A segment of the technology industry reaches a point where the different species of applications are well-known and well-established. As long as no new species emerge, vendors settle into a features arms race, hoping to impress potential customers an ever-increasing number of options and capabilities. Meanwhile, many customers look at their limited time, limited budgets, and limited interest levels, and wonder why on earth these vendors think that added complexity is always a good thing.

Sound familiar? It should–and perhaps not for the reasons you think. I’m actually talking about the computer gaming industry, which in many respects leads their more serious brethren among software companies. Take a moment to consider the challenges that game vendors have faced and overcome:

  • High quality levels. Oddly, people get far angrier over bugs in a $50 Wii game than they will about a much higher bug count in a $500,000 ERP system.
  • Customization. The challenge of maintaining quality increases another order of magnitude the moment you add customization capabilities. On the other hand, the demand for customization (called modding in the gaming world) 
  • Demanding channel. Once you set a release date, you’re highly penalized for missing it. Forget staying on good terms with retail outlets and media outlets that count on you making your date. High turnover. The shelf life of the average computer game is measured in
  • The Internet in the product. The gaming industry have its version of software as a service (SaaS), the massively-multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs) like World of Warcraft. Even best-selling on-premise games like Call of Duty need a strong online component.
  • The Internet in the business model. An increasing number of gaming companies are shifting to an online distribution model (for example, Steam). Online distribution also makes smaller components–both add-ons and independent products–more economically viable.
  • Social media. Game vendors invest heavily in creating and maintaining their communities, such as the XBox Live, to the mutual benefit of customer and vendor alike. These communities take real investment, however, including both the implementing technology and the people needed to monitor the community to maintain a good customer experience.

Note that the list above describes changes that affect the computer gaming market more than computer games. Standards for the actual products, such as quality levels and customization, haven’t changed that much. You can still categorize games into well-understood genres, like first person shooters, with little changed in the last few years. (The notable exceptions, of course, are the MMORPGs.)

Which leads us back to the "more is better" dynamic. Despite more impressive graphics and an ever-increasing number of game options and capabilities, many types of computer games have plateaued in sales, or even started to drop.

MMORPGs are one source of distraction. Economic upheaval doesn’t exactly help sales. However, there’s more to the story, in which the protagonist (the computer gaming vendor) reveals his fatal flaw (addiction to complexity).

Some gaming vendors have spotted the problem, and taken steps to fix it. The developers behind Warhammer Online, for example, recognized that many gamers spend time "soloing," spending a lot of time playing on their own, instead of teaming up with other players to meet game objectives. Warhammer Online, therefore, doesn’t distract the solo player with information about team options that he doesn’t care about.

This interview with the designers of the just-released Dawn of War 2 is one of the most interesting discussions of this issue. You don’t need to be a gamer to appreciate comments like these:

To us, it felt obvious that we were falling behind for a reason. We decided we needed to simplify the entry point but retain the depth at the back end. And we need to work on the pacing. We need to work on ways to draw the player in…

If you substitute the word user for player, and ERP system for game, you’ll see why the computer game industry has many important "lessons learned" for people building other kinds of software.

[Cross-posted at The Heretech].