A lot of people think that the problem with user-generated content is that most of it is very poor. This isn't the problem at all: most internet-distributed games are very poor. But you rarely hear about the bad ones because there's an entire infrastructure dedicated to sorting them.
The problem that people are really talking about is that the games don't have any such infrastructure.
Anyway, even that isn't the real problem. The real problem is, however, somewhat related.
The real problem is that there is no shared narrative in games with heavy user-generated content.
In most games, such as WoW or even A Tale in the Desert, there's a shared experience, a shared language. You and some other player can do that old skit: "Hey, remember when we did that thing with the doojigie?" "Yeah, and then that girl said that stuff?" "Yeah!" (Both laugh.)
This is important - it ties the fan base together.
Players will talk about all the global narratives that crop up. This includes "metagame" global narratives, such as nerfing the paladins or how irritating a particular subculture is.
Sometimes, in a game like SecondLife, you'll get a tide of content of one variety, and suddenly you have a player-created global narrative. For example, the recent increase in the number of crackers taking down servers: everyone talks about it. It's a global narrative that is player-generated.
The problem being, of course, that everyone playing the game despises it. They can't do anything about it. They can't learn the deep secrets, or play with it. That's because SecondLife doesn't have a framework to support global narratives in a constructive way. In order to have a global narrative, it essentially has to be outside of the game, leading to culture wars and hackers.
Eve Online and A Tale in the Desert both have some global support framework. While very difficult, players can have a functionally global effect in these worlds, because players can directly and distinctly affect the well-being of other players. This gives people a vested interest in one another - something which is lacking from nearly all MMORPGs, including SecondLife and WoW.
It's no surprise that both Eve and aTitD have a huge amount of politics, co-op, and PvP (Eve has more PvP, aTitD has more politics). Those are the two basic types of interaction - in-game-engine interaction, out-of-game-engine interaction, and both simultaneously (co-op). Their framework doesn't offer any other kind of interaction, so the options are rather limited.
"What other options are there?"
Well, there's emotional and narrative systems, in theory. The problem is that any given player isn't reliable in any way, so these systems can be abused.
Any given player isn't reliable...
But all players taken as a group are.
This is how Eve Online and aTitD work. aTitD uses a heavy-churn method. The designers introduce a large number of designer global challenges and let players compete. If a player flakes out, no big deal, he doesn't succeed. Someone else does.
If a player grabs power and then flakes out, aTitD adapts by eventually restarting the whole universe. Not exactly ideal, but such is life. A slacking powerful character will also be eventually replaced by an upstart, even if the powerful character completed a global challenge and the upstart did not: the upstart simply works hard and/or completes a different global challenge.
Eve takes the opposite approach, with a minimum of designer global challenges. Instead, they have an unforgiving economic engine. If a corporate head flakes out after rising to the top, then the rest of the corporation will either flee to more agile corporations or replace the slacking corporate head.
Neither of these approaches is particularly friendly to the casual or new player. In fact, both universes are hugely unfriendly to a newb. Not the players: the universe. There is a steep learning curve, mostly related to the fact that the social terrain of the game is built on the fly by the players, rather than being carefully engineered by the designers.
So, here's the question:
Is there a method for allowing this kind of player-affected (if not player-driven) global narrative content without destroying the experience for a casual player or newbie? Also, the global narrative content can't be the only narrative content - players all still have to have unique experiences.
Can you think of a way to do it that doesn't revolve around statistical power? IE, no economics, no +10 sword, no climbing the battle ranking ladder.
How would you do it?
(As you might have noticed, this is part one. In part two, I'll throw out some of my ideas.)