Monday, May 10, 2010

Fly Me To The Moon


A few years ago, user-generated content (UGC) was described by many as a panacea for ever-rising costs in developing content for current generation games. While there have certainly been some successes, it's hardly proven to be a guaranteed recipe for success. At least partially, this is because creating any game content is difficult, no matter how streamlined the toolset, let alone creating game content that's actually fun. The 90-9-1 rules applies, creating a Catch-22 where a game needs to be popular to have good content, but it needs good content to be popular. UGC is still being explored, notably in upcoming titles like ModNation Racers and APB, but it's clear we haven't figured out exactly where it works best yet.

Enter Moon Taxi. A coworker sent me a link, predicting it would be right up my alley. And I daresay, he was right.

Had he not sent me this link, I doubt I would have noticed Moon Taxi. It's exclusive to the Xbox Live Indie Games channel, a venue which I pay little mind. Aside from a few titles like Weapon of Choice and Flotilla (further recommended reading on Flotilla from Telltale's Sean Vanaman), XBLIG doesn't boast much of interest. Now I'd add Moon Taxi to that rare breed.

The game portion of Moon Taxi is simple- you fly a yellow and black space shuttle toward the moon. As you fly, a conversation between the passenger and driver is narrated. Certain choice words from the narration appear from the starfield. The goal is to collect these and avoid asteroids. The more words you collect, the more narratives you unlock. It looks like this:





This likely appears uninteresting, but the fascinating part of Moon Taxi is where the stories come from- the stories are entirely written and acted exclusively by the game's community. These are the only guidelines:

1) Start with "Take me to the moon"
2) The narrative is being told by one or more passengers in a taxi to the moon
3) In some way, involve why the passenger(s) are going to the moon

Beyond that, anything is fair game.

Without question, the best narrative currently in Moon Taxi is a portion of John F. Kennedy's address to Rice University ("We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard"). The speech alone is inspiring and one of my favourite pieces of oratory, and it works extremely well in Moon Taxi.

Unfortunately, Moon Taxi's concept is often stronger than the execution. The writing on most of the stories is passable, at best, and the acting is almost universally poor. It far more evokes grade 10 drama class than something like the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio play. What appears to be the best story hasn't been narrated.

Still, I think the idea is fantastic. I'm hoping the developer, Popcannibal, will continue to update the game with new stories. Hell, I may well take a swing at narrating the story above myself if that's the case.

I often bang on about the great power of constraints, and Moon Taxi is a powerful example of this. I've written about Jason Rohrer's Sleep is Death previously and while I think SiD is fascinating, the ability to create anything is as much a burden as it is a freedom. The blank canvas can be tremendously intimidating. But having even the small sets of constraints creates an enabling focus. It's far easier to think of an interesting story about someone in a cab to the moon than it is to think of an interesting story about "anything."

It's a bit surprising that games that rely on UGC haven't leveraged constraints more. I can easily see a game like Little Big Planet running weekly/monthly themed contests. Rather than leaving to players to simply creating levels about anything, the contest could be to create a level based on a historical event. If UGC-based games are truly going to succeed, finding ways to motivate and reward creators is going to be vital. Constraints seem an excellent way to do this.

Despite some actual weakness in content, I still find Moon Taxi fantastic. I highly recommend checking out the demo at least, and at less than $3.50, still a good deal. Especially if a few more purchases encourage the developer to keep updating it. There's a great deal of potential in games like Moon Taxi; I really hope we can find ways to make that potential a reality.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Hugo said...

Whenever I hear or read about user-generated content, I think of Larry Lessig's TED talk "on laws that choke creativity"... Not for the point he makes about copyright issues, but for the way he sees UGC as a reinterpretation of a work and a creative act. The Kennedy Moon Taxi video shows that, and so does Little Big Planet I believe (while I have not played it yet).

As you say, it sure would be nice to see more games that appeal to the player’s creativity, allowing him/her to interpret and appropriate their contents to craft a more personal experience.

May 10, 2010 at 10:31 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Hugo Yeah, that's a whole other level of complexity when it comes to UGC. I remember a lot of the initial Little Big Planet levels were rejected because they contained copyrighted imagery. It makes me very sad that non-commercial use like that is contentious.

May 11, 2010 at 9:00 AM  

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