Within a few short years, through changes in technology and policies, the video game industry has made monumental strides in freeing creators to share their visions with others. The notion that a developer could not release a fully realized product without the expressed, paid permission of a publisher, once stalwartly defended by the industry's gatekeepers, has crumbled before the sheer wealth it turned away.
But what have we really opened up? If you cut a door into a wall, does the wall cease to exist? Allowing an outsider to step through your barrier is a tremendous step forward, but what about everyone else?
If the last debate over self-publishing laid bare how arbitrary the line between developers with publishers and those without is, perhaps now we can look at the similarly cumbersome barrier between those who produce software and those who use it. Why does our concern for independent development start and end with those who release games, rather than those who engage with them? How disheartening that a platform like iOS, itself a shining example of what potential can be unlocked when we democratize systems, still so stridently walls off users from cultivating their own full experiences.
This is more than an argument about making software more open or including more modification tools in the products we collectively release (though that's important, too). Rather, it's about recognizing that development is a never-ending process; you may finish work on a project, but once it's out there, it's not entirely yours anymore. Sure, you may own the legal rights to it, but its spirit, the passion and creative energy that gets put into it, belongs to all of us now. For the people who use it, software is never finished. A new set of developers - your audience - will take up the reins of your design, and there's incredible opportunity there for developers, especially those who know not to get in the way.
"we devote so much energy to the negative aspects of serving a technologically savvy audience - hacking, piracy, etc. - that it's easy to overlook what a wonderful resource having a community that's talented and passionate can be"
As platform holders, we devote so much energy to the negative aspects of serving a technologically savvy audience - hacking, piracy, etc. - that it's easy to overlook what a wonderful resource having a community that's talented and passionate can be. Having players who can identify and address unintentional flaws in your product before you can, who care enough to fix for free the thing you couldn't devote resources to, who can focus on social features or added functionality while you focus on gameplay, who can evolve your work beyond what you thought it capable of... all of these are things to be welcomed, not chased away with threats of legal action and ambivalent silence.
Because the line between programmer-developer and programmer-player seems awfully trivial when it is users who make a game like Dark Souls playable on PC. When it is users generating the staggering level of content and functionality that makes open platforms the clear champion of Bethesda products. When a mod restores the original Final Fantasy VII soundtrack to its PC release before the publisher does, and a console takes nearly a year to give us an app to watch Game of Thrones.
This isn't to say that tech creators and licensors don't have a right to protect their properties - they absolutely do - but rather to point out that users also have an interest in advancing your product, and sometimes your community is better with it than you are. We wall off content to shield our creations from 'bad' users - from people who want to compromise our vision - but in doing so, we also lock out those who just want our designs to function better. Is that a trade-off we're satisfied with?
Unity, Unreal, Steam Workshop, and more... these are more than just tool sets. They're means for empowerment. They let creativity and problem-solving flow from the bottom up. And that's the next battle for self-publishing and indie development - protecting user-defined gaming experiences. Giving tech and platform consumers a bigger stake in our designs, and giving us a bigger stake in them. As an industry and as a culture, we've gained so much in the past by expanding the circle of who is "allowed" to call themselves a developer. How much will be gained when we get rid of the circle entirely?
Overwolf is an in-game overlay platform that allows users to add features or functionality to their PC games, founded on giving users the freedom and means to tweak existing products or make in-game apps of their own. The studio has sought out partnerships with companies like TeamSpeak, Twitch, and Wargaming.net to push the concept even further.
Its currently ongoing TeamSpeak app development contest, bankrolled by SteelSeries and Tobii with up to $10,000 in cash and professional gaming peripherals for the winners, has opened the door for hundreds of developers and community members to improve and innovate upon one of the service's most integral in-game features (you can still register).