Socialised entertainment

Publication date: 8 February 2013
Originally published 2012 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 08-Feb-2013.

 

Regular readers will know I'm very enthusiastic about entertainment becoming less like ordinary retail products, and more like improvisational theatre.

Modern mainstream entertainment has settled into a pattern of big companies making mass-market products, selling them at substantial profits to audiences and/or advertisers, and getting very cross, to the point of self-destructive spite, if anybody manages to access these products without paying.

This does not encourage innovation in mass-market TV, movies, music or games. The "triple-A" top-flight big-budget game industry is now every bit as merciless as the movie business. Kingdoms of Amalur, the odd single-player RPG that's extremely reminiscent of MMORPGs because it was meant to be one before they ran out of money, sold 1.2 million copies in ninety days. This made it, of course, a miserable failure. It needed to sell three million just to break even on the development budget.

But there have always been musicians and storytellers and actors and artists of every other kind who perform for little or no monetary reward. And today it's becoming easier and easier for people to team up and produce remarkable works without needing expensive recording studios, or agents, or ticket-selling middle-men. The mod scene (not that one) is becoming a major part of this. The heavy lifting of making game engines and everyday content is done by one of the big studios, scripting systems come from those same studios or somewhere else, and then random people on the Internet stand on these giants' shoulders and make the game better. Or strip it to the chassis and turn it into a whole new game.

Internet interconnection has made life easier for people in older creative businesses, too. Unknown writers, for instance, used to have a terrible time getting published, often but not always for good reason. Now, your brilliant space opera, rant about Freemasons or Twilight fanfiction can be offered to an audience of millions with a few mouse-clicks.

That's still a few-to-many model, though. There are a lot more modders than commercial software companies, but modders are still massively outnumbered by players; good modders are much rarer.

I don't think it has to be that way, though, because there are already some collaborative creative works where the creator-to-consumer ratio is surprisingly low.

The obvious example is games and singalongs and so forth conducted among friends, but there are also already many-to-many entertainment... things... that bring complete strangers together.

Take the Internet Oracle, for instance. It's "an anonymous, cooperative email system for creative, (usually) humorous writing, serving the Net since 1989 and realizing its first virtual personality."

Send a question to oracle@cs.indiana.edu with "tell me" in the subject line, and you will in due course receive an answer to your question from the Oracle Most Wise. You will probably also receive a question from someone else, which you can answer in the persona of the Oracle; that's where all of the answers come from. This requires a bit of familiarisation if you want to follow the forms and characters and in-jokes the Oracle's accumulated over the years. But, as with Wikipedia, you won't get in trouble if you just jump in and have a go. (If you'd like to answer a question but don't feel like asking one, e-mail the same address with "ask me" in the subject line.)

Nobody gets paid for answering Oracle questions, and not all of the answers are good. But over the twenty-three years the Oracle's been running, it's come up with a lot of very good humour, the very best of which you can read here.

There are many other online collaborative creative endeavours. The SCP Foundation; crowdsourced creepiness. Pretend Office, which is what it sounds like and is funnier than you might think. Public Minecraft servers (we don't have multiplayer Dwarf Fortress yet, but that's probably because the world's computers don't add up to enough power to run it). New ones pop up every day. (Can you, for instance, think of an amusing memo that Nick Fury might send? Contribute it to memosfromfury.tumblr.com!)

And then there's the explosion of Mystery-Science-Theater-style Let's Plays and related projects, that piggyback on a movie or game or other such work.

It's not yet possible for a person who wants to make a game or mod to do so if they're not also, at the very least, competent with a few development tools, which are usually even less immediately intuitive than Photoshop. There are a few ways to be a real-time online dungeon master for a tabletop-style RPG, though, and there are other little oddities like the lo-fi one-on-one Sleep Is Death. But even if you only want to make yet another pervy naked-chicks mod for Skyrim, you'll need to learn rather a lot.

This is changing, though. Faster computers make less efficient but friendlier development techniques more useful. Public-domain graphics and sound archives are getting better and better. A couple of Kinects are almost good enough for high-grade motion capture:

Full synthesised voice acting isn't quite there yet, but working with voice actors over the Web is achievable, if still strangely uncommon. And we demonstrably already have a large and functional world of music and mods and cartoons and other stuff I'm too old to understand, all being given away by the creators, in return for nothing but applause and tips.

Almost nobody's going to make Madonna money on the new frontier of democratised entertainment, but most YouTube performers just want to share their work with the world. The price we must pay is all those nude mods, and also Justin Bieber.

But I still think it's a tolerable deal.

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