In this exclusive essay on user-generated content in games Develop executive editor Owain Bennallack examines how the internet might be the real winner of the format wars…What does it mean to say that the internet is to become the games platform?
First, it’s to paraphrase the cheerleaders of so-called Web 2.0 companies like Google, YouTube, Flickr and MySpace, where a similar cry predicts the death of the personal computer, standalone software, and much else of what we thought of as the ‘Wintel’ platform throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s.
With ubiquitous connectivity in games hardware, similar possibilities – and competitive threats – will reinvent standalone games, and the development and release cycle that’s been the games industry’s core model for two decades.
Of course, the web’s effect on games began over a decade ago with Ultima Online and EverQuest, or before that with Doom – or before them all with user-generated content rich MUDs. Today, it’s exemplified by World of Warcraft, Second Life and Xbox Live.
But while so far the internet’s impact has been on MMOGs and multiplayer modes in standalone games, over the next couple of cycles – assuming the five-yearly reinventions survive the transition – a huge proportion, perhaps a majority, of what we enjoy as games will likely be created, shaped, and guided by communities connected by the internet and often oblivious to their role as anything more than consumers.
Developers will still play a key role – skills in design, art, programming and production will only grow in value. Games might not even look that different. But like economist Adam Smith’s famous ‘invisible hand’ that sees the actions of self-interested individuals unknowingly directing capitalist economies, game experiences will be tuned and retuned by networks of connected gamers doing nothing more than play.
Web 2.0 companies aren’t the first to employ Web 2.0 principles. Netscape’s rallying cry in its fight last decade with Microsoft was ‘The Web is the Platform’, and none other than the web’s inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee has criticised the 2.0 label, pointing out the Web’s always been about making connections.
True – like any popular label, Web 2.0 has been stretched beyond its original intention, which was to get a handle on a bunch of sites and services that emerged after the dotcom bust: MySpace, YouTube, Flickr, Digg, del.icio.us and more. Equally, looking at the first internet success stories through a Web 2.0 prism, it’s clear the likes of eBay typically (though not exclusively) succeeded for the same reasons the new companies are.
But something more is afoot – for instance, it was the direct success of the Web 2.0 approach saw Time magazine make ‘You: The People’ its ‘Person of the Year’ for 2006.
Tim O’Rielly, the tech trend-spotter and publishing mogul helped coin the label Web 2.0 and he boils down the Web 2.0 companies as successfully exploiting ‘true network effects’.
Rather than a monolithic company working on software for five years and then releasing it to users (the Microsoft model), Web 2.0 firms use the power of the internet to grow better with every user, incrementally. A mobile phone or a fax is useless alone, handy if 100,000 people use it, and indispensable if everyone does. Similarly, MySpace with its friends lists, Flickr with its tagged images, or any peer-to-peer file-sharing network gets better with more users.
Now it’s gaming’s turn. Single-player standalone Gears of War is no better if millions of others happen to be playing whilst I am too, clearly. But even most player-versus-player deathmatches, races or team-based battles don’t improve much beyond a couple of hundred users – just enough to guarantee me a game. In contrast, a dozen players knocking about World of Warcraft would be a miserable game indeed.
MMOGs have long benefited from network effects (provided they can take the strain of growing populations) as have shooters (think of the creative Viagra player-invented antics gave Battlefield 1942). But it’s pseudo-game Second Life that really brings home the Web 2.0 shift.
Most readers will know Second Life has no levels or quests or other MMOG paraphernalia. More’s the pity, perhaps, but what it does have is tens of thousands of users interacting with each other to make social connections, and a smaller subset creating content and services that others consume.
Taking the users out of Second Life would be like taking the tracks out of Gran Turismo. Similarly, while there’ll always be a place for Tetris and possibly solo Final Fantasy-style narrative romps, most future standalone games that ignore network effects could be on a road to nowhere.
From YouTube to your game
Now that game platforms – and gamers – are being wired together, the creative possibilities are exploding. Like Berners-Lee says about the internet pre-Web 2.0, many of these gaming avenues have been explored before. But some of those hitherto little trafficked bylanes will become the thoroughfares of Games 2.0.
