Gabe Newell, co-founder and current head of Valve, is fond of pointing out that the community on Steam easily creates ten times as much content as his developers could ever produce.
In recent years, Newell and his companies have leveraged that output, packaging the best of the best, selling it back to the community, and cutting its creators in on the profits. And now that Steam’s moving from software provider to console manufacturer, what’s their first move? Send out many different prototypes to many different members of their community for feedback on what the hardware itself should be.
No other industry delegates that level of control to its customers.
In the entertainment sphere, producers, presidents, and editors always decide what movies, television shows, albums, and books enter the mass market. The video-game industry, on the other hand, seems eager to find new ways to let gamers make the major decisions.
Kickstarter has become a major force in the industry, bypassing traditional publishing routes to appeal directly to customers who want that product. If that wasn’t a big enough flag for potential buyers, Steam’s Greenlight project lets the community decide which indie titles deserve promotion to Steam’s official catalog and a spotlight on the front page…an all-in-one publishing and marketing deal lots of developers would kill for. Square Enix recently announced their own Square Enix Collective, a system for fans to pitch game ideas that a community then up-votes.
The community is choosing what games it wants to be made. It renders support, both moral and financial. It dictates its terms to billion-dollar, multi-national corporations.
And that community decides what doesn’t make the cut, too.
Gamers twice rejected fundraising campaigns for Shadow of the Eternals, Precursor Games’ spiritual sequel to fan-favorite horror game Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem. Possibly they had trust issues with project lead Dennis Dyack, who’s become known for over-promising, under-delivering, and lashing out at detractors. Maybe the platform — Wii U — didn’t have enough support, or the 11-year gap since Eternal Darkness softened the appeal. But despite a flashy trailer that put smaller, yet fully-funded projects to shame, Shadow of the Eternals is at a dead end.
Even the giants are bending their ears. Microsoft pushed their vision of an always-online console with the Xbox One for weeks until it became clear the community didn’t share their vision. The “Xbox 180” rolled back a half-dozen features that gamers loudly rejected.
So where does it go from here? It’s tough to see a publisher like Activision or Ubisoft running polls on what games to make. But Electronic Arts, a company in flux with a brand-new CEO and a shortage of successful new IPs, could conceivably open the door to public opinion. It might sound like a capitulation or even an outright surrender, but crowdsourcing your development slate takes a lot of guesswork out of your bottom line. Instead of wasting millions on hope and guesswork that millions of people might buy another Army of Two sequel, you know much interest your project has drawn right from the start.
And smaller developers with more to lose might choose to mitigate risk by taking their customers’ temperature first, as Double Fine has with their last few projects.
How far this goes, in many ways, is up to the communities themselves. They decide when, where, and how much to engage, and when to cease engaging. If a crowdsourced element becomes vital to any project, it will be because the communities demand it. Sure, we’ll lose the wonderful exhilaration of someone springing an unannounced game on us and capturing our imaginations, but we’d gain a greater say in what exactly captures our imaginations and earns our dollars.
Even better, content creator sand content consumers might reach a balance where both sides dictate to each other. That kind of collaboration might do everyone some good.