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Free from the chains: how crowdfunding is changing game development

April 11th, 2012 by

microtask_kickstarter_doublefineFor most new ventures, the funding process is the most malignant of the many necessary evils they have to overcome. For months, if not years, they must devote a huge portion of their resources towards one single goal: getting enough cash to carry on operations. When funders are enlightened and things go right, the payback can be huge. But when innovative, good ideas are met with wariness – for whatever reason – they must be sacrificed on the altar of the mighty dollar.

The gaming business was no exception to this process, with triple A games only funded when the people with the money could understand them (which usually meant they were based on earlier games that were financially successful). Over time, some veterans of the industry and many players started to develop an honest dislike for such products, which felt like the outcome of focus groups rather than inspired innovation.

As recent fundraising for gaming company Double Fine has shown, crowdfunding site Kickstarter is now changing these rules.

Traditional publishers vs the crowd
Funding is a big issue for game developers because making good games costs money. A lot of money. Developing a decent downloadable game can cost up to $2M, while a high class retail product can easily blow out the budget to $40-50M. That’s not the kind of money you can ask the crowd for, right? Wrong. Apparently now, it is ($2m that is, not quite $40m… yet).

Double Fine, a company founded by Tim Schafer and employing Ron Gilbert –
both known mostly for their work on the Monkey Island series – is a well established software house with a bunch of good minor games covering various genres.

Despite Schafer’s more recent work, people stubbornly kept asking him to go back to the genre in which he excels: point-and-click adventure games. The problem is that these games are on the blacklist of traditional publishers: they’re slow-paced, old fashioned and usually don’t feature enough guns or explosions to be considered “sellable”.

Schafer thought long and hard about a solution to this situation, until he decided, half-jokingly, to set up a Kickstarter fundraising appeal and ask his stubborn fans to put their money where their mouths are. The response has been staggering: with the idea of developing a small adventure game, the set goal of $400k was met within the first few hours, reaching a total of $3.4M after a 30 day period. Needless to say, the Double Fine guys seem to be pretty happy with the result (it’s an all-time Kickstarter record), and have started to consider many new features for their “small” game.

Is this only the beginning?
After the first days of excitement, market analysts appeared to agree that this exploit was only possible because of the respect gamers still hold for Schafer as a person and for his mastery of a certain style of games. In other words: a lucky coincidence.

Other people think differently. Invigorated by his success, developers such as InXile (captained by Brian Fargo, creator of the original Fallout) and Stoic (a team of ex-Bioware employees) have started campaigns which have met with a similar level of excitement.

Should traditional publishers now fear the rise of niches? Could Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail theories somehow also apply to a big-bucks market like gaming? But most importantly, is funding shifting from the deep pockets of the “elite” to the not-so-deep-pockets of a vast crowd of gamers who want to be included in the decision process?

It’s maybe a bit early to pop the champagne, as consumers are not blindly funding projects just to send signals to evil corporations. However, a move has been made and the outcome of this game might see the smaller players triumph. Hopefully, in future, this will mean that the most malignant of the necessary evils that game designers deal with will be the nasty characters they dream up for the final level of their games. (No doubt they will still draw inspiration for these characters from their experience with the “old fashioned” funding process.)

Keep Watching the Iron Skies!

April 4th, 2012 by

Iron SkyForget about global warming, zombie apocalypses, Mayan prophecies and asteroid impacts. Those things are all absurd. What you should be worried about is an impending invasion by moon Nazis. They’re up there, in their secret moon base waiting to return to Earth and complete their plans for world domination.

That’s according to the plot of Iron Sky, a new crowdsourced film by Finnish filmmakers Samuli Torssonen and Timo Vuorensola. They’ve also created the film crowdsourcing website, Wreckamovie, which lets film makers submit production tasks to the crowd. We managed to catch up with Samuli during a busy promotion schedule to ask him a few questions.

The official premiere is April 4th but you’ve already shown the film at a few major festivals including Berlinale and SXSW. What has the reception been like so far?

Generally the response has been really great! The comment we hear most often is that the film really exceeded everybody’s expectations (even the sceptical ones).

