Tapping Into the Power of Collective GamingS

With the number of gamers playing online, why don't more video games tap into that millions-person collective to achieve something interesting, socially grand or just fun?

Turns out that sometimes they do.

While efforts like Sony's Folding@Home project, which uses the collective processing power of unplayed Playstation 3's to research and better understand disease, have been around for years, it wasn't until recently that console games have started playing around with this idea of collective gaming.

Earlier this month, Battlefield 1943 stormed onto the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. In the first-person shooter, gamers go online to fight it out in World War II's Pacific. While the game's premise of World War II battle offered little unique to the genre, there was a twist.

The game shipped with an area locked away from players' reach. To get to this hidden map, gamers had to collectively kill one another 43 million times. Once the kill count was reached, the map and new game mode becomes available to everyone, for free.

It took just five days on the Xbox 360.

"We were tracking all global kills per a console," said DICE's Gordon Van Dyke, the game's producer. "Every time a kill was made the server would report it."

Van Dyke used an Excel spread sheet and his knowledge of such games to track how long he thought it would take. He came up with three weeks, not five days.

Van Dyke thinks that the Playstation 3 version of the new map, which has to be unlocked separately, will likely hit early next week.

By all accounts the experiment, dubbed a community challenge, was a success. A success not just in terms of tracking the popularity of their game, but in helping to define and build a community among those gamers.

"I'm a big advocate of the community," he said. "I think (ideas like this) could blur the definition of massively multiplayer online games in particular areas, and build up that community relationship In games like this."

And the success of this communal achievement has Van Dyke, at least, thinking about including these sort of group efforts in future games.

"I will be working on (upcoming shooter) Bad Company 2, so it's definitely something we would consider in that game," he said. "But we are not going to shove it into something else because it was successful for 1943, we want to use it diligently."

Battlefield isn't the only, or the first console game to tap into communal efforts.

The Playstaton 3's Noby Noby Boy, released earlier this year, tracked all players' efforts in the game, reporting them to a database. The worldwide points were then used to unlock new areas in the game for everyone. It took players months to unlock just two of the game's extra levels.

Eric Lempel, director of Playstation Network operations and strategic planning, says these sorts of community-driven efforts and rewards are the natural evolution of this generation of consoles. An evolution anchored in online play and masses of gamers.

Lempel points to the PS3's virtual world of Home as an example of how community and building community has become an increasingly important part of console gaming.

"One of the biggest goals for us is bringing the community together," he said. "Bringing another level of entertainment to the community."

Home was recently host to a form of alternative reality game, something that wasn't fully explained to gamers, but expected them to figure out the clues, the mystery, themselves. By the time the game wrapped up this month, 3.2 million people had visited it and it had 460,000 players.

While the creators of games will likely always be the driving force behind gaming, they're quickly becoming not the only ones with an important impact on what they make.

Giving a gamer control of the environment in which they play, allowing them to unlock secrets, explore spaces, create new ideas, will inevitably change the nature of this form of entertainment. Perhaps eventually turning the concept of the artist and the audience on its head.

Well Played is a weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.