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The social narrative of #IDARB, outcomes of improvisation in a crowdsourced game development process

Very few digital games can legitimately claim to be significantly changing the industry, to give birth to a new genre or to redefine the perspectives through which scholars approach them. How small is the probability for such game to emerge and be acknowledged in today’s roaring and competitive digital landscape, and more importantly, what does a game need to embody to justify an academic research capable of providing substantial results? Answering this last question in general terms is of course impossible. A digital game is a complex medium which carries a large variety of socio-cultural, industrial, behavioural and technological aspects. However, some games appear more promising than others and trigger enough attention to initiate further investigations. I believe it is the case for #IDARB, a game which differentiates itself most notably by its crowdsourced development process, but also by multiple specificities of the experience it offers both from a gaming and a viewing perspective. In the first section of this paper, I will present a general description of the game, its social nature and emphasise on the way it embraced interactivity from its birth and maintains it throughout its entire lifespan. This introduction will also aim at shortly identifying elements and concepts of the larger context in which this game takes its origin such as crowdsourcing, social networks, online communities and game broadcasting. The second section will draw particular attention on the social interactions which shaped the early versions of the game focusing on underlining the pivotal inputs. The insights gained from these first steps of the research will lead me to propose a comparative approach between #IDARB’s development and improvisational theatre. I will discuss how similar the conceptual structures of these two practices are and how they relate in terms of interactivity, liveness, playfulness and performativity. In the penultimate section, I’ll look into how the suggestion-based improvisation framework allows for game development to become a game of itself and redefines the relationship between developer, gamer, and viewer. Finally, I’ll put my findings into perspective by looking at the rapidly evolving game industry, and I’ll cast light over several noteworthy initiatives from major companies encouraging similar interactions and dynamics in the name of the participatory culture (Schäfer, 2011).

The acronym #IDARB which stands for “it draws a red box” refers to the original image tweeted by independent game developer and chief creative officer at Other Ocean Interactive Mike Mika (@MikeJMika) on his personal account on January 3rd 2014, accompanied by the open call : “Where to go with this? I’ve started a new project, it draws a red box. Thinking platformer. #helpmedev.” The image displays a screenshot of a rudimental game prototype composed of a dark grey background, six white and grey platforms of random sizes and a red rectangle apparently standing in the middle of the rendering. In an interview published on xblafans.com, Mike Mika recalls in which state of mind he was when reaching out to his followers: “Mika missed the way he used to develop games: asking his friends to play works in progress and generate ideas for them.” (Santangelo 2015) The first suggestions quickly popped up as direct replies to the original tweet and spontaneously initiated the crowdsourced development process. Committed to his experiment, Mike Mika iteratively integrated suggestions from his followers into the game and shared screenshots of his work in progress with his audience. Fast forwarding two months and many upgrades later following the same crowdsourced process, the game had dramatically evolved and had settled most of its key characteristics, graphics, gameplay and mechanics.

