9 min read

Loci of players’ creativity in digital games: beyond co-creation of content.

We discuss the possibilities to harness customers' creativity not only for content generation. Players co-create game code and design, as well as are present in such sites of the digital games firm as communications, user experience and production.

Combining two typologies

In my previous blog posts, we have discussed co-creation’s similarities to and differences from the open source software development, as well as players’ potential to introduce (or inspire the introduction of) incremental and radical innovations in digital games. The things that we did not look into, and what I promised that we would do, are the loci of players’ co-creation in digital games. We will set out to discuss this issue today.

First of all, let us briefly consider the definition of loci of co-creation in digital games. They are those sites of digital games firm or its product (i.e. game), where customers’ inputs and creativity are involved. At least two conceptualizations of those sites can be adopted: (1) the classification by firm department and function (such as R&D, marketing, value chain location, or delivery of the product), or (2) by the elements of game project management (i.e. design, art, sound, or programming). We will be alternating between these two typologies in order to capture various possible dimensions of the phenomenon of customers’ co-creation. They do not stand in opposition to one another and by combining them we gain a tool for covering more aspects of digital games’ production and post-release performance.

Content and more

In the most general and intuitive understanding (and also in what is the industry’s most widespread practice), players are seen and, in some cases, encouraged to co-create content of digital games. This normally goes hand-in-hand with the toolkit approach to harnessing customers’ creativity, as co-creation of content is relatively easy to confine and manage, and is organizationally feasible (it does not generate too many disruptions to the internal workings of a digital games firm). Hence we see customers making new quests, maps, skins for their favourite characters... Examples of such games include Neverwinter (Forge tool), Endless Space (Games2gether functionality) and all Steam Workshop-enabled games (Skyrim, Civilization 5, and Team Fortress 2).

All this while, from the literature and observation of the industry it appears that the phenomenon of co-creation is more extensive still. From the perspective of the latter typology mentioned above (game project management view), customers are known to be co-creating underlying game technology, as well as its design. Bug fixers, creative beta testers, tool developers and modders manipulate the code, art and design of the game, improving it (which can be later internalized by the game developer) or creating new variations of it (some of the partial and total conversion mods for instance). At the same time, engaged players produce game add-ons altering the interface of the game; the most skilled ones make brand new games by altering the whole existing market offerings (examples of this last category include DOTA 2, DayZ, and Black Mesa). All of that does not only apply to existing games; some digital games firms start to involve their customers as the game still develops (for instance Might & Magic X, as well as to varying extent crowdfunded games – Project Eternity, Planetary Annihilation – and some indie productions). Conceptualization of feasible co-creation as pertaining to game content only, in the light of those observations, simply does not hold water.

A corresponding depiction of various types of tasks that communities of customers engage in while co-creating games has been developed by Burger-Helmchen and Cohendet (2011) in their paper “User Communities and Social Software in the Video Games Industry”(Figure 1). It covers design, content and technology dimensions of co-creation in digital games (although the categories of communities do not represent directly any single of those dimensions). In my upcoming blog posts, we will discuss the relationship between those community types and categories of co-creation, as well as the motivations of customers to co-create.


Figure 1. Types of communities in the digital games industry. Figure copied from Burger-Helmchen and Cohendet (2011), page 322.

Not only product co-creation

We could also start thinking about co-creation of digital games using a business studies framework for identifying sites of innovation in creative industries firms. Such conceptualization, which corresponds to the first of the typologies mentioned in the introduction (classification by firm department or function), is represented by Miles and Green’s (2008) model of fifteen sites of innovation (Figure 2). Looking at it, it would seem that co-creation in digital games firms occurs mostly in the ‘Product’ and ‘User experience’ sites. After all, the generally understood concept of ‘content’ would most of all correspond to points 9 and 14 (‘content of product’ and ‘user interaction, including supply & configuration of content’). Nevertheless, customers have been observed to co-create in ‘user interface with product’ (for instance add-ons for World of Warcraft), ‘user capabilities and media’ (exemplified by machinima, such as Halo-related series “Red vs. Blue”), ‘marketing and customer relationship management’ (i.e. EVE Online and Council of Stellar Management) and others. Those sites beyond ‘content’ pertain to different functionalities of digital games firm – no longer just to the Product, but also User Experience, Communications and Production & Pre-production (Figure 2).


