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Who Owns User-Generated Content?
by Ben Weber on 01/15/11 09:35:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


I recently downloaded the second DLC installment for Trials HD, which provides a wide variety of new levels. I was surprised to see that 25 percent of the new content was user-generated content for a competition.

It seemed weird to pay for content that had been generated by the Trials community, because I would typically expect it to be freely available. Trials HD is able to pull this off, because you can access custom-generated levels from only your friends on Xbox live. It seems this design decision has enabled the use of user-generated content as a secondary revenue resource, given users’ consent.

The winners of the level design competition were offered rewards, so I do not see any problems with this model. However, if users are given too much control, such as the ability to modify game mechanics, then monetizing user-generated content becomes more difficult.

When I originally purchased Trials HD, I was excited to see what user-generated content would be available for download. This was a feature that was missing from the game and I was disappointed, but I did not mind given the fact that the title is an Xbox live arcade game. I expected what I had seen in games such as Skate, which provide top lists of custom built skate parks from users.

However, Skate allowed only a very narrow set of objects to be manipulated by users. While Skate shares user generated content, the level design affordances offered to players is much smaller than the tools offered by Trails HD. Halo: Reach offers affordances similar to Trials HD in that users can generate custom maps within a constrained game space with fixed mechanics, but it is easier to share maps given the Reach community.

Where things get convoluted is when users are able to modify the rules of the game. StarCraft: Brood War’s map editor enabled users to add triggers to modify the game rules in addition to designing a level. Several custom maps were developed by users including massing maps, tower defense maps, and scenario training maps.

Some of these game modes were not anticipated by the developers, they were novel games built using the level tool provided. This was not a problem with StarCraft, because users could freely share maps and create custom games. Warcraft III continued this tradition of free custom maps, and offered even more support for custom maps.

One of the outcomes of the Warcraft III campaign editor is DOTA, which is a completely different game experience than what the developers had anticipated. But DOTA is not a mod; it is a custom map utilizing the tools provided by Blizzard. DOTA is interesting, because it changes the gameplay mechanics of Warcraft III in addition to providing a new map.

Given the success of Trials HD, I expect user-generated content to be a viable source of secondary revenue for the near future. However, I anticipate that user-generated design, as in the case of DOTA, will be more difficult to monetize. 

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Curtis Turner - IceIYIaN
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Modders need far better EULA's. Right now companies like Valve take massive poops on you. At least this is slowly changing, such as you being able to upload models for TF2 and possibly make money. Waiting around for the future is starving your userbase, which will eventually go to a different engine and finally be able to make a dime. Advertizements that can be used in mods would be a first logical step. Then create a service where you can upload/buy content.

Ben Weber
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Curtis, I avoided mods for this post, because the ability to MOD a game is not necessary functionality provided by the game. There are tools for popular games such as TF2 to make modding possible, but it's not the intent of the designers.

Building custom levels in Trials HD is the intent of the designers, and there is even an achievement for sharing a level. The problem is: if you make an awesome level and want to share it with the community, how do you share it?

Zenas Prime
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I think that user generated content is great until both creators and the companies who provide the tools try to monetize the whole thing. As a creator, I found that if I treated creating custom maps as simply a exercise in fun, it remained just that and it didn't really matter who "owned" what was created. It became something totally different when I realized that my time and effort, which was being used to make someone else some money, was better spent making something that I could benefit from solely. The two forces, with seemingly similar goal, don't seem to match up very well at the moment and the misconception of who owns what and who has the rights to do what they want to do with it are going to cause some heads to bump.

Ben Weber
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I agree with your opinion, and it's a matter of distribution that is a problem. Trials HD has a great level editor, but you can share with only friends. Monetization is only going to make things crazier.

Anthony Clay
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I find that, increasingly, companies are more than willing to take ownership - but none of the liability. Until EULAs are nullified (why should I be forced into an agreement with non-negotiable terms? Why about MY interests?) it's going to be impossible to create any blanket rules. In some jurisdictions/countries, virtual property isn't real - so there will be a line as to what constitutes content.

If I create an app store app, does apple own it, or me? What if apple changes their eula to suit them because they want 50%? say they can sell it even without my consent?

What about that 3D model to sell with valve?

Does it apply to an item in Second Life?

How something I built in EVE?

Maybe there's a game with an unlimited crafting system and I made a brand of swords that all the players love? Could I "own" my creations? Should I? Even if they become integral to the game?

Personally, I think "sold" (for money, real or otherwise) content belongs to players as virtual property. If a company is willing to take your money for virtual property, they should be willing to accept the liability of what happens when it lost. You can't just put a line in your EULA that says:

"If our servers crash and we lose track of what you've sold, or all the loot you bought is gone, 'too bad, so sad'"

That being said, in-game economies (aside from the conversion of real $$ <> game $$) should be handled with care. If you're willing to run an economy, be willing to accept audits and build trust with your players/customers/EMPLOYEES/CONTRACTORS - (I use the latter two terms because that's what they are when you accept their work, for free or otherwise.)

Even "free" content like Little Big Planet should leave ownership with the players. If they take my level and sell it as DLC or GOTY, just do the right thing and pay me, give me credit, something.

I'll be loyal for it.

Steven Chung
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For now, the issue of who "owns" virtual property has been set by the virtual world's TOS/EULA. Generally, developers do not want to give their players/users property rights in virtual worlds (especially the currency) because it has the potential to undermine the developer's control of the virtual world - including the in-game economy. The only exception I can think of at the moment is Second Life where developer Linden Labs allows users to have copyright protection on the design of the virtual items they create in the world.

I studied the virtual property issue as well as the real world tax consequences of virtual world activities a while back ago and I now plan to get back in the game (no pun intended).

Jason Bates
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Hi Ben!

Thanks for picking up Big Thrills and writing about our game. Without addressing some of the larger issues in your article, I just wanted to chime in and point out that in the case of Trials HD - Big Thrills, we are not looking at user-generated content as a secondary revenue stream.

Rather, the 'Big Thrills Track Creator Challenge' was something we put together with our partners at Microsoft as a unique way of highlighting one of the main strengths of Trials HD: the awesome user created tracks. At the same time, we were rewarding the community and the most dedicated level designers with a really unique opportunity to have their work featured in and credited in-game.

Going into the contest, they knew their submission was specifically for this contest, in fact the rules specify previously-created levels were ineligible, in the interest of fairness.


Jason Bates

Director of Public Relations


Ben Weber
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I've really enjoyed the new levels. I posted this more as a general concern for gamers. For example, Halo Reach now has community slayer. What if they try to monetize this content?

Really, I am wondering where user-generated IP will go in the future. Ideally, users will be able to take part in the secondary revenue resources if they provide popular contributions.

The World of StarCraft issue was unique as well!