Sunday, May 24, 2009

About That Player-Generated Content ...

One of the most oft-discussed trends in technology in the last five years or so is user-generated content. It took a little while to spread explicitly into games, but player-generated content has recently become cited by analysts and other ostensibly informed outlets as a "hot trend" in games. To be fair, Little Big Planet and Spore have done well as torch-bearers of player-generated content.

Despite the rosy predictions about the coming age of player-generated content, as always, there is no silver bullet. There are a lot of issues with player-generated content, more than even experienced studios seem to realize. The most recent example of this is Paragon Studio's "Architect" expansion to superhero MMO City of Heroes. Perhaps best summarized by Wired's headline, "Handed Keys to the Kingdom, Gamers Race to Bottom," this update gave players the ability to create new missions in City of Heroes. Unfortunately, some players created exceedingly easy missions and facilitated farming of rewards. Paragon has begun cracking down on such players with severity.

Player-generated content is nothing new, especially in the realms of PC games. Modding has been a pretty fundamental part of PC game for well over a decade. Some of most popular games of all time, e.g. Counter-Strike or Defense of the Ancients, are player-generated content. Hell, the multiplayer shooter's bread and butter, capture the flag, started as a mod. But mods are distinct from City of Heroes Mission Architect in that they actually work in a meritorious "free market." Mods that are unfair, too easy, too difficult, etc. simply won't be played by many. Their utility is entirely internal. A player's only incentive to engage with a particular mod is that mod's reputation as enjoyable.

Tabletop RPGs are similarly self-correcting in this respect. The infamous "Monty Hall" campaign may be problematic, but only if the players don't enjoy it. It's almost certainly unsustainable in the long run, but until the players stop having fun, there's no issue. Taking characters from one campaign to another is a concern, but in private games, it's something the importer and new hosts will have to resolve. Organized, convention-based RPG play, like the RPGA network, has strict guidelines on how much reward a character can receive for any adventure. Combining that and a tracking system resolve most of the possible issues.

Incorporating player-generated content into an existing digital game is far more problematic. The first major concern is the hard truth that a lot of player-generated content just isn't any good. Creating a mechanism so that unengaging, dull content can be easily sorted from gems is vital. Fortunately, the rise of user-generated content in non-game media has given us a lot of systems to emulate (and avoid), so this isn't very formidable.

The second issue with incorporating player-generated content is filtering inappropriate content. Basically, this boils down to finding a way to combat the unwashed Internet masses' primal inclination to write and draw penises on everything imaginable. As the flood of Sporn clearly demonstrated, given the chance players will do so. But it looks like Paragon put a lot of thought into how to address this problem without needing to hire hundreds of customer support staff, and I don't have any reason to think they weren't successful in this either.

The final major concern with incorporationg player-generated content into existing game systems is one relatively unique to games, and even then, to specific types of games. This has to do with rewards granted by engaging with this new content. In most games, the reward is simply whether or not said content in enjoyable. But some games provide rewards that are external to the content, at which point it becomes very problematic. E.g., the Trophy levels in Little Big Planet or the class Achievement servers in Team Fortress 2 allow players to earn external rewards far easier than they were intended to be accessed.

As someone who earned all three of the Pyros unlockable weapons without spending one second on an achievement server (thank you very much), I confess I was a little irked that those who did had access to that gear faster and easier. But beyond that, their consequences to the game at large are not that severe.

Similar problems in City of Heroes, however, are quite severe. First, because a perception of unfairness is toxic to an MMO. Nothing turns players off faster than the perception that someone else earned the same reward for a fraction of the effort. It also diminishes the game from a business perspective, as the game's future relies on players to continue paying to play it. Players that max their characters are more likely to stop playing. Progression through the game is also essential for it to remain appealing in the long term, as more social connections are made, the game's systems are better understood and, to be honest, there's a bit of Skinnerian reward condition that needs to sink in. Whether or not that's ethical is a separate discussion, but I will say that far fewer people would be playing World of Warcraft if you started at level 70 never progressed beyond that.

This post was inspired by Michael Abbott's post on the same. I'm a bit shocked that Paragon didn't expect this and build in a few more safeguards. I do not want to second guess, of course, but I was thinking of more elegant ways this kind of abuse could be prevented.

The most obvious thing is not give equal access to the Mission Architect to all players. Make unrestricted content creation a privledge that must be earned. Everyone has equal access to a number of "templates" that define encounter strength, rewards, etc. I assume these guidelines are more or less known already, since Paragon's internal level designers must use them to create balanced missions. Tabletop RPGs also communicate encounter guildelines well. As a player creates more content that is highly rated, they can earn the right to create with fewer and fewer restrictions. Additionally, with fewer missions being created carte blanche, it would be easier to discover possibly abusive content.

Additionally, incentivize creating quality content. Perhaps a handful of missions would be selected (or their creators solicited to create new missions) that would be available in the game proper, or perhaps as part of a new content update. Instead of having all player-generated content be equal, allow content creation to feel somewhat competitive. Valve's decision to include one or two community-created maps in their official updates must inspire some creators to produce work of the highest quality. Plus, if a creator was interested in getting a job in the game industry, saying that Paragon selected their mission to be official new content sounds pretty compelling in an interview.

