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Curation versus filtering – the conceptual battleground

By on March 22, 2011
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It has always been difficult to find good quality content. There are many more people who think they can create good stuff than who can actually create good stuff.

In the world of atoms, where shelf space was scarce and duplication expensive, whole industries emerged to solve this problem.* Agents, publishers and retailers sift through the morass, seeking out gems that are of sufficient quality and market appeal to justify the heavy investment in editing, manufacturing, marketing and retailing.

In the world of bits, this isn’t necessary. Shelf space is infinite and duplication costs trivially cheap. There is no need to sift and assess market appeal when you can just release the product into the wild and see what the market wants.

The difference is “curation” versus “filtering”.

Curation – or “big business knows best”

In the curation model, big business tells consumers that they know what will sell. Their long experience, their expensive focus groups and market research, their publishing skills tell them what will work.

Publishers who believe in the curation model believe that they are the only thing standing between consumers and a tide of content effluent. They are the arbiters of taste and value, and their judgment is paramount.

I believe that they are frequently wrong. In his seminal Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman said, of the movie business:

“Nobody knows anything”

He conclusively proves that, across the movie industry, nobody can predict what will be a success (unless it is a sequel). It’s a hit driven industry, and it is innately unpredictable.

The same is true for books and music and games and television.

There is some value in curation. It provides a minimum guarantee of technical quality, rather than creative quality. It provides an easy route for consumers who want to just pick up the “next big thing”.

But it is, in essence, an approach that says “we know best”.

Filtering, or “you know best”

The Internet has brought a new problem. In the world of abundance, there is a lot of dross out there. Filtering it out is a challenge.

We are beginning to have good tools for filtering, but we are only just at the start. Things like Apple’s top free, paid and grossing charts show what real people are playing. Facebook, Twitter, GameCenter and other social networks allow rapid sharing of games, books or movies that people enjoy.  Amazon’s recommendation engine may be the most sophisticated filtering tool on the web.

The point of filtering is to assume that there is an enormous amount of content out there. Much of it is valuable only to a small subsegment of the total audience. I, for example, loathe opera but love the blues. Filtering is all about helping me to find the content I want, while allowing others to find the content they want, in a world where the supply of content is vast.

It’s about assuming that no-one has control of the content, and embracing it.

It’s about finding business models that don’t target the lowest common denominator.

It’s about using the economics of abundance to find the few superfans who love your stuff and will pay bucketloads for it, by giving it away for free to everyone.

Who will win?

There is a place for both curation and filtering. However, the curation needs to be *much* better. Most curator businesses came into being when distribution was difficult. It is now easy. They are no longer needed to curate just because content creators can’t reach their audiences any other way. They need to add value in the process – a lot of value – and many of them will fail to realise how much their value proposition has moved away from simple content distribution.

Filtering is very far from being a solved problem. We have initial solutions (recommendation engines, the social graph, etc), but there is still much more to do.

I believe that we are moving away from “we know best” to “you know best”. This is fabulous for innovation, for creativity and for content creators.

It’s not so good for big publishers.


* Note I don’t believe that all publishers are focused on quality. Far from it. A glance at the bestsellers lists will show reams of “celebrity” autobiographies in books and swathes of me-too first-person-shooters in games. Publishers actually exist to mitigate risk; curation is only a small part of that.

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve:
  • Meh

    Yes, Amazons best of class vote based social review system + an ‘App store’ is is a threat – there’s a reason apple is suing them. Does it really matter that they don’t make a killer console? As long as they have an Amazon app for every console can they can leverage their social reviewer network? Just ask another search aggregator:

  • > Damn you for making me think harder…

    hah, no apologies from me – I think this is a complicated problem!

    If we’re talking Free flash / PC games, curators have the power to make the Recommendation -> Playing interface as tight as possible. For example, see:

    And it’s also possible to link directly to content on Steam, for example:

    Also possible on the Appstore, but not quite as handy, because of the pairing-devices-with-computer rigmarole to deal with.

    But when I’m sat on my sofa holding a console controller thinking, “I fancy checking out some download games now”? That’s when you need the Recommendation experience to be tightly integrated with the Buying experience in a way which it isn’t right now on console. The best we have at the moment is that I sit with my laptop on the sofa beside me (or else I have to remember which games I’ve read about on the platform I’m currently using – a tall order).

    There are two separate things happening here:
    1. The platform holders decide what content gets onto the platform, and
    2. The platform holders control how we browse and filter the available content.

    If 2 remains true, I would rather 1 also stayed true, so that at least someone is filtering on quality somewhere.

    Some positive moves forward would include:
    – Apple/MS/Sony/Nintendo partnering with a bunch of respected blogs/review sites to integrate ‘expert’ recommendations into their system, and
    – employing a bunch of people from Amazon to show them how powerful a web-based shop in 2011 can be.

  • I like the elegance of skewering publishers’ arguments that they are needed to curate the tide of effluent that what they are talking about is market control, not true curation.

    Somewhere in this discussion is a very elegant conceptual idea of the digital economy. I’m still not sure that I’ve found it. Close, so close.

  • What you mean by curation is really “market control”. One organization owns the market and chooses what products are available. They don’t do this to control quality, they do it to control prices.

    It makes sense in a situation where there are production costs and limited channel space. Anybody could write a game for the Spectrum but the fact that the shops only had room for a couple of racks of tapes made curation essential.

