Most companies show little faith in their communities and approach them with a sort of creative Darwinism: Throw a handful of tools out there and see what emerges. YouTube asks content creators to promise they’re not infringing on others’ copyrights and ends the dialogue there, pragmatically separating the company from the content. Game developers, hoping to cultivate their brand, often give amateur programmers tools to modify their games. But after giving the monkeys the keys to the zoo, developers back off and force the community to provide itself with tips and documentation.
And for years this approach has worked. Let thousands of enthusiasts get their hands on the means to create, enhance and distribute their brain children, and something good is bound to emerge out of the miasma.
But one developer hopes to vastly improve the dialogue between the home modder and the design team. In what it claims is a show of unprecedented faith in its community, Acclaim Games, a new company bearing little relation to the bankrupt publisher of the same name, is making headway into an unusually ambitious project. The gimmick is simple: turn the design of its newest game over to the fans.
Helmed by Dave Perry, the original mind force behind Shiny Entertainment, the project known somewhat misleadingly as Top Secret (over 30,000 contributors have signed up on the forums) is five months into a yearlong development cycle. The creator of Earthworm Jim, MDK and other hits, Mr. David Perry – as he’s re-branded himself, complete with a new logo – has a track record of ambitious ideas that pay off.
“That’s really the story of my career,” says Perry. “You can’t tell what the heck I will do next. But you can always be sure it’s going to be unexpected.”
As of late Perry has been working as Creative Director for Acclaim, which is run by Howard Marks, the former Activision maverick whose unconventional moves make him a suitable compatriot for Perry. Acclaim’s new strategy is to release small-scale, comparatively low budget MMOGs for free and to rely on micro transactions to generate revenue. These games, including Bots and DANCE!, are very much aimed at capturing the casual gamer. So why shift gears and target the hardcore all of a sudden? Perry prefers to take a more holistic approach. “Some people think negatively about the ‘mass market,’ like they are some kind of dumb audience that developers have to lower standards for. I look at it differently, I think these are simply people that our industry has not delivered a game for yet, that makes them want to dive into this very expensive hobby. When they see the game that fits with their life interests, they will dive in.”
But exactly how community-centric is Top Secret‘s development? The project’s remit has always been rather tight; an MMOG based around a racing theme, with a comparatively small, if not inconsiderable, $10 million budget. The actual programming is going to be handled by an internal team. Really, the only responsibility the community has is to design the game. Might the whole idea be just a way of generating ideas for free, or even more cynically, a simple marketing stunt? What better way to ensure your new project already has a dedicated user base than by tossing 30,000 of them a design credit for a few forum posts? Perry is adamant that this is not the case. “We not only are letting the community do all the design,” he says, “the management decisions come from an Advisory Board now. I only get involved when the Advisory Board asks me. … It’s a community run by leaders in the community. I really am doing everything I possibly can to make this pure.” There’s one particular element suggesting Acclaim is putting its money where its mouth is: in addition to that $10 million budget, Perry promises to hire one of the contributors as paid director of a similar MMOG project, based on his contributions to Top Secret. It’s a promise described by Marks as “The Apprentice meets American Idol meets ‘The Videogame Industry.'” And it’s the thought of that tantalizing grand prize that keeps the thousands of aspiring designers involved.
The process has been a learning experience for everyone, including Perry. “I really didn’t know how horribly unclear my statements are,” he says. “When you get a lot of people reading them, you soon find out that just about everything you write is ambiguous. … We had to restart some stages, as people would always test the limit. So if I said, ‘I need the image in 640×480 pixels, [and] we will choose the best one,’ then someone would send an entire video in a 640×480 GIF file, to try to give their idea an edge over the static ones. … To solve [that problem] we post [our statements] to the moderators’ area and let them take a read, spot the gaps and then we go live.”
After five months work, where does the project stand? A glance through the official wiki reveals the details: Players will race fantastical creatures as “mounts,” the graphical style is designed to resemble anime, different racetracks will be ordered into “towns” in a pseudo-RPG manner, and there are plans to build interactive, destructible environments. In a first pass, it’s an ambitious racing take on the Pokémon concept. Look a bit deeper, though, and you’ll spot some totally new mechanics. Perry’s favorite is “the idea of having commentators in real-time. … You can choose to watch a race and comment out aloud, so we all hear you, like you’re on television. … It’s exactly the kind of idea we would never normally come up with … but that’s the point.”
Perry’s big idea has taken some serious organization to even get that far. With hundreds of threads and ideas being generated, the forum created a mass of information. “The big risk (which plenty of people assumed would be the case) [was] that by having non-professional designers involved in the game [it] would make it rubbish. So far we’ve found it to be the exact opposite; we are literally turning ideas away as there’s so many of them.” The next stage planned is to prototype the game and then offer it to the community for feedback.
The cynical part of me reads the design document and sees a generic, over-complicated idea, a mess of everyone’s favorite otaku-ish concepts with no restraint, realism or unified vision. But my inner child can’t help but be excited at the promise of a sprawling, exciting fantasy world where only your skill and trusty mount stand between death and glory. “It’s going to have a pretty immediate audience,” says Perry, “as it’s based on breeding, racing [and] fighting the mounts you would see in games like World of Warcraft.”
Whether the game itself finds an audience is next to irrelevant. What matters here is Perry has tapped into people’s pent-up desire to be involved in what they play. As spiraling budgets push price tags upward of $60, there is definitely merit in the idea of a developer who has the guts to step back, let the players help build the game and give it to them for free. This may be the first community-driven game, but if the enthusiastic response is anything to go by, it won’t be the last.
Stuart Young is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.