Watamaniuk added that giving ongoing support to the NWN community makes sense because it "demonstrates that when [BioWare develops] a game, [they] also support it after it is in the hands of the gamers." He pointed to the fact that GameSpy ranks NWN in the top 10 games played online three years after its release. No doubt NWN's ability to sell a gold, platinum and diamond edition of their game is also due in part to its long-lived community. But there must be a better way to get that community to pay for itself, and at the same time give them more of what they want.
One possible way of getting your fan community to pay for itself is to have one of them produce the next Counter-Strike for your game. A mod so popular, it sells additional units of your game, is every developer's dream. But this is a long shot, at best, and is a gamble, not a business plan. BioWare has addressed this issue by selling premium modules to their community. BioWare is essentially selling more to their most avid fans.
But let's go back to Microsoft and Visual Studio. Why can Microsoft afford to charge big bucks for Visual Studio and its accompanying technical support? It's because Microsoft's users can make money using their tools. Perhaps the answer to funding avid game fans starts with allowing them to make money.
Maybe we should look to Garage Games. Currently, most mod communities have an EULA that basically says making money off the mod is illegal. By comparison, Garage Games sells the Torque engine, which was originally built for Tribes 2, and they offer to publish the games running on the engine. By encouraging their developer and mod community to actually try to make money, they make money as well.
Admittedly, this business model has its perils. Dealing with sticky copyright, licensing and joint-ownership issues presents a problem. And frankly, most game companies are just not interested joining the "indie publishing" business. A wise man once told me, "You can make money selling shoes, but that doesn't mean all companies should sell shoes." Perhaps the best economic model is still yet to be discovered.
There is no doubt that longer shelf-life is a need for the industry. Having three-year-old games that still sell is definitely a start. I'm not the only one who thinks user-created content may be the solution, but only a solid business/economic model will carry that trend. If it's true that "money makes the world go 'round," the company with the best economic model will win the day, both by making the most money and by having the happiest community by giving them the best possible support.
Bruce Nielson is the designer of The Light Reborn, a critically acclaimed and popular module series for Neverwinter Nights, and runs The Online Roleplayer, a fan site. He was also the producer for the Great Battles of History series created by Erudite Software and Interactive Magic.