Brian Green (Psychochild) has a recent post over at his place about why he might be changing his mind about the possibilities of User-Generated Content that I think contains a very strong idea: that of [player] intent, and I think it relates strongly to something I’ve been talking about, including this post.
I think here it is worth dividing up two concepts that I have been lumping together somewhat:
-> dynamic or malleable content being content that is provided exclusively by the game designers and developers but which can be affected in direction or nature by the players. An example might be the morality systems present in a few games; at its most basic level this could be represented by the kinds of choose-your-own-adventure systems we’ve seen here and there.
However, I think that the potential for this has yet to be explored. Again, this is at least partly because it is hard. It’s hard enough to set up a rigid environment for players; to add any degree of fluidity there can create unbelievable complexity. That said, especially within a persistent multiplayer environment – and, especially in the current gaming environment, when we can look at distributed social network games within this context if we so choose – there is such a potential for richness that I think it is a mistake to ignore it. Probably we will not see dynamic content (or much of it) within a tremendously structured game world like a WoW, certainly not anytime soon. But deploying the concept within a more restricted environment that could be played across nodes (here what I am specifically thinking of is players participating in a persistent multiplayer environment via social networks or a similar construct) where the gameplay drives the gameplay could be incredibly powerful.
-> User-generated content/user-created content, then, would be content that came much more directly from the player. This might include something as simple and basic as an uploaded wallpaper design for a house, or something as complex as complete structures and/or scripts within games like Second Life or Minecraft.
I am, essentially, leaving aside games like Second Life; those games are so focused on user-generated content that there is virtually nothing else. The user experience there is entirely about the content and the interactions with the creators; there is no overarching storyline or base concept other than “build things.”
It is in this area where we see the Green’s concept of intent come into play. I think that if one can define this intent (or expected/anticipated intent) to the player, one can start to build the concept into the ruleset for the game. I think this is important because it is, after all, important to restrict the user-generated content to some degree, especially in multiplayer environments, because otherwise the content can then become a tool for unpleasantness. So, here, we must look at the intent of the game and marry that intent to the intent of the user-generated content.
Part of the reason that the concept of intent is so potentially powerful is that I think it could be a driving force behind any toolsets developed to aid in UGC. If you are expecting players to create stories about their experiences within the game, you provide them with story-telling tools. If you want players to create environments, you provide them with environment-creating tools. Within these intentional silos, one can suddenly tackle the functional problem Green mentioned: a too-free toolset restricts use to all but the most savvy and sophisticated of players, and a too-restricted toolset may as well not exist.
This concept of intention can also drive the player motivationally. Confronted with a completely blank page, many of us have a hard time coming up with an idea about how to fill it. Provided with a set of options, a framework, and a general schema about what the end product is supposed to look like, many of us happily go to work. I don’t necessarily know how to build a table, or even what kind of table I would build if I knew how. Given a table, however, I could come up with plenty of ideas about how to customize it to make it the table I really want.