[In this opinion piece, industry veteran Kim Pallister looks to a surprising source - the Build A Bear Workshop - to suggest that personalization and customization of games before their delivery may be the key to developing a relationship with the gamer, incenting them, and helping stem game piracy.]
While traveling with my family recently, my wife and I decided to treat our four-year old twins with a visit to the Build A Bear Workshop. For those unfamiliar with this great little enterprise, here's how it works: You bring the kids in, they pick a type of bear, various accoutrements, and go through a ritual where the bear is 'brought to life' by filling him with stuffing, inserting a heart, stitching him shut, etc.
Before inserting the heart, the kids rub it on their heads to make it smart, on their muscles to make it strong, etc. For those interested in the full ritual details, they are laid out in syrupy-sweet level of detail here.
The whole thing struck me as kind of a sugar-coated version of Frankenstein, but that’s beside the point. The result is that they get a bear that is 'unique', and are given a birth certificate for the bear with the name they give him.
Building Relationships With Purchases
It occurred to me that this kind of visceral experience - which develops quite an bond between child and bear - would be ideal to partner with a kids virtual-world company to go compete with Webkinz and other kids’ virtual worlds which have been talked about in our industry quite a bit as of late (I blogged about a few of them a while back.)
My thinking was that if Webkinz is more compelling than Club Penguin because of the plush toy that acts as a physical connection to the experience (not to mention moving the financial transaction back to a parentally-comfortable retail channel); then Build-A-Bear is more compelling because the plush toy is now personalized.
Of course the thing with good ideas is that other people have the same ones – usually before I do! So it is in this case, as lo and behold, there already exists a BuildABearVille.
Now the key point is this: With Webkinz, you enter your product code, and the online animal matches the physical product you bought at the store - which for kids, is COOL. With BuildABear, you enter a unique ID number off the birth certificate, and you get an online version that is identical to your one-of-a-kind, custom bear that you built. Of course the "one of a kind" bear is only one of given number of permutations of options, but still, to a kid, this is MAGIC!
So anyhow, it's cool, and I suggest you check it out. Take your kid, or a friend’s kid, or a kid-at-heart, to your local Build-a-Bear Workshop and give it a whirl.
So what does this have to do with software piracy? Bear with me (and my puns) while I first talk a little about music.
The Fan Relationship In The Music Biz
2007 was a pretty incredible year for the music business. Not because any record amount of money made, but because of some pretty amazing occurrences in the business. Radiohead’s “Pay what you want” release of their latest album, artists breaking with their labels in favor of self-publishing or leaning more heavily on touring as their revenue source. Most significantly of all, as of last week, Warner was the third of the four major labels to sign with Amazon for DRM-free MP3 music distribution (Sony BMG is the last hold-out).
The significance of this last point cannot be over-stated. There may be some Amazon-vs-iTunes gamesmanship afoot, but at the end of the day this is at heart a response to customer demand. Customers are saying (with their wallets as well as their mouths), that they prefer not to buy from companies that treat them like criminals, and that they are willing to pay for music but not when its usability is hampered by DRM.
The direction here is clear: DRM-burdened products will lose in the music world. And then the consumer is going to look at how they consume video and begin to ask the same questions. And after that, they are going to have the same questions about their games.
Wired recently ran a great piece in which David Byrne interviews Radiohead's Thom Yorke to discuss these recent shifts in the music business, discussing how music went from being about performance and artist relationship to being about manufactured product and now it's being shifted back the other way, where the manufactured product is no longer monetizable as it once was, and so the value will come from performance and from the relationship that artists can have with fans.
Others have been talking about this too, how the value is in the artist/fan relationship, not in the product per se; and how if the relationship is there, people will gladly pay for it (and for the product in turn).
Traditionally in games, the discussion around 'relationship' has been around that of service provision. e.g. You provide a service and the pays for that service on an ongoing basis, whether it's on a per-month basis, per-game basis, per-item basis or whatever. MMO's, Xbox Live, Kart Rider, GameTap, are all examples of this.
But perhaps another path exists, other than "service provision as proof of relationship". What if we think about "Personalized product as expression of relationship"?
On Building Personalized Objects
So what do I mean by this? Consider things like architecture plans. These are copyrighted; architects that do plans for 'cookie cutter' houses, and the like have to worry about their designs being used without their permission.
However, an architect hired to do a custom design for a client very likely has to worry less. Why? Because the plans were done for that client, and that client very likely doesn't want his design copied and takes pride in its uniqueness and that it was done for him. "You like my kitchen? It was personally designed for me by Hans Arkitekt."
To take this to games, if we could find a way to build a game for a specific customer, tailored to them, then this should mean that they could share it with a friend, but that friend wouldn't want it, they'd want their own. In the same way that I may covet my friend's tailored suit, but that doesn't mean I want his suit, but rather that I want one of my own. Meanwhile, off-the-rack designer label suits do have to worry about counterfeit copies of their designs.
So what would it mean to build a game *for a specific customer*? I'm not sure. But I'm not talking about binding it to the user's machine with DRM. No, people will find a way to strip it out anyway. No, the personalization has to add value in some way. DRM doesn’t add value for the customer, it adds inconvenience at best and outrage and resentment at worst (one need only to look as far as the numerous postings about the PC release of the otherwise-wonderful BioShock for an example).
I’m not advocating for the removal of DRM from games. I understand why games are distributed today with DRM today. I just believe that it’s a losing game, and that we need to start thinking about ways in which we make it irrelevant. Moving from ‘games as product’ to ‘games as service’ is one path. There may be room for another, and that may be ‘this product was built just for me’.
The Future - The Personalized Game?
The personalization has to add value, make the game *better* for that individual customer. It could be an object of social status ("Look, Cliffy B personally autographed my copy of Gears and thanked me for my business"), an element of personal integration ("It came pre-built with my character stats already set up, and the villagers were singing songs about the time I single handedly held off that Orc assault!"), or custom fitting ("all the graphics assets and settings came perfectly tuned for set up for my personal machine").... who knows.
Actually, it's very likely none of the above. Minds more creative than mine will come up with far better ideas. The best example I can think of is that of The Behemoth and the custom trophies they built for leaderboard winners; not personalization of the game but certainly a commitment to personal relationship with customers.
I do think the idea of the ‘personalized game’ is a path to be explored. The first requirement to finding the pot of gold at the end of that path is a change in mindset.
To change from viewing the game as mass-produced product to viewing the finished game as an asset; 95% completed, and now ready for customization and personal delivery to each and every one of your fans. The extent you *value* each one of those relationships, is the extent to which they'll provide value in return.
I guess like any relationship, you have to decide if you are ready to put some work into it and hold up your end of the bargain...
[Kim Pallister is Content Director for Intel’s Visual Computing Group. He recently re-joined Intel after a few years at Microsoft working on casual games for MSN and Xbox Live Arcade. He’s been around the game industry for 15 years. When not migrating between large technology companies in the Pacific Northwest, he finds time to blog at www.kimpallister.com - from which this article was adapted and expanded - and at www.vgvc.net. His views on those blogs and in this article and others are entirely his own and not those of his employers past nor present.]