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March 7, 2009 / jadettman

The Reputation Economy

In the not too distant future the Reputation Economy will take a greater hold in the production of intellectual property and, when that happens, patronage will return in a big way.

So, what the hell am I talking about?

File sharing, intellectual property, creative ownership, the internet, and patronage are the topics currently entangled in my brain-meat. Let me see if I can find a beginning to start with . . .

The internet is a vast communications network. You know this because you can’t be reading this blog post without the internet and you’ve probably used the internet before this too.

Anyway, the internet eventually gave rise to file-sharing because that’s what the internet is designed to do — make it easier to pass information back and forth between users — and peer-to-peer file-sharing is an efficient way to do that.

The ‘problem’ with file-sharing is that it isn’t strictly ‘legal’, right? I mean, in most cases, someone ‘owns’ the files that are being passed around. Intellectual property is one of the broad bases that our society is built on: the concept that someone can express one or more ideas in a specific or new way and gain an economic benefit from doing so. For example, I can write supplementary material (ahem) for a game and, if enough people are willing to buy it, I recoup my costs and possibly make enough money to buy a new pair of shoes or keep me fed for a week.

Now, if instead someone makes my game material available for free through a file-sharing program I no longer gain any benefits for my work. That someone has just converted my private good into a public good without my consent. In effect, they’ve stolen my ability to benefit from my labor.

As I see it, there are three ways of dealing with the file-sharing problem: (1) people can simply stop creating, (2) we can expend significant resources to educate folks about the costs of unauthorized file-sharing, or (3) we can give in to the fact that we can’t roll-back the march of technology and adapt accordingly. These solutions are, of course, an over-simplification but I think they cover the reasonable bases.

The first solution is never going to happen. Look at the vast wilds of the internet and it quickly becomes clear that people give their creativity away for free every day. Of course, that creativity doesn’t come packaged with the professional art, editing, and refinement that something we pay for does but that’s the trade-off: buy quality or get crap free.

The second solution won’t work either. Free riders are always going to exist. Many file-sharers rationalize their behavior by saying that they would never have bought the product at any price but they’re happy to do the creators a favor by looking it over for free.¬† Some even say that if they like their free peek at the product they will go out and buy it. Since that kind of behavior isn’t actually observable, it is largely irrelevant.

This brings us to the third solution: adaptation. Clearly, this is the likeliest solution but the question is: how?

Greg Stolze, it turns out unsurprisingly, is a pretty clever guy. In 2005, Mr. Stolze came up with the Ransom Model and used it to successfully sell a game called Meatbot Massacre. Since then he has used the Ransom Model to successfully acquire money for twelve 10,000-word supplements for his fantasy RPG, Reign.

Following hot on Greg Stolze’s heels, in 2006 Wolfgang Baur started his own take on a patronage system with Open Design, a set-up where folks give Mr. Baur money to create supplementary gaming material based on his years of design experience or, in other words, his reputation.

The important difference between these two models is that Mr. Stolze writes material and then ransoms it, releasing the material to the public free once his ransom is met, and Mr. Baur takes on patrons and then writes material based on his patron’s input, providing the products he creates exclusively to his patrons, in most cases. Two very different processes running on similar principles.

In both these cases, Mr. Stolze and Mr. Baur are leveraging their reputations as game designers to convince prospective buyers to give them money. They have staked out their area of the Reputation Economy.

The Reputation Economy is not new. It has probably  existed for as long as human-beings have had enough brain-power to remember that Ookla was strong and awfully good pushing the rest of us around. It is what makes you buy Pringles rather than those generic chips in the supermarket or read every book by your favorite author. Up until recently, though, it seems to have been fairly limited when it comes to gaming.

I don’t know if the lack of rock-star status for game designers is just a long time in coming or if something else is going on in the deep psyche of the gaming community. Until relatively recently, though, it seems like there have been few gaming ‘personalities.’ Perhaps it is the fleeting nature of the design echelon. So frequently the best game designers move on to novel writing, computer gaming, or other, more lucrative fields, leaving us with a career too brief to garner our collective attention.

Alternatively, the creative nature of roleplaying is such that we, as players, re-imagine and tinker with the games so much that we feel that we have greater ownership of the material than those who initially created it for us. This could be one of the reasons that some many of us think that we can step into the game designer’s shoes with such aplomb. After all, we’ve been running our own game for years. How hard could it be to design our own?

A third possibility for the rise in well-known game-designers is, of course, the internet. The mystical electronic force that connects us all together didn’t begin to see serious use until the early to mid-nineties which is, interestingly enough, the same time that we started to recognize the names of game designers who weren’t E. Gary Gygax.

Up to that point, game designers were merely names on books or boxes (or, if you were a lucky con-goer, that guy who was the guest of honor at that convention you went to) . With the internet, we could suddenly talk to, and interact with, game designers with greater frequency. What used to be just a name on book suddenly became that guy who was willing to give you advice about why you should roll initiative on a d10 rather than a d20 and about why your friend Bob got excited during combat but fell asleep when it was time to chat up the princess.

And now, as file-sharing makes it increasingly easier for games to be transmitted over the internet with low costs and the tools of production make it easier for anyone that wants to create a new game, the names of those established game designers become increasingly more important. Those established designers already have a reputation, something to build on. The rest of us, not so much.

That’s where the new patronage is going to make the difference. When fans recognize the reputation of a game designer and are willing to give their money to that designer to create games for them, the creators win. Whether the final product is released for free to all or given solely to the creators patrons doesn’t really matter. What matters is that designers can still benefit from their own labor, at least so long as they produce material that their fans enjoy.

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