Mike Mika (@MikeJMika) defined it on January 15th by tweeting: “Based on the last round of feedback, it is a 4p arena game with a new mechanic called Fizzics”. Shortly after, an exclusive showcase of the game was unexpectedly set by Microsoft on its main booth at the annual Game Developer Conference (GDC), a major event of the gaming industry taking place in San Francisco. For the first time, the crowd could play the game, meet the development team and experience all the features announced by Mike Mika. Extremely positive and enthusiastic feedbacks boosted the game to the status of sensational hit. I will come back more closely on the evolution of the game and the ties which bond #IDARB to Microsoft in the next sections. After this significant increase in visibility, the game kept on evolving, gaining traction on social media while the amount of suggestions increased proportionally. Aside from the possibility of suggesting new features, the public soon could further participate in actively producing content such as new characters or theme songs via free editing interfaces accessible on #IDARB’s official website. By encouraging user-generated content, one of the most important aspects of the web 2.0 (Schäfer, 2011), the developers of #IDARB gave the audience an opportunity to play with them, and further enforced the sense of appropriation of the game by the community, while the game itself was still unavailable for the same public. As a matter of fact, the game remained unavailable for a very long period until its release on XBox One in January 2015 first as an exclusive for Xbox Live Gold subscribers and finally for any Xbox One player a few days later. Until then, users could only experience the game during local showcases. The scarcity of these opportunities resulted in an increased anticipation among followers of the game. Live broadcasting was the other key factor which allowed for #IDARB to maintain its attractiveness before being released for public. By streaming and demoing the game on Twitch.tv, the largest and most popular online game broadcasting platform, Other Oceans developers could showcase beta versions of the game and further interact with their community. #IDARB streams multiplied on Twitch as Mike Mika started spreading some early copies of the game to some of his friends, bloggers, users who personally demanded or users who had suggested impactful ideas. These “lucky few” game testers instantly became effective marketing channels and contributed to the growth of the #IDARB community. Users who had contributed by creating content could eventually see their work in the broadcasts of the game and could further engage with the game, even without playing it. Interactivity reached another dimension when developers introduced a social feature which allowed viewers on Twitch.tv to interfere in real-time with the game they were watching. This was achieved by developers first by giving a unique alphanumerical identifier – the #gamecode – to every #IDARB match, and second by programming a series of optional game disrupting mechanics, humorously named hashbombs, which could be activated by any viewer simply by tweeting a specific word mentioning the match identifier. Hashbombs quickly became a popular feature and turned viewers into secondary players (Newman 2002), enlarging what can be seen as #IDARB extended magic circle (Salen and Zimmerman, 2004). It is also worth noticing that hashbombs were programmed secretly and were left for viewers to be discovered. This resulted in a community-driven quest to find all existing hashbombs by trying to tweet any possible word while watching a live stream. Of course, every tweet contributed again to the virality of the game. Posts on social media, forums and blogs were created to list all discovered hashbombs and describe their effects. Closely looking at some of the hashbombs reveals that they are much more than another playful element of the game. Moreover, they appear as an interesting mirror of the digital culture and include plenty of references to iconic games, films, music, tv series or internet culture as the following examples demonstrate: the hashbomb #moonwalk make the characters face the other way; #minecraft activates a Minecraft theme; #rainbow displays a Nyan Cat rainbow trails behind players. As we have seen in this first section, giving access, control, and influence on almost everything except the game itself seems to be the emerging ideology of #IDARB’s development phase. Taken to an extreme conceptualisation, one could argue that the game itself could be considered as less determinant than the social dynamics involved in its creation, argument which will be further elaborated in an upcoming section of this research. More than a year after the initial tweet on which the game was founded, #IDARB has given birth to a vibrant community of fans, contributors, viewers, commentators and lastly players who all engage with the game, making it an intrinsically social game. Affordances of the differently engaged users continuously evolved within this community allowing for a constant redefinition of the user’s role and his self-perception. From this description of #IDARB’s intense interactivity naturally emerge questions such as what the game narrative could be or where do elements such as game development skills and strategic decision making fall. In the next section, I will address these concerns.

