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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Here's a Thought

Let's be realistic. Our minds conjure visions of the games we'd love to play, that we'd hope others would love to play. Occasionally, a gifted person, a games developer, is granted the opportunity to shape reality in the form of their vision. But we're being realistic, and reality demands that one cannot create without also suffering a loss. There's a certain attrition about games development. Priorities change. The meeting of deadlines becomes almost as essential as breaking even upon release. The mind's vision becomes hazy.

Let's be idealistic. The constraints are removed. The way I view our prospects, unshackled, there are two routes we can take:

The first is amateur development, as opposed to professional wages-for-work development. Traversing this route most often leads to a euphoric community of enthusiasts which science has collectively termed 'modders'. They work out of love, and to demonstrate their talent. The length of time they take to complete a project hardly matters - there's no production cycle they must adhere to. This means a collective creative vision can be fulfilled before work ceases. Modders can take satisfaction as they guide their project to completion.

The alternate route has yet to be attempted, but I have faith in the concept. I like to call it development+1.

The traditional business model for games development involves the development team, the publisher and the consumer. The traditional model relies on the developers' gaming vision demonstrating itself to the publisher as being financially viable (ie: guaranteeing a profit) or it won't get support. Now, what if the development team could guarantee a minimum level of sales before their work even began? What if, instead of approaching the publisher with a demo, the game was instead shown to the public? If a concept level were placed on a server and made freely available then, as seen with the recent phenomenon of popularity which is Line Rider, news of an innovative demo will spread via word-of-mouth and interest in the full game's production will grow. Observing their demo's popularity, the development team now sets up a forum or IRC channel where they'll foster a community of enthusiasts, ideally these people will hope to see a full game come to fruition. The devs can converse with the community, ask for their opinion, judge the merits and failures of the demo and in which areas a full game could be improved. After the community has grown to a sufficient size (exactly what size is deemed sufficient will be a decision which has to be made by the devs), the devs will ask an important question: Would the community like to help us create a game?

Although the response will be mixed, ideally some of the community will be willing to guarantee that they will buy the game for a stipulated price upon release. In return, these people will become creative assistants for the project - their ideas will be considered by the devs and their names will appear in the final game's credits. The budget for the game will increase in proportion to the number of people willing to guarantee their purchase of the game upon release, which means the developers may remain cash-strapped. However, the advantage of this process is that a game will be produced entirely by a staff of people who want to see nothing more than the original creative vision come to life. The community will be involved in every decision in the game's production, so the full game ought to culminate in a satisfying outcome.

I think that developers and the vast majority of gamers see the unfulfilled potential of games as a necessary evil. I've ordered S.T.A.L.K.E.R. even knowing it's far from the game that GSC Gameworld originally proposed. I'm not blaming publishers - it's only natural of them wishing to protect their investments, but their priorities clearly do not lie in the quality of the finished product. With some fine-tuning, I think the theory outlined above could prove that publishers are not necessary, perhaps even that a game developed without publisher support can deliver more of what gamers truly yearn for. The question is - can a good game be funded entirely by enthusiasts? I hope that time will tell.

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