Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Ways to generate content
Although of course in a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game there is a lot of player interaction, the actual content in most cases is made by developers. Over the years it has become very clear that handcrafted content is preferred by players, and procedural or randomly created content isn't appreciated all that much, often feeling bland and badly balanced. But even handcrafted developer-made content has it's problems: There often isn't enough of it, due to the time and cost involved making it. And if the MMORPG isn't just a sandbox virtual world, but a game with progress, any challenge or mystery that this developer-created content might hold is revealed on various websites, leaving the game void of surprises.
So some people, following the "Web 2.0" trend, think that user-created content is the future for MMORPGs. There are a lot more users than developers, so they can create a lot more content, and you can often even get them to do it for free. The concept isn't actually all that new, for years many single-player games came with editors to make maps or scenarios. The user-generated maps or scenarios were then posted on various sites on the internet, often offering more content than originally shipped with the game.
But user-created content has its problems, most prominently Sturgeon's Law, saying that 90% of everything is crap. For every user with lots of talent who spends hours to carefully craft content a developer couldn't have done much better, there are 9 cheap hacks that are just toying around with the editor and produce just mediocre stuff, or even total garbage. And then there is the famous TTP ("Time to penis"), measuring the usually rather short amount of time it takes a group of users given a set of tools to produce the first rude content. Spore is full of penis-monsters, in spite of everything EA is trying to censor that sort of stuff. And again there is a problem with progress-based games: If users can make content that advances a characters progress, they can exploit that system and make content that yields better rewards than the developer-made content.
I'm not currently subscribed to City of Heroes, but it appears the Mission Architect functionality they released last week to allow users to create instanced missions is a big success. In the first 24 hours the users created more missions than the developers had produced in the years since CoX was released, and now there are tens of thousands of them. So how are they avoiding the problems of user-created content?
One thing the mission architect in CoX does is not to give the users too much freedom. You can't design your own monsters or maps or textures or items, thus anything penis-shaped is easily avoided. You can still put rude text in the mission description, but that is about it. By only allowing users to place monsters that already exist in the game on maps that also already exist, the creation process is much easier than that of a virtual world like Second Life, where you need to code every object. I don't know how rewards are handled, but I'd assume that if you can't create your own push-over boss mob with a huge loot table, balancing will be better too.
Sturgeon's Law still applies, but the mission architect has a way to rate user-created missions. And apparently it is just 10% of missions that got the highest rating. :) Of course the system isn't fool-proof, people can get their friends to rate up their content or rate down the content of somebody they don't like. But the more ratings come in, the less easy it will be to manipulate them.
Of course this only works because missions in CoX are instanced. It would be hard to imagine how to include a quest-editor system into World of Warcraft. And ultimately the content is still limited by the work of developers. The reason why I stopped playing City of Heroes back in the days was that there were only a limited number of tile sets, so you frequently wandered through warehouses that looked just like the one in the last mission. But ideally if users are taking over the job of putting together the tiles and mobs to a coherent mission, developers have more time to design new tile sets and mobs. So this is something that could work, and of which we probably will see more in the future: User-created content limited to putting together developer-developed puzzle pieces.