    Console makers turned this to their advantage: they took control of the curation of games for their systems and in the process could force high prices and a share of sales.

    In a digital world that kind of control will never work.

  • Anonymous

    When I first read this post, I was thinking along similar lines and immediately thought of some of Robert Scoble’s comments on curation (

    He’s coming at that more from a tech news angle but similar principles apply. We’re going to *need* curation in the future to wade through the amount of “stuff” but clearly one would prefer curators who have *your* interests at heart and not that of their own arbitrary platforms.

    In the social networking age, we’re all curators. I’ve friends who’ll ask me what games they should be paying attention to and I’ll ask them what Kung Fu movies I should be considering. I’ll follow Gamesbrief on Twitter for what games biz advice I should be reading.

    Scoble posited that companies will arise based on having the best curation tools for this purpose. He mentioned a while back but not written anything on the subject since.

  • As long as you support a flow of content that is unfiltered at source, you will get your wish. Entrepreneurs will innovate in the “find the gems that are relevant to you” place.

    Writing that comment made me realise that curation/filtering isn’t a strong enough distinction. MS/Sony/Nintendo/trad publishers could claim they have that role. But they are shooting for mass audiences, hence need to target lowest common denominator/mass appeal stuff. I want everyone to be able to publish everything and for the market to decide what is good.

    I need a new distinction, and new words. Damn you for making me think harder…

  • Yep, that’s it: I want my content filtered by a curator!

    Do you think I’m likely to get my wish anytime soon?

  • That’s a really interesting point, and almost a third way. I (simplistically) divided the world into:
    – everything is available, and I have to sort through the crap to find what I want (filtering, the AppStore model); and
    – only a limited amount of stuff is available because the “store” operator decides what is fit to release (current consoles, and to a much lesser extent, traditional retail)

    You suggest that what you want is for everything to be available, but for someone else to help you find the good stuff. It seems to me that you want a “filtered” world (i.e. everything is available) but you want it curated (i.e. some expert you trust telling you what to play).

    I fully support that. It’s when the expert acts as a gatekeeper, not a recommender, that I get uncomfortable.

    Does that make sense to you?

  • I try to play everything which I feel is worth checking out – for me, this mostly means indie games on the web or PC (which are often free, or have demos available), as well as XBLA/XBIA/PSN. The number of boxed games I am interested in these days is vanishingly small.

    Time constraints make it impossible for me to try everything which might be of interest – there is simply too much stuff out there for me to possibly play them all. So I rely on sites like the indiegames blog, TIGsource and Rock Paper Shotgun, and I play what they tell me to play.

    Over the years I have come to rely on the fact that they know what is best for me – they have the time to play everything and recommend the best stuff. I would say that their role has a strong element of curation (in the sense that its used in the arts), in that they will often champion particular games or developers, and give them ‘wall space’.

    If there was a way I could browse Steam/XBLA/PSN/Appstore through the lens of these ‘experts’, and download only what they told me what to, then that would be the kind of filtering I’d be interested in (and probably cause me to spend a lot more money!).

    But the ‘top free, paid and grossing charts’ that you cite as worthwhile tools on the Appstore are worthless for me – I don’t value the opinion of a mass of people – I want to try games recommended to me by a handful of experts I have come to trust.

    In summary, what I am saying is:

    – Someone other than me definitely knows best.

    – Almost all of the filtering tools currently available are far too crude. The closest thing to being useful is Amazon’s ‘other people who bought stuff you bought also bought this’, and even that usually provides options of only passing interest.

    – My Best-case-scenario would be the ability to browse Appstores in terms of what specific experts (of my choice) recommend trying.

  • I agree it is an interesting question. Film financing is an art, similar to the art of juggling plates. The games industry doesn’t yet having the same models of splitting territory distribution rights, pre-selling secondary rights and so on. Maybe this will emerge…

  • With regards to the TV/Film business (and I think this applies to AAA games) distributors and publishers have another key role; financing.

    In the established business model of high-end content production, publishers and distributors usually commission content from creators based on their understanding of what consumers want. They take on much of the risk of the venture by prefinancing the content’s creation and they retain much of the upside should their bets prove successful.

    Hits driven businesses are going to make a loss/break-even on many projects in the hope of creating the next uber franchise that will actually generate the profits require to compensate previous losses. The more expensive the projects, the more you have to spend on diversification. There are only a few companies that can afford to take these risks which means that the consumer is going to have to put up with curated AAA titles for a while.

    I wonder when we will see disruption in the way that triple AAA content is created and curated. How will new business models allow for prefinancing and derisking of expensive games such as Crysis, COD or the Battlefield series. That is an interesting question.

    In the start-up world agile development and lean methodologies are all the rage when it comes to derisking a product idea. The current thinking suggests getting a product out to real consumers ASAP and then iterating based on how consumer interact with it. Zynga have used these concept to great effect but I wonder how similar methodologies can be applied to the production of big games where player testing on a large scale is usually done late into the development process.

    Crowdsourced funding could yield possible solutions for prefinancing. You divided the production process into several stages and then see if gamers like your idea. An example would be showing concept art with a general outline of gameplay and then seeing how much money you can raise from people who like the idea.

    I am thinking out loud here but you get the idea.

  • that’s a great point. I hadn’t thought about the value of Amazon’s filtering as the key value-add for their AppStore.

    Yet it is obviously pretty key 🙂

  • Daniel Kromand

    In related news

    If amazon can get their filtering to work with Android games then it could be a contender…