Here’s an idea: interactive entertainment conditions us to make decisions and observe the outcome of our actions.
Unsurprisingly, people have easily spent as much time trying to break games – cheating, for example – as they have playing them.
So it’s no surprise that a growing part of the gaming audience has started tinkering with existing games, resulting in an ever-expanding inventory of home-made modifications, add-ons, fan-made levels and so on.
As far as entertainment audiences go, most die-hard fans will start creating additional storylines and characters based on an existing TV show, film, book or other fictional universe. It is in the nature of people to take ownership of the things they enjoy and to want to express themselves through it.
For the longest time, however, media companies have regarded these hyperactive fans as outliers. In an era when appealing to the largest common denominator was key to an entertainment firm’s strategy, the super-fans were considered fringe customers.
That is changing.
One of the great affordances of digitalisation is that, unlike physical media imprinted on a disc, even average people can gain access to the source code. Never before has it been easier to download a map editor, spend a few hours creating a new level and uploading it to an online forum for distribution and feedback.
Already we see an increasing number of people looking to express themselves through the games they enjoy. Gaming video content is the No.1 category on digital channels like YouTube, Twitch and Azubu. Fans put an increasing amount of editing and effort into the production of videos that consist of walkthroughs, cosplay, reviews, how to guides, glitches and gags.
A driving force behind all this, of course, is that humans are a species that likes to share. At the very core of playing sits our inherent need to exchange ideas and experiences.
Letting users in
Where things get tricky is the response of the games industry so far. In late April, we saw Valve’s initiative to professionalise mod creators come and, subsequently, go within a matter of days.
The social currency of the otherwise revered Gabe Newell could not buy him out of this one and, following a deluge of criticism, Valve yielded and removed the payment option.
Some of the most popular games today were not imagined in some secret room of established game designers, but surfaced from the creative effort made by gamers themselves.
Just a few weeks earlier, Nintendo came up with the idea to claim a cut of the advertising revenue earned by YouTubers who review or otherwise use the publisher’s well-known titles. This, too, was not appreciated.
Users, however, are an incredible source of innovative content, both in volume and quality. Since 2011, Skyrim has seen the arrival of a whopping 24,000 mods. Similarly, Minecraft has generated thousands of hours of video content that have allowed it to become the phenomenon it is today. Even Take-Two, a publisher that generally takes on the role of being a fast follower rather than an early adopter when it comes to industry changes, was quick to announce the ability to create missions and challenges in Grand Theft Auto V.
And it is hard to not mention either League of Legends or DOTA 2 in this context. With 88m and 11m monthly active users respectively, both of these games emerged from mods created by fans. Some of the most popular games today were not imagined in some secret room of established game designers, but surfaced from the creative effort made by gamers themselves.
Granted, not everything that is user-generated is of passable quality, but the enjoyment lies as much in its production as it does in its consumption. If people want to make a few crappy videos around their favorite game or mess about with a map editor, let them. They love your game and they’re soaking it up.
It’s odd, though, that there currently exists no agreement on who can charge a fee for the content. In the past, movie companies and intellectual property owners have fiercely defended their assets, arguing that they are the only legal beneficiaries. But if history tells us anything it is that the games industry does not follow the path of other entertainment segments.
So here’s another idea: if you love something, set it free. Don’t try to get clever and hog the bulk of earnings. Let people enjoy themselves and freely explore the universe you’ve created for them. And, I promise, it will come back to you.