Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Producers vs Consumers

People say that communication technology diminishes the difference between producers and consumers. It's hard to get a book published, kinda hard to write for the paper, not too hard to host a BBS, pretty easy to have a web page, darn easy to participate in a forum, and nearly impossible not to create content while playing a MMORPG. Sometimes, it seems like the next step would be to take the difference away entirely: everyone produces.

Let's take a little bit of a closer look.

Each technology seems to make it a little easier to produce - easier to publish and, usually, easier to actually create content. But the problem is that in the process of making creation easier, they also make it more limited. It's pretty much unavoidable, because in creating a framework to facilitate communication, you make specific assumptions.

For example, a book's framework is pretty open - you can write just about anything. And, at least recently, you can even include pictures without too much difficulty. But forum posts are less useful: although you can technically say anything, the forum audience isn't usually willing to read long posts about subjects the forum isn't organized around. Even worse is a MMORPG, where your content creation is largely limited to equipment, guilds, and some minor amount of RP. It's hard to, say, discuss the nature of language. It's hard enough just to tell a love story. Too much of the content is incidental rather than intentional...

Another side effect of turning people into producers is that a lot of stuff gets produced. Leaving aside the fact that the majority of it is crap, you have the problem that any given individual is going to be exposed to literally hundreds of options at any given time. I call this "swamping", and it leads to a whole host of problems such as fan disunification and a loss of scale and awe. I'll post on them some other time, but for now I'll just say that artfully restricting people's access to player-created content is not only possible, but necessary.

The question is: can you create a system of content creation which is easy, but robust enough to allow people to say unusual things in unusual ways?

I think it might be possible using a "tiered content" system. Imagine three programs which let you build or experience content.

The "bottom" level, the easiest and quickest, would be construct content using tiny fragments. For example, if it was a first-person shooter, you could toss in fragments which define weapons, enemies, level specifics, plot events, and so on. Of course, this same program would let you EXPLORE the content and even allow others to "push" fragments into your game, making it a kind of iterative, expanding, cooperative storyline.

The "middle" level would allow you to design the fragments that the bottom level uses. This would take a bit more expertise to use, although simple stuff like a new kind of weapon might not be too hard. It would also let you share and browse fragments, trade fragments, mutate them, and so on.

On the "top" scale, it would be a method of creating a front end. For example, you could build a kind of web browser, or a first-person shooter, or an RPG. You're not creating content: you're creating a method to explore content which gets created. Obviously, this would be the most time-consuming level to use. It is entirely possible that a creation on this level would generate versions of the middle- and low-level programs specifically for the product.

For most users, simply using the lowest level at its most basic setting would be fine. It would be similar to simply playing a game (or browsing the internet, or whatever), except there would be the option to have weird "cooperative plot" variants and stuff.

Users that are more interested in creating can do so at whatever scale(s) they prefer.

Is it viable?

I don't know. I'm still thinking about how fragments can be defined such that they auto-generate most of the details - hopefully leaving low-level creators with little more than dialogue to fill in once they put down all the plot fragments.

Even if it was possible, would it allow people to make the statements they want to make? Can you convince people to play these games?

I don't know.

But... I am going to spend some more time thinking about it.


Craig Perko said...

Dictating interplayer and intersoftware policies could be a major part of the top level program...

Troy said...

Is it viable? I sure as hell hope so because I'm creating exactly what you describe right now. Can't say much more in a public forum, but drop King Lud IC a line and he can fill you in on what he knows.

Good thoughts... way better articulated than I usually muster.

Craig Perko said...

Well, you'll have to let me know how it turns out!

Patrick said...

I think an alternate take on this is that the a user content community doesn't have to provide the core content, it only needs to effectively cultivate feelings of audience solidarity that put users "in the mood" for pro produced content. MySpace is a low-grade example of this, and my attempts to promote indie games on it have met some success. If a user is already engaging an interface, it follows likely that they'll be more prone to engaging a game. Myspace is a concentration of this over the usual portal surfing, or at least on par.

However, as conversion rates (reported from portals and from my experience on MySpace, in terms of people messaged vs. people who engage) demonstrate, there's a lot of progress to make. I was considering Second Life as a superior model, lots of people really engaging in content creation, yet at the same time musicians are starting to do concerts in SL, filmakers premiering indie shorts, ect. Games, however, don't nessecarily follow, unless you can embed the game in SL's physics, which would be interesting but extremely limited.

I think something like Troy's project could be very effective at providing a platform for marketing indie games on-top of the melee of mashing and content creation that users will ostensibly be engaging in. If it could allow some sort of customatability of a game for instance, it would probably engender a lot of spread and solidarity regarding the core product.

And by probably, I mean, anywhere between 20% and 70% probably, its just a theory at this point.

Craig Perko said...

While your percentages don't mean anything, there is a good angle in the first couple paragraphs.

Audience solidarity is very important... but there are a lot of other ways to get it, including by simply letting the best of the audience content creators become the "pro" creators.

However, it is becoming more and more obvious that you need "seed" content even if you give your players really nice creation tools...

Troy Gilbert said...

We think seed content is critical. In fact, an early business model revolved solely around the seed content, though that's changed now. But the bulk of our strategic thinking has been on maximizing the seed content, which really means creating versatile, highly configurable seed content.

The next step is making your new producers as expressive as possible as quickly as possible. We've got it down to five steps that can be explained with a single, short sentence each. With those five steps we can produce a huge range of genres without having to teach the user a single thing.

The beauty of the five steps: each one can be drilled down into for the advanced users. But, no matter how deep you go, it always bubbles up to working at the abstraction level of the five steps.

And the upside of that? When another user comes along to edit your creation *they* don't have to go deep if they don't want to... hell, they don't have to know a deep even exists.

And interesting your mention of machinema in the next post... our tool addresses that as well.

Here's an analogy that Patrick will like... we're making the AK47 of gamedev: cheap, accessible, stable, simple, abundant, though maybe not quite as precise as your M16. Power to the revolutionaries... ;)

Craig Perko said...

Sounds interesting: keep me posted.