Take user-generated content (UGC). PC gamers – specifically, enthusiasts – have been creating and swapping skins, levels and mods for years. But however it looks to Slashdot-reading nerds (erm, like us), UGC-related activity is just a tiny fraction of the PC games market, both in terms of participation and money. In the context of the entire games market it’s negligible.
That will surely change with Games 2.0. As developers and publishers explore the networks accessed by Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo’s hardware, the inherent advantages of exploiting network effects will give Games 2.0 pioneers the edge, and eventually propagate their innovations throughout game design.
Yet while the standards imposed by Microsoft and Sony could be what brings Games 2.0 to the masses, the PC is still at the vanguard, thanks to Will Wright’s ambitious (and prescient) Spore.
The ‘Sim Everything’ concept is what immediately impresses about Spore, but it’s the way it makes user-generated content the spine of the game, and then exploits networking to passively spread that content to other users’ galaxies via unexplored planets and in-game shops that makes it poster child for Games 2.0. By doing nothing other than having fun, Spore players will create much of the experience, and share it with others.
While it’s safe to chalk Spore down to Wright’s genius and the braintrust around him, a shortcut to inspiration might be to look for potential Games 2.0 parallels in Web 2.0. Few gamers will want to bookmark a key monster or vote for levels – the trick is to build Web 2.0 methods into the game world.
For example, here’s a remix of YouTube, eBay and Flickr: in some medieval MMOG 2.0, new items, whether developer-created or user-generated, are unloaded at seaside ports. Some players are wholesalers, testing and listing the items for traders (other players) who bid via a seven-day auction for the exclusive manufacturing rights (or the design blueprints or the ‘crystal essence’ or whatever). Most of the players are off raiding and killing each other, and may not even know the ports exist – they just see cool new items turning up now and then.
And yet like this, all UGC is created and screened by gamers interested in and rewarded for doing so. What’s more, these wealthy merchants need protection, so other gamers are captains of the town guard, spies or run protection rackets. Now the game is benefiting from the network effect of connecting gamers, as well as content.
MMOGs are easiest. What about an Ultimate Fighting Machine beat-’em-up, where players take on skilled martial artists in short Tekken-style bouts for network-wide rankings and local prizes. Computer-controlled fighters are recruited and trained in the city’s skankiest dives (via users fashioning new characters using developer-created tools that enable the editing of attack patterns as well as looks), and their creators wage in-game credits to attract hardened street fighters (other players) to test them. Popular user-generated characters eventually attract big city promoters, who must pay trainers to put them on the main circuit.
Such top-flight UGC is indistinguishable from the developer created content to the average beat-em-up fan, who simply enjoys a five-minute bout before going to the pub and is happy to see the odd exotic new fighter in the menus. Indeed, maybe 95 per cent of Ultimate Fighting Machine players never fight any of the dodgy user-generated creations, and maybe 99 per cent of those creations are rubbish – though fun enough for their creators. But nobody needs to get any more involved with UGC then they want.
That’s vital – Bradley Horowitz of Yahoo! has coined the ‘one per cent rule’, which says only one per cent of Web 2.0 users generate content, and only ten per cent ‘synthesise’ it (by tagging, voting for it, or otherwise). But 100 per cent of users enjoy the content.
All to play for
There are passive Games 2.0 approaches too, analogous to Web 2.0 services Technorati and del.icio.us, which might read the ‘hive mind’ of the gaming community.
As veteran designer Raph Koster has written on his blog (www.raphkoster.com), play patterns can be considered ‘creating’ if mapped and exploited, just as Amazon and Google monitor our clicks to improve their offerings. “Consuming is not a dirty word,” Koster writes.
For instance, I love Creative Assembly’s Total War real-time battle games, partly because I can pause the battle to think. No human opponent would put up with that, and yet too soon the appeal of playing a limited computer AI fades.
