Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Player Generated Content, Part I

Player Generated Content!

A quick essay by Craig Perko


Recently, there has been interest into the particulars of player generated content. Some people love this idea, some people hate it, but very few people actually understand it. I'm going to try to explain a bit about the complexities involved, and talk about benefits and problems. SecondLife, being the premiere game of player-generated content, will be mentioned quite a lot.

The very basic idea of player-generated content is that if your players generate content, you get free content. However, even more powerful than this idea is the fact that players who generate content are having fun on a number of levels that other games are hard-pressed to allow. A player who is creating content in a game is solving a puzzle, being creative, changing the world, competing, and usually performing for a crowd, all at the same time. And all in an almost zero-stress environment. That's pretty powerful, don't you think?

Some people say it's largely an excuse so that the developers don't have to create any content. I don't see why that's a bad thing, but even if it were, the actual content creation system is content, itself. Creating content is its own game. True, it may not appeal to all people, but made friendly enough, you might be surprised.

The biggest argument against player generated content is that most players will produce really crappy content. "Crappy" can be defined as whatever you want - unbalanced, offensive, artistically worthless. There is no doubt most players will tend to create things in one or all of these categories. People seem to equate this with other players having to live through this crappy content.

You're worried about someone building "the Tower of Wang", or just having a dungeon so tedius that it drives a new player off when they stumble across it and try to play it.

So you think, "well, we need moderaters to approve everything before it can get in the game world... we need a standard of quality... blah blah blah." Not only does this cost huge amounts of cash, it also cripples your game. Your game will only contain those things the moderators approve of. Unfortunately, game audiences grow and change. Moderators do too, but generally not in the same directions. Also, the lack of immediate feedback makes the content creation much less responsive and therefore much less fun.

This whole idea fundamentally misunderstands how "player content" works. This whole idea radically underestimates the power of the game's logic to shape the culture of the game.

There are a million ways to control content. However, there's a few fundamental drives and results to think about, and all content creation control systems stem from these same issues:

"Sharing" is a Four-Letter Word

The whole idea of player generated content is to share the content among the player base. If you create a giant monkey that sings Elvis songs, it's worthless unless everyone can comment on your giant monkey.

This means getting people to look at your giant monkey. Obviously, your content management system has to allow for that.

Here's the unfortunate thing: there exist the sort of people who would make a giant penis that sings Elvis songs, instead. Now, in some situations this content is fine, but in most situations, not really. These are griefers.

You see, there's an inverted bell curve here. The people who most want to use the distribution system are the people who have the worst content and people who have the best content. Most of the people inbetween the two are likely to restrict themselves, making content for only themselves and their friends: they have a real idea of what their content is worth.

Of course, it's much easier to create griefer content than good content, so given a "flat" distribution system, someone cruising looking for content is more likely to find Winky the Talking Penis, rather than the cool hovercar races.

This means you don't use a "flat" distribution system. This is a very complex subject, and there's an unlimited number of ways to weight the systems. We'll talk about some of them in later chapters, but a simple example would be a ratings system, where high-rated content is more likely to discovered than low-rated content.

The other solution is to somehow limit submissions by content, but this generally involves some people who stand there with big rubber stamps saying "okay" and "not okay". That's bad for a whole host of reasons, not least of which is the fact that it costs quite a lot of money. We'll talk more about that in a later chapter, as well.

Gotta Spend Money to Earn Money

Another fundamental issue is how content is created. This not only includes how much skill is required to manipulate the creation system, but also what kind of in-game requirements there are to create things.

For example, many old multiplayer text games (call them MUDs or whatever you wish) allowed you to create any content you wished. The commands were usually relatively simple, especially for a programmer, and the descriptions were simple text. Skill-wise, there was no minimum skill for creating basic objects of any kind. It all fell to your creativity, your storytelling skills.

Contrast that with games such as SecondLife, where in order to create an object you have to build a complex three-dimensional figure and then paste pictures of your own creation all over it. At that point, you can start creating the scripts which determine how it runs. Only after you have enough skills to do all that can you begin to actually create with your creativity and your storytelling skills.

There's an obvious barrier, and this accounts for much of SecondLife's slow growth.

