Sunday, March 11, 2012

Speculation: The Open Market Future of Creative Development

A few weeks ago I was listening to a podcast shared by a friend that involved a bleak literary e-future, after the "e-bookalypse", when publishing becomes a bizarre practice of self-publicity and patron-seeking. In this world, publishers are replaced with mafia-esque groups that take advantage of budding or inexperienced authors, roping them into contracts to pump out endless derivative works. The only way out? Seek the funding of a powerful individual interested in investing in your work, a "patron."

A bleak future indeed. An illogical one in some ways, I felt. But is it so far from reality? Would you believe we're entering into an age where you as an individual user can dictate what content is developed before the first word is penned, the first scene is storyboarded, or the first line of code is written?

The industry of speculative artistic creation entered into my consciousness through a website you've probably heard of, called Kickstarter. It's a simple concept; propose a project, find interested investors, and reward them based on their investment level if the project is funded and completed. It works, too, to the tune of a few million in one case.

That case is one of a game developer cashing in on a lot of unsatisfied interest to fund a project that many larger game publishers would see as doomed in the market. And it worked so well that the Doublefine Adventure project is now six times over-funded. So why did it work? Is there more here than the novelty of sticking it to "the man," the big publishers responsible for canning so many interesting titles? And is this a development method that can be maintained?

I believe that in the individual case above, it "worked" because there is is an unfilled niche (the 2D adventure gaming genre), and a moment in time (Kickstarter is still fairly new), that both together have enabled this project to gain a lot of momentum. But I also think it worked because there is trust for the figurehead of the project, who has a reputation, who has roots in the earliest incarnations of the genre.

The ability to preserve that level of trust is what will make or break a new market like this. And I really think we ought to try and preserve it, because the benefits, both to the developer and to the consumer, of seeking investment directly from those who will be your customers are many-fold.

Think of a standard consumer market, where a producer accepts some kind of monetary risk to produce a new product. Then, consumers either reward the investment with purchases, which creates financial success, or scorn the new product, which causes the producer a loss. You create a new line of shoes, produce them, put them on shelves, and the customer either buys them or doesn't.

But if the customer trusts the producer enough to commit to a purchase before any significant investment is made (the shoes have been designed, but none produced), then that producer can do something incredible: they can turn their entire customer base into a focus group, and determine the success of the product before spending a dime on actual production.

I think taking this approach has a lot of promise for creating more awesome stuff in a more efficient way. In a huge way, it puts the decision to greenlight a project into the hands of the people who will actually be paying for and experiencing the content being created. The publisher disappears like a bad dream. It seems too good to be true. So how can we move forward and maintain this method as a tool for creative production, for things like games, novels, or movies?

What is really needed is an online platform DEDICATED to entertainment content development via "currency votes." In the case of gaming, developers would post their credentials, their plan for a new game, and set levels of reward similar to the blueprint established on Kickstarter. If adequate funding is provided, the developer develops. Games are created. And, eventually, user invested capital is paid back in the form of promised content.

Of course, for the average independent content developer looking to get into this game, lacking an invested publisher to provide its (often iron-fisted and destructive) oversight to the process creates a void of accountability. My suggestion for filling this void is something like a basic development roadmap applied to every project, where users can vote at certain stages to either continue or terminate funding. The stages could be marked differently for different mediums, but for the gaming example (please forgive the drastic over-simplification):

1. Design (concept, initial funding)
2. Alpha (engine, assets, refining concept)
3. Beta (playable version, public testing)
4. Release (final polish)

Portions of the initial funding cache would be disbursed at the end of each stage, not as a lump-sum, and progress to the next stage would be moderated by the investors: as the developer released new information on the progress of the project at the end of each stage, a vote takes place on the continuance of funding by those invested in the project. This would provide a form of accountability.

In essence, I'm saying that what Tim Schaefer is doing with the parallel YouTube development documentary for Doublefine Adventure, set to provide constant updates on development progress, is not just a bonus for the invested public; it is ESSENTIAL to maintaining consumer trust in an emerging market where there is currently not much to back up the producer's promise of returns but the a little good-will.

The throwback to Renaissance patronage might not be so misplaced, if we're willing see it at a much larger scale. And if we can make it work at this scale, it will be a step towards a world where the producer can determine what wants to be made before they make it, not with guess-work but with dollar signs -- and where the consumer can exercise something more than a passive, reactionary influence on that process, with interest driving the market directly. The concept excites me.

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