No surprise there, AI remains an intractable problem, to the relief of sci-fi doom-mongers everywhere. But what if every copy of Total War monitored how the games were played and the tactics used, and then fed them into some central hub that analysed and reworked the strategies to create new tactics for AI commanders? Or perhaps it could simply take the ‘ghost’ of my Gaul offensive methods, and pit it against some other gamer’s successful Roman army? You’d want to put such data through a sort of ‘history-filter’ (to avoid chariot tank rushes and the like!) and there are technical issues aplenty, but the point is that by collating and sharing my self-interested actions, the RTS 2.0 can get smarter, and more fun.
The possibilities for Games 2.0 tumble over each other: Spray shops in GTA that apply user-generated skins? NPC dialogue written by budding screenwriters? Sport game worlds that embed portals showing highlights from other titles the player follows? A single-player action-adventure that re-calibrates its difficulty level on-the-fly, as data comes in from other player’s experiences?
The list is endless but the key point is simple: actively or passively, networked gamers add value.
Making play pay
What about the money? In truth, this whole side of the games business is in-play anyway, now that downloadable games and micro-transactions are becoming a reality.
Maybe people will buy UGC from the creator, via developer supported and taxed marketplaces? Maybe developers will create and distribute games for free as sandboxes, and make their money from in-game ads? Undoubtedly we’ll continue to pay top dollar for cohesive one-shot games for the foreseeable future, too.
The practical challenges are also very real. Game-based aggregation and voting is clearly harder than simply ranking web addresses or hosting JPGs. How do you jumpstart a Game 2.0, if the bulk of the value comes from other gamers? Will gamers resent being ‘spied on’, and turn against the two-way networking at the heart of 2.0 titles? Then there are the legal complications of UGC, which become paramount in games based around such material.
One thing I don’t think is a concern is ‘loser-generated content’. Web 2.0 has shown that effective UGC is about bringing the best stuff to the surface, and that one person’s rubbish is another person’s reason to join MySpace. The trick is to provide (customisable) metal detectors of such power that gamers barely see the haystacks for all the shiny needles flying about.
No, perhaps the most awkward question is why now? PCs have been networked for years, yet while the mod scene continues to thrive and PC MMOGs have already tested some of these ideas, even hugely successful UGC-centred games like Counter-Strike have hardly done away with the procession of new, resolutely standalone titles.
True. But besides the possibility that Games 2.0 is a red herring, I think the openness that’s the strength of the PC has also clipped its ability to benefit from network effects. Modding remains impenetrable for most casual gamers, and there’s no incentive for companies to cooperate to create shared platforms for UGC, or facilitate the sharing of gameplay data, or cross-title rankings.
Contrast that with Microsoft’s Xbox Live, which has truly blazed a trail. Xbox Live may be too restrictive (compared to MySpace), its Marketplace too regulated (compared to YouTube) and XNA Game Studio Express too elitist (with no way for $99 Creators’ Club developers to ship standalone Xbox 360 games). And yet Xbox Live has undeniably innovated by making multiplayer or ‘Live aware’ features near ubiquitous, unifying voice-over-internet in games, enabling a single Friends List, and pushing downloadable retro content. All possible because Microsoft is in the driving seat.
Perhaps the format holder that best grasps the potential of Games 2.0 will succeed where the PC has hitherto failed. Indeed, I’d argue the first to do so successfully will have a huge advantage that might trump all other factors. It’s been said of Web 2.0 that people go where the users are, not where the quality is. Could the same be true of Games 2.0? Perhaps, although games are also about effective immersion, gameplay choices, and rich sensory experiences, and all that’s a long way from Web 2.0’s strengths.
Regardless, while we’ve happily coined a somewhat irritating new label, there’s no need to be hyperbolic about Games 2.0. We’re probably halfway there already, anyway – the next shift will be in applying an online mindset to all games. Ultimately, network effects change every activity they’re applied to, like it or not.
As Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt says: ‘Don’t fight the Internet’.
This article appeared in the the latest edition of Develop, issue 70. A PDF of the magazine, which features the supplemental material for this feature including interviews with Xbox Live Arcade's David Edery and Digital Illusions' Sean Decker and a list of the Ten Web 2.0 Services Games Should Learn From, can be downloaded here.