Wednesday, February 27, 2008

User-Generated Content

If 2007 was the year of the peripheral (Wiimote and its various add-ons, Guitar Hero and Rock Band instruments, Scene It? and Buzz! The Mega Quiz's game show buzzer controllers, and The Eye of Judgment's PlayStation Eye and trading cards), then 2008 is the year of the user-generated content. More and more do we see video game companies adopting a Wikipedia or Youtube model, buiding the tools that allow users to create content for the game.

There are three main levels of entry in these user-creation tools. At high levels, the users must have advanced programming skills, understanding of game design, knowledge of computer languages, and a means to get media (sprites, models, graphics, sounds, music). High-level user-creation is just one step below actual game-making; the difference being that high level user-creators don't have to build their games from scratch. They are given a basis to start with, that being a middleware engine, modding tools, or a very competent programming environment. For example, GarageGame's Torque Engine is a powerful and free middleware engine that has built-in 3D graphics, physics, terrain, and collision detection engines, freeing the creator from many technical complications and allowing them to focus more on the game design. In the modding world, we have Valve's Half-Life 2 and Epic Game's Unreal Tournament 3, which is not unlike using a middleware engine. Finally, you may argue that a multimedia environment like Adobe's Flash is a high level user-creation tool with its easy to use animation and tweening tools.

These tools have existed for a while, so what will make them gain popularity this year? The answer is free support and professional distribution channels from the big game companies. Valve announced that they're releasing Steamworks for free and Havok is releasing their popular physics engine for free to PC game developers. Meanwhile, Microsoft has the X-Box Live Arcade, which is a great distribution channel for small game developers, and now they have the XNA Community Club, which is an even better channel for independent developers. Finally, Sony has the PlayStation Network and Nintendo has WiiWare.

Despite better support and better distribution, those high level tools have huge learning curves, requiring advanced technical and artistic ability in order to successfully build a game. Thankfully, we are also seeing a higher support for mid-level user-creation, which doesn't require any knowledge of programming or any artistic skills. Mid-level user-creation uses in-game media such as graphics and sounds, and employs a user-friendly, what-you-see-is-what-you-get interface. Examples include map-making and scenario designing in real-time strategy games or games designed specifically for this such as RPG Maker and Fighter Maker. We're seeing a lot more of this in games such as Super Smash Bros. Brawl and LittleBigPlanet's stage builder, Blast Works's game builder, Second Life's item creation, and of course, Spore's creature creation. All these tools give players a place for their creative output and at the same time, extends the life of the game since it remains interesting and fresh as long as new content is being created. Users want creative outlets, whether it to be make a name for themselves in the community or to create situations that they would enjoy playing in, and they will happily do what is normally the developers' jobs. Meanwhile, the developers can go on and work on their next game and the whole ordeal is a win-win situation.

Last but not least is low level user-creation, which unlike mid-level, does not require a separate mode in order to create. The creation is wholy integrated into the game itself and users can create by simply playing the game. One such example of this is the previously-blogged-about Google Image Labeler. Every time players match a word for a specific image, that keyword becomes an off-limit word that the next team cannot use for the same image. Thus, the more an image is played, the more off-limit words it obtains, and the harder and more interesting the game becomes. What we have here is a very easy and simple game at start, but a difficult and exciting game in its later life.

Mid-level and low level user-generated content undoubtedly extends a game's life, but mid-level is somewhat of a niche market. Most players would give it a try, but only some would be dedicated in creating content and only a few of those would be creating good content. How much more powerful would it be if more games took a low-level approach?

How about a MMORPG where players can shape the world? The world becomes more beautiful and has more trees if the players perform good deeds, or it can become engulfed in darkness and riddled with monsters if players are evil. Maps and obstacles can change, enemies and enemy placements can change, behavior of non-playable characters can change, and so on. What if you can kill a ruler of a kingdom, only to have him replaced by a Draconian dictator, thus changing the game's story? What if monsters evolved over time based on their survival statistics?

Of course, all these suggestions are difficult to program, but it'll be interesting to see more games where we can play the creator and the audience at the same time, where we can design by gameplay.

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