04/04/2012 18:21 BST | Updated 04/06/2012 06:12 BST

Can Crowdsourcing Drive Innovation in the UK Games Industry?

"I've got a great idea for a new iPhone app". As the owner of Neon Play, a mobile games studio, I've heard this phrase more times than I can count. I've heard it so many times that I decided to do something about it and turned to a term that has been much talked about: crowdsourcing.

A term coined by Wired Magazine's Jeff Howe in 2006, crowdsourcing has been around since at least the 18th century, when the British government called for help from the public to solve 'The Longitude Problem', which made sailing both difficult and dangerous. John Harrison won the £20 000 prize in 1714.

Fast-forward to the 21st century and crowdsourcing, according to a recent report by research firm, Massalution, has seen revenue increases of 75% in 2011 compared to 2010 due to a highly aggressive adoption rate within the internet services, media, entertainment and technology sectors. The report also states that the venture capital community invested nearly $300 million in Crowdsourcing Service Providers in 2011 alone.

Crowdsourcing is essentially a competition. We ran a competition in conjunction with MacFormat and Tap! magazines to find new ideas and to really test the concept of whether or not the general public could generate valuable game ideas.

The results were interesting but very mixed in terms of quality, as you would expect from any crowdsourcing process. The eventual winner, Ascot local, Patrick Jamison, sketched his ideas onto paper. He has no programming skills but he loves games. He came up with Rollerhog, which we have now developed into a real live application. Without the competition, his idea would never have seen the light of day. How many other people out there have great game ideas? Without competitions or crowdsourcing, will they ever be realised?

The hunger for game ideas has never been greater. Mobile gaming is at the root of this so crowdsourcing ideas is of increasing interest to the industry.

But is taking a more democratic approach to solving this problem really the answer?

Ultimately crowdsourcing should not replace existing R&D. It should be regarded as an add-on, an additional source of ideas and everyone should benefit. For example, for coming up with Rollerhog, Patrick gets 25% of the revenue. It's important that ideas get rewarded but it's also important to be aware that not all developers may be so generous.

There can be a dark side to crowdsourcing that involves more than cost and time consumption. In many cases people give up the rights to their ideas. The crowdsourcing concept can be cut-throat with its intense competition and can also lead to legal risks and intellectual property infringement. It's important to always go into the process with your eyes open and understanding the small print.

So what are the downsides?

  • Less money doesn't necessarily mean less costly. While a company can save costs by not using their own resources to work on ideas, they risk getting poor quality entries and are forced to choose a "winner" with a mediocre idea that can result in tarnishing the company's reputation.
  • It can be an achingly time-consuming process, sifting through the outpour of responses to finally pick that perfect-sized shoe (or at the very least, the shoe that best fits).
  • What happens to the submissions of the other entrants? Is it time and effort wasted and who retains the copyright to the idea?

So can crowdsourcing really drive innovation in the UK games industry? My gut feeling is that it won't but you never really know. There are some great ideas out there but are there enough to drive an industry forward?

Developers have to constantly generate new ideas but of course they are limited by their own staffing levels and their creativity. Crowdsourcing opens this up a bit but with it comes limitation too. Our experience with the competition has done enough to convince us that it is worth revisiting but we won't be relying on it to fuel our business.