Pros and Cons of Opening Development to the Public

Ville asked a question:


I have a question. List the pros and cons of opening your development to the public. We’re releasing demo versions of our game as we go on, it allows us to get in touch with the public more. But I’m afraid this might backfire somehow, like people getting tired of the game before it’s completed, or that they judge the game by the demos.

First of all, I must say that I really believe in public development – I think it’s a good solution for indies in many aspects. We develop Morphlings in a very public manner: we even put the design document available. Not to mention screenshots and demos (as we get new stuff).

The pros:
1. Public development means publicity: If nobody doesn’t know about your game, then you can rest assured it doesn’t get the publicity it could have before the release. Different people will talk about it… tell their friends… news etc. I even got in TV when I showed Morphlings in one presentation!

2. Open development opens doors to more suggestions: people are eager to comment and give ideas. It’s almost like “You don’t need designers anymore – players help you to design” ;)

3. You find beta-testers: just put a newsletter subscription system online or some other way to gather emails. You’ll find plenty of beta-testers and potential customers.

4. You can get team-members when releasing to public. People who show they actually do something instead of just saying something tend to get more people moving.

5. It motivates the team: having everything *visible* means that people know better what each other are doing. It motivates to get good comments and see a evidence that the project is progressing.

6. It can get publishers interested. Games that are developed in public tend to attract publishers & distributors. That’s a plus.

7. You’ll get comments from other developers: they will help you, they will support you, they will motivate you. Basically they will do good to the development.

The cons::
1. Financial risk: somebody might steal your idea, patent it… or run to market before you. I think this is the case with “smaller” indie games (development cycle less than 3 months) where time-to-market has a bigger meaning. In larger (indie!) games I don’t this is the issue… I just don’t believe people could steal your idea and do it. It would take huge time. Besides – aren’t there games like World of Warcraft, Battlefield, Sims or Half-life to be cloned? The ideas are already there. If somebody tries to steal your idea… then good luck. He would still need massive amount of resources to compete. I think the risk is there – but I don’t think it’s such a big issue for indies.

2. What if the project is canceled: the players might get disappointed and you might get bad publicity (“yeh, he tried and nothing happened”). But – I think if you are willing to finish the project and have courage to develop it no matter what… then go for it. There’s always the risk somebody gets disappointed or mocks you – whether you finish anything or not.

3. It takes extra time to maintain. It’s true that making your development public (writing public notes, commenting to suggestions etccan add extra work in the development phase but I don’t think it’s a bad idea: it’s basically some sort of “project documenting” in one way – so it’s not that bad to know what you have been doing.

I really think the benefits are much greater for innovative games development so I really would encourage doing so.

Juuso Hietalahti


  1. I have some different oppinion about this “stealing published idea” stuff. People have different ideas and often they’re figuring out the same ideas as someone else – by an accident. I think it’s more probable that someone introduce his idea to the world if he see noone else has the same idea. So, I can’t agree with Nemanja Bondzulic that someone steal his idea [but notice I don’t know the case, maybe I’m wrong on this] – it’s just someone was more able to bring it into life, than Nemanja. He could do it quicker and [maybe] better than Nemanja, so he had done it.
    In summary – it might be a better idea to use the “Who foos first foos the most” rule and introduce one’s idea to the world first, sooner than others. Then it will be harder to them to introduce it, because “someone was quicker” and “they could be only a followers” ;J [unless they do it better ;)].
    IMO it’s better to show the world whose that idea is, than hiding and worrying that someone publish it quicker than you ;)

  2. @Ken: very true, community must be handled well. and yes – there will be people with grand ideas… and they simply must be handled. The same problem will be with any game – there’s always people with ideas – whether the development is public or not. But you can rest assured to see more of these people when development is public.

    Btw… about Molyneux – yes it’s true: and that’s because they promised something they could not keep. That’s a big mistake which can happen very easily (I know – I have promised games to be released much earlier, updates to come earlier… today I think hard whether to announce game/update release dates until I know the product is 100% complete ;). Very good point – but the fault is not totally for making development public… it was the fault to announce something that he never kept. Even with (almost) closed development you can make this fault by letting people expect something they won’t see.

