Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

7 March, 2011

Rethinking User Created Content
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 1:20 AM

I haven’t exactly been a big supporter of User Created Content in the past, to put it mildly. In fact, you could say I’ve been downright hostile toward the idea. So while others have been embracing users and telling designers to “get over” ourselves, I was rolling my eyes and trying to improve in my design skills instead of waiting for players to replace my position.

But, along comes a new project I’m excited about. And, we’re talking about User Created Content. But, this time around, I’m warming to the idea. So, am I stupid or just a hypocrite? Well, after a bit of thought and self-justification, I don’t think it’s either. It turns out that I didn’t like User Created Content in the past mostly because of the context. Let’s take a look at it, shall we?


What is User Created Content (UCC)? I define it as what gameplay content intended to be consumed by others that users create. Gameplay content is things like quests, art, etc. A related concept is User Generated Content (UGC). Users generate non-gameplay content continuously: chat, role-playing, trivia games, etc. Some people use the terms UCC and UGC interchangeably. However, I think there is some benefit to distinguishing between these two concepts. So, I’ll focus on UCC here, meaning gameplay-related content.

What is going on here?

So, why is this an issue? Well, my current gig is doing some intriguing things that related to UCC. Our project deals with Expressive A.I. and real role-playing in an MMO context. (I’m very excited about this project; there are some really great people working on it. Of course, this is a startup, and things are not guaranteed. But, I’m eager to see what we can do.) Part of what we want to do is allow players to add gameplay related content to the game in order to provide more opportunities for real role-playing.

The context here is what’s important. We want players to create content in order to tell better stories. However, many proponents of UCC have had a more selfish goal.

Valuing designers

The main thing I haven’t liked about much of the UCC advocacy in the past is that it doesn’t respect the work that designers do. Many times people who advocated UCC did so from a position of, “we’ll let users create content instead of having to hire designers.” This is an insult to designers who have often spent a lot of time practicing and improving their craft.

Not that everything designers create is wonderful or that players can’t create great stuff, of course. But, you’d expect a professional to turn out more consistently high quality work. Relying on players to create stuff, especially without meaningful context in the world, often results in rather lackluster results.

It might be useful to look at the old familiar tradeoff of ease-of-use vs. power. Giving users easy-to-use tools means that the tools might not be as powerful as they could be and therefore the content won’t be as in-depth as what a full-time designer with a powerful tool could create. Giving players the fully powerful tools you’d give designers means that they can’t easily create content and thus you exclude a lot of people from participating.

Telling a good story

But, shift the focus to telling stories instead of creating all the content in the game, and things change. For example, developers can provide easier-to-use tools without fear because a good story is good despite whatever tools are used.

Of course, you still need designers. Really good ones, actually, because the world and lore design will give the stories people tell context and meaning beyond what they might be able to do independently. As fanfic has shown us, it’s easier to riff off of someone else’s work to create interesting stories than to write them from a blank page.

Looking at it this way, you can kind of explain the success of one of the best-selling PC games of all time: The Sims. While the initial attraction was the A.I. of the characters, the platform really took off when players used the games to tell their own stories. This drove people playing the game and wanting to buy the expansions to get more props for their stories.

Users create other content, too

The Sims is actually a very interesting example here, because it provides a great template. Players used the system to tell their own stories, which became one of the defining aspects of the game. But, players also generated content for the game: wallpapers, character skins and models, etc. However, this didn’t absolve the developers from making content; one of the reasons why The Sims is best-selling is because they shipped a lot of expansions with each version of the game. As I mention above, people bought the official content as well as getting stuff online.

Will Wright gave several talks where he talked about the “content pyramid” for The Sims. At the top you have a few tool creators, then a wider audience of content creators, on down the line until you get the general consumers at the bottom. The summary is there are less people making content than creating content. But, this works fine because one person creating content can serve a number of consumers.

It might also be interesting to contrast The Sims with that other Will Wright game, Spore. In Spore, users were intended to create content. Information about your own creatures was automatically uploaded to the master servers, and thus could serve your creatures to others as content. The game had a number of other problems, but I think it’s possible the shift from telling stories to having users create content for each other is one reason why this game never overtook Will Wright’s previous success.

What have we learned?

So, in the end, I think I’ve figured out what separates out good designs for user created content from the bad: the intent. If you use UCC to replace designers, it’s a problem because users generally won’t provide as good content from a blank page; they need context and support for their creativity. If you use it to allow people to be expressive and tell stories, then it becomes useful, especially if you already have content in place to give context and meaning to the new content people add.

