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If you teach a man to fish...

...the saying goes that he will never go hungry. So by the same token if you teach people how to make an MMO will their never-ending thirst for content be satiated? Let's talk player generated content.

Someone touched on this again in the comments after my last post. So as it keeps coming up, and it fascinates me on a personal and professional level I thought it was worth a few paragraphs from a development point of view.

Creating tools for player designed content is of course perfectly possible, some have tried already with varying degrees of success. I firmly believe that it is possible for a mainstream game to integrate it and succeed.

So where do you start?

With all respect to those teams that have implemented some form of user generated content (Sage of Ryzom, City of Heroes and even Star Wars Galaxies storytelling features come to mind), most instances so far have been from smaller teams, or later in a products life cycle (when I'll presume the resource available to them has been reduced) when it makes more sense to do so since the team may not be able to create as much content themselves. Creating a user generated system in that situation makes a lot of sense, it is a smart use of your resources.

The other option, and the harder call, is to do it from the start, make it a main feature of your game. This is an area that I think has fantastic potential, and I would love to get the chance at some stage to work on a design that incorporated this from the start.

It is a harder sell though than you would think. MMO's are a significant investment, and the 'banker' type of features are fairly standard, you want to do the basics well, and more importantly people expect a lot of features. This is particularly true if you aspire to be a AAA title, and be mixing it with the likes of World of Warcraft and those that also aspire to those heights. In such cases a user-generated content system, that does require a lot of code and would be resource heavy, is a feature that I think would struggle to make the list.

Once you do consider adding it, the challenge then is that usually the time and resource required is more than X amount of content generation. So while profitable in the long term, a user generated content system would result in a short term 'gap' in development while the content generation tools were developed. Something else would get shunted, delayed or cut, and a user generated content system is risky. Many producers are quite naturally wary of risk. Unless it is your personal money you are working with (and it rarely is) then you also have a difficult call there.

For me, if user generated content is to really work in an MMO setting, it would have a better chance if it was the cornerstone of your design, have it as one of the key selling points of your title. Someone is going to make it work at some stage, and it has the potential to be great. I was a huge fan of the replayability and flexibility offered by the Neverwinter Nights auruoa engine. If such a feature is considered and accounted for from the start, rather than trying to force it in later on, you are going to have a much higher chance of success.


Why do you do it?

The next question you have to ask is what purpose you want the player generated content to provide?

Here you have one top level fundamental to establish. Do you wish your system to have an impact on the character development in your game, have it's own development, or be purely a cosmetic, roleplay, 'have fun with it' toy kind of a feature? Or even take it a step further and allow the users to create their own rules entirely?

One of the main challenges here is the fact that while story and roleplaying are very important elements, mainstream MMO gameplay fundamentaly evolves around character progression. That in turn means that the primary motivator for gameplay is reward. That could be in the shape of an item, skill points, xp or whatever you have in your game. The point is that your content is usually judged by your players based on the rewards it offers*.

So do you allow users to define their own rewards, or create a set of rewards specifically for the user generated content? The ideal solution is most likely having a system where loot can be generated, but it's 'worth' is defined by the system and not by the player, so in effect 'weighting' each stat and giving each item a maximum value that you can control as developers while still allowing the users the option of customising it.

You also have to consider all the grounds rules that will be required to prevent players using the feature to create ultra easy / high reward gameplay.

You can of course choose to just feature user generated content as a 'fun' addition with ne rewards. Allow the storytellers out there to use tools to tell their own stories. Of course in the big picture it is unlikely that will be used as extensively, but a small user base could support far more players with at least occasional content.

Lastly you could make the system the game itself. Titles like Metaplace, and in some ways, Second Life, have attempted this, but to me they lacked one thing important to make a game with true user generated content a success and that's a coherent theme. If you want the users to create their own world's then you are really making a software platform and not a 'game' exactly, what a game needs is context in order to be meaningful. You can still allow your users a lot of scope, and the tools to create an adventure experience, a puzzle experience or an action experience and it doesn't necessarily have to be inconsistent.

Imagine for example a sci-fi world where players could create Star Trek 'away team' style missions in whatever way their imagination, it might be a puzzle, it might be a detectuve story, it might be a shoot out, but all cast within a coherent, clear framework. The world can be established and well flushed out without necessarily infringing on the users imagination. In fact sometimes, having a good framework in place actually serves to fire more imaginations as it is easier to adapt someone else's setting rather than the pressure of creating your own from scratch. It also means your prodcut would be easier to define, and more importantly, sell.


The Challenges


Opening things up for user generated content is also not without it's own challenges. Games like Ryzom and City of Heroes have discovered, it's not a magic wand to endless quality content. There are a lot of ground rules to be established and you have to decide how much scope you give the players.

You also need to create all the framework around the system to make sure it can be supported. Admin tools, and the ability to moderate the content if required.

Where does a game with extensive user generated content stand in term of ratings? You will need excellent support and moderation tools to ensure that the content created is appropriate. Let's face it, this is the internet, and certain things will appear when minds are given free reign (I'll leave exactly what that would most likely be to your imagination ;) ...suffice to say you probably don't want it in your commercial project, unless that commerical project is in someway linked to pornography)

You need to create decent documentation and support systems for the users that are creating content, in addition to the regular support of players.