  3. One major problem is that the community needs to be handled well. A number of games have suffered from a vocal community that has decided that IT should drive the game, not the developers. The more niche your game is, the more likely you’ll run into people like this. If you’re making a Space 4X, a very vocal group will demand that it be just like MOO2. People like this can be managed, but it can take a lot of time that would be better invested in developing the game.

    And since you mentioned Black and White, don’t forget the backlash against Molyneux. Early in development he talks about where he wants the game to go then people want to lynch him because his early concepts didn’t work out 100% according to what he wanted.

  4. Turn those questions into positive force: set up a announcement/newsletter and forward all people to it by responding: “If you want to be first to hear when it’s released: sign up”. You might want to consider putting the message also in the demo and more visible to your website. You might want to check how others are doing it. (Alan Wake’s website… Battle For Middle-earth 2 website – any other big game that you know is coming)

  5. Thanks for the list Juuso!

    There’s one more interesting thing that happens in open development. People keep bugging you about release dates. We just released a small demo of the core gameplay about a week ago, and people are already asking when will we release a new demo. Also the constant request for the final release date never seem to cease, even if it’s already been answered a thousand times.

    That brings an important question. Since many indies probably don’t have set dates for their releases, what can you respond to when someone asks it? Right now our policy is to say: “it’s done when it’s done”. I wonder if there are better ways of handling it?

  6. Yes, there is no right answer here – and you can go middle ground. There are good & bad examples (as we can see). Feel free to give any additional comments. Pros or cons. It will help us all.

    Btw – I presume that last comment was meant to be here.

  7. It is smart to have a backup payment processor just in case your primary one has downtime (it happens) or starts to suck. You don’t want to be offline when people are ready to give you their money. :-)

  8. I think that opening the production process to the public absolutely has it’s place in games, both small and large budget, casual and hardcore. As a game producer and internet junkie I’ve spent a bit of time looking not only at various kinds of gaming sites (publishers, journalists, blogs, etc.) but also at the traffic for these sites (Thanks, alexa.com!). There are exceptions, but by and large it seems that the best blogs consistently outperform even some of the biggest name publishers and online mags. Why? Well I think it has to do with the perceived intentions of each type of site. Blogs (usually) are about creating a dialogue with visitors, and this translates into accountability and trust. Publisher sites and even many news/review sites are often seen as being just tools of marketing and the *last* place you’d go to get any kind of real information about a game.

    gapingvoid.com did a great piece about this effect in a different industry (“The Kryptonite Factor”) but I think the lessons that Kryptonite learned by not responding to the “break a $60 Kryptonite lock with a ten cent Bic pen” story directly can apply to games as well. Let’s face it, games break, schedules slip and unforeseen stuff happens all the time in development, and while sure, there are plenty of chronically dissatisfied people in blogspace with nothing better to do than bitch and moan about these eventualities, I think there are orders of magnitude more folks who are pulling for the success of new titles and just want to know what’s going on with the developers. These people could be an invaluable resource in word-of-mouth and other marketing, and to not involve them, at least to some extent, in the development process seems to me like a missed opportunity.

  9. It’s really fascinating how communities develop around games. Just check out http://www.stalker-game.com/. They have an active comunity even with people writing fan stories from the game world. And nobody has ever played this game and doesn’t even know if it will be ever released.

  10. @Mike: I have to make my statement bit clearer here. Yes I agree that if people get tired for the *gameplay* they will propably get tired when the game comes out. But – if they get tired for *reading journals & waiting for the game to get finished* (instead of playing) then you can rest assured they will test the game when it’s finished – even if they stop visiting the dev site during the development. I don’t see a problem releasing a tech demo… quite the opposite actually :) But it’s good to hear different opinions about the issue.

    @Nemanja:I don’t know what happened with Master Kick so I cannot comment – but I would presume that to be quite rare. I know my game idea would be something never ever heard…. but it took just few weeks to get the first comment “hey, my friend is developing a game with similar idea”. It just happens. And as said – I don’t know what was the deal with Master Kick so I cannot comment whether the idea was stolen (or just somebody had the same idea).

    I wouldn’t worry about “people stealing ideas”… I mean – ideas are cheap. They are all over us (just look at the newest games… there are plenty of ideas out there!). I believe it’s the actual production that counts – not just ideas… but I’m pleased to see arguments against this. It’s rare that the stealing happens… and when it happens – I think there are plenty of ways to beat the competition (service, marketing, community, graphics, adding & changing gimmicks/gameplay mechanics, fast updates, bug free, etc. etc.)