What do you think? Is UCC always a bad idea? Should designers simply get over themselves and await the day when players create their own content? Or is the truth somewhere between the extremes?

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  1. I think your focus on the concept of intent is potentially a very strong idea. I’ve wished for more implementations of some kind of user-generated/user-affected content for years, and your example of the Sims is certainly apt, not least because there was little encouragement (often the opposite) for user-created content from Maxis/EA, at least at the time I was fooling around with it. I could certainly see why that might be, but the creative aspects of those games (I believe) really impacted people’s relationships with the game.

    There are *many* problems with straight-up user-generated content, in my opinion – not least is the fact that (in a multiplayer environment, anyway) – one loose penis and half your audience might walk. I know I was absolutely put off from SL (not that I was exactly enjoying it anyway) due specifically to a lot of the content I saw. It’s easy for the 12-year-old boys to take over in an open UGC environment, and that tends to cause a lot of the other players to leave.

    That said, I think there are a number of incredibly interesting ways to allow players to interact more fully with the game and its components, and story is an aspect of that. I do think that part of the challenge – especially with something like an MMO – is to not simply launch and leave it all out there. I think the designers should approach that kind of a system as one with a certain degree of openness, wherein some of the questions and solutions (and possible directions) are revisited in an ongoing fashion.

    I think that, done correctly, the players can provide a rich vein of interesting directions and concepts. I also think that giving them free rein is a mistake, unless you really do want to be SL. Supporting creativity with both toolsets and ongoing developer/designer support could be incredibly powerful (and, depending on the game, possibly even draw in players that might not otherwise have considered the genre.)

    Comment by katie — 7 March, 2011 @ 7:37 PM

  2. As you said yourself, in any multi-player game UGC is inevitable and essential. Giving players tools to turn that into something, along with context, is a good place to start. I’ve read a few stories from EVE, not from the devs, but player stories, of the rise and fall of corporations, and somehow I cared. I don’t play but I could tell that they were players’ stories, not dev stories imposed on them. EVE is a place where people were given tools and context and sent off to make and tell their stories. The implementation is a bit of a turn off for some people though.

    I think UCC is a logical extension of UGC. It is strange that player actions are so often inconsequential except to themselves. On a tangent, I can imagine a time when rather than making youtube videos of gameplay, we can instead upload the play itself, allowing other players to see exactly what we faced, and then let them see how they would deal with it. Obviously this is rather meaningless in current games of heavily scripted, carbon-copy content for every player, but in a more random world, it could work.

    Comment by Klepsacovic — 7 March, 2011 @ 10:25 PM

  3. “Giving users easy-to-use tools means that the tools might not be as powerful as they could be and therefore the content won’t be as in-depth as what a full-time designer with a powerful tool could create. Giving players the fully powerful tools you’d give designers means that they can’t easily create content and thus you exclude a lot of people from participating.”

    Exemplified by NWN1 (no no not the original original) and NWN2. The first had relatively basic tools and EVERYBODY made mods; only a few were stellar, but most were at least playable, and people could make scenarios for their friends. NWN2, in contrast, had what was apparently a much more powerful toolset, but it was one very few people (I wasn’t one of them :( ) could figure out in the relatively low amount of time we usually have for games these days. Result: very few mods, none of the gaming community that developed around making and running and playing the mods that had developed around NWN1.

    Stories are a great starting-point for UCC, since it’s also what everyone bitches is missing from MMOs these days (which I don’t think is an entirely justified claim). We don’t *need* the same tools the devs have, and we certainly shouldn’t be replacing them, but there’s plenty of middle-ground in between. SWG’s storytelling system, for instance, has been quietly popular for years. CoX’s mission architect, on the other hand, may have been a little too… building-block like, at least out of the box — but then CoX’s missions happen to be like that.

    I’ve been making a lot of read-all lately, so I missed these intriguing new developments (I think). Good luck and kick ass! It sounds pretty fascinating.

    Comment by Ysharros — 8 March, 2011 @ 8:58 AM

  4. I’m all up for UCC as a side line but I’m not sure it could ever replaced properly thought out and designed content from professionals. Kinda reminds me of the days when people used to make their own maps for Doom or Quake etc. The activity of creation itself was lots of fun but the final product was never, ever as good as the professional versions. I don’t think I even enjoyed the ones I made myself, I just liked the process of making them. Maybe that’s a better focus for UCC?