There's also in-game restrictions. For example, some MUDs allowed you to create content only if you had a specific rank, or if you spent "points" which could only be earned over time and from others using your already-created content. SecondLife restricts permanent creations to (A) your person or (B) land you own (which costs real-world money).

The in-game restrictions are an attempt to keep griefers and the totally inept from diluting the world with their content. There are good ways to do this and bad ways to do this. I'll talk about both in this series.

The skill barriers are a product of complexifying games. In general, the lower the skill barrier, the more people will create. Of course, you can never please the hardcore crowd, no matter how much control you give them: but the casual gamer just trying your content creation system doesn't want to be faced with a million indistinguishable options.

I will talk about how to create a fun, simple system that doesn't sacrifice hardcore control in later chapters.

Red, the Blood of Angry Men!

Most people are happy the first few times they create something beautiful. But as their skill increases, so do their goals. You get people who want their creations to do something.

This is a touchy subject. Just how much control over the world can you give your players? How can you balance it?

Speaking from experience, if you allow players significant control, they will quickly find the "optimal" system of control. In SecondLife, you can nuke an entire sector, killing everyone in it. You can also release what is essentially a fork bomb, and crash the server. This kind of makes a bunch of people with guns rather obsolete.

How can you allow players an outlet for their constructive urges while balancing their destructive urges? How can you let someone create a castle surrounded by a horde of werewolves without allowing for an army of self-replicating naughty bits? How can you make sure those werewolves don't cause grief to the players? Or crash your server?

We'll discuss that in a later chapter, as well.

Lastly, but certainly not leastly:

The Luxury Clause

It will seem, when you step into a permissive game full of player generated content, that 80% of the content is porn.

Actually, it's generally much lower than that. But porn catches your attention much better than pretty houses and snazzy watches.

The basic idea is that people will create where they perceive the level of simulation to be most fertile. This depends largely on what kind of content creation you allow. SecondLife has a huge number of vehicles, costumes, and architecture, because those are the three things that their content creation system is built to support. The level of simulation is deepest there: an almost unlimited number of options and a relatively easy interface.

SecondLife does have combat, but it's pretty poor. This is because SecondLife itself is not built with combat in mind. When simulating combat, the rules are too simplistic and unreactive. Hence the construction of nukes.

But a game's level of simulation isn't limited solely to what you program into the game. It's also what's been programmed into the player's minds. Social interactions of all kinds are deep simulations, even if they're not programmed into your game, because the players interacting are complex and varied in and of themselves.

Of course, the primary social interaction for most players seems to be sex.

This whole thing is due to "The Luxury Effect". The basic idea is simple: you take care of what you need before you take care of what you want. It's really unusual for people in the middle of a raid in WoW to suddenly dive into a deep social interaction. However, once the raid is over and you're back at base, the situation is reversed. There's no worries about getting killed, no need to be at tip-top tactical attention. So you can relax and let your hair down.

There's a couple of ways to use the luxury effect to your advantage. Eve Online uses it by simply making your characters faces. I'm sure there's plenty of sexual sessions in Eve, but I'm also quite sure it's rarer than in a game where your characters are clearly depicted, usually as sexual beings. What you want is shaped by what you see.

Similarly, Eve's environment is one of continuous unrest. You're never really "secure". It's a tense, worrisome environment. This means that most of the player's time is spent dealing with needs rather than wants.

SecondLife is quite the opposite, with absolutely zero needs and an extremely detailed character creation system which emphasizes your character's sexual nature.

Still, even in systems of zero luxury and zero humanity, if you allow your players to create things, they will often create porn. This is not a solution to that: it will decrease the amount of porn, but will not drop it to zero.

What it will do is get more players involved in the content creation system. If creating content makes it significantly easier to survive, then most players will give it a more persistant try than if it's just a luxury item.

I will discuss, in a later chapter, some options you have for shaping the culture of your game by setting the difficulty, display, and the sexuality of your game world. We'll also talk about how Eve Online and SecondLife actually enhance immersion, while WoW and other such games actually cripple immersion. This is an interesting topic because Eve Online and SecondLife are largely polar opposites, yet they both know this secret.

And, yes, it is related to player generated content. Tangentally. :)

Here you have what I consider to be the biggest issues with player generated content. In the near future, I'll discuss more of the specific issues and solutions.


