Video games, long a stilted, mostly one-way conversation between developers and users, have begun harnessing the power of social media to influence and improve the design process. This will hopefully lead to games which are more suited towards consumers’ desires. It’s a win-win situation—developers get better sales and reviews, and users get more of what they want.
For instance, Amplitude games, a flash young developer on their first game, is currently testing out its collaborative ‘games2gether’ platform, and seems to be enjoying widespread success. After pre-purchasing a copy of the game, users provide the developers with game mechanics, content ideas, GUI features, and bug reports. The best suggestions are taken into account, and a complex voting system determines roll-out priority and some aesthetic choices. Voting power is determined by community and financial involvement. By controlling the flow of ideas, designers can still maintain control over their vision while allowing users to fill it out with their own ideas and wishlists. Most importantly, it keeps bad ideas at bay—the Amplitude forums are full of neglected threads filled with pipe dreams of ultra-realistic resource management and a pony-based space faring race. It will be interesting to see if the model will hit the development sweet spot for other game genres as well.
Pottermore is another shining example of co-creation. The online platform of literary juggernaut J.K. Rowling offers users an interactive copy of the first Harry Potter book. New content has been added, filling out the back stories of various characters, detailing various activities the original text may have abbreviated, and even adding whole new short stories into the mix. Users are in charge of their Potter experience, unlocking or skipping various scenes, and creating their own adaptation of the bestselling novel-within boundaries set by the system. Additionally, users can submit their artwork, comments, and stories to the website to expand the Harry Potter universe.
In a well executed co-creation system, both sides balance one another out. Users are wonderful at generating ideas and creating buzz for something, while designers are excellent filterers, adapting user base ideas to match their vision. Take away one side or the other, and a project risks alienating users. Saint’s Row 3, originally built around user suggestions, has turned a deaf ear to users, releasing substandard and meaningless downloadable content. Dwarf Fortress has continuously eschewed anything but numerical figures as graphics for mind-bogglingly detailed anatomical models and randomization engines. To quote a newcomer, “trying to figure out how it works is like trying to dig a hole to China with toothpicks.” These design choices won’t be winning any awards anytime soon.
Co-creation is a powerful tool for idea and content generation. But its energies are fickle—if the wrong mix of users contribute, or the wrong concepts are curated, a product can quickly become too niche to be appealing to enough people to make it viable. Here are a few tips on ensuring co-creation is successful:
- Before opening up to the public, be sure that the product is at least useable, and have a general goal in mind.
- Cultivate interest by interacting with the community—engage with ideas that are feasible, and explain why certain things can’t be done.
- Embrace pluralism: the larger and more open the community, the more it represents the wants and needs of an average user.
- Set development deadlines and keep them. Schedule a given amount of time to develop community ideas into features, and keep a frequently updated list to give users a transparent look at progress.
- Leave the lights on: allowing users to continue creating after a project is completed extends the product’s shelf life and can even lead to revitalization and new projects.
Correction: Dwarf Fortress has actually won plenty of awards- among them the roguelike of the year award drom ASCII dreams and the indy PC game of the year from the Gamers with Jobs community. It also listens to its userbase a lot, and its developers adapt its ideas plenty of times. Despite the ASCII graphics, there are also community inspired tilesets available. It is, all in all, an engrossing, addictive, rewarding, and fun game.