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.