To analyse the experimental mode of development embraced by Mike Mika, it is required to investigate the discussions which took place on his social media accounts, most notably on his Twitter profile (@MikeJMika) and his Vine profile (@MikeJMika). Indeed, the game appears indissociable from his developer, much like in the relationships between an author and a book, or a director and a film. The tight association of the two existed from the very first instant the project was launched and turned Mike Mika’s Twitter profile into the official public platform of the game. Therefore, I believe it can be beneficiary for this research to give some background information about Mike Mika before moving further. Mike Mika currently holds the status of chief creative officer at Other Ocean Interactive and, according to many industry articles, has a long history as a game designer. Notably, he already raised attention in March 2013 by modifying the game Donkey Kong to allow his daughter to play with a different character. He posted the result as a video on his Youtube profile with the following description: “My three year old daughter and I play a lot of old games together. Her favourite is Donkey Kong. Two days ago, she asked me if she could play as the girl and save Mario. She’s played as Princess Toadstool in Super Mario Bros. 2 and naturally just assumed she could do the same in Donkey Kong. I told her we couldn’t in that particular Mario game, she seemed really bummed out by that. So what else am I supposed to do? Now I’m up at midnight hacking the ROM, replacing Mario with Pauline.” (Mika 2013). The video received more than two millions views and more importantly aroused several thousands of cheerful comments among which many came from other game designers. The intimate tone employed by Mike Mika in his youtube post, portraying him as a loving father dedicated to pleasing his child, certainly won the audience. In the article published on wired.com, the designer explains he only posted it for his friends and wasn’t hoping for a viral viewership. (Mika 2013) Mike Mika can undoubtedly be called an expert game designer whose main motivation apparently lies in conducting original experiments and sharing them with his peers. Consecutively, the Twitter followers base was rather small back in January 2014 – around 200 followers – but a niche mostly composed of influential people of the industry. Mika’s genuine approach on the Donkey Kong experiment can identically be found in the original #IDARB tweet from which I will now depart to analyse the game metamorphosis in terms of gameplay, mechanics and graphics. I’ll aggregate these characteristics by using the game genre theory. In order to do so without the use of elaborated conversational visualisation tools, I have simply saved and organised all of Mike Mika’s early tweets and the feedbacks they received. I have limited my research on the first days of the game, until it reached a form comparable to what it still is today, which surprisingly took less than a month. My basic analysis of the Twitter conversations shows that in only few iterations of the process suggestion-implementation, the game genre was settled. Moreover, three particular replies had a pivotal effect on the game development direction. The introduction of a second character on the screen (indirectly suggested by Twitter user @TimofLegend) turned the game away from the strategy genre and led into the action genre; the identification of the red box as a soda can suggested shortly after by another user was translated by Mike Mika into the gameplay he called “Fizzics” based on building and releasing pressure to initiate movement. But the most impactful change the game ever received was undoubtedly caused by the introduction of a ball to compete for as an answer to the suggestion of Twitter user @necrosofty. Instantly, the game became part of the sports genre, with a competitive dimension. This analysis also reveals that the conversation involved several very influential names, such as Tim Schafer (@TimofLegend), game designer and founder of Double Fine Production, Chris Charla (@iocat), director of Microsof’s ID@Xbox program or Brandon Sheffield (@necrosofty), director of Necrosoft Games). Their suggestions or messages were constructive while humorous and embedded private jokes which translated obvious friendship ties. The undeniable game design expertise of these early contributors might probably have been essential to the quality of the outcome. One other specific tweet of Chris Charla (@iocat) on January 4th appears visionary today: “I’m calling “it draws a red box” for GOTY 2014 right now. It’s over. See you at DICE 2015 for the AIAS award, @MikeJMika”. While the game development had only started for a day, Chris Charla apparently sensed the full potential behind the conceptual idea of Mike Mika. Interestingly, Mike Mika accorded an equal importance to each suggestion he received during these early conversations. One way or another, he integrated everything he could possibly make sense of into the game and no track of negative reaction or clear rejection to a suggestion can be observed. In an interview to Wired, he explains: “People throw ideas at us, and we try to interpret those and incorporate them into the game in a way that doesn’t compromise the integrity of the game, but adds to it.” (Moore 2015) This last quote is key to understand the development logic of Mike Mika and reveals that above the experimental aspect of the process, there was as performative challenge for the developers and the initial intention to make it all work together. The outstandingly successful outcome of the process can thus be more attributed to the developers’ interpretation of the suggestions than to the suggestions themselves. How should then be called such creative development process since crowdsourcing alone obviously can’t explain it. As hinted by Mike Mika himself, the game development compares in many way with the concept of improvisation which can be described as the performance of implementing random inputs.

