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Casey ODonnell, Blogger

March 7, 2014

4 Min Read

Flappy Bird prompted game developers to think about a lot of things. Lots of important things. It prompted me to think about hobbyist game developers again. The first time I thought about hobbyists was through the lens of an opportunity lost with Mario Factory back in the 90s. The second time was thinking about Nintendo DS homebrew and MOD chips (I'll come back to that at the end). But Flappy Bird has brought me back. [email me or find me on Twitter if you want a copy of either of these papers mentioned here.]

Now, when I say hobbyist, I'm not talking about Project Spark, Kodu, or Scratch which invariably someone will bring as a kind of counter example. I'm talking about people who want to putter around with their device. They don't want Little Big Planet, they want to play with their console. They want to write "Hello World," to see how it works. They probably dabble or use extensively any of the growing number of great development tools like Unity, Game Salad, Game Maker, Corona, Cocos 2D, ... They probably backed Ouya. In all likelihood they have several emulators installed and possibly one of the legal-grey-area tool chains set up. They might have an iOS Developer account that they pay $99.00 / year and may have been doing so for years without ever releasing a game. They likely have the Android SDK installed on their system, but probably haven't touched in a month or two [year or two]. But they might. I have no idea if Dong Nguyen fits this profile... But I think there are a lot folks out there that do.

Maybe they team up with a friend to do audio or art. But eventually something possesses these people to make something and release it into the wild. Often it might be crap. But sometimes its beautiful and changes the world. Maybe its a game jam that pushes them over the edge. Maybe it's THE game jam. It doesn't matter what it is, just that it happens. However, there's a reason Flappy Bird happened on iOS and not on the consoles. Access.

Look at the current lineup of consoles that hobbyists want to be tinkering with, and only ONE, the PS Vita, has a pathway for these people to find their way in. Sure you have ID@Xbox, Nintendo and Sony encouraging "Indies," but what if you're pre-indie. What if you're still trying to figure out what you want to make, but you sure would love to play with the device to see what you can make. What do you do? You go play on Android or iOS I guess. But what if you REALLY WANT TO PLAY WITH IT? You think a hobbyist is going to go form an LLC and get a Tax ID number? No, in all likelihood they'll start investigating jail-breaking their device and the various homebrew options available.

This is a missed opportunity for everyone: developers, publishers, manufacturers, players, ...

Not only that, increasingly this will be an un-calculated risk that manufacturers take. In Europe if a console manufacturer doesn't provide a reasonable pathway of access for legitimate uses of a device, then a MOD chip or jail-breaking function that enables that use will remain legal. [An interesting shift since the last time Gamasutra engaged in this question.] Basically, let people play with the device if they want to, within reason, or risk someone doing it for you. Jail-breaking of phones is now legal in the US. It's not a leap of the imagination to see consoles as next on the list of allowed DMCA exemptions.

I see this as an ecosystem issue. Hobbyists are part of a healthy ecosystem. Often times they end up working on things that no one else really wants to work on: physics engines, game engines, asset pipelines, tools and other bits and pieces. Maybe they're a pain in the butt sometimes too. It doesn't matter. I'm not saying that ANYONE should be able to publish on these platforms... but everyone should be able to develop for them. Perhaps most importantly, for manufacturers, blocking access may soon be a liability that corporate double-speak ("let the market work!" -- "regulate these unruly users") may be unable to solve.

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