    Comment by We Fly Spitfires — 8 March, 2011 @ 4:10 PM

  5. Its an interesting dilemma and I agree with everyone that its a matter of degrees. But even the most seemingly-innocuous UGC can be irritating. Take the music system in LotRO. I have turned off the volume on player generated music completely. It might be realistic to hear people in the streets who can’t actually play, but like certain types of chat I can do without it. But what really made me turn it off is the people who play completely inappropriate music for the mileau. And they purposefully play it where I can’t escape it (Bank, Auction House, Mailbox…). So off it goes.

    Reading Katie’s comments about Second Life made me laugh. I tried it for about a week and gave up because it was too filled with player generated crap (not content) lol.

    Ysharros’ comments about NWN made me nostalgic. I really liked that system because other peoples’ content wasn’t forced upon me in my single-player game. I could download what I wanted and ignore what I didn’t want.

    Perhaps one of the keys is giving people options as to how much of the UGC they want in their game.

    Comment by Djinn — 9 March, 2011 @ 9:10 AM

  6. Users generate non-gameplay content continuously: chat, role-playing, trivia games, etc. Some people use the terms UCC and UGC interchangeably. However, I think there is some benefit to distinguishing between these two concepts. So, I’ll focus on UCC here, meaning gameplay-related content.

    Let me nitpick a little here, just because I enjoy it, and point out that two players role-playing can easily turn into consumable game content for a third. IMO the lines are blurry; I’d factor in the creator’s intent: do they role-play for the benefit of the bystanders or for their own? In one case, it would be user-generated content to the bystanders, in another it would be user-created. What happens if they role-play for both reasons?

    I find it hard to distinguish between user-generated and user-created for that reason. I do, however, also understand your reasoning and have come to prefer the term “user-created” myself. If nothing else, focussing on the creator’s intent gives you a better focus for figuring out how to support or discourage such activities.

    That aside, I agree: if UCC is factored into a game design, it should be for good reasons, not bad ones. “Avoid hiring designers” is a terrible one, not least because you still need designers to help design the tools with which users create content. Supporting UCC for the enrichment of gameplay, on the other hand, is awesome as far as I am concerned.

    Comment by unwesen — 14 March, 2011 @ 8:45 AM

  7. The music example was a good one. Mabinogi had an incredibly in-depth music system, and all you heard was people remixing the theme to sonic the hedgehog, or super mario brothers. This also brings up copyright issues, as a lot of UCC can infringe on copyrighted works. Little Big Planet was a big example of this.

    Thing is that it wont matter that UCC is less quality, in the same way it doesn’t matter that procedurally generated content like dungeons are less quality: they are cheap to make and use, and replace expensive designers. I think creative content is going to become more and more a race to the bottom. This is why so many people are hot on mobile.

    Comment by Dblade — 17 March, 2011 @ 1:59 PM

  8. I’ve often felt that the ‘content’ term was part of the problem. It implicitly suggests that games are containers of some quantity of consumable fun, which in turn means someone has to fill up that vessel, ie. content designers. But this excludes a whole class of games – almost all games until recent times, that is – where the fun was intrinsic to the game rules, or to the imagination of the players. I think it’s relatively recently that we started to treat games as if they were theme parks or art galleries where a skilled 3rd party has to fill ‘em full of Cool Stuff, as opposed to making them Cool in and of themselves. That’s not dismissing the role of a game designer, of course – not just anybody could come up with something with the longevity of Chess – but stressing that it’s perfectly possible to create interesting systems that contain what seems to be no content in the modern sense but which allow players an almost infinite amount of playability nonetheless. I’d concur with Raph Koster when he said that “the core of game design lies in systems”.

    Of course, as has been said above by yourself and commenters, it’s possible to consider the other players and their behaviour to be ‘content’ of a sort, but I feel that is perhaps taking the term too far, stretching it to fit any game type so that we can continue to say that all good games need quality content. For example, it’s hard to argue that a player provides content to Rock/Paper/Scissors, because what they do is incredibly restricted and qualitatively similar to what any other player would bring. Yet it’s still a game, and still fun to some.

    Sadly, I feel too ignorant on the matter to come up with some sort of alternative or explanation, but I do know that my (as yet unread!) copy of “Rules of Play” by Salen and Zimmerman starts off addressing exactly this issue by talking about the fact that for some reason people love Pong despite it being simple and devoid of what we’d normally call content. Perhaps we need to rethink it all in terms of the game rules everything has to work within, because arguably it’s the rules that make our medium unique, rather than the things we fill the medium with.

