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The Future: U and I Develop Games

Monday, July 10, 2006

User-created content has transformed computer programs with open-source. It has disrupted news reporting with blogs. It has altered data collection with Wikis. And one day, the distribution of user-created content will revolutionize video games.

Sure, there are tools already available to gamers including the skate park editor in Tony Hawk, the level editor in Counter Strike, and the map editor in StarCraft. StarCraft for the PC is a great example of a game released over a decade ago that is still fresh every time you turn it on thanks to the sharing of user-created maps. The imagination of its players has manifested entirely new gameplay concepts never intended to be part of the game by the original developer. I would even argue that the gameplay created by its devoted community of users is more fun than the original game itself.

StarCraft presents example of the appeal of user-created content
Image of user-created map in StarCraft. Player has innovated the strategy concept by removing the focus from gathering resources to concentrating on how to manage a steady stream of troops.

Animal Crossing: Wild World for Nintendo DS is another game with tools that encourage the creativity of its inhabitants. Players from around the world can connect over the internet and share their hand-crafted designs with friends. Animal Crossing has become a colorful illustration of how the personality of just one player can leave a mark on the virtual world. Players will ultimately craft an environment that is more personal and more enjoyable than any studio could hope to accomplish alone. This and other games like it prove the need for developers to make more software that harnesses this energy.

So while there are a few examples of games that offer the sharing of user-created content, the question remains: why hasn't this revolution caught fire across the entire games industry? The answer is because the tools and the distribution haven't matured enough to break into the mainstream. Recall that the ideas and software for blogs, Wikis, and open-source have been around for ages. However, it required a unique balance of factors, including an accessible and easy-to-use format, to make them really blossom into what they are today. In the games industry, there is not yet that perfect balance of accessibility, appeal, and market readiness for it to be embraced wholeheartedly by the masses of developers and consumers.

Nintendo, specifically, could be at the forefront of this revolution thanks to its WiiConnect24 initiative. After all, the thrill of creation is nothing compared to the satisfaction of showing it off to others. WiiConnect 24 will give Wii a perpetual connection to the Internet, allowing the transfer of content even while your system is turned off. Imagine, if you will, a planet editor in the new Super Mario Galaxy. You spent a half hour whipping up an impressive planet full of bomb-omb foes and mushroom hills. You realize it'd be a shame to enjoy alone so you decide to send your creation to everyone on your Friends list. Your college buddy, who now lives in Florida, just arrived home when he hears the familiar ring from his Wiimote that indicates new content is downloading. He picks up the remote and as the console awakens from standby mode, he's greeted with a message that reads, "Billy has sent you a new planet. Please insert Super Mario Galaxy to give it a spin." A game that may have had a life of only a few months is a source of new entertainment years later.

The potential for user-created content is huge. A workforce of a few hundred professional developers is nothing compared to a massive community of millions. The PC software Second Life is an example of the power of user-created content. Second Life is a 3-D virtual world full of land, buildings and objects entirely built by users. This community has created a world through hundreds of thousands of man hours that would have otherwise been impossible for any one company to build alone.

As Second Life has shown us, it is on the professionals' shoulders to create that ideal environment, approachable tools, and flexible foundation that users can be build upon. This brings us back to our question of why user-created content in games hasn't yet hit the mainstream. We're still waiting for that perfect combination of tools and distribution. Such a foundation may very well be found in a long-time-in-the-making Nintendo idea called Stage Debut. Stage Debut is essentially a virtual canvas capable of turning an idea into something interactive. The original concept of Stage Debut allowed for the creation of pictures, movies, and music videos. For example, a young film-maker could create a 3D movie about irate static sticks taking over the world. One of the coolest features Nintendo introduced publicly about the game, was the ability to download famous video game characters and designers. The player was able to create his own virtual worlds and incorporate Pikmin, Mario, Shigeru Miyamoto, and Ichiro Suzuki into the game.

StarCraft presents example of the appeal of user-created content
Image of user-created content in Stage Debut. Player has created an environment where his characters can interact with each other.

Imagine now if Nintendo decided to bundle this software with every Wii console. With a Stage Debut and WiiConnect24 combo, people could create, share, and trade their own interactive worlds, movies, music, and games.

Spore, an upcoming evolution-simulation from Electronic Arts, will be perhaps the first real-life example of an effectively executed game that facilitates user-created content. The idea behind Spore is that you create your own life-being and watch as it evolves through the centuries. Your civilization will eventually leave your planet and explore a universe filled with thousands upon thousands of others. These planets, their cities and the species that inhabit them, are all player-designed. As you play the game, your creations are uploaded to servers and downloaded as CPU-controlled items in other peoples' games. This means the entire universe is created by other people playing the game. You don't directly interact with each other, but your creations are "copied" and added to other peoples' games as new content. Will Wright, the creator of Spore, has seen a vision of the future.

The only question remains is whether or not Nintendo, long known for its software quality control, is willing to take the leap? Is the company who dubbed the phrase "quality over quantity" willing to relinquish game development to everyday users? The upcoming Nintendo DS title Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2: March of the Minis is an indication of the company embracing the future. This sequel to the 2004 hit will allow players to create their own maps with a level editor. Once a map is created, players can send it across the world via Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection. Players can also download maps created by others. It is my hope this game is only the beginning.

Regardless of how large a leap Nintendo takes, it can't be denied, the distribution of user-created content will be an intimate part of this industry's future. The next killer app, a phenomenon on the scale of Pokemon, will be the platform and perhaps game that achieves a perfect combination of tools and distribution, leaving the rest in the hands of the users. And just think, you and I will be a part of that revolution.