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The Dangers of Open Development
by sean lindskog on 01/27/14 11:50:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


There is a good debate on open development, with John Walker’s RockPaperShotgun article strongly against it, and Simon Roth’s response here on Gamasutra strongly in defence.

I wanted to chime in.  I’ve been on both sides.  I’ve worked on live MMO teams (and before that, MUDs), which are largely open development, due to being online and evolving while live.  And I’ve worked on other games (both AAA and indie) which were not open.

Here's the thing.

Teams who embrace open development are, at least to some extent, using this as a marketing strategy.  Anyone who says otherwise is lying.

In the world of indie games, gone are the days you can ignore pre-launch community.  This is a fairly new phenomenon.  For many indies, community and crowd funding is how you get money to make your game.  Community votes help you avoid getting trapped in the Greenlight queue for months or longer.  Community and hype are how you can get the attention of publishers and new platforms, if that’s what you’re looking for.  And, for an indie studio without an established fan base or huge marketing budget, community is a big factor in how well your game will sell.

In the world of AAA MMOs, “betas” stopped meaning “public testing” a long time ago.  It now primarily means “publicity event” and “hype machine”.  Sure, betas will still uncover infrastructure problems and bugs.  But you don’t launch a beta unless you’re convinced it will be a marketable player experience (or you’re out of money).

The best way to build a community, outside of having something cool to show off, is to engage people in the development process.  To listen to them.  Open development does this.  There’s very little that will engage players more than implementing their ideas and changes.  It’s human nature.  We want to be a part of the creative process.  We want our opinions heard and validated.  We want the game to be designed for our own enjoyment.

Is this a bad thing?

Not always – there are smart people out there who will give you intelligent design critique and good ideas. 

Here's the problem.  When reacting to the community's feedback, which hat are you wearing?  Your marketing hat, or your designer hat?  If you are wearing your marketing hat, then John/RPS's critique is pretty valid.  Game design decisions become a popularity contest.  This dilutes the vision of the final product.  And likely bloats out the feature list.

Now, as game designers, we want players to enjoy our game.  We need our game to achieve a certain level of financial success to continue working and doing what we love.  Yet we also have a vision of what we want to create.  Sometimes, this vision will be at odds with the goal of maximizing the game’s popularity

Open development can be a slippery slope that leads from an artistic focus, to a purely business and marketing focus.  If that happens, you'll probably end up making a shitty game anyway.  How not to slip on this slipperiness? 

Be critical of player ideas. 

When people want feature X because they loved it in their most favorite game ever, be prepared to say no (this will happen a lot).  Be prepared to tell players, “that is not the game we’re making”. 

Make unpopular decisions when they need to be made.  Explain why.

Be controversial, but don’t be an asshole about it. 

If you have crowd funded your game, make damn sure you don’t make promises you can’t keep. 

Never lie to your community, even if the truth is hard.

Above all else, be true to the vision of the game you set out to create. 


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SD Marlow
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Nice, and I would only add "don't change your initial idea in an effort to please every player type." Along with a solid design doc, the developer needs to have a clear understanding of the target audience and the games it will be compared with. They should have already digested much of the feedback players have given other related games (you'd see that in the marketing speak). Really "cool" features that didn't make it into the initial design should be saved for expansions.

edit- having read Walkers (great) post, I'd also add here that play testing (formerly known as open beta) should be about testing game mechanics, not seeking input on what could be changed, tweaked, or done differently.

sean lindskog
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Good addition.

I've been lucky enough that for most of my career, my target audience has included myself. But it's true, you've got research each of the classics, modern, and upcoming unreleased games which yours will be compared to. Maybe there are mistakes those games have made which you don't want to repeat. Or, brilliant mechanics you can't afford to ignore.

Incidentally, this is also a great reason to justify spending some time playing games and browsing the 'net as "research". ;)

Joe Klemmer
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This, along with the other two referenced posts, are, to some extent, correct in their analysis. They each touch on different aspects of the issue and should, IMO, be taken as a whole.

Nothing, especially in this industry, is cut-and-dry/black-and-white.

sean lindskog
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Agreed. Thanks for posting, Joe.
I thought the other two articles, while both making good points, were a little two "black" or "white", so I thought I'd sling a little muddy grey into the mix. ;)

Alexis Hallaert
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Hi, I was browsing Steam shop yesterday and I visited the page of Kenshi as this game was then on first page sale.
I went to see the comments and reactions of the community to the 2 lasts update logs. I found unsurprisingly that, the game being a specific hardcore niche, a lot of these early players were both grateful but also almost all had some suggestions to make, ideas of features to prioritize/ implement. Usual stuff.
It seems that the developer never comment. I haven't dig enough to really tell but as far as I know he doesn't, and I agree with his attitude, I'll do the same. Reading, considering everything but never reacts openly.

sean lindskog
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That's an interesting approach.

You'd certainly avoid the "making promises you can't keep" problem. On the other hand, Steam early access is sorta supposed to be about engaging the community. Although I guess it could just be purely for financial reasons too, if you need money to finish the game. I'm curious how the players will react to that over the long term. On a lot of steam forums, devs get praised when they are interactive - do they get criticized when they aren't?

Kevin Fishburne
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An example of this happening right now is Portalarium's Shroud of the Avatar. I've never seen a project so engaged with the community during its development. It will be interesting to see how all the back and forth affects the final product.

sean lindskog
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I'll check it out. Thanks Kevin.