Using the crowd in game development

The term crowd brings with it rather negative connotations. Except for certain venues such as music shows, no one likes to be crammed together with a bunch of other people. Crowd is mostly associated with lack of space, lack of air, highly infringed individualism and thus group mentality, mass production and mass consumption.

However, with the development of the crowd-oriented systems, the cloud-based solutions now so popular in our industry have been incorporated as the best model for putting together great numbers of individuals, revving them into production mode and providing them with collaboration platforms for intellectual exchange and data sharing. Hence, the two rather pejorative notions crowd and cloud (with the latter’s connotations of bad weather, lack of clarity and even depression) have become the foundations of new creations and products. Perhaps we have even come to the place where these words have shifted in this context, and they are now entirely positive.

In any case, over the past few years, crowd-based solutions have become an extremely efficient option for entrepreneurial endeavors. The wisdom of the crowd has been exploited for its resources in the form of ideas, financial support and reserves. Crowdsourcing offers indefinite and diverse opportunities and various crowd management solutions have been applied to fully take advantage of its potential.

Crowdsourcing and crowdfunding are two mechanisms that emerged from the crowd-based concept. The model incorporates small contributions from many parties in the form of physical and intellectual creations, in the first case, and financial donations to secure funds for a particular project or venture, in the second case. The crowdfunding business model is nothing new, of course. It has been utilized in a form of subscription since the seventeenth century, and throughout history there have been many examples of great accomplishments funded by the crowd, such as charity actions, launching new records or even financing music tours.

Before crowdfunding started to gain popularity, it was crowdsourcing that had been steadily conquering new territories and establishing itself in the localization field. More and more media content producers admit dependence on the crowd as a source of multilingual localization. This type of activism was originated by members of communities that have been serving as content creators at no time and no cost, but often with dubious quality effect. Nevertheless, there are numerous social media networks that exclusively derive their localized versions from loosely organized contributors who do it for the sheer pleasure of supporting their favorite brand, franchise or product. Often it is the case that underground communities create their own localized versions of published games when a distributor releases the product only in the original language, as with the phenomenon of fansubbing.

In some countries, there are more writers than readers. There are a lot of people in the world who want to get published and gain 15 minutes of fame, and the internet comes in handy for that. Anyone can publish, blog or get engaged on forums. The crowd is an elastic mass that can be modeled according to the needs of developers.

Consequently, multimedia and entertainment industries are scanning the brains of the masses and picking up their suggestions and ideas for free, or at least without compensating the content creators monetarily. Provided the crowd is properly motivated, it becomes very resourceful, and a growing number of interactive digital media developers and content producers rely heavily upon the wisdom of the crowd in creating their products and fostering awareness about new releases or products. Market research companies scoop up the crowd’s opinion to predict the future outcome of products, adjust their design and plan advertising campaigns. Producers go even further and milk the crowd’s feedback during beta game versions testing.

Sports video games serve as a great example of products that considerably exploit the crowd for their data collection process. There is no more efficient way to gather information and last minute updates on sports events and major leagues, including players’ names and details regarding their career and skills, games results, transfers and so on than having the crowd submit the details. It is the crowd dedicated to the cause that serves as the primary source of information and data. Some do it absolutely for free or mere “big thanks” recognition, or alternatively for a cheap title-related gadget or, at the very best, a free product copy. For a developer, it is a winning situation with substantial cost reduction effect.


Crowdfunding in game development

The crowdfunding sites where anyone can raise money for a new project link project initiators with committed supporters. There is the rising competition to attract backers and make them believe in the people behind the projects. And there are various motivations that spur the crowd to take action, such as desire for investment, monetary profit or social participation. Others submit their offerings to innovative projects or causes.

The startup platforms among various multimedia genres also contain game projects seeking funds to kick off development. One prime example was Broken Age, also known as Double Fine Adventure. The game was developed by Double Fine Productions, and had failed numerous appeals to collect a budget from publishers. It was released in 2014 thanks to the crowd’s backing. The title had it all — a well-known name with producer Tim Schafer, and the promise of a revival of a long-neglected genre, the adventure game. The excellent appeal on the Kickstarter crowdfunding site back in 2012 triggered massive response, and within the day of its announcement, the project surpassed the goal of $400,000 and eventually raised more than $3 million from over 87,000 backers (Figure 1).

So far it is the best-known video game to incorporate crowdfunding. In return for financial contributions, the supporters were provided with an opportunity to get engaged in the production process. The cooperation between the crowd and producers was maintained during development. Updates from the creators were shared with backers, who kept submitting their feedback via comment features on the project’s page. As game development is an extremely volatile endeavor, there were also some bumps along the way of Broken Age coming into existence. After the initially secured funds were not sufficient to satisfy the actual needs of the project, once again the producer turned to the backers for additional money to finish the dream game they had been waiting for. The backers didn’t let him down, and gathered extra funds so that the final game could be released in January 2014.