    Comment by Ben Sizer — 17 March, 2011 @ 3:36 PM

  9. I’ve often felt that the ‘content’ term was part of the problem.

    Can’t argue with what you’re saying, except the sentiment that this is necessarily a problem. You kind of have content-free games, like most traditional card or board games. And you have games that contain content of sorts that can be consumed. The line between the two is blurry; it’s easy to e.g. suggest that the Monopoly board is consumable content, because you could conceivably play the same game on multiple different boards. In fact, that’s happening, with each country’s version of Monopoly being different, and now the tons of other derivates like Star Wars Monopoly and whatever else there is.

    Or you could argue that the game does not contain any consumable content, because each version of the game comes complete with the ruleset, dice, cards and any other part of the “system” you need to play the game. Your choice, I have no preference.

    But there *is* a difference to Poker, for example. Any consumable content that *might* exist would be user-created, on the spot, whilst playing the game. That concept has also been taken into and expanded on in modern games, such as the Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne – in either of them, part of the gameplay is generating the board on which you play, which is then “consumed” by traditional means.

    Then there’s games like Robo Rally, where you have a number of different playing boards, which you can pick and choose from, OR which you can recombine to form larger playing boards. The game provides pre-built content, but encourages user content creation, too.

    I find the line between whether or not a game is based on content that could either be created by a designer, or by players, extremely blurred. And for precisely that reason, I cannot find fault with the concept of consumable content in a game. As a pen&paper player, I’m used to creating content actively, and can find games that prohibit that lacking. To me, then, it’s not the fact whether or not consumable content exists in a game problematic, it’s whether or not I can influence what content I consume.

    I suppose I would derive the design principle out of that that systems should be designed independently from content, to allow for user-created content (if UCC is applicable at all).

    Comment by unwesen — 18 March, 2011 @ 9:39 AM

  10. User-created content: content that is created by users external to the game context. Example: using a tool to design a ray gun. Let’s hope the game world makes sense to have ray guns.

    User-generated content: content that is emergent from the actions that users take internal to the game context. Example: building a house in Ultima Online. The castle makes sense in the context, because the context allows such creations.

    Using the latter for the former: building a string of castles so that from the air they draw male genitalia or whatever…


    Comment by Richard Bartle — 21 March, 2011 @ 3:09 AM

  11. @Richard: Yes, the more UGC you allow, the more you have to either police your game or decide you don’t care (ala 2L).

    Players clamor for more ability to affect the world, but its a shame you can’t trust them to take civilized actions. Not just with sexual content or chat, but also with PvP.

    Comment by Djinn — 21 March, 2011 @ 10:09 AM

  12. Klepsacovic wrote:
    EVE is a place where people were given tools and context and sent off to make and tell their stories. The implementation is a bit of a turn off for some people though.

    The issue, in my mind, is what makes for interesting reading doesn’t necessarily make for interesting gameplay. It might be fun to read about some corporation getting carved up by spies, but it’s probably a lot less fun if you’re in the middle of it. Getting all your stuff taken because an officer was sloppy or trusted the wrong person can suck.

    Kinda like there seems to be a lot of people who like reading about Charlie Sheen’s latest antics, but do you really want to live with him?

    unwesen wrote:
    Let me nitpick a little here, just because I enjoy it, and point out that two players role-playing can easily turn into consumable game content for a third.

    Sure, but it’s not gameplay content. That’s where I tried to draw the line: if it affects gameplay, then it becomes user created content. In fact, one might argue that the user generated content is something that developers should try to avoid doing. I’m often entertained by guild chat in the games I play, but that doesn’t mean I want developers adding in systems to generate guild chat. (In fact, sometimes spammy announcements can be a hindrance.)

    Ben Sizer wrote:
    I’ve often felt that the ‘content’ term was part of the problem.

    I think the problem is that we’ve come to see content as consumable and disposable in MMOs. In early MMOs, you went out and did unstructured things to accomplish your goals. Want that next level in EQ1? Go find someplace to kill monsters. Doing it more efficiently gets you the level faster. But, games have shifted toward having more “content” in them that is intended to be consumed. Instead of killing monsters for the sake of killing them, the most efficient thing to do is to go get quests that tell you to kill specific monsters. Those quests require a lot more work to create on top of creating a world and filling it with monsters.

    But, let’s face it, this is what the players have demonstrated that they want. This is one of the reasons why things like UCC and procedural generation are often discussed: as ways to get more content for players to consume.

    The other element I didn’t touch on as far as content goes is what goes on in the imagination of the player. I think this is one reason why some people still enjoy the older games, especially older RPGs. Yeah, the maze is mere outlines drawn in the world, but a good imagination can fill it with all sorts of details. MMOs seem to have less of this. Not sure if it’s because they grew large around the time when graphics were trending to be more “realistic”, or if the presence of other people restricts imagination somewhat.

