7 March, 2011
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.
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?