In 2012, it sounded like a dream story, but its success paved the road for many other smaller and larger ongoing efforts by other developers. It definitely proves that crowdfunding is a powerful tool, especially now when it is more and more difficult to get initial funds to start operations. However, the projects, as is common in the game industry, tend to get killed along the way, and this poses extra challenges and hazards for both engaged sides. Whereas producers enjoy substantial independence and at most risk loss of reputation in the case of not being able to deliver on a project, the backers tend to be left stranded without any refund option. The crowd risks loss of the offering if the project ends up being a flop, because the campaigns are often conducted without a regulatory framework, and thus the likelihood of a scam or abuse of funds is high. Companies that receive crowdfunding contributions retain control of their operations as voting rights are not conveyed along with ownership when crowdfunding. In the future, it may lead to a situation where the disappointed crowd will cease to supply support.

Wasteland 2 is another great example of a crowdfunded game that in 2012 exceeded funding expectations by winning the hearts, minds and wallets of more than 60,000 backers. By garnering overwhelming support from fans of the original 1980s game, Brian Fargo was able to start development of a long-awaited sequel.

The crowdfunding model again proved to be an excellent platform to let the crowd speak up and voice their opinions. The producers consistently emphasized the value of the crowd’s engagement in every aspect of the developed game. The official game forum with almost 100,000 posts had become not only a fanbase but a free focus group. The crowd constantly streamed its comments and wishes regarding the game play features and other crucial elements while simultaneously generating free publicity. The benefits were to be felt on both sides: the users received what they expected and the producers knew how to tailor their product to deliver to satisfaction.

However, it is never possible to meet everyone’s expectations and some backers have been left disappointed due to the game producer’s decision regarding the game distribution model. Wasteland 2 is one of the first crowdfunded games that accepted Electronic Art’s invitation to distribute their title on the Origin platform.

Although crowdfunding is a model that primarily targets independent studios, there are also some steps being taken by major publishers that do not want to miss the momentum. So far Electronic Arts has been cautiously experimenting with applying the incentive model for pre-order and distribution. Electronic Art’s offer to indie game developers, namely waiving a 90-day distribution fee, has been widely recognized as massive support for creative efforts by small developers. Namco Bandai has also made an effort to incorporate the crowdfunding model in the form of preorder for some of its PS3 games, such as Ni no Kuni, launching a limited online preorder deal. However, for the industry giants, a step to fully embrace crowd-based solutions seems to be too daring to take, as intellectual property protection is one of their main focuses. Despite the tempting gain in the form of freebie ideas and investment, there is too much risk involved. When applying the crowdsourcing and funding models the level of exposure is inherently high and may lead to serious hazard, such as intellectual property plagiarism. Consequently, many developers and content producers are reluctant to publicly announce the details of a project before production.

Recently there has been growing interest in a game localization model fully incorporating the crowd’s financial and intellectual contributions. A crowd of international agents could serve as invaluable support for making localization decisions, including voiceover choices. However, experimenting with a crowd-based localization model could become a real headache if certain prerequisites are not fulfilled. As long as goals and expectations are set early enough, including language selection and multilingual launch plan, the crowd potential could be applied, but the crowd needs to be limited to a group of carefully selected individuals in order to achieve a high quality output. Additionally, without suitable crowd and content management tools, the localized versions would end up highly inconsistent. Thus, the extra management effort and protecting the product are major cons of using the crowd for localization of simship multilingual products.


Transforming game development

After reviewing many current and successful crowdfunded projects, it is hard not to question the future prospects of interaction between crowd and video game developers. The statistics show that a fairly low number of projects kicked off via crowdfunding platforms have yet to reach their end goal. Some insist this undoubtedly will lead to the crowd’s disillusionment and the burnout of its enthusiasm. Consequently, questions arise regarding sustainability and vitality of the business model. On the other hand, many proponents emphasize that this represents a considerable breakthrough in user-developer relations, and gamers have been gaining more influence on the process. However, it seems the members of the crowd serve as guinea pigs, providing producers with many free-of-charge benefits and additionally securing investment for their ventures without much payoff guarantee.

Thus, it is a highly exaggerated notion that we have been experiencing a process of democratization of the independent game development field. In reality, the crowd’s engagement exclusively benefits the producers and its voice is heard only to a certain extent, provided it satisfies a company’s business objectives. The crowd with its bottomless resources is a great mechanism for showcasing the project, generating awareness and extending an audience, not to mention providing excitement before launch. It provides invaluable support and for many independent developers, especially during the current economic situation, it represents the only chance to have their products released. In order to avoid the case of backers feeling ripped off when a project evaporates together with their funds, some regulatory framework should be implemented. Otherwise, the disillusioned goldmine may eventually run out of riches.