Calvin, Hobbes & Caillois
Why Publishers Flourish and Developers Wither

Creative Anarchy

Aswanimarket_scene_med_5watercolor_and_i What if we could make money from making games on our own, without having to join a giant corporation? What if the indie games community could leverage distributed networks to create an attractive game engine that might be used by many people in a diverse fashion? What if there was a new business model based upon creative anarchy instead of the packaged goods policy that currently dominates games?

Although greed is practically endemic in modern society, it is not something I particularly want to support. I am increasingly more interested in finding new models for wealth distribution, rather than being focused on wealth acquisition, and I am especially cautious about the amount of economic power we yield to corporations whose sole purpose is to generate money with no concern for the environmental, social or economic consequences of that goal.

To try and demonstrate what I mean, let us examine an arbitrary case. The largest game company in the world, Electronic Arts, posted a 2006 turnover of $2.95 billion, 60% of which is gross profit. They employ 7,200 people; based on the annual survey of game wages, I’m going to assume an average salary of $60,000, ergo about 15% of their turnover goes to their employees.

Now without digging too much into tax and other such nonsense, we can see that in broad strokes four times as much money is going to the stockholders of EA rather than to their employees. Indeed, if EA were to pay out all their profit to their employees it would amount to a quarter of a million dollar bonus per employee every year.

(I have put aside the money EA generates for retail – perhaps $1.5 billion – as I have no way examining how much of this goes to Walmart stockholders, and how little goes to independent retailers).

I’m not suggesting that this economic model is inherently immoral, but speaking for myself I see money paid to stockholders as money going to people who already have enough money to live on and therefore not significantly contributing to the abolition of poverty and the generation of employment. As a corporation, EA has no interest in these kinds of issues. But as an individual, I have much more freedom to define my own economic ethics.

What if there was an alternative business model which distributed the wealth generated from certain games over a wider population?

I think a lot about how tabletop role-playing games functioned. During their heyday, they were being played by many different people, many of which created entertaining campaigns and characters for their own play groups. This was an example of distributed creativity; the people publishing the tabletop RPGs provided tools, the players created their own games.

If the same system could be applied to videogames, the game materials that were created for a single play group could potentially be made available to a wider audience. Imagine a situation whereby everything made in this ‘home brew’ manner was available for sale at small prices (the micro-transaction model which is made possible by the internet). Individuals could make a certain amount of “pocket money” from exercising creativity, and those so inclined could form small companies to produce content for sale, or set up ‘vendors’ to distribute content. The company who provided the tools could potentially offer their basic tools for free, their advanced tools for a fee, and take a small percentage of all the microtransactions as well.

Which brings me to The Folklore System, a new project idea I’ve been mulling over for a while, but am now starting to explore as a development option. The goal is to create a generalised system for expressing tales of the kind we find in mythology and folklore – it doesn’t take much to see that what I am talking about is a kind of stylised computer RPG system. It wouldn’t have any of the complexity which attracts the usual RPG audience, I’m afraid, because that is too narrow an audience to target. Rather, the system would be designed to work for the largest possible audience.

I imagine the system will work from the following kinds of components (building on the framework developed for FreeSpeak):

  • Personas, which are character templates (with various degrees of customisation). These might correspond with specific figures – Heracles, Guan Yu, Gilgamesh – or might be more general templates for building new characters – Athenian Hero, Nubian Princess, Norse Berserker etc. These personas belong to rigidly defined classes e.g. Hero, Heroine, Helper, Friend, Enemy, Nemesis etc. for reasons explained below.
  • Locations, which are areas in which gameplay or storyplay take place. They can be specific locations – The Temple of Artemis, The River Styx, The Fortress at He Fei – or they can be general locations – Mountain Pass, Dense Forest, Secluded Beach.
  • Scenes, which are templates for gameplay or storyplay. For instance, a Fight scene might specify a set of positions and a set of outcomes; a Love Scene might specify just positions, an Escape might specify starting positions and a target position and so forth. Each Scene represents a particularly type of gameplay or a non-interactive scene. Scenes use the classes of Personas: e.g. a Love Scene occurs between a Hero and a Heroine; a Fight between Hero/Heroine, Friends and Enemies and so forth.
  • Storygames then consist of a sequence of Scenes set in Locations and starring specific Personas who participate in certain Scenes. Transition from Scene to Scene can be static (a fixed story) or dynamic depending upon outcome, depending upon the definition of Scenes.

