Schell Brings Craft Culture To Games With Puzzle Clubhouse

Viral media and craft culture online present fascinating new opportunities for user-generated gaming -- Jesse Schell talks to us about Puzzle Clubhouse, a collaborative game design project.
Amid a heyday for commercial video games, a number of designers are looking at ways to democratize games as a medium of popular communication. The more gaming penetrates mass culture through mobile phones, social media and browsers, the more all kinds of people can be expected to want to participate. With Puzzle Clubhouse, Jesse Schell's Schell Games aims to make that more possible for all. Imagine game design by community, where players submit their own assets, creations, ideas and discoveries for inclusion in a final project engineered by community leaders. That's the project's vision as explained on its Kickstarter, which as of press time is a bit over halfway to its $10,000 goal. Schell tells Gamasutra that many details of exactly how the project will operate are still being worked out, but on the simplest level, he envisions users voting on a particular topic: For example, project leaders begin with a broad stroke, like a game mechanic, and allow the community to register popular ideas on the details and then submit images and artwork -- even environments and music, ultimately -- to be included. "In the past few years, we've seen this real explosion in the notion of indie games," Schell tells us. "Because of the fact we have app stores and other systems that allow anybody to create and distribute games, it's become a real hot thing... because games are important to people culturally." But the vast number of people curious about discovering game creation face some barriers: Games are perceived as a complex art that requires a vast set of education and skills. And even if that perception is somewhat erroneous -- democratic tools and community support are readily available in the internet age -- it's true that the ability to be a one-person development shop is a bit elusive. "It's like starting a band," suggests Schell regarding the concept that very few people possess writing, design, art, coding, animation and music skills all on their own. "It's very hard to do by yourself." Puzzle Clubhouse hopes to address people who are interested in participating in the gaming universe but lack an avenue to it. Schell believes the popularity of games like LittleBigPlanet and Minecraft in recent years points to an increasing appetite for user-generated content, and combined with the explosion of casual, small games, the opportunities for such individuals only increase. And it's a positive for passionate designers to engage in the kinds of relationships that directly involve players as creators, he adds. "The thing every designer worries about is that you beat your brains out trying to make some game great, and you don't know until you put it out whether people are going to like it. If you have hundreds of people who helped you make the game, you know they're going to like it because they're in on it. At a minimum, you've got some confidence that this is something that the players like." For such a participatory model to work requires rapid design speed, too: Players aren't likely to stay engaged with a project or idea if each takes beyond six months to hammer out. "If you can bust out a game in a month, you can keep the audience on an ongoing basis," he suggests. And if participation is governed by user vote, people that don't get an idea or contribution in on one project quickly have the opportunity to join another one, Schell adds. "It used to be games came from some mysterious place; I was really into video games when I was growing up, but the notion of making them professionally, I couldn't imagine," he continues. "But now, it's become so much more accessible... the key thing is kids in high school who are starting to develop an interest in games, if they want to, they can make a thing and put it out there and spread it around. I think people get that, and it's meaningful." "It's not just a niche thing," Schell adds."People recognize they can make something small and simple that could make a worldwide impact, given the right circumstances." The current internet climate has spawned an enormous creator culture, spurred on by accessible tools and viral media. That viral DIY culture so prevalent now makes it a great time for a user-driven game to build its own great community, Schell believes. "Once you have systems for people to be viral to people that they care about, it gives you an opportunity to set aside all the marketing stuff that you have to go through normally if you want a game to be known and to be successful," he says. He experienced some of that climate change himself; previously with Disney, he was integral to the design and launch of the company's Toontown virtual world, born from the dream of an online-only product. "It was a huge problem, because there was no way for people to find out about the games," Schell reflects. "Websites... were not enough; they ended up needing to do TV commercials. But that was all pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter and pre-virality," he adds. Schell himself is fond of craft culture, and deeply involved therein. At the Pittsburg Children's Museum, he was involved with the development of a "make shop" where kids were encouraged to bring their ideas -- any idea -- to a craft shop where they could use carpentry tools, soldering irons, art supplies and more to bring their thoughts to life. "This whole concept that 'I can make things, and I can share things, and I can do it' is so much a part of our culture right now," he adds. With Puzzle Clubhouse, the aim is to germinate that concept further in the games space. In terms of a business model, it's been decided that the games themselves will be free, as will "some amount" of voting, but for enhanced voter profile as well as actual content submission, there's a membership fee. Passionate content creators will drive most of Puzzle Clubhouse's monetization strategy, and free games and free voting will present a frictionless opportunity for creators who just want to show their contributions to friends and seek votes. "It's exciting to me personally for a few reasons: One is I just like the homemade stuff," says Schell of his enthusiasm for Puzzle Clubhouse. "My history is I used to be a street performer; I was a professional juggler, so I've always loved connected with the audience. A lot of the work I've done professionally... has been in that way." "It's really fun to engage with people who are playing your games," he adds. "I just love that. The notion we can have a club on an ongoing basis where everybody works together, and we all build a thing together, with no publisher, no retailer, no Apple Store in the middle. It's just us and the players, and we're making things together."

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