Willy Wonka Was Right--How Wonka-Vision Predicted the Best Business Model

Well, technically it was Roald Dahl, the brilliant childrens author who gave us not only books like "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory", but also classics like "James and the Giant Peach" or "Georges Marvelous Medicine". Dahl's books were great, not just because he had a knack for sticking the fantastic and the impossible into his books in such a way that it made perfect sense, although that's the focus of today's article. As a child, many of the ideas in his books seemed amazingly feasible, as if someone could actually pull them off, which of course made the books that much more fun. One such fantastical idea stems from "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory", the idea of Wonka-vision, which you can see the results of in this scene from the first film adaptation.

The idea of Wonka-Vision, as explained by Willy Wonka, was that many people often wanted to try things, but weren't sure that they would like them themselves (I'm paraphrasing here, so bear with me). So, Wonka devised a machine by which he could transmit chocolate over the airwaves and out through random TVs. Since anything sent that way shrank in the process, he would build massive 6-foot bars of chocolate and send them through, were they would appear as a 6-inch bar with the message to try one. Viewers could then enjoy their first Wonka bar (or the occasional one) for free, hopefully enticing them to try more Wonka bars in the future.

Well, unfortunately his tech never materialized, at least, not in the way Wonka envisioned it. You won't be reaching through your TV anytime soon to find a Wonka bar (and if you do, please tell me which channel it is, i can't find them in stores). You can however, reach right through the internet and find a wealth of free movies, music and games. The downside is, most of this material is illegal.

The truth be told however, Willy Wonka was right, although many modern businesses are loath to admit it, and many refuse to acknowledge that such an idea could work. Giving items away for free increases sales? Blasphemy! Enjoy your 2 oz. sample or your 5 second preview. Well, yeah it does, and several businesses have actually experimented with this to great results. The problem is that these days many companies are loath to give away more then a tiny portion of any product, with the idea that too much of the experience will simply entice the consumer to not pursue the product, ie not watch the movie, not buy the game, not buy the music. Additionally, many businesses tend to use these half-percent highlights to showcase the best features of a film, game or movie. How many here have played a great 5-minute demo only to find when playing the game that those were in fact, the only 5-minutes of the game you would  care to play?

Consumers have wised up to this as well. We're a lot more demo and preview shy. Rarely anymore does a trailer get me excited for a game. It's almost never without a great prior experience from that same studio. As consumers, we've become skeptical of the entertainment industry as a whole. Most especially during a recession, we're tight with our money. Rarely do we spend money that we are unsure of the returned value on.

This is where the idea Wonka-vision takes hold. Wonka's premise was simple: Consumers are skeptical, so I'll let them try a full deal of my product for free. If they like it, they'll buy more. If they don't, I've lost a couple of bucks, but they experienced a good will gesture and will not feel as if their money was not worth it if they purchase something of mine in the future.

With the modern digital world, this is an attitude that can do wonders for any company, studio or industry. Those who have been willing to try it have achieved stellar results. Take Valve for example. Valve runs a service known as Steam, a game monitor/platform that allows them to constantly update games and modify they, something they are known for doing. However, since all of their games run through Steam, it enables them to do things like make their popular game Left 4 Dead free for an entire weekend (after which, free copies would stop working), while announcing a sale for those who bought the game. When Valve first tried this tactic, people mocked them. "Giving away a whole game for free for an entire weekend?" they cried. "It'll never work!" Much to their surprise, Left 4 Dead's sales for the next few weeks boomed, blasting past their previous sales and taking the game to new heights. The same also happened with Team Fortress 2 when Valve tried it, a game that had been out at that point for about 2 years. Willy Wonka was right. Let people try the whole product, play with it a little, taste it fully, and then see what happens.

The music industry could do well to learn from this as well. While the RIAA would like nothing more then to remove all ability for anyone to listen to music that they have not purchased, the fact that they can't wrap their heads around is that that attitude is losing them money, not making. The majority of those who download music usually have no plans to purchase it, so it isn't as if anyone is losing money when those are the same mindsets that would track down cassette tape copies friends had purchased and make their own copies of them. The RIAA needs to realize that letting people take a full taste right off the bat is the best way to go.

Take Youtube's influence. A few weeks back, I was linked to two different home-made videos (here and here respectively), both of which contained what I am 99.9% certain is "unauthorized" use of music without copyright. But, I listened to it anyway, and liked it so much that I ended up purchasing both songs from Amazon MP3 services. So has either artist really lost money by having their songs put in home videos without permission? Not really, they've actually made money. Just because I heard the song online as opposed to a radio or a 10 second teaser means that I was actually more likely to buy it, not less. If I had heard it on the radio, I would have had no idea where to find either song unless the station actually named it. I did listen to the 10 sec teasers before I bought each one and I would not have bought the songs based on their teasers, they were far to short to convey the full feeling of the song. So if the RIAA and other music services had their way, they would have lost $1.40 (their portion of the online sale) on those two songs, I never would have ever purchased them.

For some reason business executives just can't seem to see this. They fail to see why free music leads to money, and in some cases, choose not too. There is a reason for this (which I'll cover in a moment) but really quick, lets look at one last example:

There are radio stations out there that use Youtube in order to play requested or popular music they don't have and have not purchased radio rights to. Now, that's a big no no from the RIAA's perspective. From the stations perspective, it's actually a good business model. Why? Well, say a station decides to submit to the RIAA's whims and not play music that they can't afford to purchase radio rights too. If people wanted to hear it, they'll go to a different station that can. The first station loses listeners, then funding, then collapses. Now the Music industry is getting no money from them. However, if the station plays the music that people want (even if they cannot afford it) people will continue to listen. Which means continued funding, the survival of the radio station, and the purchasing of those song rights further down the road. Even if the station never does purchase those rights, odds are listeners will if they really care.

Now I mentioned one other reason (aside from greed vs business sense) that music labels hate the current platform. It's because they are loosing control of music. They no longer have as much say over who gets to hear what and what becomes the popular brand. Before the internet, control of music was easy. Labels controlled who was published and what music it was. They controlled what was popular through practices (illegal, BTW, but they still happened and Labels still get caught for this) called "payola". For example, Sony BGM was found guilty of Payola to push popular music group "The Gorillaz" on the public. Remember that summer you heard "Feel Good Inc." everywhere? Yeah, there was more to it then you thought. With the rise of the internet however, the Labels have lost their control. Anyone can post music they've made online, common copyright law is throwing a monkey wrench into the usual music business, and music that "wasn't popular" suddenly is, because the control is in the hands of the listeners more then ever.

So why post this on a blog about gaming? Because the games industry needs to make sure to take its lessons from failures and inspirations found outside of itself. Valve's experiment with Left 4 Dead proved that the free product idea works and does lead to more sales...if you've got one people want. Willy Wonka had it right, try one, and you'll probably come back for more. Now, don't misunderstand, I'm not advocating piracy here, I'm saying if you like the game, buy it. But if game companies were a little more open with what you were getting out of the package, they'd probably have a lot less piracy running around. Anyone remember Skate? If it is the demo I'm thinking of, it gave you a grand total of 5 minutes to run around and experience the game. You know, if I'm going to pick up a game that I expect to spend at least 8-10 hours on, I'm not going to make my decision based on what amounts to at most (which means the game is shorter) 1% of the game. Especially given that it is probably the best sequence of the game, designed to make me think the whole game is like that (usually it isn't. Brutal Legend anyone?)

Dahl was right. Wonka was right. I'd bet if he'd been a real-world person, there would be a "Wonka-net" service you could download a free Wonka bar periodically right now. Business would be good.

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