In the beginning, developers and players were the same, hacking away on academic networks for the entertainment of their peers. The advent of affordable computer systems, and eventually consoles, gave rise to a new hierarchy: Now, there were developers and there were players. The developers developed the games, and the players played them. For a time, when the concept of video gaming was new, this was enough for the players, and they were – for the most part – content with what the developers created.
Naturally, this state of affairs didn’t last long. The first reaction to art of any sort, and I’ll take the liberty of including games in that, is to think of ways that it could be better. This drive originally manifested itself in copycat games, when most developers and players were the same, but as time progressed the outlet became actual improvements on existing games. This shift has ushered in a new era, one where the players take on the roles of developers after release.
By Gamers, for Gamers
What is player created content? Just as it says, it’s anything created for a game by its players. Early player content was limited to data file hacks, and was often used to tweak gameplay. Because development teams were small and a tools market had yet to develop, individual titles tended to use unique, proprietary data storage systems instead of the more standardized formats of today. These proprietary systems increased the difficulty of user content edits, and limited changes to only the most skilled.
The climate is completely different today. Standardized engines, widely available graphic and modeling tools, and global connectivity have made the deconstruction of game code orders of magnitude easier. Those same factors, along with an editor-friendly developer outlook, have made the creation of new content easier still. Nowadays, it’s rare to find an RTS or FPS that doesn’t include some type of graphical map editor, and more genres are integrating player content creation into their designs every day.
Products of Your Imagination
Before map editing became accessible, the easiest type of content for a player to create was graphical replacements. These replacements have historically been a first step for budding editors. Because most developers use standard image file formats, changing game textures is easy to perform with common tools. With the widespread availability of 3D modeling tools, as well as an increasing focus on their use in art and engineering degrees, graphical replacements are becoming more complex and include the modification or creation of 3D objects. Whether updating the graphics of an older title to newer standards or replacing the “skin” of a 3D model, image replacements are popular for their dramatic effects.
With the advent of developer-created editing tools, the most common type of content players create today is that of maps or levels within an existing game. Editors have grown sophisticated enough that, with a minimal amount of time and effort, the average player can have a basic map created and working in a single evening. With more effort – and some creativity – near-professional work can be produced without needing any formal training or programming experience. At the most complex level, dedicated individuals can create content as good as, or better than, the content originally delivered with the game.
For players with programming skills, an alternative outlet is often “mods,” or player-created content that adds new functionality to a game. While graphical replacements and map creation are limited to the content already within the game, mods can be used to create entirely new gameplay. Designing a map that includes a burning building is creating content within the existing game, while adding a functional fire extinguisher is a different beast altogether.
Combining all other types of player content, the most complex creations are referred to as “total conversions.” Although using the core game engine, these conversions replace the majority of the art and levels – and sometimes the gameplay – to create an entirely new experience. Although sometimes accomplished by multi-talented individuals, total conversions are usually the work of a small team. The first total conversion is generally considered to be Aliens TC, a DOOM mod designed around replacing the entire game with a new campaign based on the Aliens movies.
Now You’re Playing with Power
Although they originally saw it as a threat, developers are beginning to support and promote player-created content like never before. There are a lot of good reasons for that. Financially, it’s a sound move – by empowering the players, developers can give their games stronger communities, extending the lifespan of their product long beyond the traditional shelf life. Counter-Strike, a total conversion based on Half Life, was released in 1999. It is still being played – widely and constantly – today, which is more than can be said of most other games released six years ago. The community, as well as the abundance of new content it generates, helps draw in new players … all of which require a copy of the original game in order to play.
There are more reasons than just the financial, though. Supporting player-created content is also training the next generation of content designers. Unlike development in the early days of gaming, today’s games are developed by teams using a combination of standard programming and art tools and specialized, often homegrown, content creation tools. Most students can acquire the standard programs through university programs (or otherwise) with relative ease, and for the low price of a game box, can have access to a professionally built engine and a variety of the specialized tools that the developers have released. With access to the tools and engine, any budding designer today can learn the fundamentals of level design and game balance well before employment. Independent level design has become a staple on many entry-level game industry resumes for this very reason.
If your sights are set a bit higher than mere content design, mod and total conversion development can be used as a stepping stone towards getting a company off the ground – or proving a design, or getting a project lead position. Like any open medium, much of the content generated is not of significant quality, but when amazing work surfaces, the community takes notice. Provide that level of quality several times, and development studios take notice as well – several total conversion teams have become development studios in their own right.