Figure 2. Sites of innovation in creative industries. Figure copied from Miles and Green (2008), page 67.

Moreover, the literature on ‘back-stage vs. front-stage’ processes in creative industries describes a shift brought about by advancing communication, IT and connectivity technologies (mirrored by the drive of digital games to be increasingly oriented towards multiplayer capability). This leads to customers gaining access to some of the digital games production, which until recently have been the exclusive domain of the firm (Voss and Zomerdijk, 2007). This suggest that in the future we might see more sites of the firm becoming loci of co-creation, with customers’ role in games production and value generation becoming significantly more widespread than today.

Product and service nature of digital games

What complicates our task of mapping co-creation in the industry, is the dual nature of digital games. Product or service dichotomy does not apply to them – instead, they can be seen as both products (software programmes designed, coded and shipped by the game developer and publisher for the customers) and as services (once the game is released it requires community management effort, patching/debugging, multiplayer server maintenance and adding new content or expansions). As the result, digital games firms today not only develop new products, but also must be making sure that their players are having good time and the product is well maintained. Such a dual nature of digital games gives rise to multiple opportunities for players to co-create, as it is the interactive nature of the medium that ultimately forces the digital games firms to attempt to predict players’ wishes and demands (and once the game is released, also to meet their needs). As it was mentioned in my previous post, by the virtue of their interactivity and central role of creativity in value generation, digital games are not only affected by the demand uncertainty characteristic to many creative industries, but also have to understand and respond to customers’ evolving needs (a phenomenon which normally pertains to classical, manufactured goods). Game players are all things at all time – consumers, audiences, producers and fans. Co-creation can thrive in such an environment, as it constitutes a just-fitting tool for meeting players’ needs by allowing them to influence game development and its post-release performance in a state of dynamic equilibrium between developer’s vision and commercial interests, and customers’ fandom and engagement with the game. This ultimately leads to reduction of demand uncertainty in highly networked social markets (where value is determined by the consumption-production behaviour of fellow customers; Potts et al., 2008).

Conclusions: further possibilities?

Following on those remarks, we can look more widely at the digital games industry in order to find loci of co-creation not captured in the conceptualizations mentioned above. There are at least two additional categories of where digital games customers’ creativity is involved. Those are community and business model loci of co-creation. I will describe them briefly below, but we will be returning to discuss them in-depth in my future articles.

  1. In community locus, the sociality of networked customers provides critical element to some games (i.e. all MMO games, but also many games with multiplayer capability), without which the game would not function. As the communities of customers cannot be fully controlled by digital games firms, they form a co-creative force of significant influence (as we have for example seen with Star Wars Galaxies and their fall, or EVE Online and ‘monoclegate’ affair). Digital games firms can engineer the platform for customers’ interactions within and immediately outside of their games (for instance on the official game-related fora), but there is a wealth of game-related player-to-player interactions occurring completely outside of the firm’s control.
  2. Business model locus of co-creation could stem from the conjunction of new monetization techniques (such as free-to-play and freemium), digital and online distribution, as well as the advent of crowdfunding. The general empowerment of players in not only deciding which games will get played, but also which games will be produced, could lead to them significantly influencing new stages of value chain of digital games firms.

All in all, we have seen that co-creation in digital games industry can be not only of content. There is a great potential for generation of value – as well as for innovation – in harnessing more loci of co-creation. Those firms, which will learn to integrate co-creation in their operations and product development functions first, will be poised to reap significant benefits, vastly improving their competitive position. It is a no easy task by all means, but understanding of the forms and dimensions of this phenomenon will get us one step closer towards achieving this goal. Finally, we also should remember, that customers’ creativity and engagement in co-creation are not inexhaustible resources. With many firms attempting to co-opt players in the co-creation of digital games, these resources will become scarce in the industry (Wexler, 2010). As co-creation remains at its heart a work of passion (Pearce, 2009), is performed by customers in their free time, as well as is fuelled by a complex interplay of intrinsic, extrinsic and internalized extrinsic motivations (Füller, 2010), firms will have to compete not only for their customers as consumers, but also as producers. 

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