How much of the film would you say was produced through crowdsourcing?

There were a lot of small things that came together in the finished film. For example, lots of plot ideas that ended up in the script came in from the crowd. The community also designed and printed prop posters for a scene in Germany and produced some 3D models of Earth Force’s ships. Audio recordings for Earth Ship captains were also by the crowd.

In effect we had the world’s biggest marketing department working for us, for free. And of course there was a lot of money raised, without which the film could never have been produced.

What did you learn from crowdsourcing your first film StarWreck that you were able to apply to the production of Iron Sky?

We found overall that tasks which take between 2-3 hours bring the best results. One of the most important things we learnt was that people really are willing to help you if they feel you have a worthy project and you are ultimately giving something back.

Do you think a film in the sci-fi genre is more suited to a crowdsourced production than say a drama or a thriller?

I think it helps because sci-fi fans tend to be more active online. This makes it easier to reach your audience and interact with them. I think other genres can be crowdsourced effectively if you can convince the audience that your project is special and worth their time.

You also created a website for crowdsourcing films called Wreckamovie. Do you have any plans to implement an algorithmic distribution system on the site?

At this point we don’t have any plans for an algorithmic distribution system but the tools and user interface we have now still need a lot of work. We are working on improving it, looking at how we and others want to use crowdsourcing. We need to evolve and learn new techniques.

What do you see for the future of crowdsourced movies?

I think this is just the beginning of digital crowdsourcing. In the future I think online tools will become more effective and easier to use, and we will get better at motivating people to take part in productions.

As more and more distributed rendering projects come online, independent film makers will have access to almost unlimited processing power. To me the future looks great (if we can just survive the invasion from the moon Nazis).

Kony 2012: the crowd to the rescue?

March 28th, 2012 by

microtask_kony2012Unless you’re a solitary hermit with no Facebook friends, you’ll have seen the Kony 2012 film, which racked up an astonishing 70m hits in its first week. You may also have heard the criticisms of Invisible Children, the charity behind the film, and read the charity’s response to its critics.

Leaving aside these issues, the nature of the campaign and its enormous viral success are clearly very interesting from a crowdsourcing perspective. Obviously the organizers have done a lot of things right. But is getting the crowd to spend $30 (plus shipping and handling) on posters of Kony actually the best way to achieve the film’s goal of ‘changing the course of human history?’ Could the crowd be used more effectively?

Wanted, dead or alive

For all the success of the Kony 2012 campaign, a cynical crowdsourcing evangelist (not me) might point out that Kony 2012 is really more a large-scale awareness campaign than a truly innovative use of the crowd.

The campaign’s main purpose is to make Kony, and his terrible crimes, famous. It does this with a slick video, and by distributing posters and bracelets. But with the campaign’s aims decided in advance by a central authority, there’s not much for the crowd to get their collective teeth into.

This lack of meaningful engagement is exacerbated by the campaign’s focus on (primarily) US Facebook users, rather than those people more directly involved in the conflict. Uganda currently has 387,000 Facebook users, with the number growing by over 10,000 per month. Though this only represents just over 1% of the population, Uganda’s online community presents an incredible opportunity for charities to engage with the issues.

A more inclusive campaign may have avoided some of the controversy surrounding the video, which has been accused of ignoring African perspectives and advocating a US intervention which has already been implemented.

Let the crowd get to work

This single minded focus and pre-determined goal is probably part of the reason Kony 2012 has achieved such phenomenal exposure so quickly. But it also exposes the campaign to potentially damaging criticism which can undermine even the best of intentions. So what could charities learn from the crowdsourcing revolution?

As Google’s Against Violent Extremism project shows, crowd-based activism can work extremely well when it’s based around a free exchange of information and ideas. Against Violent Extremism provides a space for people on all sides of the problem to come together, debate the issues and formulate solutions. No central authority dictates the goals or methods, and many projects can come together under the same banner. By including everybody in the conversation and working together, there’s more to online activism than just clicking ‘like’.