    Richard Bartle wrote:
    …brilliant definitions…

    Yeah, I like Richard’s definitions. :)

    Comment by Psychochild — 23 March, 2011 @ 3:23 PM

  13. “What do you think? Is UCC always a bad idea? Should designers simply get over themselves and await the day when players create their own content? Or is the truth somewhere between the extremes?”

    I’m going to say “always bad”. But from a business perspective, not a player one. You’d spend more time (=money) patrolling against obscene junk than it would cost to hire more real designers. I played a bit of Spore, but the promise of sharing monsters with other players was an immediate curse because of the huge number of sexual-organ monsters that cropped up all the time. For them to fix that, they’d need to invest in patrolling. The better (=easier) the design tools, the more patrols you need. Simply giving the players vote options isn’t going to help because a bunch of players are trollers and griefers already, but also because the ones that want a well-themed game would still have to spend a ton of time voting to get there (if they could outnumber the griefers, anyway) and would probably give up before it happened.

    Comment by silver — 23 March, 2011 @ 6:16 PM

  14. In chess, is the board part of the system or part of the content?
    In a typical MMORPG, is the flat world, with its regions, part of the system or part of the content?

    The reason UGC is considered content, is because what it replaces (‘content’ designed by game designers’) is considered content. But if stuff that makes people play is generated on its own, by the players by playing along the system’s rules, … is it really content then or more like the system?

    Is the fact that every game of chess tends to be different proof of UGC, or simply a consequence of the well designed system?

    Comment by Nils — 25 March, 2011 @ 1:16 AM

  15. User Generated Content that drives the players to tell a story is I think crucial for MMO’s to engage their players. It brings the RPG back to MMO’s, and it should be embraced.

    I think all you have to do is look at the nature of role playing, and then again at what drives players to dive into games like minecraft to see the value of user generated content. Dynamic Actions, discovery, and the fun of the interaction. eh?

    You guys at Namaste sound excited. Social Deviation Applauds your goals!

    I’ll see you guys at the top!

    Thomas G. Hale Sr.
    Social Deviation – Founder

    Comment by Thomas G. Hale Sr. — 10 May, 2011 @ 6:59 PM

  16. What I’ve been up to, and going to Gen Con!

    [...] posted about a change in my opinion on user created content. I realized that the problem with a lot of the projects that tried to use user content in the past [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild's Blog — 27 July, 2011 @ 9:35 AM

  17. Being negative about user content because it “could be intended to replace designers” sounds, to me, like a bunch of novelists being down on word processing software and printers because the unwashed masses will be using those tools “to replace professional novelists”.

    I don’t think that’s the intent of word processing software and printers, which are used for a thousand different things other than the making of novels, anyway. Maybe the lesson is that novelists shouldn’t be creating writing tools, but should stick to creating books.

    Personally though, I feel a game designer can and should have a role in tools for making and sharing content. Whether it’s in an MMO, or a site like At least, a systems/rules focused designer has a place there. A content focused designer – maybe not so much so.

    Creating is, itself, a form of play. So’s sharing, and communicating. Enabling and facilitating that play, like any other form of play, to me that’s game design work.

    I’m still baffled that anyone would see a conflict between “selling crayons and magnets to promote the posting of kid art on the home refrigerator” and “writing the storyline and quests and puzzles for the next multi-million dollar epic RPG product”. Two entirely different jobs, they don’t really conflict with each other at all.

    Comment by Dr. Cat — 7 August, 2011 @ 8:25 PM

  18. Except that I’ve seen that written explicitly into business plans, where people have said they are going to have users create content to avoid having to pay professional designers and developers. There have been a few high-profile cases where there were big plans like this and they’ve fallen flat. Metaplace being a notable victim here, where the team was able to use the tools to turn around some quality social network games; so, the problem with Metaplace obviously wasn’t the tools. We can take a long, hard look at Whirled or Second Life to see why they weren’t able to live up to their potential as well; my analysis is that they relied too much on other people generating the content as revenue generation.

    As I said in my post, if you really do want to let people express themselves creatively, then things seem to work out better. Take Furcadia, for example, where it really is more about user creativity than having people create content for others to let the game operators profit. Sure, less people would be interested in Furcadia if it weren’t for the user content, but the content is not what drives the financial side of things, at least not initially.

    It’s a fairly subtle point, but I think it makes all the difference in the world.

    Comment by Psychochild — 12 August, 2011 @ 7:32 AM

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