Illusion of Community Driven
Companies have done this in the form of controlled public testing for decades. Except instead of using public testing as a way to accept suggestions from the community it is used more for the mass bug testing that it provides or to view reactions of how they respond to your ideas. Many times as a gamer myself I put forth a suggestion and the typical response I will get is "It is too late in development to implement that." So what is the point of taking suggestions if most of them won't be able to be implemented?
With Covet and any game I develop my goal is project transparency and community interaction. I want a game to be fully shaped by the community as soon as possible. I want feedback early so I can improve Covet from being just my vision to be a vision of those that want to play it. This doesn't mean that the community takes the reigns, but it does mean that I have to factor in each bit of advice, suggestion, and concern constantly. It forces me to re-think how things are done. Is post apocalyptic really the way to go? And if I think so and the community doesn't I need to be able to communicate well enough to make them understand a decision early on. If I can't reinforce my own decision for the project then was it a well-thought out decision in the first place?
The community is the most important part of development in my eyes. Developers build for the consumer, yet the consumer gets little say in how it gets created. I understand the concept of keeping secrets and hyping up material and games with a fully finished project. However I feel that that kind of strategy leads to impulse buying and a lot of sales with little experience, but you sacrifice that connection to your community and risk a hard failure. If the community becomes a part of the development process they effectively become invested and tied to it, it is like giving the role of god parent to a friend for your child. That friend becomes more invested and begins to defend, protect, and help better the child for better or for worse. The point is that the game becomes just as much theirs as it is yours. Even if the game comes up as subpar then the community is partly held accountable and the flaws are accepted as mistakes made by everyone rather than just the developer. There is less blame on the developer and more on the community.
Not without Risk
Of course this philosophy comes with its fair share of risks. The main risk being that the community may not really know what it wants. Not only that but the community doesn't have the industry experience to make informed decisions. In addition to this the community is multiple people from varying backgrounds with different personalities and hence differing wants and needs. So, as the developer, where do you draw the line? That is a question I have been fighting to learn since building maps in Halo and I feel like I am getting closer and closer to an answer as I approach the completion of various products.
Here is what I've learned so far: Consider the advice of Haters, but don't sway too much towards them as their vision is skewed by hatred of the product and they just want what they want; Welcome the advice from Addicts, because they just want to improve something they love but be wary of bias and too many specialized suggestions that cut off other audiences; and Open your arms and embrace the advice of Indecisives, because they will open your product's reach from a heavily non-biased standpoint with little risk of hurting the opinion of addicts and possible chance of swaying the opinion of haters.
In other words be wary of advice from haters and addicts due to bias on both sides, but heavily consider the advice of those who aren't quite sure if they like it or not. Because catering to them ensures that you gain their support. Addicts will more than likely continue to support you regardless and haters will either continue to hate the product or there is a chance that several may be very happy about the new changes and become indecisive or supportive. Advice from addicts can be useful as they can improve general usability of your design, but specific large suggestions can hurt the majority more than they help the minority.
Thoughts of Others
This has worked well for me on small projects like maps on Halo and I hope to refine it as I go about development on bigger projects and hope that it works just as effectively. I hope to open the eyes of many to this development philosophy. It seems that the Ouya console designer Yves Behar follows a very similar philosophy:
My team and I are reading a lot of the ideas and inputs from passionate gamers, and take them into account. I personally feel that it is so much better to share early directions with this community, and that it’s quite different from the traditional approach which is to keep everything secret till the last minute. Great input means we continue to improve on the system and innovate.
I was very happy to read that this morning and I hope that I am on the right track and maybe one day it will impact that standard development cycle and hopefully make it more transparent to the consumer. Keeping things hidden to the market is more because of the competition between big names and the risk of your ideas being taken, but I feel it is hurting the industry. Sharing ideas can lead to great advancements of the idea and little risk to people actually wanting to steal it. Daniel Cook (one of my idols in design) covers this very well with his blog post Why you should share your game designs. Keeping the community involved can lead to a more appropriate product as well and less wasted features. Daniel Cook also discusses this importance of community very well in this other blog post The Passion of the Developer.
Community is important to me and interfacing with everyone interested will be a key to the success of any projects I work on. I can only hope that I can keep the community's trust as time goes on and that they support me through thick and thin. Cuz community is not only important for design, but also important for motivation and encouragement through tough times. I'll steer and do the work, but I am dependent on the community being the engine and driving my ideas forward.