All three of the components can be supplied by anyone with the necessary tools, and similarly anyone can create a Storygame by combining the relevant components. Different skills would be required to create Personas (which require textures and possibly animations), Locations (which require general artistic skills) and Scenes (which require logical scripting skills and game design). Remember that Scenes are general cases – any scene can be applied to any Location. The key to this is requiring Locations to have specified a certain set of positions (entry point, prison, ambush etc); it is these defined positions which are used by Scenes. 

Notice that the difficult part is creating Personas, Locations and Scenes. Making a Storygame is so easy that anyone can do it, as you simply specify the sequence of Scenes along with their Locations, and any default Personas that apply. From a story perspective, these tales will be simple and codified – this is why the template it is built upon is folklore, which can be expressed more simply than an arbitrary story.

Furthermore, with some basic parameterisation, we can afford the players a tremendous amount of choice as to how they play. For instance, a particular player could decide they are not interested in playing out combat of any kind. By unchecking the ‘Combat’ box in their Folklore client, they can browse all the Storygames available that contain no fighting at all. Similarly, a player could uncheck the ‘Romance’ box to avoid any hanky panky. (I imagine individual vendors would develop their own focus i.e. one vendor might specialise in non-violent romances). 

I am not intending this to be a dialogue heavy system. In fact, I am wondering if it is possible to specify some 100 lines of dialogue by class for each Persona and use these fixed lines of dialogue as the backbone to develop generic dramatic situations, possibly with the capacity for each Storygame to have supplemental dialogue suitable for use with any Persona. Animations would be used supplementally to express the tone of the dialogue. This element is speculative at best at this stage.

Ideally, I would like it if some individual Storygames were free but self contained so that they would serve as an entry point for new players (most likely, the free Storygames would have limits e.g. a Scene limit and fixed Personas). 

Alternatively, players would be able to develop their Personas over the course of many Storygames, in a manner not unlike an RPG game. In this regard, each Storygame becomes something akin to a Module for a tabletop RPG (albeit shorter). The key to this is that the player does not just play a single Persona, but in fact develops a collection of ‘dramatic personae’ that relate to each other – each Hero has a Heroine (and vice versa), a Helper, some Friends, Enemies, a Nemesis etc. specified. Then when a particular Storygame has a scene which specifies (say) “Helper directs Hero to Location” or “Heroine rescues Hero from Enemies” the appropriate instances are substantiated for that adventure. (Storygames would also be able to specify Personas as intrinsic components when necessary, allowing a specific story to have specific Enemies, for instance).

For example, the Hero Persona Jason would have Heracles as a Friend, Medea as a Heroine (and possibly also as a Nemesis!), various Greeks as Friends, and all manner of different nations (Spartans, Trojans, Amazons etc.) as default Enemies. 

I hope it’s clear that what might result would not be like any of the game and story systems we currently have or are developing. I’m categorically not suggesting that this is a better approach than other people are pursuing – I believe that drama games are a vast uncharted territory which will support many different approaches. This is just one possibility.

The idea is to foster a kind of creative anarchy – a situation whereby those participating in the Folklore system can share their Personas, Locations and Scenes with each other (for a small price), and use them to create Storygames which they can offer up to all comers as stand alone games, or collect them together to make Campaigns. 

