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Crowdsourcing Game Development Via Competitions?

We're running a user interface design competition for our first game. This is a post about that competition and also about how doing such things is pretty scary.

Recently we've been trying to nail the look and feel of our first social game (Spell Souls), and we had the idea to throw open the normally secretive doors of development and see what other designers could do.

We don't want them to design the game from the ground up (that work is already done). What we want to do instead is a little experiment in crowd-sourcing for some user interface ideas. Crowd-sourcing is something that normal game developers would never dream of doing for fear of theft, but we work in a sector of the games industry that is not exactly normal. 

One of the differences between the web industry and the games industry is that the open standards and low tech barriers of the web encourage a culture of sharing. Every successful website has dozens of imitators, most web innovation is essentially built on the ideas that others laid out, and they even use open-source or crowd-source schemes to build up whole platforms of technology that nobody really owns. A lot of web developers are downright communist about this sort of thing in fact.

The games industry, by contrast, has a lot of proprietary barriers and silo-size studios that are used to being much more defensive about their technology, their ideas and their intellectual property.

There is often a very good reason for being defensive: game developers tend to clone each other, use each others' ideas as a basis for their own, and many developers feel in this multi-million budget marketplace that they need to protect themselves. 

It is in the nature of software that it attracts imitators and second-stage innovators, just as it is in the nature of film-making or novel-writing. For some it's because there's a cheap opportunity of exploitationto make a fast buck, but for many it comes from a desire to evolve, build and grow something even better. 

What should really determine a company's attitude to imitation is where the value is located in the software. So for game developers, still reliant on retail revenues, cloning and copying are scary. However for web developers such activities are often helpful to raising your own profile. A lot of it is about retail versus service.

My company is primarily a service-based company rather than a retailer. We are not looking to sell copies of Spell Souls in the shops, we are creating our game to work on Facebook and to be available for everyone to play for free.

Our game, like a search engine, will give you access free gratis, and we'll look to build our profits in other ways. In service-based markets the issue is not whether you make a big splash with users. It's all about whether you retain users. Retention comes in many ways and for many reasons, but the bottom line is that the objective behind Spell Souls is to build long term relationships with players rather than the fire-or-forget of retail.

So put it this way: If the game is successful then some developers are going to take the ideas and use them to try and build something better. I'm satisfied that the core of the game design will remain protected because, like any web application, it's a unique and endlessly-updateable database of algorithms and rules. However if the user interface of the game is going to invite imitation, why not get ahead of that and invite people to contribute directly?

So that's what we've done. We're running a competition via the 99designs.com website for designers to help create the look and feel of the game. The prize? $1,000. Let's see what happens!

[You can find the competition here if you're interested, and follow me @tadhgk on Twitter.]

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