Game On[]

Near the height of the dot.com boom in 1999 I was invited to meet a Californian hippy entrepreneur in his London penthouse flat in west London. He was dressed all in black, with the mandatory pony tail, long beard and incense burning at various points about the room with views over the city. Over the following couple of course he outlined a vision of creating an online world in which people would immerse themselves by adopting characters and live out online lives. He wanted to target people with religious beliefs so they could form vast online religious communities, replete with cathedrals and mosques, which would then retail religious items to the players. He figures religion was a vast untapped online market. I left feeling slightly dizzy and bewildered. I told the potential investors who had asked me to talk to him that they should pass on the opportunity because the buy was clearly a nutcase. How wrong I was.

About the time I was dismissing this opportunity a young English couple were creating a site designed to appeal to bored young teenagers where they could adopt an online pet. Within six months of its launch Neopets had acquired almost half a million users. By 2006 about 30m people, about 80% of them below the age of 17, pets had been created. The average players spends almost three hours a week on the site. Once someone has created their pet, they endow it with skills and characteristics and then set off to engage in battle, take part in competitions, furnish a home or simply socialise. The land these pets inhabit, Neopia, has shops, a stock market and currency. There’s also a weekly paper, the Neopian Times, in which almost all the content is created by the site’s uses. The Neopian Times gets thousands of comic strips a week, poems and stories a week from users who can access it in 11 different languages. The community is not entirely self-organising. The backbone to the site is maintained by a staff of about 130 working in Los Angeles and Singapore. They set a few central rules that help to keep order: pets are not allowed to marry; some posts – about sex or Osama Bin Laden – are ruled out. There is no advertising but instead products are placed around the site. It is an odd mix of community and commerce, fantasy and banality.

The computer games industry now outsells Hollywood largely because it encourages massive user participation in co-creating games. There is no better example of co-creation than the Sims, the most successful computer game ever. The Sims grew out of a game called Sim City, which allows people to design a city and watch it grow, prosper, decline and collapse. The Sims translates that into a home, with a family, for whom the player is responsible. You create your family and watch them sleep, eat, argue, marry, make love, fight and die. The original version of the game, launched in 2000 quickly developed into an online community, with players swapping tools, software and artefacts to put in their online houses. Hundreds of websites now display many thousands of collectible items that are available to the millions of players. One estimate is that 90% of the content of the game is now created not by the game’s original authors, working for Electronic Arts, the computer games giant, but by a large and innovative sector of the playing community. One player-created tool that allows a player to draw in an edging to a floor rug has had hundreds of thousands of downloads. The 3D Sims Online launched in 2004 was designed from the outset as a community-based game. Five months before the game was launched, Electronic Arts released tools to allow players to create their own content and characters. By the time the game was launched one estimate was that about 50,000 such items had been created. The Sims online is not just a game but a platform to support a vast, rolling do-it-yourself community of gamers who develop and share their ideas. The point is not just to play the game but to add to it and share ideas.

The Sims is not pure user driven innovation. It did not come about entirely through self- help. The kernel to the online 3D game cost $15m to develop. The information infrastructure to support the community is also costly: it has to deal with more than 30,000 request for information a second. The Sims’s is not open source. A player has to pay Electronic Arts an entrance fee to join the game and the community: like eBay it is a managed commons. But knowledge about the Sims is not just held in the heads of its original creators who ship their ideas in the form of packaged software to a waiting audience. The Sims community is a distributed, self-organising body of knowledge in which players are constantly training one another and developing new content. In the Sims community most of the value is co-created among the players, with the help of Electronic Arts’ platform and development tools. The original transaction – when the gamer bought the software – was just the entry ticket into that unfolding process.

Will Wright, the game’s original creator, explained why the players want to contribute to the game not just consume it: “The currency is exposure and recognition for their ideas. People are spending time creating cool objects – a lot of them are not spending so much time playing the game. How do we build the most thriving community online? We have to let the business model flow from that.” The Sims business is built on the Sims community, which provides the rolling innovation that extends the game’s life and enriches the content. A game’s official release is the moment when the innovation initiative passes from the in-house development team to the community of player-developers. If a computer game has 1m players, it just needs 1% of those to be dedicated player-developers for it to have acquired an unpaid development team of 10,000 people whose main incentive seems to be to show off their skills and make the game more enjoyable to play. They are not in it for the money. Computer games are another glimpse of the emerging participative culture.

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