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.