Finally, player created content can help alleviate some of the more specific demands that developers receive. Each player is looking for different things in a game, and it’s impossible for any title to please everybody. Whether it is a certain character class looking for a more specialized user interface or a group of gamers looking for a more realistic experience, niche targeted content can be created by players when it wouldn’t be feasible, or productive, for the developers to create it. For an independent mod developer, an audience of several hundred can be an exhilarating rush – for a development studio it’s a terrible failure.
Power Without the Price
Having player content is not without its negatives. The most evident pitfall is that users are now combing through the data files like never before – and finding things they were never meant to find. The best- known incident of this sort to date is the Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas “Hot Coffee” mod, which revealed borderline pornographic mini-games and fully nude models that had been included on the game disc, but not intended for player access. The resulting mod, which enabled the mini-games, spread like wildfire across the network world, and resulted in a retroactive rating change for San Andreas from Mature to Adults Only. A less extreme example is players’ discovery of unused scenes and dialogue in Knights of the Old Republic II, and their subsequent attempts to add them back into the game.
Even when players don’t find anything negative hidden in the game itself, the changes that they themselves create can draw significant negative attention to the game or the brand. An incredible number of games have had textures on female models replaced with fully nude ones (most famously, Tomb Raider, and most recently, World of Warcraft). Although these incidents are unlikely to have the same impact that Hot Coffee had on GTA (as the content was not present within the game itself), they can and do cause negative press. Perhaps the worst instance of this problem was suffered by id Software with DOOM when the media discovered that one of the Columbine shooters had created a DOOM level based on his high school.
With multiplayer games, there is also a distinct danger that users will be able to create mods that dramatically tilt the competition in their favor. Some early FPS mods made all walls transparent, added “auto-aim” functionality to weapons, or colored opponents in bright colors to make them easier to spot. An entire industry has actually sprung up around keeping these types of user modifications out of the multiplayer arena, led by PunkBuster, and it’s now becoming a standard in many multiplay-enabled games. Some MMORPGs are also integrating similar anti-cheat protections, as NCSoft did with nProtect’s GameGuard in Lineage II.
Finally, as mods and their distribution become more fully integrated with game communities, there’s the possibility of changes to gameplay spreading unknowingly. As a part of their supporting the Sims 2 community, Maxis provides a way for players to download other player-created content – a significant draw to longtime Sims players. This distribution system was unintentionally responsible for the spread of objects with hidden side effects, resulting in many players going to Maxis’ forums and customer support department to report strange behavior.
We See Farther
The future of player content is rapidly approaching. What will it hold? Despite the recent negative press, expect to see more access for more genres, and a much higher level of developer involvement.
Player-created levels are coming to consoles. Pariah, an otherwise unremarkable first-person shooter for the Xbox, provides both an integrated map editor and a way to use and distribute those maps over Xbox Live. While we’re unlikely to see the same levels of heavy editing we see with PC titles, as the next generation of consoles go online we can expect to see more, and more sophisticated, content creation tools included with them, along with the ability to distribute them to friends.
Second Life, an online virtual world, bases its entire game on player created content. With an advanced scripting language and full support for customized art, players create everything from customized player models and lines of clothing to virtual fish and simulated skateboarding. On top of that, players can then sell these creations to other players, allowing the most talented to actually make a living independently developing game content.
The Sims Exchange, a centralized point for players of The Sims family of games to distribute and download new content, is a great example of where developer support of the player-content community is going. The Exchange provides thousands of customized character models, house designs, and objects created by both official developers and the player community.
With Neverwinter Nights Premium Modules, Bioware has approached some of the most talented module creators and offered them the opportunity to create more complex adventures professionally. These modules include voice acting work, composed music, and heavy scripting that would make their independent creation prohibitive. Sold through their online store for far less than the cost of retail expansions, these modules provide trustworthy, high-quality content that extend the life of the game dramatically.
Like it or not, player content is here to stay. And we should like it. Players are responsible for Counter-Strike, a genre-defining mod that became a separate title in its own right, and arguably the most popular online game to date. It’s responsible for the wonderful – independently created – adventures that make Neverwinter Nights a permanent fixture on my hard drive. It’s responsible for the endless font of creativity that comes from Second Life. And it’s training the next generation of game designers, who will create games with more depth, content, and customizability than ever before.