Comparing digital games with other media or art forms is a common approach among scholars and has often proven to be a relevant way to study them and understand their evolution. Film studies have notably influenced and inspired game researchers (Aarseth 2001; Wolf, 2008;  Raessens and Goldstein, 2011) while theatre has been a less used art form to compare them with. In the case of #IDARB however, Improvisational theatre, often called impro or improv, seems to share many similarities and promises to be an insightful analogy as few studies connecting improvisational theatre with game design have already proven (O’Shaughnessy and Ward, 2014). As human media interaction researchers Swartjes and Vromen explain it: “in improvisational theatre, actors attempt to improvise interesting scenes using suggestions from the audience.” (2007, p.146) Actors learn to follow principles in order to ensure the success of an improvised scene. Amongst others, Keith Johnstone – considered as one of the most important author about improvisational theatre with his books Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre (1979) and Impro for Storytellers (1999) – has set many of these particular kind of acting standards and has given birth to the very popular formats such as Theatresports, Gorilla Theatre or The Life Game. Considering the profusion of authors who have tried to list these principles for different purposes, I found it difficult to extract a comprehensive formulation. However, in the context of this study, I will discuss four elementary recommendations indisputably accepted: listen, accept all offers, make a statement and initiate. Improvisers are thought to thoroughly listen to the inputs which are sent to them by other actors in the scene. For an improviser, to listen implies to avoid preparing his reaction until the end of the incoming suggestion. This attitude allows for the actor to live and act in the present instead of anticipating the future and formulating a constructed or pre-established answer. This principle is tightly linked to the liveness of improvisational theatre, an aspect which has been remarkably studied by Matthijs Engelberts (2004). Listening should always be followed by the second principle of impro: accept all offers. It states that actors become counterproductive to the story if they deny, refuse or block any suggestion of other participants.  Eventually, such behaviour results in a collapse of the narrative. However, agreeing with the input doesn’t necessarily mean to take it in a fixed sense. In fact, it is even required that the improviser  interprets the offer and further builds the story upon it. This attitude is well summarised by the formula “not only say yes, but yes, and” (Fey, 2011). Thus accepting the offer must be followed by further contributing to it which naturally leads to the third principle: make a statement. Improvisation requires participants to give clear inputs, substantiate their offers and avoid only asking questions. Relying exclusively on other participants without contributing is detrimental to the story generation process. Making a statement is in fact the much needed starting point of any improvisation and is closely related to the fourth principle of impro: initiate. As any other story, an improvised scene must begin with at least an embryonal idea. The modalities under which the suggestions and offers will be delivered should also be set beforehand. These modalities are called games in improvisational theatre and serve as frameworks in which both the actors and the audience have their specific role to play. As a common example, many improvisational games involve members of the audience by asking them to write short sentences on a paper and give them to the actors on stage. Over the course of the game, actors then have to reach for a random sentence and instantly include it in their play. I recognise in this interactive practice an extreme similarity with the interaction observed between Mike Mika and his developer team (the actors), his Twitter followers (the audience) and their tweets (the sentences). Twitter’s 140-characters limitation can be very much compared to the spatial limitation of the paper notes. Both implicate the same constraints and require the audience to give short and precise suggestions. Such suggestions are much more likely to be implemented rapidly. Mike Mika’s development process also proved to be compliant with the first and second principles of improvisational theatre, to a certain extent. Although it isn’t possible to say that #IDARB’s developer included all the Twitter suggestions – which can be partly explained by technical limitations and feasibility – his approach was surely to accept all offers. At this point, it is important to mention that in improvisational theatre, interaction with the audience is different than interaction between players and so is it for #IDARB’s development. According to  Keith Johnstone, unlike actors inputs, audience suggestions can be exceptionally dismissed under certain circumstances: “I’d never imagined that improvisers would one day be asking for suggestions before every scene and enslaving themselves to the whim of aberrant individuals. After all, who are the experts at setting up scenes? We are!” (1999, p.26) Further elaborating, he states that “the audience would rather see good scenes than sit watching players who are uninspired or stymied. Never accept a suggestion that fails to inspire you, or that is degrading” (1999, p.29) This can sound contradictory to the second principle of improvisation theatre, but is in fact a necessary distinction between the influence of actors and the influence of audience. Symmetrically, the expertise of Mike Mika and his team as game designers inclined them to discard absurd suggestions which would have altered the game. The third principle of improvisational theatre was also fully embraced in the game development process. As many twitter conversations prove it, Mike Mika consistently added his own elements in the game and didn’t wait for the audience to do all the work. His proactivity prevented the project from falling in in a state of latency and ensured the continuity of the creative emulation. This attitude can be easily observed in some of his early tweets (@MikeJMika): “We might have a solid idea: 4 person couch play soda war. Shake the controller to build pressure for jumps. Mentos boosts. #helpmedev”. Mike Mika here clearly takes the audience suggestions a step further and revitalises the process. Looking at #IDARB’s initial tweet, evidence can be found that the fourth principle of improvisational theatre was also fulfilled. The initial image of the game prototype described earlier in this paper can indeed be seen as a first statement carrying certain predispositions and triggering suggestions. An improvisational actor would probably conclude that if Mike Mika’s tweet had been limited to a blank page hinting no specific creative orientation, the feedbacks would have been very different and theoretically less constructive. As far as this comparative study has taken me, bearing in mind its limited scope, the intuitive idea that #IDARB’s creative process borrows conceptual elements of improvisational theatre seem to be validated. Moving beyond these principles, other aspects are worth noticing in this analogy. Theatre is an intrinsically live art, it “rests, obviously, on the simultaneous presence of performers and audience in the same space.” (Engelbert, 2004, p.159) This liveness as the corollary effect that it turns the audience into a form of community (Engelbert, 2004). Performed under the theatresports framework, theatre even tend to become what Keith Johnstone define as a “party” (Johnstone, 1999, p.6) where all participants should share a positive state of mind oriented towards enjoying the experience. This specificity somehow shifts the focus away from the actual content of the play and reveals that the social dimension is the real purpose: “the social effect of the act of performing can even be the major goal.” (Engelbert, 2004, p.169) This substantially explains why improvisational theatre has often been discredited and considered not as actual art, but more as a form of playful entertainment. Investigating #IDARB reveals that its development process carry a very similar sense of community and enthusiasm. Moreover, its playful nature stands out as one of the main element that differentiates it from traditional game development. 