I doubt the total revenue produced by such a system would hit the billions of dollars, but suppose it were able to make a few million dollars (less than 1% of EA’s turnover) on the back of a few thousand people contributing to the creative elements, it might create employment and cashflow for a diverse set of people – and all without them having to work for a large intractable multinational corporation.

If this model of creative anarchy could be made to be successful, it might support a number of different generalised frameworks of play focussing on art, or specific types of play or anything else we care to turn our attention towards. It could be a whole new business model for games and nongames. Or, it might just be a pipedream. 

I for one am happy to be caught dreaming.

The opening image is Market Scene 5, by Robert Aswani, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.


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Creative Anarchy could work - but it always boils down to people being greedy you mentioned ;) It would be nice to really have a business(network) that would cause some sort of snowball effect in terms of fun, income... but that might be just daydreaming.

Or not.

It's not exactly a new idea: the first problem is implementing it. I've never gotten past the first problem, and I've never seen anyone else get past it, either.

Should we encourage systems and ideas that protect and promote the free market, as it pertains to games?


Indies should be allowed to be greedy too. :)

As a fella who's talked alot of noise about indie pride (while working for you ;) and who now is considering jumping on the back of a big corporation (but a good one) I think the primary problem with the model you're providing is scalability. The ideal, in my opinion, would have a toolset that allows the low-scale, flexible independence you describe, as well as big budget investment. For instance, I've had an engine design in mind that would allow the sort of low-cost drama game implementation you describe, but could also be matched with a 300k physics engine, 2 million dollars worth of art assets and content primitives (as in, you pay people that much over time) and custom engines/systems built in-house.

You can build a camera used for big budget deals and for home movies.

I'm thinking this hypothetical engine has an indie liscence cost of a few grand, with a big studio liscence fee of several hundred grand.

However, what you describe now is strikingly similar to Storytron's buisiness model. Anyone can develop for it, people get full access to all content for a low monthly fee, and royalties (60%) are allocated based on play ratios.

Hmmm... it's interesting; this wasn't quite what I was expecting to see in the comments for this one. On the basis of this rather lukewarm response, my first instinct is to scrap the project entirely.

By way of providing some context, it looks like I'm going to be working on a rather generic game engine with a budget of a few hundred thousand dollars, with the benefit that I will be able to use this engine for other projects. The trouble is finding something interesting enough that this engine could be used for that would be worth my time.

I thought this approach, that of separating out the components of character, location and gameplay (and/or storyplay) as seperate development roles (reflecting the different skills required to make each component) and accumulating a shared library of content within a common economy would seem interesting to people, but apparently it looks too much like just licensing a game engine, which I'm not even faintly interested in doing.

Not to worry; all part of the benefits of airing ideas here first, I suppose.

Thanks for your comments!


I think the fundamental (or even "perennial"?) question you have raised more or less indirectly is: why do people play and what is the aim they try to achieve in a game (think of Calvin for example)?

The moment you can answer that question (for at least some share of the population) you will know how to start the project of "creative anarchy" you've been caught dreaming about here.

What you're talking about is a open-liscenced drama engine where content can be made for a minimal overhead. That doesn't cost several hundred thousand dollars, just a lot of time. Some approaches don't even cost that much time.

My real complain is that your drama engine doesn't sound like a very good one, and I mean that in the best way.

Read up on Rocket Hearts over at Craig Perko's blog, tell me if that fits your bill.

Translucy: In part, I think you are right. But what I'm really looking for is something that might polarise the indie community into cooperating on a wide-scale project. I have been doubtful that this is possible, and now I'm even more doubtful. No matter - plenty more projects under the sun. :)

Patrick: You're missing the point. I will have a generic character-based game engine with the big price tag, because I have to make this for another project. My problem is finding a way to *use* it for something I want to work on.