    I’m not going to say *I’m right here* (but I won’t say *others are right* either ;) – because this is only my opinion and the way I see it. If other people think the development should be done closed doors, fine. Take what suits for you. I believe in creating a community… right from the beginning. I see the benefits to be bigger in open production. And if you want to go middle ground – that’s possible: make something open, something closed (in fact – this is the way we do: we won’t enclose business decicions & financing strategies publicly, but we are giving direct information about the development).

  11. It’s true what Nemanja wrote. Also be sure that the game is playable, not just a tech demo and is more or less bug free. Remember that the first impression is very important in the indie business because the player might just download another game in 5 minutes and forget about yours. Something must catch his attention, like a technology gimmick or something.

    // “…people will get tired of it.”

    If they get tired of it during a testing period they will get tired of it when it is released. It is a problem of your game not the gamers. But if you’re thinking only about short-term income then you can do it, but that’s not why we are here?

  12. Nice blog, I keep on reading it from the day I stumbled across it. Keep on writing it! :)

    However, I would like to advise people thinking of opening development to the public to pay attention if they can deliver the game in a some reasonable and planned period. Especially if your upcoming game has some original idea, concept, effect or anything unique just to your game.

    If you don’t finish and publish the game, for any reason, in short period, someone could stole your idea and publish something very similar just before you. And, believe me, this could be very frustrating.

    I had this experience with my game Master Kick (http://masterkick.indus3.org) as I announced it and published some screen shots months before it was released. It took some time to finish and release the game, for different reasons. But, before I released my game, some other developer (I don’t want to advertise him here) by wonder got very similar “idea” (you could just compare the screen shots) and released the game before me. The difference in quality of the games is very obvious, but still, he shamelessly stoled the idea and the momentum Master Kick had. And that hurts!

    So, if you are going to open development to the public or announce the game before it is finished, do it when you are 100% sure you are going to release it in short period enough that nobody could stole your idea in that period.

  13. Jeff,

    We know that you ‘Make it Big in Games’ and have industry experience (to anyone who hasn’t heard of Jeff I must tell that he is co-founder of Garage Games worked with over 70 titles including Starsiege: Tribes…) so you know what you are talking about.

    I partially agree & disagree with you.

    “…people will get tired of it.”

    It depends on the person. For somebody a year or two early demos & dev.diaries is exciting. I remember reading Black & White hype articles way before it was released (and they were fun to read – even when there were stuff never implemented in game)- and I remember waiting for the first Lord of The Rings movie for 10 years before they even started making the movie – and I waited 5 years to see all those movies. And now I think the story was too short and they should have done 6 movies instead of 3… ;)

    If the team launches dev.diaries, screenshots, demos…. and keep the content fresh – it can prevent people from getting tired.

    Besides – I don’t think early dev.diaries will *harm* anyone (but there are some cons as mentioned in the post). If people get tired and leave, fine. They can come back (even after 2 years) when you actually launch the game.

    But yes: there are people (don’t know if it’s minority or majority) who don’t want to read those early dev diaries. And that’s fine. They don’t have to. But when the game is finished… it can be quite fun for players to check those diaries afterwards. I think public development is very good for games that rely on community (like our Morphlings). It’s not near to be completed, but it has already got lots of attention… and people are eager to see more).

    I agree that it’s not going to be the best PR device. No, but – it will give you some exposure – and as the old marketing saying goes: “all press is good press” ;) It must be noted that those ‘Early Adopters’ can be a helpful for getting word out…

    Thanks for your input, I appreciate your time.

  14. Juuso,

    I love your blog, and read it every time you post via Bloglines. Usually, I agree with what you have to say, but this time, I think I have to say that I don’t. Unless you are working on a freeware product or an Open Source game, I don’t think full public disclosure is a good idea. It’s not that somebody is going to steal your idea, it is more that people will get tired of it. A year or two of reading dev. diaries about the same product is probably not going to sell it.

    However, being in the open about your project with some screen shots or early annoucments is OK. Using the ideas to help find team members is good, but using it as a PR device probably has its limits.

    -Jeff Tunnell, Make It Big In Games … GarageGames

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