Now don't get me wrong, I think the idea of incorporating player-generated content has a lot of merit. But as I said above, it's not a silver bullet and it comes with a host of seriously difficult problems. It's not a way to "crowdsource" game development and save money, nor is it justification for creating only a skeleton of a game and letting the players "fill it in." There is a great deal we have to learn about the dynamics of player-generated content and until we do, I expect we'll be seeing a great deal more penis monsters and farm missions.

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Blogger Kirk Battle said...

Hrm...the major criticism I would make of 99% of the mods I have played is that the designer is essentially making a game for themselves. They're crap because they don't bother to conceive of anyone else playing their level. Sometimes I swear it's like watching a designer rattle off their ten favorite things about a game when you play a mod.

In the case of the MMO? Maybe ban the user from playing their own stuff. At least then they'd rein the habit of just giving stuff away.

May 24, 2009 at 7:33 PM  
Blogger Graham said...

Great post. The stars are definitely converging on this topic for me today. And in general, it's one that I have a huge amount of passion for.

I agree with L.B.: The big issue here is the 99(point-nine-nine-nine) percent crap rule. Little Big Planet pushed this to the forefront for me the way that no game ever has, on account of how easy it was to publish said content.

I'm totally on the same wavelength about taking that 0.001% of cream and exposing the hell out of it. Doing this creates a beneficial segregation in the community: Those who expose themselves to the 'raw' player content, and those who expose themselves to the 'good' player content. This has been, in essence, how most mod communities worked, thanks to the labour required in publishing: Only those mods that were decent would even make it to the message boards, and only those that were good would get the high post-counts and server counts that got them noticed.

I also appreciate your point about exposing players to more creating capability as they create; I mean, why not make the content creation a game as well?

(This could lead into a whole raft of my thoughts on crafting in MMOs, but that's a bitter topic...)

The downside, of course, is that an overly limited palette may limit the creativity and inspiration of casual creators. But re: 99% rule, no loss. Maybe I'm just cynical.

In terms of CoH, it kind of boggles my mind. I'm also one of the people who was thinking about formulas for determining the 'reward value' of a mission procedurally. I can't understand how the prospect of this would slip by NCSoft. Unless of course this has been badly misreported, and these level creators were, in fact, exploiting. In which case, my sympathies.

The final point that really tickles me about this post: The anonymous douchebag factor. It's simply the price a game (or anything on the internet) pays for being mainstream. Honestly, I think the only solution to this is ever-smarter technology and a lot of elbow grease. Either that, or be incredibly niche and clannish.

May 24, 2009 at 8:29 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@L.B. CoH might have actually done that, I'm not sure. But I know they had problems with cabals of players collaborating to create numerous easy missions and giving all of them the highest rating. It definitely make sense to bar players from playing their own content once it goes live, but it's only a tip of the iceberg.

@Graham Thanks. Reading your comment, I just thought to mention one other property of user-generated content games haven't adopted yet. Finding the "next hot thing" is also a human tendency that can be utilized.

It seems that most of the indie music scene is driven by people looking to find the next awesome, but still "totally unknown" band. Same thing with movies, comics, art, etc. Finding a way to put a loose structure on this that encourages players to seek out content from others would give player-generated content even more legs (and more of a community as well).

May 25, 2009 at 2:15 PM  
Blogger Graham said...

Yeah, good point. I think that several of those fit under the idea of 'legitimatizing' player content. This is another area where mods succeed by their nature: Because it's a lot of work to make a mod, it already has that air of competence and accomplishment about it that 'test level #3' doesn't have.

Definitely, any thing we can do that would make people take the player content more seriously (reward mechanisms, acknowledgment, etc.) means that that many more people will take making it more seriously.

Your comment made me think of Youtube: Such huge boatloads of crap content, but it doesn't matter, because of URLs. If a game made it easy to collect (playlists) and share (urls, feeds) other users content, then hot content and 'the next thing' emerges naturally. Word of mouth always wants to happen, it's just our job as software designers to allow it to happen.

(This, IMO, is the big thing missing from Little Big Planet.)

May 25, 2009 at 6:42 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Graham That's a solid point. I don't know how easy it is to share player-generated content in CoH, but it's definitely thing that should be built in from the ground up.

I know Lord of the Rings Online has a concept of "titles." Some of them are easy to learn, some quite difficult. It precedes the character's name and it clear for anyone to see. Having some similar mechanic for marking creators of outstanding content could be another way of incentivizing creation of quality content.

May 25, 2009 at 7:43 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

My first thought while reading this post is that games should have "Creation Center" servers where players can run buckwild, and any player can build whatever they want, as long as it isn't encroaching on other players work. Players could create "Creation Guilds" where they could work as teams on projects, allowing multiple players to work on the same locations, etc.

Then, when the project is ready, they can submit it for community testing/voting. If it receives enough player approval, it is brought before the quality assurance team, who then checks it for bugs, built-in exploits, etc. Once it passes through them, the project is implemented on the live servers of the game.


August 9, 2010 at 5:53 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@John Heh, into the stacks, I see.

Yeah, something like that would definitely be worth exploring. WoW runs beta servers for a similar purpose. The biggest challenge would probably with be attracting, for lack of a better term, testers. Some kind of incentive would probably be needed, but it couldn't be such a large reward that some would want to game the system. I think a balance could be struck there though and having content get "promoted" into the game proper would definitely be good incentive for creators.

August 9, 2010 at 9:52 PM  

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