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Crowdsourcing a video game's design

Can design by committee make for a fun, cohesive game, or just another tragedy of the commons? Roundhouse Interactive and Frima Studio aim to find out.

Roundhouse Interactive and Frima Studio are partnering to create what might be the first community-designed console game.
Roundhouse Interactive

Laughing in the face of the concepts of the "tragedy of the commons" and "don't-design-by-committee," a game publisher has decided to put nearly all of the design decisions for a forthcoming console video game in the hands of a large-scale community of users.

The publisher, Roundhouse Interactive, says it will work with programming partner Frima Studio, but will rely mainly on the whims of a potentially six-figure-large community for the major decisions in the game's creation. The game, which is currently going by the code name The Game Cartel, is expected to be a console game available in December 2010.

In the first interview Roundhouse has given on the subject, Mike Montanaro, the president of Roundhouse Interactive, talked to CNET News about the project, the challenges it faces, and why this project could change the way the games industry puts out new products.

To hear Montanaro tell it, The Game Cartel project--the community itself will be known as the Game Cartel--will allow the community to have a major say on just about every single important decision about the game. And that includes its name. The process is expected to begin sometime during the summer.

"It's going to be a democratic voting system and society," Montanaro said. "We place a bunch of ideas out to the cartel members, and they get to decide the direction it goes, everything from the name of the game straight to what platform, the genre of the game, storylines, playability (and) controls. We're going to guide the consumer through the full development of the game."

One goal of the project, he added, is that Roundhouse hopes to give the average game consumer a view inside the development process that he or she has never had before, "the behind-the-scenes of how a game is made."

"It's going to be a democratic voting system and society...We place a bunch of ideas out to the cartel members, and they get to decide the direction it goes.
--Mike Montanaro, president, Roundhouse Interactive

The idea is that at every step of the way, cartel members will be presented with a number of options--between five and eight--that they can vote on. The decision of the majority will rule, and as the programmers, Frima will implement those choices at every milestone. "We'll take that direction to the next level, and then open up another round (of choices) and ultimately create a game that is truly decided on by the members themselves," Montanaro said. "It basically gives gamers the opportunity to participate in the creation and direction of a full-scale game."

To begin with, those interested in joining the cartel will be asked to pay a $50 upfront fee that will guarantee them a copy of the game, as well as a series of incentives to participate at every step of the process. Montanaro said the more people get involved--in voting, and in regular discussions on the cartel's forums, on Facebook and in other venues--the more they will be rewarded. They'll also get their names listed in the game credits.

Further, Roundhouse hopes that within the community of cartel members, subgroups will form around specific directions members want to see the game take. Some, for example, may feel strongly that the game should be a first-person shooter, and may be willing to fight for that. Others may see it differently and argue for a different genre. The same will be true, the publisher hopes, at each step of the process.

Montanaro said Roundhouse is hoping to attract as many as 100,000 people to the cartel, figuring that that is enough people to provide a solid brain trust, but not too many to overwhelm the process. As well, of course, at $50 a pop, 100,000 members would mean a hefty $5 million in the bank, up front, for Roundhouse. And, given that Roundhouse hopes to keep the development budget to about $3 million, that would mean a nice profit from the get-go.

Of course, one could ask whether anyone, let alone 100,000 people, will reasonably be willing to pay $50 upfront for a game that won't be published for a year-and-a-half. But Montanaro said Roundhouse has run the number up the flagpole and he insisted that for a lot of gamers, $50 is an appropriate price to pay for getting "elite status" on a project like this. "They don't want it to be something that just anybody can be a part of."

That means, he added, that if Roundhouse can indeed sign up 100,000 cartel members, the list would be officially closed, and everyone else would have to wait for the game to publish to play it or be involved in any way.

To be sure, that's a very optimistic perspective and plan, and there's no way to know yet if Roundhouse is deluding itself or others in thinking that people really will be willing to pony up half a Benjamin for the right to be involved. There seems to be no precedent for such a project, and given the state of the economy, one has to wonder whether gamers--who have, in spite of the recession, proven they've still got the scratch to pay for the games they want--have the funds to pay for a role in such a project.

If it works, however, Roundhouse will have staked out a place in the industry that could pave the way for a lot of copycats. One reason is that the development of console games can often be a $20 million prospect these days, and for a publisher to put out such a game on a $3 million or so budget--Roundhouse is betting that the cartel members would serve as enthusiastic evangelists, saving the company money on marketing, not to mention that the cartel would pay for the right to be part of the development process, normally a very costly line item--would be a very attractive model. Further, said Montanaro, the project offers game consumers and the industry itself an antidote to the problem of never-ending sequels, franchise games, and a general lack of creativity.

Too many cooks?
On the other hand, the project risks drowning in input from too many captains. It's hard to imagine how a cohesive game could come out of such a massive development-by-committee project. Particularly when there's no advance road map. But Montanaro said that is one of the appealing elements of the project, and that Roundhouse is already thinking about a second, and third, go-round.

Still, Roundhouse isn't handing the reins entirely over to the community. Rather, it is employing what it calls a "celebrity" panel of arbiter judges who will help guide the community through the decision-making processes. Plus, one would expect that Frima will apply its development expertise to sticky situations caused by the community's choices, whatever they may be.

Whatever happens, Roundhouse has guaranteed that people will be watching what happens with the project. If it succeeds, it will surely be much copied. If it fails, Roundhouse can argue that it was a (fairly) inexpensive experiment that was worth trying. Whatever happens, one imagines that the discussions over what happens at each step along the way will be highly entertaining.

On June 21, Geek Gestalt will kick off Road Trip 2009. After driving more than 12,000 miles in the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last three years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more in Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. And in the meantime, join the Road Trip 2009 Facebook page and follow my Twitter feed.