The Player Content Revolution

In a previous post, I discussed the impact that independent gaming has had on the world of AAA development. Today, I'd like to address how the trend that led to the prominence of indie games - the free market nature of the Internet - has had one other noteworthy impact on the world of gaming: player content. Because of social media, increased connectivity and more active dialogue between creator and consumer, the amount of player-made content available online has positively skyrocketed. 

What's more, developers have begun to take notice of these passionate individuals.  Valve's implemented the Steam Workshop, and modding tools now seem to be a standard offering with every other PC game released. Mods are considered a legitimate and vital part of the experience on PC. 

Today, I'd like to take a look at how we arrived at this point.

On the surface, the answer is simple. The PC is an extremely open platform, and the Internet is the purest example of a free market that's ever existed. Combine these two elements together, and you've a recipe for a great deal of empowerment on the part of consumers. People can effectively create anything they desire if they've the tools and expertise necessary, at which point they can proceed to share their creations with whoever they see fit. 

In the case of gaming, content creation is inextricably tied up with the culture. In order to understand how the free market has impacted the games industry, we must first take steps to understand how modding has impacted consumer-developer relations.  In order to do that, we're first going to need to look at why people mod. For that, we're going to turn to Hector Postigo, and his piece "Modding to the big leagues: Exploring the space between modders and the game industry."

"Despite the uncertainty of landing a job in the industry, modding continues and modders give a number of reasons why they do it," writes Postigo. "Primary among these is that modding acts as a bridge to online community. Gaming is an important element in the lives of modders. Many of them already ahve some technical skill, and modding is a way to explore more deeply their love of gaming. For those that don't have coding or design skills, learning to mod from veterans of the modding community is a way of entering a deeper world in gaming, a world where they get to decide how a game looks, what its narratives will be, and how it will represent the world. Modding is empowering."

The Internet - and later, social media - allowed these sorts of communities to form, allowed gamers to share this sense of empowerment between one another. In most cases, actual development firms wouldn't enter the picture until much later. Occasionally,  the discourse between developers and modders was openly antagonistic. At some point, however, developers began to realize just how valuable modders were. This was effectively free content for their games - additional DLC developed at no cost to them that would keep people playing (and buying). Gradually, a shift began to occur.

Valve was at the fore of this shift, using Steam as a platform to encourage modders to ply their craft. They weren't the only ones, either. Epic, for example, has released the Unreal Development Kit as an open-source offering. With developments like this, Postigo notes, we've seen what he terms a 'professionalization 'of the modding community. "For example," he writes, "in many extensive exchanges on modding forums like the Mod Database side, members discuss which engine would suit which type of game concept - they talk about purchasing engines, rather than games." 

Not only that, we're seeing more and more instances in which modding is legitimized. From the runaway success of Dota (a Warcraft III custom map which spawned an entire genre) and Counter-Strike (a Half-Life mod, and one of the most popular mods to date) to the flurry of sandbox games hitting the market of late and the birth of organizations such as ROBLOX, the power is slowly but surely shifting into the hands of the players, a trend which is mirrored elsewhere, in other markets.

At the end of the day, the Internet and social media both have forced a radical shift in the way businesses and brands connect with their consumers, considerably empowering the latter. In gaming, this has brought a whole host of independent developers into the spotlight, while at the same time encouraging a whole new generation of modders who are actively re-imagining how to play games.