Monday, August 04, 2008

A Model for Player-Generated Content

Well now, it's time for a little bit o' theory.

Let's talk about user-generated content, and how to make it fun, interesting, balanced, and so forth. I'm going to shorten it to "CUG" (content: user generated. It's a better acronym than "UGC") because I have to write it a lot and I don't feel like typing it eighty times. CUG CUG CUG!

When people think of CUG, they usually think of SecondLife. Put forward as a holy grail of CUG, mostly by people who have obviously never played a tabletop game, it is a vast world filled entirely by CUG.

Unfortunately, compared to games such as the Sims or even Halo, SecondLife fares poorly. It is primarily popular for the breadth of its content: you can't pilot a jet in the Sims, or create hard-core porn. Machinima in the Halo engine does not make it easy to build, say, a 1920s speakeasy, or create hard-core porn. In SecondLife you can build and pilot a jet, make a speakeasy. And, of course, create hard-core porn.

Except for the small, insignificant little fact that it's almost impossible to make anything of any real quality in SecondLife unless you are a really dedicated creator with access to a lot of outside software. Mostly, SecondLife exists as a distribution platform for people who are really good at creating content... whether in SecondLife or elsewhere. The actual tools are A) not easy and B) not fun.

Those are different problems, but together they mean that perhaps 1% of the player base makes 99% of the content worth having, which is maybe 1% of the content in the game, the rest being worse than worthless. Every poorly-slapped together newbie house, every "custom avatar" consisting of basic shapes and colors actually decreases the overall value of the play experience. It makes the world less pretty, less interesting. The signal to noise ratio is very bad.

"But wait!" you shout, "you're overstating it! It's always going to be the case that most of the players will be consumers, not creators!"

Like in Spore? Like in the Sims?

These are games where content creation is the game. There are a lot of games like that. Even games like Alpha Centauri or Oblivion can be argued to be like this, but Spore and the Sims are the clearest examples.

Every player creates content and, viewed from a newbie perspective, all the content is fairly interesting. A newbie watching someone play the most boring game of the Sims is going to be fascinated. A newbie seeing the worst-constructed monster writhing around will still find it amazing. Even newbie seeing your poorly-dressed level three thief will be fairly interested.

A newbie seeing an untextured box house will NOT BE AMAZED. Even a little. But the SecondLife world is full of them.


What I'm circling here is that there is a new, emerging paradigm for user-generated content. One where even casual players produce high-quality content as part of the game.

I'll call it the "Wright Paradigm", because he's the guy who seems to have got it really going.

I'm not here to ooh and ahh, though. I'm here to tell you how I think it works and how you can use it (or, at least, understand it) yourself.

As far as I can tell, the Wright Paradigm uses the basic ideas of space and bits.

Bits are the atomic nuggets. A sword that's +5 attack and costs 50 gold. A werewolf. A police station. A claw. Bits have specific game stats and ways of interacting with the game world.

A game comes with a large number of bits. The players can often create more using outside software, as when someone creates a new shirt or item for the Sims. Controlling which bits are available to a new player allows you to lure them into the game - an easy slope. Bits are very easy to use.

Almost every game uses bits. Oblivion uses bits. Even Chess uses bits, although you aren't really allowed to pick which bits to have on your team.

But Chess isn't really about CUG, and even Oblivion struggles with it. Only a miniscule number of chess players actually create chess variants. Similarly, nearly all players of Oblivion are happy with either the default content or freely available custom content: it's rare that they actually go and make a new kind of sword themselves.

What's the secret, the dividing line between something like Oblivion and something like the Sims?

It's such an obvious question that everyone will come up with a different answer. But, to me, the fundamental difference is the way that bits attach to the game world.

In Oblivion, you slot bits into various slots. You get a new spell, equip a new sword, and so forth.

In the Sims - or Spore, or Alpha Centauri - you add those bits to specific locations to change how they affect the game world.

You build a house out of bits. You don't really "equip a new chair", you buy the chair and find someplace to put it. You don't replace one city with another, you build a new city somewhere useful on the planet surface. You don't swap out claws, you put claws on arms of a length and size you choose.

The paradigm, as far as I can tell, is to let the users add bits directly to game space. In many cases, game space is literally space in the game. In a situation like Spore, game space is actually the body of your creature, at least initially. But the idea is the same.

This offers the same kind of easy-intro gameplay that bits provide, and it also enables the user to create content. Even uninispired CUG will be decent, because A) the bits are cool on their own and B) the structure you forge has some kind of shaping feedback mechanism.

In SecondLife, if you build a jet, you can delete the wings and it will still fly fine. The types of content are completely separated from each other: the atomic "bits" are ultra-generic and intended to be combined in very complex ways using very clumsy tools.

If you cut the legs off your creature in Spore, it'll become a pitiful thing, crawling or humping along with whatever limbs it has remaining. If you cut swaths of destruction through your commercial district in SimCity, your city will limp like a crippled puppy.

That same feedback system also allows you to build things as a game. It's fun to build things if, when you put it together, the game comes back and says "here's what happened!" It gives you goals and grades.

That doesn't happen in games like SecondLife, which is why content creation there is about as much fun (and about as high quality) as randomly introducing someone to Photoshop and telling them to get to it. Occasionally, yeah, you'll get someone who can do something good. But usually?

So, as far as I can tell, the "Wright Paradigm" of user-generated content is to provide bits (and allow for custom bits) that have gameplay effects, and allow the user to place them in game space.

The idea of sharing content between players is completely unrelated to this, and it also doesn't mention how the bits have to work, how space has to flow in an interesting way... this is just an introduction.


DmL said...

Firstly: Yes.

Secondly: Oh gosh, how cool will it be when you're able to add player-created bits to Spore creatures? : )

Craig Perko said...

I'm assuming it'll have to be hacked in order to put stuff in, but it'll happen.