I was idly browsing for some information about Pirates of the Burning Sea the other day, and ran across this bit of information about how Flying Lab Software is looking to integrate the internet meme du jour, "user-created content", with a traditional MMOG design. Here's what they say:
We put the player community in the designer's seat. Using industry standard tools, you can create new textures and even 3-D models and submit them to the peer-reviewed web site for incorporation into the game. And you own what you create - if you design a new sword hilt or throne or sail design texture, you can make it freely available or charge for it within the game world. Earn in-game income from the sales of your designs! Or keep them to yourself and customize your own unique gear to the nth degree.
This paragraph is fascinating to me, because it manages to capture almost all of the most difficult aspects of player-created content within MMOG gamespaces, and all within a few lines.
At the broadest level it signals the degree to which moving to a "player-created" paradigm is a radical shift in control for game devs. Second Life is, of course, the modern-day exemplar of player-created content (LambdaMOO is the text-based exemplar), but there is a reason that it is a social space and not a game-space: it is really tough to reconcile the type of obsessive-compulsive attention to detail which characterizes the best games/worlds, and the loosey-goosey, "whatever makes you happy, man" approach that the Lindens allow. Which means that if you are a game developer and you want to grab the unfettered creativity of your players, you have to constrain them to the point of irrelevance. I don't mean to disparage Flying Lab or Pirates of the Burning Sea, but really, hilt designs or sail textures are the best examples of things you're gonna allow your players to do? Hardly earth-shattering. Which is not to say that it's not interesting; just to say that it indicates a well-placed concern on the part of Fling Lab that if they really let the players have their way, the 18th Century Caribbean is going to be populated by avatars with amazingly-detailed primcocks. [NSFW]. Which may not be exactly what the lead designer had in mind.
We've talked about this a lot before, of course, with various takes on the question of developer sovereignty and the urge for democracy within game worlds. The desire on the part of developers to harness the creative engine of the player-base is only going to exacerbate the need for developers to work out just what degree of autonomy that they can grant their users. It simply cannot be the case that Flying Lab mean what they say above, that the designs will be submitted to a peer-reviewing panel and the "best" ones will be implemented. The developers must intend to have a high degree of control over the designs that make their way into the world, because it is a certainty that if they don't the entire Port Royal harbor will look like t-shirts at a fan faire, with sails that feature large breasted elven princesses, Darth Vader in a jaunty pirate hat, and slogans like "Minus 50 DKP" or "WTS [Wang] PST". "Peer reviewing" is only as good as the individual peers, and the milieu in which they operate. So this is great for things like assessment of quality in scholarly work, or assessments of relevance in a tightly knit technical commentary community like Slashdot. It's not gonna be totally fabulous when your game has an historical milieu and the most active chunk of your community is either ideologically ill-disposed towards roleplay (most gamers) and/or are a bunch of griefers. This means that the peer reviewing panel is either hand-picked by the devs, is controlled by them, or is a kind of recommendation body for the real decision-makers.
The form of the model used to introduce designs brings up the politics of aesthetics. I've spent time in Second Life but I confess that I always leave as fast as I can because I find it so unappealing and disorienting. I applaud what the Lindens do, and I think that it serves a vital function in the development of virtual worlds and in user expressivity. But seeing the 1000ft spaceneedle next to the Art Deco mansion, surrounded by an accurate depiction of 19th Century Whitechapel...well, it just plain hurts my eyes. Give me the cartoon simplicity of WoW any day: at least it's aestheticly consistent.
Of course one can have user-generated content without embracing the kind of aesthetic libertarianism that characterizes Second Life. But to do so one has to make a commitment to law and politics: specifically one needs zoning and planning laws, and a political process to implement these. This should be familiar to all from the real world. The reason that I can't tear down my turn-of-the-century stone house and erect my preferred alternative of faithful recreation of Philip Johnson's New Canaan House, in the WASPy "village" of Chestnut Hill PA, is that I have to go through a planning process dictated by law, and numerous people affected by my architectural aspirations (ie my modernist-archiecture-despising neighbors) have standing to be involved in the outcome of the process. And they don't want a modern "monstrosity" spoiling the "character of the neighborhood".
The law and politics of aesthetics implicates all manner of questions about the construction of "neighborhood" and "community", and these are questions that game devs often have to grapple with in dealing with griefing or inappropriate chat or the like. But user generated content has been so attenuated to this point that I think that the difficulties of decisionmaking about aesthetics is unfamiliar to almost every single dev out there. Once again it requires the dev to make decisions about the degree of autonomy it is prepared to relinquish; except this time the question isn't just a dyadic relation between the developer and the player, but a triadic relation involving the developer, the player and "the community" (and indeed that hard-to-define subpart of the community called the "neighborhood" which has standing to have a voice about local amenity and appropriateness of specific types of development). My guess is that MMOG-developers like Flying Lab will try to stand-in for the community in all of the early attempts to introduce player-generated content ("Your sail design of 'C3PO with a parrot and pegleg' is REJECTED because it is contrary to lore/community expectation/other. This is an automated message. Please do not respond to this email"), while VW/social world developers like Linden will opt for a libertarian response (and on this issue, effectively deny that a community exists, or define it out of the picture by appealing to the overriding value of individualism that characterizes spaces built for and by cyberlibertarians). Perhaps these approaches are the best options that these two types of developers have. But I doubt that they will resolve the inherent tension that emerges when you grant players autonomy to begin designing the world.
Finally, the paragraph about Pirates of the Burning Sea raises a fascinating question about user-generated content and real money trades (RMT). If you are a game dev and you look to adopt user-generated content you have to consider 2 related questions: what are your users' motivations in generating content for you, and what intellectual property regime will you impose on them? You can see how the two are linked in the announcement above: Flying Lab will not assert intellectual property rights over the players' creations, and in doing so they announce an economic incentive for players to generate content because players can "[e]arn in-game income from the sales of ...[their] designs." I have some views about whether using incentives in this way is a good idea, but let's bracket that for the moment. What is interesting about the use of economic incentives to production is that it is hard to implement this without breaking the magic circle of the game: at the point that I buy a spiffy custom cutlass from Ted (or Ted's toon) I am engaging in an out-of-game transaction. I suppose it is possible to build a transactional system here which makes it look like Whitebeard (my toon) is buying a sword from a noted swordsmith named Greenbeard (Ted's toon). But that requires a in-world profession system of swordsmith, or sail-designer, or hilt-maker, or whatever, and relatively few swordsmiths of the 18th C had access to "industry standard tools" like Maya running on high-end PCs. And it means that each type of user-generated content requires its own in-game lore to justify it. If one looks at Second Life, one sees no attempt to introduce a lore around the production of virtual assets, because the world is built without any expectation of the magic circle. Game worlds are not like that, and so the reconciliation of the magic circle with user-generated content poses a difficult challenge. It also opens up all sorts of possibilities for RMT, since the sale of in-world hilts and sails using pieces of eight and doubloons will soon be followed by the sale of these items for dollars, euros, and cents. As I've said before I don't have any particular dislike of RMT, but there are many who do. Introducing user-generated content while managing the inevitable RMT effects is going to be an interesting challenge for Flying Lab and other devs who want to use their playerbase to generate content for them.