Making games together – co-creation as a form of relationship
Co-creation as a phenomenon in the games industry is nothing new. It is an occurrence prevalent for many, or perhaps all, experiential services – so the services, which elicit emotional and aesthetic response in the people who consume them. This is because co-creation is an umbrella term for couple of other social and economic phenomena, such as co-production (think of when you are sitting on a plane; despite other passengers not being the provider of the service, they do influence your experience of the service provided by the airline – for example screaming babies in the row behind you; Figure 1), co-design and co-development, just to name a few. The valuation of the experience that a customer derives from any service (and, according to service-dominant logic, everything is a service, digital games included), occurs on the individual level. It is the customer’s consumption of the service, and their individual response to it, which co-creates value.
Figure 1. Yes, we all have been there. Apparently, some parents have now started handing out earplugs in-flight to fellow passengers when travelling with small children! Image source: http://thejewishmother.co.uk/my-flight-to-israel-with-el-al-yom-haatzmaut-competition/7aaz/
Therefore we begin to see that co-creation is a phenomenon which is neither niche nor confined to some very few games that explicitly position their players as creative actors. With games focusing increasingly on being persistent and on-line, as well as their reliance on eliciting aesthetic and emotional responses from their customers (heck, that’s where games’ power to entertain stems from, just like in many other creative industries), co-creation is here to stay. Understanding its various manifestations, dynamics and roles (as well as the influence it may have on firms and their market strategy) is, of course, of paramount importance.
Co-creation occurs between customers and the firm (it also can occur between firms, or between firm and its suppliers, but we leave those types of co-creation out from this discussion). It is an ongoing process which exists due to shared object of interests of those two distinct groups (those interests will be different for players and for the firm, but they all pertain to the game). It is also a symbiotic (mutualistic) relationship – one cannot exist without the other. It rests on an exchange – be it of service, information, experiences, ideas, creativity, or labour. It is a relationship, which at times is useful, and at times constitutes a liability (for both parties involved). Nevertheless, the tending to this relationship is one of the key activities of present-day game studios – without management of it, the service of the game suffers, as the players are leaving the game, generating negative word-of-mouth, or refraining from purchasing studio’s products in the future.
Building blocks of that relationship – power imbalances
The main characteristic defining this co-creative relationship between a firm and its customers is power imbalance. On one hand, we have the games studio – which owns the game and the IP associated with it, as well as obtains revenue from its market sales. On the other – the players, or the fans, without whom the game would not be played and have audience. For most of the time, studio’s and players’ interests are aligned – studio wants to entertain the players (for a fee), while the players want to be entertained. Problems arise, when those two groups have conflicting interests – which happens sometimes. For instance, when players want the incorporation of some features into the game, which are not feasible from the production or financial perspective of the studio. Conversely, sometimes the company wishes to introduce some changes to the game, but backs out of those changes when faced with strong opposition from its player base (the famous example of that would be EVE Online and Incarna expansion in 2011).
Nevertheless, those imbalances tend to be tipped in favour of the firm – which is not surprising, as it is the owner of the game in the conditions of free-market and capitalist economy. But what also can’t be denied, is the increasing in the past few years power of players in that relationship. Firms begin to see their customers as valuable sources of information, creativity and even innovation. Players are increasingly well-connected among each other, which increases their power and ability to affect the market performance of services such as games. Finally, games are becoming designed in a way which puts the players’ at the centre of attention as actors shaping the experience of the game – the monolithic hegemony of the firm is being challenged on many fronts at once.
There is a tension arising from this asymmetry of power in the co-creative relationship, which can be reduced to whose needs are prioritized and responded to in the game – those of a studio (commercial, risk-reducing, artistic) or the players (customization of experience, cultural ownership, interactivity). That is why such departments and activities of studios as community management or customer service are of importance. Management of players’ expectations, predictions of their responses and ensuring that their feedback is reaching the developers’ ears are critical. We observe new devices deployed by studios to help to reduce that tension, for example releasing of modding toolkits and game editors, or voting on upcoming features on the game’s website. The needs of the players and studio will never fully overlap, but studios do what they can to at least significantly align them together.
Social action and opportunities for it
Another aspect of this relationship (Figure 2), apart from the imbalances of power, is the social action that can be taken by the players. It is the studio who controls the game as a proprietary market offering, but it is the players who are indispensable to this game’s success (and the survival of the studio). Players are aware of that power, and especially in some MMO games we observe that power being acted upon. In-game protests, boycotting of some features, mass emails to developers, long and passionate forum threads, en-masse cancellations of subscriptions – all of those are examples of that. Players can also organize their own gatherings, form social bonds and even structures without the input from the studio (for example on third-party forums, such as NeoGAF or Reddit).
Figure 2. Well, I am not the only person around with love for all things three... Although in the case of co-creation we can't really talk about courage, wisdom and power! Image source: http://pertheseus.deviantart.com/art/Triforce-and-a-bit-of-darkness-240389997
Ensuring that this social action does not become detrimental to their interests, studios have recently moved to formalize and find ways of integrating the outcomes of those actions with their production schedules and practices. Devices such as player councils or volunteer programs are examples of that. Similarly, fan gatherings and festivals organized by the studios or with their help also demonstrate the attempts at incorporating players’ aptitude for social action into studio’s agenda. Nevertheless, the outcome of those events relies on the goodwill of the player community, and can be successful only if the overall relationship between the studio and its players is healthy (which relates back to the point above: active and continuous resolution of tensions between players and the studio).
Digital games are nothing new, and online digital games have been around for at least 17 years now (using the arbitrary date of Ultima Online’s release in 1997). Certain norms of behaviour have emerged; rules of how players interact with each other when playing games. Some of those rules are idiosyncratic to particular games, but most of them apply to the games overall – it does not matter whether you play World of Warcraft or Elder Scrolls Online – certain elements of gameplay, such as ninja looting, chat spamming or free-riding are banned. Such norms and their consistent execution lead to the emergence of communities of players, which are then followed by identity realized by their members. Games exist not only as a service or product to be consumed; they also are a cultural artefact, participation in which defines players in a wider social context.
Those norms and what they entail can be to an extent influenced by the studio (for example for a particular game). On the other hand, there are many norms which cannot be changed, for example due to their external to the firm locus, or the fact that game developers are members of player community themselves, and they often espouse the very same norms as their customers. The relationships between players and studios, also the co-creative ones, are therefore influenced by those norms and exist within their context. All exchanges that occur as part of those relationships will be also governed by the same norms and culture.
Those norms are not static though. The interactions of players with each other and the studio in the context of gameplay are very different from those interactions that lead to co-design or co-development of a game. The motivations of individual players will be different; similarly, co-creation does not exist purely in the realm of play, but also in that of labour – and together with labour, work cultures and dynamics are introduced to studio-players relationship. Player communities will be also characterized by sub-communities having their own norms – for example game modders, beta testers, professional and semi-professional e-sport players etc. Again, different skills and motivations will be embraced across those sub-communities of games’ co-creation, in all manifestations of that phenomenon. Therefore, the stronger and more democratic role of players in game development leads not only to the increased power of customers in that relationship – but also to redefining the nature and dynamics governing that relationship in the first place.
Figure 3. Secret figure unlocked by those of you who read this post to the end! Well done! Image not perfectly relevant, but its coolness is off the charts! I could not resist posting it here; the original title of it is "The Dark Side of the Triforce". Image source: http://www.desktopwallpaper4.me/digital-art/the-dark-side-of-the-triforce-681/