On Crafting in Games

I have two main thrusts for this post; first, the experience of crafting/creating in real life and how that might possibly inform the process of crafting and creating in a game, and second, the impact of tools (or lack thereof) on same.  And I am starting out with a little bit of an introduction about why this concept of Creativity should be considered to span more games than “just” MMOs, where the word crafting has direct application.

Further, crafting and creation seems the most direct possible application of the concepts behind user-generated content, yet those applications have been ignored or, worse, actively thwarted (as in the case of The Sims.)

1. Creativity

Personally, for what it’s worth, I believe that a significant part of the reason for the popularity of Facebook games is creativity and freedom of expression.  Some of them – Farmville comes to mind – are practically visual design applications as much as mini-achievement applications.  I hear people talk about how beautiful their farms are.  I think aesthetic gratification and creative control (emphasis on the control aspect) play a big part of where the appeal lies for these players.

I also think you’d see a significant intersection between players of The Sims (especially 1 and 2, at least with players that are old enough) and Facebook games.

My point here being that I believe that similar, if not identical, urges are being satisfied in both the crafting applications within MMOs and the experience of using at least a subset of Facebook and related games.  It is even plausible that Facebook games more closely mimic the experience of real-world crafting, in that the entire application represents the creation tool; the experience is one of gaining mastery and control, however incremental those gains might be.  I’d even wager that for some players, they are replacing a real-world crafting/creation hobby with playing of the games.

Allowing users to explore their creative drives within a game could not only satisfy those users, but it could actually – done well – offset some of the costs of developing that environment by placing some of the onus of content creation on the users themselves.  Obviously this must be done with caution and common sense, or one ends up in Second Life, surrounded by penises.

But, given both appropriate tools and a restricted environment (for example, a wide array of building blocks, but only building blocks provided by developers), users could – again, to offer a specific example – say, create housing, landscaping, and interior decoration* where only barren wasteland previously existed.  Giving players the means – tools and templates – to create armor sets would probably net a game developer some really cool armor sets.   Sure, you’d get some lame ones, too, but the nobody would buy those, would they? (and if they do – maybe that would tell you something about what really constitutes “lame.”)

Additionally, tiering content tool access to proven creators can mitigate a lot of the Penis Effect.  If you allow anyone and everyone to upload graphics, you will get a lot of penises.  If that capability is restricted to creators that have achieved a certain level of [game-recognized] mastery and developed some level of in-game reputation as a talented creator, you’re going to get some really great stuff.

2. Learning curves

I personally do a lot of what would be considered real-world crafting and creation.  If there’s a medium, I’ve probably tried it.  I’m a designer by trade, so I do plenty of graphic arts on the computer.  I paint in a number of media, draw, model with clay, sew, create clothes, illustrate, etc. etc.  And one thing that perpetually strikes me about each and everyone one of these tasks is the absolutely incredible degree and number of learning curves each involves.  Of course it sounds obvious, I suppose, but when you’re sitting down to sew and you realize for the hundredth time that this “little job” is actually quite involved and will take some practice to get right, it really does start making you think.

And it makes me think about the fact that I think all those “little jobs” and their associated learning curves are what makes the task at hand interesting.  Learning to do something like sew well is actually directly analogous to a game, particularly an RPG-style game: you have a number of small, incremental tasks that each have certain criteria for success and certain specific challenges.  These tasks and your ability to accomplish them are based on broader base skills from which you draw on but which are also enhanced further by your work on the individual tasks at hand.

The question becomes not only one of how to implement these kinds of building blocks in a game, but also how to make it real, meaningful learning.  Typically, meaningful learning in a game is system-level only and is “meaningful” only as defined by points and levels; repeating a task until one levels up and is able to start on the next task.  Little is actually learned by the user except in an extra-game (that is, unrewarded) fashion.

Two conceptual things are needed to really create a learning environment for crafting and creating: actual choice, and – importantly – challenge.

Real challenge can be scary to game developers because it means that a given challenging task might be too challenging for some people.  But one has to expect that not every person will be interested in every aspect of one’s game.  This concept seems acceptable to developers for even critical combat-related components (developers seem comfortable with the idea that not all players will be interested in PvP or PvE, for example); developing a sufficiently wide variety of crafting or creative expression within one’s game could easily create an equally alluring experience in that regard.

“Challenge” in this regard could be the challenge of learning to work with the tools provided for one’s craft of choice (among other possibilities.)

By “actual choice,” I mean developing creative avenues that are significantly different from one another.  In many games, each craft is only differentiated by end product, not the means of creating said end product.  Truly different choices appeal to different people.  I might like to sew; I have a friend who hates sewing and would much rather paint, and another who is a hobbyist builder.  They are invested in their personal choices because the choices they made appeal to them at a basic level, and because they have developed significant bodies of knowledge about those skills.  There is no reason a game could not capitalize on the same essential characteristics.

This also means not selling the players short.  Given the opportunity, many players would love to rise to the challenge of difficult tasks and serious tools:

3. Tools and Expectations

Not only is a crappy tool better than no tool – sometimes it’s better than a good tool.

Here’s what I mean by that: for The Sims 2, EA/Maxis released virtually no useful content creation tools (what they offered was rudimentary at best.) An extensive community sprung up around creating and using tools to allow content creation to occur. People who had never even come close to using software as complex and difficult as a 3d application were suddenly using difficult 3d applications, because they couldn’t afford 3d Studio.  They were using Photoshop and Blender and Wings 3d.  They were using incredibly obtuse hacker applications to insert their content into the game.  They were writing tutorials about how to do this.  These tools often had terrible user interfaces and zero official documentation.

The people who navigated this difficult landscape developed a real sense of accomplishment – and rightly so.  They’d learned how to do a remarkable number of difficult tasks to achieve their goals.  Had the toolset been simpler – had it been aimed at the lowest common denominator – I don’t think that sense of accomplishment would have been the same.

That is to say – if the tools represent all or part of the learning curve for creation or crafting, that is not necessarily a bad thing!

Developing content creation tools is a scary thought to most developers, and not for no reason.  I would, however, make a couple of suggestions that might mitigate that fear.  First, don’t develop tools for morons.  Second, whenever possible, create tools that you, the developer, will also use to create content.

If you’re aiming somewhat higher than the lowest common denominator, you can eliminate a lot of the headaches of software development.  If you, the developer, are also using the tools, not only will really get how they are, can be, and should be used, you also are not “wasting” software development work or support.

So – have high expectations of your creators.  I’ve seen crafters become invested experts in the most rudimentary of crafting systems – if you actually give them real, honest work, with results, rewards, and responsibilities, I bet the vast majority of them would do you proud.

* And lest you think that interior decoration is only of interest to females, allow me to disabuse you of that notion.  I visited the homes of many male players in Dark Age of Camelot, and let me tell you, those dudes were houseproud.