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A tale of two launches: Steve Jobs biography and Battlefield 3

There’s a tale in two numbers that were released last week. Walter Isaacson’s well-received biography of Steve Jobs sold an estimated 379,000 copies in its first week in bookstores. By comparison, Electronic Arts sold 5 million copies of its Battlefield 3 video game in its first week.

We could look at these numbers and joke about how we’ve become an illiterate nation. But books are a $40 billion industry in the U.S., twice the size of the video game business, according to market researcher DFC Intelligence. However, the Steve Jobs book generated about $13.2 million in sales, while Battlefield generated about $300 million. The difference tells us a lot about what it means to be a die-hard fan, and the social currency that goes with being part of a community. The value of the game fan appears to far outweigh the value of a book fan.

“This speaks to video games having become a primary popular culture event,” said Billy Pidgeon, a game analyst at M2 Research. “When it comes down to it, it’s more fun to play games than it is to read a biography. Video games are now the media property more people want to access immediately.”

Both sides have had strong marketing pushes for their titles. Isaacson appeared on 60 Minutes the day before the book went on sale, and many newspapers carried excerpts. News stories about Jobs’ recent death all pointed to the book for in-depth answers about the mystery man of technology.

Game retailers have also done a good job stoking fan interest. EA chief executive John Riccitiello made outlandish claims, geared more at generating publicity than sharing facts, about how Battlefield 3 would take down competing game Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3. Analysts still expect Modern Warfare 3 to outsell Battlefield 3 two-to-one. But the rivalry spurred enough fan interest to get record pre-orders for the EA game, which debuted Oct. 25. (Modern Warfare 3 debuts Nov. 8.) Die-hard fans felt they had to be the first to play Battlefield 3, and they lined up at midnight to buy the game at retailers. By contrast, you didn’t see the same kinds of lines for a Jobs biography.

“Gamers want to get their hands on the title everyone’s playing and don’t want to be late,” Pidgeon said. “Gamers have to be playing BF3 now, because Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is coming out next week, and there are more games coming out every week.”

If you play the hot new game before your friends, you have a higher level of social currency. Those gamers drive through the single-player campaign in no time, and then move on to multiplayer combat, which could keep them occupied for weeks — at least until the next big title comes along.

I’ve been laid-up in bed recently. And by my own choice, I’ve read through 38 pages of the 630-page Steve Jobs book. Each page has some interesting revelation into a man that I’ve written about for decades. But I’ve also played through most of the Battlefield 3 single-player campaign. It may be 10 hours by the time I’m done (with the hard level), and then I’ll join the multiplayer combat. I’ll wager that I’ll have more to talk about with folks I know having played the game, rather than having read the book.

“Films, books, CDs (remember those?) and television used to be a bigger consumer priority as ‘water cooler’ discussion fodder,” Pidgeon said. “But now online multiplayer games serve as entertainment, competition and social milieu all in one. Before DVR and other time-shifted television options were available, TV was the medium for synchronous attention.”

I can always catch up on the book later. But I don’t feel the same sense of urgency to get that done as I do with Battlefield 3 and its arch-rival game. It’s just like I no longer feel the need to watch most movies in the theaters now. I can always catch them on the movie channels later on.

I just don’t get the same kind of social currency by reading a book as I do with a game. The bookseller might command some of my money and a little bit of my time, but it pretty much ends there. I’m not a member of a book club that might discuss it. By comparison, the game club of hardcore gamers is something like 5 million or so people and growing. They devour everything online about the game, read the reviews, and trash the ones, such as our review by Sebastian Haley, that pan the game.

Gamers even put up with a monumental failure, such as when the EA Online multiplayer servers went down for a whole day. Players were furious they had waited in line and couldn’t immediately start their online grudge matches. This is where video game publishers have to realize that the insane fan culture they’ve created is a two-edged sword. They can live or die by the community. The outage was a big embarrassment for EA, but it got the servers back running, and now gamers can play online about 98 percent of the time. That’s good enough to get the fans back into action. But they may be fickle. If Modern Warfare 3 offers a better online experience, the gamers will likely defect, just like that.

EA has created its Battlelog social network to help gamers brag about their achievements. It will go up against Call of Duty Elite, a social network for Call of Duty fans. These networks will eventually generate even more money for the companies, beyond the purchase price of the games. That will put them on the road to generating a subscription fee out of the gamers, and making sure that it hangs on to them for the whole year, not just for the couple of weeks after a game launch.

For good or bad, games command more than their fair share of pop culture attention. And that’s why they’re also taking an outsized share of the profits in the entertainment industry. Treated right, these game fans are a gold mine. But never try to deliver anything but the best possible game to them, or they’ll turn on you quickly.

Book publishers only wish that they could skate on both sides of this double-edged sword.

[Illustration by Tom Cheredar]


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