Strictly describing #IDARB by its content, gameplay or genre without mentioning the origins of the features would probably make it look as a less desirable title and would result in less eulogistic reviews. But does it make sense to dissociate #IDARB from its development process? Most likely not. In the same manner, an improvisational theatre scene would hardly be tolerated by the audience if it was presented as traditional theatre. The absurdity of the plot and the chaotic conversations would surely be criticised, while the spontaneity and the reactivity of actors would be undermined. In many ways, it can be sensed that the peculiar development process essentially constitutes the narrative of #IDARB. Shortly put, developing the game became the game. This perspective seems to support many findings and observations done in this research so far. By voluntarily contributing to Mike Mika’s project, followers on Twitter engaged themselves in a practice which can indeed be assimilated to a game as defined by Jesper Juul: “A game is a rule-based system; with variable and quantifiable outcomes; where different outcomes are assigned different values; the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome; the player feels emotionally attached to the outcome; and the consequences of the activity are negotiable.” (2005, p.6-7) This definition resonates as a compatible framework to conceptualise #IDARB’s development as a game of itself. The rule-based system can be recognised in the way Mike Mika clearly explained to his followers how he expected to receive suggestions and what he would do with them. The outcome can be represented by the announcement and presentation of an updated version of the game, through a short video or a screenshot for example. A rewarding process can also be seen in the way Mike Mika systematically replied to suggestions and thanked contributors. Notably, #IDARB’s final credits list all the contributors to the game development and cheerfully praise their participation. Lastly, the emotional affect of the outcome on the player can be observed for example in the exhilarating feeling provoked by the acceptance of a suggestion. Without taking this conceptualisation much  further here, an interesting point about #IDARB’s narrative already emerged. As observed in several other online gaming phenomena such as Twitch plays Pokemon (Ramirez and al. 2014), the gaming experience seems to be redefined by the use of social media as a source of inputs.  “Videogame players need not actually touch a joypad, mouse or keyboard and that our definition needs to accommodate these non-controlling roles. The pleasure of videogame play does not simply flow through the lead of a joystick” (Newman 2002)

Taking a step back from the observations made on #IDARB’s singularity and looking at the  evolution of the gaming industry and its design processes, several studies bring insightful findings which resonate pertinently with this research. Innovative game development companies have indeed adopted organisational structures that support the challenges of constant creativity, flexibility and responsiveness. In a study about the organisational structures of Valve and Linden lab, Shenja Van Der Graaf states: “both firms invite their user base to engage and participate—albeit at different stages—in development practices guided by purposefully designed technology” (2012, p.482) In an article published on gamasutra.com, Ken Birdwell further argues that the vibrant success of Valve’s famous title Half Life is linked to a collaborative design process known as The Cabal (1999). In this case, after a disappointing first prototype of their game, designers decidedly committed to work together on one single stage of the game and include every possible features which would it. “We set up a small group of people to take every silly idea, every cool trick, everything interesting that existed in any kind of working state somewhere in the game and put them into a single prototype level. When the level started to get fun, they added more variations of the fun things. If an idea wasn’t fun, they cut it.” (Birdwell 1999). This state of mind is very similar, if not identical to the one Mike Mika was in when he initiated the #IDARB project. It carries the same expression of pure motivation and communicative drive that seem to be the backbone of these popular success. While this kind of jubilant dynamic seem beforehand contradictory with economic imperatives, deadlines and project reliability, tangible evidences of its efficiency are forcing actors of the industry to reconsider their management and their strategy. By bringing technical support from the very first days of #IDARB’s development through the ID@XBox program – a support platform for independent developers –  Microsoft proved to have understood the necessity of listening to the voices of the community and fostering interactivity. Finally, I suggest that an interesting direction for further research would be to study how  the role of established game development companies are expanding from production towards the provision of technological infrastructure and endorsement of external creative initiatives.


I wrote this essay in the context of the Master Programme in New Media Studies & Digital Culture
I am currently following at Utrecht University.
More specifically, this research paper was part of the Game Studies, a class given by dr. Stefan Werning.


Acknowledgments
I would like to personally thank Mike Mika for giving me insightful documentation and prompt replies during this study. His disponibility via Twitter was nothing less than outstanding.


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