Despite the campaign’s arguable shortcomings, Invisible Children’s empathy and enthusiasm have brought the issue of child soldiers to the centre of the global conversation. If nothing else, the Kony 2012 campaign sends a message to other despots that the world cares about their crimes. If it leads to the arrest or death of Kony, the campaign will not only change this region of Africa, but the world. Hopefully their next campaign will avoid controversy by letting the crowd work their magic, and be even bigger.

When stupid beats smart: the power of collective ignorance

March 21st, 2012 by

Homer SimpsonThe human brain is an amazing thing. A few pounds of gray matter has taken us from eating bananas in the trees to walking on the moon (it’s also brought us LOLcats, the Car Laptop Tray and Maailmanennätys muurahaispesässä, but still: the moon). With our heads filled with crackling synapses, it’s easy to feel smug about our computational prowess.

But if the history of neurological research has shown anything, it’s that our brains are far less reliable than we may think (one look at Wikipedia’s list of cognitive biases is enough to make anyone want to trade theirs for a Commodore 64). With such clear evidence that individual brains are unreliable, why should we assume that collective reasoning is any better?

Thankfully, researchers Stefan M. Herzog and Ralph Hertwig have investigated this very question, and set out to challenge Thomas Carlyle’s observation that “I do not believe in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.” We’ve written before about the dangers of overestimating your own ability, but what if our stupidity is our secret weapon?

Stupid is as stupid does?

Herzog and Hertwig designed a novel experiment to compare the ability of experts and uninformed subjects when predicting the results of sporting matches. They created an ‘ignorant crowd’ of people with no special interest in sport, and asked them to predict the outcome of several football matches. Surprisingly, the ignorant crowd was significantly more accurate than the experts. The experiment was repeated, this time with a slightly more knowledgeable crowd of amateur tennis players, who were asked to rate the chances of a list of players. Again, despite each member of the ignorant crowd only recognizing an average of 39% of the named players, the ignorant crowd thrashed the experts.

But before we kick out the professors and start staffing our universities with Fox News ‘reporters’, it’s worth taking a look at Herzog and Hertwig’s conclusions. Despite the individual crowd members’ lack of knowledge or insight, their success was due to a uniquely collective ability to process several factors, including media saturation and word-of-mouth reputation. In short, better football teams or tennis players generate more discussion. In statistics, this is known as the recognition heuristic. Unlike the standard sports-movie plot, where a plucky underdog takes down the arrogant champion, in real life it’s usually the richest, most famous names that win.

Ignorant and proud?

Herzog and Hertwig have named the effect ‘the ignorance of crowds,’ but what do their findings mean for the crowdsourcing industry? Firstly, it’s important to note that the ignorance of crowds effect only applies to predicting things like sporting events. Secondly, the experiment doesn’t show that ignorance is more effective than expertise (Sorry, Rick Santorum, I didn’t mean to get your hopes up). The most important conclusion for our industry is the fact that crowds are capable of incorporating a broad range of factors in their decision-making, whether they are conscious of it or not.

But that’s not all that this experiment has to teach us. The fact that a properly designed crowd of amateurs can make better predictions than experts is highly significant for companies like Microtask, as it demonstrates the importance of organization. For example, the DigiTalkoot project only requires volunteers to be able to read. The more specialized work of compiling the work of crowd members is left to software designed by experts, just as Herzog and Hertwig’s ignorant crowd were able to make accurate predictions thanks to the expert organizational and analytic skills of the researchers.

The combination of a crowd and a well-designed framework for them to operate in is when the magic of crowd labor really occurs. Like Voltron, we’re more powerful when we join together, but someone always needs to be the head.

Microtask Backstage: our CEO Ville Miettinen featured on FounderLY

March 16th, 2012 by

The other day our beloved galactic emperor CEO Ville Miettinen was featured in an interview published by FounderLY, a website dedicated to entrepreneurs who have founded potentially disruptive tech companies.

In these two videos, Ville gives in insight into how Microtask got to where it is today: the idea inception, its evolution, the early days, funding, the background of the Management Team, the learning process, mistakes and successes. If you want to know what happened behind the scenes, check them out!

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