The Brave New World of Open-source Game Design

rockfreeWhen Acclaim Games publicly unveiled its Rockfree project, a free-to-play, web-based riff on the rhythm genre, last November, it did something unusual. It invited gamers to play an early version of the game so they could weigh in on the project as it was being developed.

That may not seem like a drastic move to the beta-shrouded web world, but for game makers it is another sign that the long-standing barrier between the game maker and game player that was set up to protect the profitability of projects is crumbling. One unintentional slip — or one public demo gone wrong — had always been enough to ruin a game’s prospects. As the video game marketplace grows ever more crowded, however, community engagement is increasingly being viewed as an invaluable tool. Just as the industry’s behemoths waited for startups selling virtual items to succeed before adopting such a business model, the old guard is slowly moving to engage directly with its communities.

dp1Acclaim’s games are tested by the community as they are built because — as a publisher of free titles — it knows it won’t earn a cent unless players love them. “They tell us what they want; we listen,” says Chief Creative Officer David Perry. By opening up to the community, Acclaim has accumulated a legion of 7 million registered users. Chief Executive Howard Marks declined requests to provide 2008 revenues, but according to Parks Associates gaming analyst Michael Cai, they came in between $10 million and $30 million.

The secret is to make community input matter. Greg Chudecke is building an online community around his startup Caffienated Games to so he can gauge community reaction to his ideas and ensure he’s building a game they’ll want to play. Virtual world and social networking mash-up Gaia Online built its own MMO, zOMG!, because the community asked for it. Even Electronic Arts (S ERTS) relied on a community of creators to populate the Spore universe with creatures — to overwhelming success. And the Sony-published (S SNE) LittleBigPlanet is hoping players will create a limitless well of content for the game with its level-generating tools.

But Acclaim has taken community involvement beyond user-generated content and beta-testing; it’s involving them in everything from game concept creation to localization. Not only does Acclaim gain the expertise of the crowds, but it’s building a better connection with its fans.

When localizing the fantasy role-playing game 2Moons from Korean to English in late 2007, Acclaim opened the voice casting to its community. It provided character sketches; gamers supplied voice files. The project drummed up so much excitement for the game among that community that Acclaim is building a formal peer review system for use in future projects.

Earlier that year, Acclaim launched a game experiment dubbed Project Top Secret. The goal: Crowd-source the design of a massively multiplayer game. The idea the 60,000 community members created — a cross between World of Warcraft and Ben Hur, where players race, ride, rear, breed and fight with mounts — “was so radical it wasn’t something the Chinese team [contracted to develop the game] could make,” says Perry, who also directed Top Secret. “The thing that is interesting with crowd design is you end up with ideas no one has done before in the industry.”

Acclaim decided to open development of the million-dollar publishing deal to the community. Some 20 teams threw their hats into the ring; the company has since narrowed that number down to two. If it turns out neither team can deliver, says Perry, Acclaim can still hire an external developer to finish the game.

The publisher even has players localizing the martial arts-themed MMO 9Dragons for other regions. The advantage: They know the game’s terms and concepts better than almost anyone, which helps to avoid the errors translation companies can make as a result of never having played it.

While the gaming industry started out manufacturing retail products, it is in the process of shifting to become a provider of services. And as Acclaim’s Perry notes, once you’re in the service business, you have to care about the things your community cares about; involving Acclaim’s members with the process of producing a game can help to keep them from migrating elsewhere. As more game developers embrace the free-to-play model and web-based games, they, too, will start to view their communities as a vital part of the design process.

“It’s called embracing the future,” says Perry. “You’ve got to accept it and deal with it.”

Image of Rockfree courtesy of Acclaim, CEO David Perry image courtesy of