Chris Oltyan said...

A lot of good points there, but let me go to another type of content.

Content can be many things, in Second Life, There.com, and other relatively open systems, content is limited to the technical ability of the user to create. These systems have porn creepage, and can completely change and alter the nature of the game world.

Looking at a game like Puzzle Pirates and A Tale in the Desert, however, you get a very different type of content creation. In puzzle pirates, you have the ability to create an Island that you govern. This island can only have a certain number of prefab objects on it, and what you are essentially adding to the game is more player experiences. While you can have crazy clowns saying kooky things, you are mostly limited to the palette provided to you. With a Tale in the Desert, a non-combat MMORPG, you are literally given building blocks. Some tests to advance involve creating bricks to make a house or temple with. Some involve taking a set of existing items, crafting them together into a sculpture, and then placing it in a public place for people to comment on.

The last type of content I would mention is player generated quest content, whether scripted or unscripted (by scripting I mean utilizing some high level scripting language to effect game logic). Anarchy Online and The Matrix Online are excellent places to observe this type of content. In Anarchy Online, you may volunteer your player to become a part of the live role-play community. By agreeing to do this, you give the ARK's (volunteer player guides/moderators) the ability to take your character and place them into a role-play situation. If you perform well, and stay in character, you will be called on more often. If you act completely out of character, you will be poorly rated, and not called up. An ARK can submit a mission concept to the development team to implement. For instance, an ARK decided to make a mission for Omni-tek, the "evil" faction in the game. It involved getting a team to take a Clan "good" faction building over, hold the people hostage, and when they sent in a recent Omni-Tek defector, who is a negotiator, to negotiate the release of the hostages, you were to kill him. Afterwards, the players were informed that the hostages were no longer needed, and could be eliminated as well.

Evil is not black and white in Anarchy Online, and in order to make this more interesting, the ARK planted a PC in the group who would act as the morale conscience for the group, stating "These people didn't do anything, does anyone else think this is wrong?" and watch the ensuing discussion. If the players killed everyone, they would be rewarded. If not, the mission computer would inform them that their disobedience was noted, and would be filed away for future reference.

I would go into some events I know people in the Matrix Online have organized, but the short story is that players organize events, advertise them themselves, and then run them. This can be a large scale scavenger hunt, in order to "rescue" someone, and players volunteer to delete their character if the mission fails.

All of these forms of content have potential in a MMOG, but the trick to designing a MMOG that has content as a guiding part of the gameplay is creating a system that limits the players in some way, while still giving them enough tools to do interesting things. Very nebulous, I know, but I would say A Tale in the Desert has a very compelling formula for this. If you haven't already, check it out.

Craig Perko said...

That's simply restricted player generated content. I'll be covering that in my second chapter, out either today or tomorrow. :)

fookr said...

there exist the sort of people who would make a giant penis that sings Elvis songs, instead. Now, in some situations this content is fine, but in most situations, not really. These are griefers.

Decent piece man, but some of your conclusions I disagree with. Griefing is about intent dude; not about what you build but why you built it. I fucking hate castles, so if you build that shit beside me is it griefing? No it is not.

Just because you hate a build, does not make the builder a griefer. Keep writing dude.

Craig Perko said...

I agree, fookr, but that would have taken a few hundred words to explain, so I left it out. :)

Philippe Jofresa said...

I like the fact that you are realist about what players will most probably do if given the opportunity. Porn gallore and possibly Knights of the Holy Order of Goatse walking around... *shudder*

I've a pet theory about it for quite a number of years. Quite simply, I call it the "Gyges Ring effect".
If people are not afraid of any sort of physical retribution, they'll quite simply not care about the consequences of their actions.
Very much like a drunk person loses all their inhibitions and shows their true selves.

I find it a fascinating topic (I've had this theory for the last 10 years or so, since high school) and I'm eagerly awaiting your own ideas on the subject of "how to put the fear back into the people", so to speak, for I think this is the core of the problem you are adressing, here.


Craig Perko said...

Philippe: I wasn't planning on talking too much about that in the near future, unfortunately. I've got other chapters planned, first.

But it certainly is an issue, and there are a couple of pretty good solutions. :)