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Brief overview of the differences and similarities between open source software development and co-creation in digital games.

In this first entry to his Gamasutra blog, Jedrzej discusses some of the similarities and differences between the phenomena of open source software development and co-creation of digital games.

Introduction and the big question (for today!)

Study of co-creation in digital games got inspired. And I mean: way inspired, by the predating research on user-led innovation (term operationalized by von Hippel, 2005) and then by the works on the dynamics of open source software development. With a plethora of journal articles, books and all kinds of other source materials discussing the phenomenon of open source, it is an excellent place to go to if you are seeking some guidance on how to frame and understand co-creation occurring in digital games. The premise of this guidance is that open source software development and co-creation of digital games by the groups (communities) of passionate customers are very much alike. But the question arises: how alike are they? They are not exactly the same, so what are the differences between them? How important are those differences, how critical in terms of a comparison that we are trying to make here? There will be differences between those two phenomena, no doubt about it, but will they prevent us from transplanting some of the concepts from open source software into the field of digital games?

Super short note on literature

Let us look at some of the key characteristics of both open source software and co-creation in digital games. The differences listed below (I wanted to include a table here, but the blog website software did not let me – sorry for that!) pertain to different and mixed-up categories that characterize both of those settings. They are most heavily based on two papers: “The Promise of Research on Open Source Software” by von Krogh and von Hippel (2006) and “User Communities and Social Software in the Video Game Industry” by Burger-Helmchen and Cohendet (2011). The former paper is an introduction to the special issue of an academic journal, discussing existing research on the open source. It also discusses the potential uses of our understanding of the processes occurring in open source for mapping similar or corresponding processes taking place in other industries. The latter paper introduces a typology of co-creating customer communities (listing the following four groups: average users, player type, tester type, and developer type) and contrasts those types to potential managerial practices and software devices that can be deployed by a digital games firm to efficiently harness customers’ creativity in the process of co-creation. As I said, the list below is grounded in the observations of those two papers, but it also goes beyond them, as it is inspired by other publications and observations pertaining to open source and digital games industry.

Open source software development

a. Project management present, normally some community members will take on that role, or firm representatives (in gated projects).

b. Coordination and organization are present in the community of developers, active communication (for example to prevent “forking”) and focus on collaboration. Communities are formed based on reputation markets as well as free revealing of innovations (von Hippel, 2005).

c. Can be managed by firms – in gated projects, which are projects where a “sponsoring firm retains some control over, and obtains profits from, the commercialization of code developed by project contributors” (von Krogh and von Hippel, 2006; p. 980).

d. Independence of private property in non-gated projects (project usually published under ‘copyleft’ or open license, not only being free from proprietary interests but also ensuring that it is impossible for a firm or profit-seeking individuals to ‘hijack’ it). Developers have more freedom and autonomy in their designs as their product is non-derivative (it does not exist solely in the context of another product already existing in the market).

e. Developers’ motivations are driven by their own use-value (i.e. they want to develop the software because they need it themselves). Other motivations are also present, including a mixture of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations (they can co-exist). Intrinsic motivations can also include seeking learning.

f. Innovation is more present in open source software, which is linked to the non-derivative nature of those developments, as well as its technical nature (programming and code writing). Open source developers can be seen as lead users, experiencing certain needs for software before the rest of the market (von Hippel, 2005), and thus being driven to innovate. Innovations are freely revealed within the communities, although ‘free loaders’ are also present.

g. The software developed in open source has the nature of a public good.

Co-creation in digital games industry

a. Co-creation projects are ad-hoc, without much planning ahead and without project structure. Some exceptions to that rule do exist, but I would link them most of all to total-conversion mods and other heavy mods (for example M3 mods according to Arakji and Lang classification, 2007): stuff such as Black Mesa, DayZ, DOTA etc.

b. Co-creation projects are most of the time done by individuals as opposed to self-managing groups. Very few co-creation projects (such as large mods) are performed by groups. Despite that, wider communities of co-creating customers exist, as they form networks focused on their love for the game.

c. Much lower level of coordination between co-creating users, usually only loose communications on forums about general issues associated with the game (its gameplay, art, code, engine etc.).

d. Co-creation pertains not only to the code underlying the software – elaborating on Burger-Helmchen and Cohendet (2011) as well as on Tschang (2005), player co-creation can be seen also in design (so in modifying the gameplay for instance) and content (in the creation of new art assets, new quests, as well as writing scripts for in-game characters, for example Neverwinter’s Forge). There are also other types of co-creation which go beyond technical, design or content elements of digital games – more on that in the next post!

e. There is a different connection of gamers towards the game in co-creation, as compared to contributors to the project in open source development. In the case of games, customers are more often than not players of the game, who are linked to it by their passion, engagement, immersion (when they play) and affect for the game-world itself. Open source software does not create synthetic worlds for instance, as MMO games do. Due to that, we could observe more intrinsic types of motivations in co-creating customers than that is the case for open-source software – because in co-creation digital games firms very rarely recognize customers’ efforts and even more seldom grant them any legal rights over their creations (not mentioning remuneration or royalties).

f. Co-creation is very heavily dependent on proprietary software, as well as on proprietary intellectual property (such as Star Wars, Half-Life, Warcraft). Legally speaking, it co-creation of games is permanently linked to the respective games and cannot exist without the permission from the original game licensor (developer and/or publisher). In this regard, as well as in the regard to innovation, co-creation can be seen also through the lens of customization – although this approach would apply most of all to those types of co-creation, where the control of the firm over the process remains high (O’Hern and Rindfleisch, 2010, model of four types of co-creation: collaborating, co-designing tinkering, submitting). Innovation does occur in the setting of co-creation, but it is more difficult to track due to the nature of digital games as existing on the intersection of art and technology, and thus problems with defining what constitutes an ‘innovation’ under those conditions.

g. Most often an improvement to or customization of an existing commercial product.

Some common points

a. Presence of both intrinsic (most of all) and extrinsic motivations (as well as internalized extrinsic motivations, see Füller, 2010). Factors such as satisfaction, reputation gains, job market exposure and monetary benefits all exist and intertwine in both open source software development and co-creation of digital games. 

b. Presence of on-line platforms for communication, discussion, sharing and comparison of community’s creations: hosts of development activity such as (in open source) or Nexus (in digital games co-creation, independent platform) and Steam Workshop (proprietary platform).

Conclusions ... for now!

As we see above, there are both similarities and differences between open source software development and co-creation in digital games. This list is by no means exhaustive! What is certain though is the fact that those two phenomena can be compared; they occur on the same analytical platform and thus this is the testament to their close link. In other words, both of those processes are commensurable, which means that if we remain aware of their differences, it is possible to transplant some of the observations made in open source into co-creation research. They are both rooted in work of passion, in intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivations of their creators, as well as collaborative, networked and communal nature of their creation.

We will be elaborating on those issues only generally highlighted here in the future posts. I hope that this handful of observations will spark an interesting discussion, and that you will leave comments below that will contribute to it. I am looking forward to reading your views and opinions!

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