Tobold's Blog
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.
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http://ofcourseillplayit.com/?p=172

"And I quickly learned what MA is really used for. Not telling stories. Not revelling in other people’s creative genius, or sharing my own.

No, it’s used for AE farming. Yap. In a sort of classic example of “players optimizing the fun right out of an experience”, we quickly learn that if you give players the tools to create even more of a grind for themselves, regardlesss of how monotanous it is, if it’s efficient, they’ll do it."
 
I resubscribed and tried out the new issue briefly. While it's a cool thing and really fits the way that that game is built it's just as repetitive as the rest of the game. It's really a shame.

CoX is/was fun in the lower levels when you try out new powers, but when you reach the mid/high levels it becomes a terrible grind. And of course that you always recognize the tilesets just as you mentioned doesn't make that better. Still, CoX is a nice game overall, and i tend to resubscribe now and then. If it would have had a lifetime subscription like Lotro I would really have bought it a few years ago since it's nice to pop in now and then and do a mission or two. Now, not really.

And while on the subject of hero games (partly at least), we now have two upcoming MMO games with a superhero theme. I have high hopes at least for Champions Online.
 
Actually you can design your own custom enemies with the Mission Architect. Works the same as creating a new character. You can even choose their powers and difficulty. No such like with the maps though :(
 
Reminds me of Neverwinter Nights. Ever played it Tobold? I got back into it during the drought before patch 3.1. >.>
 
-> Random generated content can be fun. Even Blizzard knows this as most of their Diablo (2) maps were randomly generated. And a lot of fun!

-> User generated content is what made some games classics. Half Life is the perfect example: counter strike, day of defeat, team fortress...
And I had a blast playing some of the Age of Kings scenarios created by the users. Some of those were without doubt better then those the developers created. How could you find those gems? Ratings: users could give their opinion about the ratings and a score was given. Most user generated content isn't very good but the good ones always float on top!

In a way, World of Warcraft has its own user generated content: addons. And you can find the really good addons easily ;)
 
Carra: Yeah, WoW mods definitely count as user generated content. 90% of them are definitely crap, but the very best ones have the "honor" of being absorbed into the codebase by Blizzard. If only Blizzard could come up with some sort of reward system for the very best mods. A couple free months, or a minipet, or even a Feat of Strength and/or title in the Achievements system. But no, nothing as far as I know...

Jadyn: I also went back to NWN in between WoW patches. Some of the mods for NWN are more fun to play than the regular campaign, imo. If CoX wasn't such a monotonous grindfest, (with an XP penalty for dying! ugh) I might actually re-sub and try some out. I still have an unused game card for it somewhere...
 
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>> 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

Exactly how many MMO's have attempted to use procedurally generated content? The only example I can think of is Anarchy Online.

I have to agree that the quality of the machine made content I've seen is quite poor for the most part but it wont get any better if no one attempts to use and improve on it. I would really like to see some effort made in this area. The one thing that always leads to me becoming bored with a game is the sense that there is nothing new left to do. Even fairly casual players can easily exhaust content many times faster than developers can create it.

Although it may be a poor argument for the quality of procedurally generated material, I don't think it would be much of a stretch for a computer to turn out things like the 'kill ten rats' quests that constitute so much of what is considered 'content' in current games. At a minimum these sorts of quests could be turned over to automatic systems freeing up developers to work on more meaningful and interesting content.
 
The user created content model has been an amazing success for addons. It's only a matter of time before someone figures out how to get around the drawbacks and exploits of player-created instances, missions and quests.

All of it seems susceptible to algorithms. For instance if you have the problem that players are packing the mobs too closely to facilitate AoE grinding then you introduce an algorithm based on mob spacing that reduces rewards automatically. If you want curvy maze-like maps to be part of the fun than an algoritm punishing linear dungeon design can be used.

If you consider how wonderful it's been to Blizzard to have the addon writers: thousands of unpaid workers enhancing the game more effectively than any team of devs possibly could I think you have to expect this in the near future to apply to other areas of game design.
 
How do you police UCC? That’s the problem for Blizzard. They have a high level of polish in WoW and I don’t think they want trash content to be introduced.

I think this might work, though. Blizzard could release editing tools and host a server for mod authors to use, and then simply offer to buy some mods if they pass the quality test. And of course a mod author good enough to sell a mod or two to Blizzard that might make it into WoW probably stands a good chance of getting an industry job.

I think City of Heroes really had nothing to lose – they are probably around about 150,000 subscribers, if that, and they are going to be challenged when Champions and the DC superhero games are released, so why not open the floodgates? WoW has a lot to lose.
 
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