In Convergence Culture, Jenkins raises the issue of media producer accommodation of consumer demands. He concurs with Grant McCracken’s assessment that media producers must tolerate consumer participation in order to remain viable (Jenkins 133-134). As an examination of the benefits offered to producers by a full realization of consumer participation, let us consider the video game developer Valve.
The Half-Life video game series and the massively popular Steam digital game marketplace and library software represent arguably Valve’s two most famous products, though all of Valve’s currently-supported games and/or series (Portal, Left 4 Dead, and DOTA 2) enjoy high popularity in the gaming community. Valve’s success in the gaming industry is due in no small part due to the developer’s ingenious integration of consumers into the content cycle of Valve’s games. Modding, or the fan practice of generating unofficial new content for a game which other fans can then consume, plays a substantial role in PC gaming culture. Many PC gamers create mods, and many more download and experience their fellows’ work. Popular games often have hundreds or even thousands of mods ranging from trivial to colossal in scope.
Realizing the vast potential of the modding community, Valve has reached out to modders and included them in the official process of content creation for Valve games. Valve’s First Person Shooter (FPS) game Team Fortress 2 (TF2) stands out as a singular example of the mutual relationship discussed by Jenkins. Player characters in TF2 employ a wide variety of weapons to do battle on a number of different arenas, or ‘maps’ as referred to by the game. ‘Reskins’, or changes to an in-game weapon or character’s visual appearance, are quite popular in the modding communities for Valve’s games, and TF2 is no exception. For example, a character’s modern-styled pistol might be changed to appear as a cowboy revolver. In TF2, Valve sells reskins of characters’ clothes, most notably the now-infamous hats, and weapons for a small fee. However, many of the items in TF2’s virtual store sprang into existence not due to the work of a Valve developer, but rather a community member. TF2 modders can implement their vision in the game itself through the use of various contests, as well as a “Steam Workshop” mod catalog where users submit their work for consideration by the community and Valve.
Nor are skins the only area in which TF2’s players enjoy the ability to transform their fan-made content into an official part of the games. As mentioned, TF2 players do battle on a variety of maps, each with a different layout. The distinct differences between maps ensure that no two maps play exactly the same, and each map forces players to adjust their play to account for the map’s features. TF2 enjoys an active mapmaking community where fans design maps suitable for competitive play. Valve often adds community-made maps into TF2, thus granting fans the ability to drastically impact the way the game is played through exercising their creative abilities and participating in the development of a favorite game.
Valve’s open embrace of community-generated content boasts stunning results. The TF2 community self-generates a constant stream of new content for the game, greatly lessening the amount of content Valve must produce in order to maintain player interest. Valve typically sells fan-created weapon and clothing skins in the TF2 store. The item’s creator receives a percentage share of the profits derived from such sales. The rest of the profits go to Valve, allowing the company to rake in money without lifting a finger. Valve and its consumers both benefit greatly from such a symbiotic relationship. Users enhance Valve’s products and raise profits with no work required from the developer while taking an active role in shaping the object of their fandom. Such a mutually beneficial relationship represents a realization of the potential of modern digital technology in producer-consumer interactions.