Pushing the Limits of Crowdsourcing

From around the world, almost 20,000 people chipped in on a five-minute animated film that features a love story between a guitar and a violin. You could have been one of them. All you needed was a Facebook account and an itch for computer-generated animation. The Mass Animation project, led by Yair Landau, is showing how much further crowdsourcing can go, and how traditional production methods may get left behind.

David Perry is also pushing the limits, and expectations, of just what's possible by tapping the brainpower of the multitude. Project Top Secret, which Perry began in early 2007, has elicited contributions from 60,000 people who have signed in to help create a giant multiplayer online game. Like Landau, Perry is a novice in his new creative role. Both still have their day jobs: Landau, 45, is head of Bedouin Media, a production company; Perry, 41, runs Gameconsultants.com. And both claim their concepts have proven wildly successful. So how did they do it?

After seven years as president of Sony Digital Pictures (SNE), Landau didn't need to take a big jump to launch Mass Animation, a three-way partnership of Intel (INTL), Dell (DELL), and Facebook. He got interested after a friend at Facebook told him how easily Facebook was able to translate its Web site into different languages by simply letting users do the work. Facebook, meantime, was interested in seeing what other crowdsourcing projects it could come up with. Familiar with Landau's work in digital movies, Facebook approached Landau about crowdsourcing a movie via its site and Live Music, the animated tale, was born in Los Angeles.

Harnessing Group Power

Perry, a 26-year veteran of the video-game industry with several No. 1 titles under his belt, was looking for ways to include the video-game community into the production of games. Working with Acclaim Entertainment, the Beverly Hills resident had also seen how crowdsourcing made translation easier: On their own, users would record game dialogue in different languages. Perry and Acclaim figured gamers could do much more. On a plane ride from Korea to the U.S. in November 2006, Perry and Acclaim Chief Executive Howard Marks agreed to launch a contest that would crowdsource a full-fledged game. "We just decided to give them the rope to let them hang themselves," he laughs. In early 2007, Project Top Secret began.

Landau and Facebook spent less than $250,000 creating the Mass Animation application that would run on the site and host the entire contest. It was built by AniBOOM and SpreadApp and designed by Noise New York. Autodesk (ADSK) was brought in to provide a trial version of the industry-popular Maya animation software. To help users along, Landau created storyboards, character models, and broke the movie into 107 shots for the crowd to animate.

Within two months, 50,000 people became "fans" of the project on Facebook. A third of them stepped up to either animate a segment, uploading QuickTime video files to the Facebook app, or vote on submissions through the application or by creating their own fan pages. In the end, people from 101 countries contributed animated shots. Each person with a winning clip won $500. In addition, Dell and Intel, which used the contest to promote its Core i7 processor, gave away a Dell Studio XPS computer every week. In all, the sponsors spent about $1 million and eight months on the project. Landau says producing the same five minutes of film by traditional methods would have cost millions more and taken at least six months longer.

Open-Source Approach

Perry says it usually costs close to $1 million to launch a game. But by taking an open-source approach to the Project Top Secret competition, he and Acclaim kept their costs down to next to nothing. About 60,000 contributors used any software they liked to write game code, including several free, open-source programs. They used open-source forums (akin to online message boards) like phpBB software to host discussions. They also posted their files and artwork on YouTube and the forums, charted their process using a Wiki page, and used TeamSpeak to host conference calls when they actually had to speak to one another. In fact, the $60 a month Acclaim spent on the teleconferencing software was the entire project's biggest cost.

The contributors were eventually split into 20 development teams. The best team, as judged by Perry, will be given $100,000, the chance to develop the game, and future royalties from the title. One winner will be chosen to direct a future Acclaim game as an employee and will get the accolades and royalties associated with the position. "The first to submit a game we can test with the community—that the community response makes Acclaim want to publish it—they win," Perry says.

Beyond savings money and time, crowdsourcing paid off in a couple of other big ways. The viral effect of the Web created presold audiences for the projects before they were even completed. "They all feel ownership in the project cause they worked on it," says Perry. "They show it to their friends, post it to blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc., and it spreads."

Forget the Contests

Landau and Perry both say the method helped them find talent. Acclaim hired five Project Top Secret contributors for full-time jobs running the development of other games, adapting games for different countries, and working with Perry as part of his team. Each position pays more than $50,000. Landau says getting input for Mass Animation from so many people around the world made the movie richer in style and substance. "I was surprised at how truly global it was and how well everything worked out, in terms of everyone using the platform and creating a universal experience," he says.

Both say they'll use crowdsourcing in the future, except they'd change one thing. Both would nix the contests. Perry says what was a "lovefest" at the start veered toward sniping. Landau says the finer details of animation were lost on novice voters, leading to a few quality-control issues. But the overall process worked better than they had ever guessed. Mass Animation 2.0 and Project Top Secret 2.0 can't be too far away.

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