Koalas Versus Goats

February 23rd, 1998

I am often dismissed as a hopeless idealist, out of touch with the brutal realities of the marketplace. Some of my critics like to bring Darwinian metaphors to bear against my arguments: the marketplace is a jungle; only the fittest can survive; there’s no room in the Darwinian world for the "higher considerations" that I argue for; and so on. I’d like to turn the tables on these critics and offer a Darwinian metaphor that I think more closely approximates the true situation in the entertainment software jungle.

My Darwinian-metaphorical foil is the cute and cuddly koala bear, which offers us an interesting object lesson in specialization (there’s a whole zooful of such examples, but the koala is a particularly good example, because it’s so cute.) The koala lives in eucalyptus trees and eats their leaves. This is a special ecological niche, and represents quite an evolutionary achievement. Have you ever tasted a cough drop made with eucalyptus extract? It has a strong, sinus-clearing odor to it. In other words, the eucalyptus tree has evolved an effective poison for discouraging herbivores. There are zillions of bugs and grazers in the world that eat all manner of green things, but precious few species who can make a meal out of the strongly-scented eucalyptus leaves. This is one reason why the various eucalyptus species have been so successful in Australia, and almost anywhere else they’ve been transplanted to. Whatever poison they’ve cooked up, it really works.

Except against the koala, who has developed a metabolic system that can handle the eucalyptus poison. Now, one might be tempted to applaud this biochemical tour de force, but there is a catch: in order to pull it off, the koala had to make a great many special compromises. After all, there is no free lunch, and to make a lunch out of eucalyptus leaves, the koala had to make some radical changes in its biochemistry and lifestyle. First it had to develop a very efficient system for extracting the poison from the nutrients in the eucalyptus leaf. This is just barely possible: the biochemical cost of separating out the poison is just a bit less than the biochemical value of the nutrients. Now, biochemically speaking, the task is less difficult if you throw a lot of water at it, but that generates a new problem. You see, the leaves are up in the trees and the water is down on the ground, and water in the eucalyptus habitats of Australia isn’t abundant. Presumably there were proto-koalas who did live on the ground and tried to add eucalyptus leaves to their diet, but they ran into a nasty Catch-22: if they used extra water to process the eucalyptus poisons, they’d have to be pretty agile so that they could both climb trees, walk on the ground, AND run away from predators. That takes lots of calories, but after all the chemical costs of poison extraction, there aren’t many calories left over from eucalyptus leaves. In other words, a diet of eucalyptus leaves looks like a losing proposition.

But remember the vast prevalence of eucalyptus in the Australian environment. Here’s a market just begging to be exploited, if only somebody could figure out how to get to it. And the koala bear solved the problem. His solution was to dispense with external sources of water and the need to be on the ground. The koala extracts all the water it needs from the eucalyptus leaves it eats. Of course, that isn’t much water, and the biochemical balancing act that the koala must therefore perform is truly tricky. Its entire existence is organized around making that delicate balancing act work. Have you ever noticed that koalas are slow-moving creatures? That’s because agility costs biochemical energy; by reducing their muscle mass and reaction times to the absolute minimum, koalas were able to reduce their overall caloric needs. Besides, if we stay in the trees, we don’t need to be able to outrun predators. This, by the way, is one reason why koalas are so cute and cuddly; they just don’t have any predator-avoidance algorithms (fear) in their brains -- why bother when you can’t run anyway?

They also gave up the precise thermal control that other mammals pay so highly for; instead, it relies on the environment to maintain fairly stable temperatures. Of course, if the temperature changes much, the koala is in big trouble.

Thus, the koala lives on a biochemical tightrope. It just barely manages to balance all the requirements of making a living off of eucalyptus leaves. In so doing, it gains access to a huge market that nobody else can touch, but it also confines itself to a narrow ecological niche. A small change in the average temperature, average annual rainfall, a eucalyptus adaptation that changes the chemistry of the eucalyptus leaf, or a new tree-climbing predator -- any of these changes would surely drive the koala bear to extinction. It’s a highly specialized creature.

