in the past years with your EA account. However, if you buy three different games from three different publishers, you’ll most likely have to register three different accounts and care about three different friend lists.

Updates are another example where the PC user experience differs widely from the console experience. A couple of years ago, PC games needed to be updated via patches that had to be downloaded from a website. With the introduction of the current-generation video game consoles there was a huge leap forward in terms of update simplicity. On the 360, it’s hard not to update a game when there’s an update out.

It’s not that PC game developers were passive. Many came up with some well-designed solutions to ease the update process for the user. Most modern games automatically update. However, no matter how well these systems were designed, they’re inconsistent.

Some games update automatically update, whereas many simply direct to a web page or launch an updating utility that differs between different games. So with every game, the user has to complete a small learning process in order to find out how the system works. Same with the community functions: Every publisher’s friend list and matchmaking features may be well-implemented and sophisticated but they still require the user to go through a registration process for almost every game.

Even something as simple as launching a game may be confusing for the consumer, as some games can be launched from the PC’s media center interface (which is standardized in the games-for-windows rules which, unfortunately, no developer has to obey), some games can be launched from the start menu and some need a special client to be running.

Another example would be a game’s controls. With the availability of standardized game controllers on the PC platform (the XBOX360 controller), every game should theoretically be playable with one of those, but since support for these is not required, publishers are free to ignore them and create a game that does not work with game controllers — may it be due to incompatible game design (like an RTS game) or simply ignorance. This way, consumers can’t be sure whether a game supports the controller or not. There are even inconsistencies within a series of games. For example, 2ks Bioshock 1 works fine with the XBOX360 controller, whereas bioshock 2 doesn’t.

So what to do against these inconsistencies?

Rules.

The developers of the XBOX 360 and Playstation 3 have made great efforts to harmonize the user experience as much as possible. All games update in the same way, the player’s achievements (or trophies) are being collected in the same shelf and all games work with the same controller. If you buy a game for a console, you can be sure, it runs on your hardware (unless the console is broken).

SCE was a bit late with realizing the importance of Achievements (Trophies, in PSN), resulting in a slight inconsistency since in the beginning of the PS3’s lifecycle, developers weren’t required to use the trophy system and, as a result, some older games don’t support trophies.

Anyway, with the introduction of Steam, Valve had a chance to bring quality gaming to the PC. And they missed it.

In the last years, they’ve created the Steamworks APIs for developers to unify the gaming experience on the steam platform. Like on the consoles, there are unified friend lists, matchmaking functions and Achievements. However, there’s one important thing that valve forgot and that renders these kind of rules useless:

They don’t enforce their rules.

You can’t release a game for the XBOX360 platform if it doesn’t fulfill all of Microsoft’s user-experience requirements. But on the steam platform, you’re free to publish whatever you want. This creates situations where players have to create another account within the game in addition to their steam account to challenge their friends, even as steam theoretically supports matchmaking using the built-in friend list.

Also, many steam games undergo complex post-installation procedures, installing additional libraries and tools. Often, even after the download was finished, it takes a couple of minutes until a game is playable. You might state that it’s necessary to install required APIs like direct X but a standardized API collection (like on the consoles) would ensure ease-of use and long-term compatibility. Steam users often have to worry about the operating system they’re running, creating situations where they could have multiple games in their steam account that require different operating systems to run. One game might only run on windows XP, whereas another game might only run on Windows Vista or newer.

so now what?

Digital content distribution platforms simply require certain rules to be enforced. There are rules for steam developers, but since all of them are optional, they’re ineffective and futile. You might state that an open platform is a great thing but this is exactly what consumers don’t want. They want things to work and not a theoretically open platform where they have to worry about technical aspects of the applications they run on their systems and register every game individually.

Let’s have a look at a typical embedded system with its own content distribution ecosystem: the iOS AppStore. The archetype of an embedded system’s software distribution platform with hundreds of rules. Regardless of the necessity of the rules — in order to publish something in the AppStore, they need to be obeyed. This results in customers simply getting what they want: An application that runs on their hardware and works fine together with the OS’s features. You might say applications, for example, can’t really be backgrounded in iOS. However, this ensures that the user doesn’t have to worry about managing background tasks in order to maintain battery life. It’s a limitation for the developer, but, ultimately, a good thing.

However, looking at the latest developments, Apple might have only established this systems because they know about the importance of such rules for an embedded system. The Mac OS X AppStore, however, doesn’t work out as well for the customer because apple missed to establish a hardware-compatibility check system, resulting in the customer having to buy applications in order to simply try whether or not they actually run on their system. The Mac App Store might go into the same direction as steam. A large collection of software that might be, individually, high-quality, but, looking at the whole thing, inconsistent, and, as a result, confusing for the end-user.

In a Nutshell:

Closed, restrictive content distribution systems are a good thing because they ensure consistency which is very important for user experience quality.

 

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