Jesse Schell's grand scheme for crowd-designed video games started with a simple observation: Just about everyone who loves playing games would like to make them, but few know how.
"It's like starting a band," Schell, who leads the team at Schell Games told us last year. "It's very hard to do by yourself."
Schell's solution is called Puzzle Clubhouse, an episodic, crowd-designed monthly series of online games that successfully surpassed a modest $10,000 Kickstarter goal earlier this year. With an online community creating and voting on pieces as small as a character's name to as substantial as the core mechanics, contributors do all of the fun stuff while Schell's staff does the technical work of putting the actual games together.
The first episode, Laz0r Fr0gz!!!!!!!!1, launched this weekend. The game concept was contributed by forum member "madmik3," whose notes included "OMG Those frogs got lasers." A hat-throwing mechanic was contributed by user "palenoue."
Other contributions included a cute joke during the ending cinematic and the name of an environment. The full game should take most players less than 20 minutes to complete its 13 overhead maze levels, give or take another 15 minutes or so for those stuck on the tricky (though ultimately very clever) final level.
The experiment was a success: a game managed to be crowd-designed by Puzzle Clubhouse's modest community, using simple forums software.
"The big question is, how does it scale?" Schell asked when I caught up with him showing off the game in Seattle this weekend, wearing a fez and juggling bowling pins to attract passersby. "If we get thousands of people to participate, can we still make that work?"
Schell and his team compare the development process to improv comedy, where crowd-contributed ideas are made funny by the professional comedians on stage.
"The audience feels a part of it. When you have this balance between participation from the audience and some professionals who know how to hammer it into shape and make it as good as it can be, we think that's a really good balance. And no one's done that in games before."
The game is being monetized in what is surely a unique way. The games are free to play, and voting on content can also be done at no cost. But only those signing up as paid members ($19.95 a year) can submit content and ideas. Paying members also have a louder voice in the actual voting process.