As popular as video games are today, they, like many other industries, remain dominated by a top-down approach to development. Developers, and studios, program and release games that are bought, played, and reviewed by both the established games journalism industry, as well as the often-raucous online community. However, during the creation of the title, the average gamer has little power in influencing game development. Complaints to large (and oft-maligned) game companies, such as EA or Ubisoft, generally fall upon deaf ears. But what if gamers could drive the future of games, and the industry? Recent developments are centered around that very idea: giving gamers more influence in the process than ever before. Though the movement is still in its infancy, it has the potential to fundamentally reshape the gaming industry, thereby removing the near monopoly of the top-down approach, and progressing into a future driven by democratic video game development.
One key player in this budding movement is Epic Games, creator of the acclaimed Unreal Engine (in industry speak, an “engine” is the software platform on which a game is built). Epic has long been into sharing. Various iterations of the Unreal Engine has been used in hundreds of games over the past decade and a half. This is due to its graphical power and relative ease of use. Now, with the unveiling of the newest version, Unreal Engine 4, Epic plans to further this ease of access. Epic is selling fully featured subscriptions to Unreal Engine 4 for only $20 per month. Each month comes with new updates and features to keep subscribers hooked onto the product. Epic also provides comprehensive tutorials for beginners learning to create content with its engine. This is a sharp contrast to other commercial game development engines (with subscriptions that cost up to tens of thousands of dollars, and are often difficult for non-professionals to use).
With the coming of the Unreal Engine 4 comes a key feature: the marketplace. This marketplace provides a forum in which developers can upload, buy, and sell content to use in each other’s games. This varied content includes 3D models, codes, sounds, educational materials, game levels, and even demonstration versions of games. Content creators keep 70% of their sales while Epic takes the remaining 30%, and retains non-exclusive rights to showcase users’ work in order to promote the marketplace. The marketplace is crucial because it provides an efficient way for amateur developers to get high quality assets integrated into their games—while simultaneously providing a forum for debate and discussion.
Epic’s first major project to utilize this engine is its Unreal Tournament game. Past Unreal Tournament games have always been showcases of the new engines, but this version may also be the world’s first crowdsourced game. Epic, as well as the UT4 developers, share a responsibility with fans and student developers in creating this groundbreaking project. Even those who simply download the beta, and comment in the forums, affect the path the game takes.
Epic is not the only developer providing an accessible engine for aspiring developers to use. The Unity Engine is free for non-commercial and low level development. Its emphasis on portability gives it the power to penetrate the already massive mobile game market. Valve Corporation is another forerunner in the democratization trend. It offers more ways for gamers to share and connect through its powerful Source Engine, and its widely-used game distribution software, Steam. Steam has two key features that give gamers more power in sharing content, and driving development. The Workshop, started in October 2011, is a tool for users to upload game modifications, or “mods”, to games registered on the Workshop database. Users can then download, rate, and comment on the files. As of last May, the Workshop included content for 109 titles.
Steam’s other feature is Steam Greenlight. Here, indie developers present their projects to the gaming community. Games that gain enough support are eventually sold through the Steam store. Though there have been some hiccups to this process, this feature remains revolutionary due to its ability to allow indie developers to avoid the long, and potentially creativity-restricting process, of finding a traditional publisher willing to distribute their game. Instead, they appeal directly to their fans.
From these multitude of examples, it is clear that the games industry is beginning a process of democratization. This change is indicative of the advantages and paradigms of the Internet Age. It is now possible to collaborate on major projects with people thousands of miles away, many of whom you may have never even met. As the twenty-first century progresses, the wealth of knowledge and efficiency of sharing will drive this industry (and others) towards a state of greater community inclusion.