And you're also missing the point of the Folklore system by comparing it to other drama games and finding it simplistic. It has to be simple, because it's a framework upon which to hang gameplay; each type of scene is potentially a different game (environmental negotiation a la platform games, puzzles, or skirmish combat, or tactical combat, strategic combat, turn-based, real-time - all are possiblities). The capabilities of the engine will support diverse play, especially if I get the AI system I want. Indeed, it would potentially be possible for different players to play the same storygames with different gameplay by using different plug ins. Nothing does this that I know of.

And when the scenes don't imply gameplay, it's a framework upon which to hang a story - and a story that can be created by anyone with no prior skills, because all you need to do is select scenes and locations (and specify a few contingencies). A child could do it. That, indeed, is precisely the point.

No other drama game has given itself this focus: the capacity for *anyone* to use it to make stories (or games) quickly and easily. The difficult part is creating locations (multi-purpose environments) and scenes (games), and for that I'd need the support of the indie community.

But I think you embody the problem I face: the indie community is chiefly focussed on complexity (for reasons implied by my research), and indie developers want to follow through on their own ideas, whatever they may be. Therefore, polarising the indie community may be difficult, and perhaps even impossible.

As a footnote to this: why was creative anarchy able to thrive in the early tabletop RPG period (until TSR got greedy and called in the lawyers)? I think perhaps because tabletop RPGs were new, interesting and yet simple.

Perhaps anything that could foster creative anarchy in videogames would also have to fulfil this remit, and this might be difficult - as interesting and simple are practically contrary propositions in the eyes of most videogame hobbyists. Simple is usually seen as the domain of Casual games. Interesting games (to videogame hobbyists) tend to be either complex or quirky one-offs.

Tabletop RPGs harnessed the imagination of the audience. I believe there must be a way to do the same for videogames, but nothing currently in production fits the bill.

Best wishes to you all!

What you're saying is true of Storytron and ABL, but Rocket Hearts is a pretty simple model. You still need basic scripting skills to code in it, but a Highschool hobbyist could probably figure it out.

Theres been some interesting activity on the indie tabletop scene, My Life with Master being just one example. That game built on a developing succesion of narrativist games which were born out of creative anarchy, so there is something good in that.

You should read T.A.Z. if you haven't:

Any sort of autonomous zone like what you propose is bound to be temporary.


for exactly the reasons you give here I repeat: in order to get what you aim for you would need to break out of the game development "magic circle" (or echo chamber?).

You would have to speak to people who are prepared to turn "creative game anarchy" into their own "life style" (not entirely different from what people tried 40 yrs ago).

Game creation would have to be as simple as blogging. In fact, blogging and myspacing already are forms of "proto-play" and "proto scene (or stage) design".

We will get there anyway, the only question is whether the ticket has "indie" or "corporate" on it.

Translucy: I take your point. What I was proposing here was to try and take the difficult parts of game creation and turn that over to the indie community, leaving the rest of the game creation process as simple as a game of consequences/madlibs - open to all comers.

I'm also inclined to agree with you that we will get there eventually, but I am now doubting that it can be done in an indie framework. (And as you allude to here, the games industry is incredibly - and depressingly - insular).

On the other hand, this is the sort of thing that may happen organically and accidentally at some point. One can never be sure!

Thanks for participating in this discussion - I've very much enjoyed reading your views!

Thanks, Chris!

Maybe one last suggestion (in reference to your interest in philosophy):
Have a look at the roughly hundred years of development of intellectual processes leading to 1776 and 1789. Have a look at the europe-wide (and eventually anglophone) "rhizome-like" spreading of the "Republic of Letters". And have a look at the practical procedures found in the salons of french and english aristocracy and bourgeoisie. In a word: look at the mode of play that not only lead to an unprecedented explosion in intellectual and economical development but could also be defended against the rising nationalist hostility until the collapse of old europe 1914/18. What does an analysis of the "game of enlightment" tell you?

Intriguing stuff... I'm interested in comparing the "Republic of Letters" to the "blogosphere", although I confess I have no idea how to begin! I'll see what I can dig up in the second hand bookshops... :)

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