Contrast the koala bear with the goat. Goats, like koala bears, are herbivorous mammals, but they took the opposite approach with respect to specialization. Goats can’t do anything particularly well; they may well be the least specialized mammal on the planet. They can’t climb trees like monkeys; they can’t digest poisonous plants like koalas; they can’t outrun predators like horses or gazelles; their horns can’t really hurt a predator the way a bull’s can; they can’t extract maximum nourishment from minimum grass the way a cow can; they’re not armor-plated like a pangolin or an armadillo; they’re not smart like simians nor dextrous like raccoons; they don’t know how to build defensive enclosures like beavers or live underground like moles. In short, goats are just about the most generic herbivorous mammal on the planet. They eat just about anything; live just about anywhere. There are nimble goats who live in rocky mountainous environments; shaggy goats in bitterly cold environments; goats in deserts, grasslands, and just about every other land environment on the planet. They’re like jeeps or volkswagens: not particularly fast or glamorous, but they get almost any job done.

Now, it would be base and silly to claim that the goat is "better" than the koala, or even "more successful". It’s all a matter of your point of view, or perhaps your environment. If you’re standing in the middle of a eucalyptus grove, the koala bear looks a lot more successful. And if you’re standing in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, they both look pretty incompetent. Still, if you were the Vice President for Strategic Planning for Proto-Koala Enterprises, Inc, responsible for the long-term success of your corporation, would you really argue for the highly specialized approach taken by the koala? Yes, it’s certainly working great just now ("sales continue to grow by 1.3% per annum!") but what kind of long-term future do you think the koala has? Let’s be blunt: which species is more likely to end up on the endangered species list: the koala or the goat?

Now we come to the standard question that concludes so many of my essays: what does any of this have to do with entertainment software? I would argue that the computer games industry is the entertainment software analogue of the koala bear, and I’m not referring to the latter’s cuteness or cuddliness. The computer games industry is overspecialized, highly attuned to a single market: males, age 15 to 25. The biochemical tour de force of the koala is matched by the marketing tour de force of the games industry, which has honed itself to a perfect balance of graphic splendor, violence, box art, and testosterone. Does anybody realize just how formulaic the industry has become? The box art must be composed of some mixture of these elements:

steroid-saturated male
impossibly buxom female
big gun
fast car
big spaceship

In short, computer game box art has become the graphic equivalent of a National Enquirer headline: mix some reincarnation with an alien abduction, throw in Elvis or Princess Diana and a revolutionary new diet program, and you’ve got yourself a story.

The same formulaic approach applies to the box copy on the back of the box, and even to the design of the game itself. There must be a certain amount of graphics, a certain amount of animation, some video clips (but not too long!), some music (all with the same pounding beat and Muzak-like lack of development), a particular sense of humor (black, no sugar) and so on.

All this formulaic information reflects the highly specialized nature of the computer games industry. We know exactly who we’re selling to, exactly what they want, and exactly what they don’t want. Like the koala’s, all our industry-internal subsytems are tuned to expect that particular market. Just as the koala’s kidney expects a precise blood chemistry, so too do our distributors demand a very particular set of features. Just as the koala’s eyes and nose don’t do much (they don’t need to see predators, and eucalyptus leaves smell strongly), so too is market research in the computer games industry rather skimpy (who needs to research what you already know?) Just as the koala’s behavioral suite doesn’t include procedures for dealing with feces (it’s just a fire and forget operation), so too does the games industry regard its customers (hell, they’re bound to grow up and leave us anyway).

Like the koala bear, the computer games industry is highly successful in its ecological niche. But to achieve that success, the games industry had to undergo extreme specialization. Now it finds itself up the gum tree, chewing eucalyptus leaves, wondering dimly about all the ruckus down on ground level. And it is surely a candidate for the endangered species list.

Me, I feel like a goat wandering through the eucalyptus forest. I just know that there’s more out there to eat than eucalyptus leaves. I dream of vast grasslands, rolling hills covered with brush, mountains lush with mixed vegetation -- oh, how my mouth waters! But so far I haven’t found any of these, and my koala-kompetitors laugh rudely at my idealism as they fire and forget in my general direction.