You need good database solutions to store all the user content, complete or otherwise. A good user generated content system is going to generate a lot of data.

That's why I believe it's important to design for user generated content from the start as there are a lot of additional considerations that need to be inplace before it can work properly.



Opening it up...


To extend the idea further, and to take one of the comments from the previous blog up, what about an open source development platform? Here I am a degree more cynical. I am pretty sure that you won't see an open source MMO anytime in the near future, at least not a commerical one, for a few pretty compelling reasons.

While I never underestimate the gaming communities ingenuinity the expense and complexity of running an MMO is also not to be underestimated.

Integrating new code in a project as complex as an MMO is far from easy, and generally is more efficient the fewer people are working on it, so to have a truely open source enviornment would quite honestly scare me a little from a management point of view. You would need a very modular, very well established and isolatable code infrastructure...certainly not impossible, but there is a marked difference between an infrastructure that is acceptable for the needs of a project and one that is polished, future proofed and flexible enough to support a genuine external development community.

Even if you overcame that hurdle and allowed an external development communtiy to contribute efficiently and safely, who would then decide what is actually a worthwhile addition or good design? You would need a management layer of some kind atop the structure, and then is the enviornment truly open source? An MMO enviornment isn't quite like other software scenarios where a user could choose to not use a mod, plug-in or version update, when you integrate a new feature to an MMO it would be there for everyone to interact with whether they cared to or not (unless of course it was just a GUI addition or display option, more on that later). Of course exactly the same is true of internal development, but that is the point, even in an open source envionrment would require that layer of decision making to exist, because in an MMO setting you simply couldn't allow anyone to commit anything they thought might be a good idea.

Then you have a situation where the external development community could (and most likely would) get frustrated by the fact that they didn't control the actual addition of new features and could potentially invest a lot of their time and energy into a feature only to have someone reject it. Your solution of course is to have ideas 'signed off' in concept before work starts, but you are still faced with the question of who does that signing off? If that someone is the developer is it truly an open source situation or are you getting onto the more dubious ground of just outsourcing what you want to happen to the community?


The Money Question...



All of that isn't though the main reason I am cyncial towards the open source model. Infrastructre is just about dedication and resources and with sufficient will to create that kind of a platform, it could be done. The primary reason I am unsure how it would work is mainly related to the business model? How would you make money from a truly open source engine development? How would you make back all the money and resource that would be required to get your engine ready for the open source community?

Even creating the infrastructure would be an extensive undertaking. There are several companies already developing MMO engines for commercial sale (like Big World and the Hero engine for example) but those projects are working on a traditional software development basis with large fees involved in licensing their platforms. Where would the profit be for a studio or tech firm in developing an open source engine capable of supporting an MMO?

Here the comparison to mod teams and their value to the original developer isn't really comparable. A company like Valve for example have their products life-time expanded and extended by the mod teams that work on those titles, and in the best cases they get to reap the rewards by hiring the brightest and best of the mod community, and turning the titles they create into commerical projects (Team Fortress, Portal, etc), they can do this because the mod structure comes after Valve have recouped the sales from the title. With an MMO the situation would be very different. MMO titles are built around ongoing subscription or micro-transactions...how would this live alongside an open source enviornment? Quite apart from the security concerns, how would you manage the liabilities, how would you ensure someone couldn't just use it to create their own servers?

You see, the value of mod communities and such are easy to assess and you can very easily argue the merits of supporting a mod community for appropriate titles. They really do add value, but it isn't an argument that just instantly translates when considered in context of an open source platform.

Never say Never...

Before closing the door on the possibilities of an open source MMO though, there are a couple of possible exceptions to all of the above.

The first situation is what you could do with an old MMO title that is past it's prime time. As some MMOs pass and close in on a decade or more of active service I could envision a situation where the company supporting one of the older titles decides to allow the community around the game to contribute to the development. Those communities tend to be very passionate and dedicated or the game wouldn't have reached that age in the first place. Those games would also potentially be on much older technology that isn't as commercially vital (i.e. it is no longer a competitive advantage to the company and it won't hurt them to have the code released to an open source enviornment.)

The second situation is that you could choose to open up a very small part of your game to an external development community. GUI is a great example. An open source enviornment for a game's interface is definitely possible. With a controlled situation like that you could (if you had done all the infrastructure ground work mentioned above) possibly leverage your communities talent in a single area like that one. You just have to look at how many of World of Warcraft's add-ons have been integrated into the game itself over time in order to see the potential.


Wrapping up...



So in closing I'll do as I usually do, and trun the question around...What do you think is the future for user generated content in an MMO setting? Am I being too cynical? (that wouldn't be a first ;) ) ...where do you think the potential of user generated content might be in the MMO space?





* This isn't the post to argue about the merits of whether that particular assesment has to be true for all MMOs, and whether it could easily be more, or different with different design. It could of course, but as it stands right now though, it is true for the mainstream MMO titles.
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