Game development: it's not just for game developers anymore. As game and item creation tools become more accessible, user-generated content has become more relevant than ever, from both business and creative angles.
User-generated content isn't exactly a new idea, but it's still such a complicated concept that actual execution of a game that revolves around user-generated content seems extremely overwhelming.
Despite success of user-gen-supported games like Little Big Planet, Minecraft, Trials Evolution, and Team Fortress 2, relatively few companies have really been able to tap into their communities' talent -- and wallets -- in a really meaningful way.
And as the amount of creative talent in the player community continues to emerge, through services like Steam Workshop and other creation tools, the potential for user-generated content has become too hard to ignore.
"Immediate, meaningful" revenues
Sony Online Entertainment CEO John Smedley is turning to user-generated content in a big way, using it to try to solve issues with MMO content production cycles and player retention problems, while making some bank in the process.
"What we're really doing is saying, 'This is how to make stuff. Go to town,'" Smedley tells Gamasutra. "And people are submitting things that look like quality content made by professional video game developers. There's a lot of stuff that isn't usable too, but it's going very well."
Just a couple months ago, SOE announced Player Studio, which -- taking a hint from successful initiatives like Valve's Steamworks and Team Fortress 2 -- gives players the means to create virtual items, sell them on a digital storefront, and share revenues with SOE. (After one year, Valve said it paid out $2 million to its community creators.)
"I think it's going to be an entirely new business model for us. Steam showed us the way. [Valve] made a really brilliant move with Steam Workshop," says Smedley.
We ask if Player Studio will have an incremental effect, or a greater impact on SOE's revenues. "I think it'll be immediate, meaningful, and it will change our dynamics," replies Smedley. The initiative launches soon, initially in the U.S.
For companies entertaining the idea of sharing revenues with players, it will be a complicated task -- it's no wonder there are relatively few companies delving into the area. When paying your community, you have to deal with the varying tax laws of different countries (SOE needs to have a 1099 from people it pays), and secure highly-sensitive player information like social security numbers.
Smedley explains, "There's nothing simple about this. It takes real infrastructure, stuff that you don't think about."
But user-generated content isn't just for SOE's brand of PC-centric MMOs. The network and touch screen interface features of the smartphone and tablet market point to possibilities with user-generated content on mobiles, but the future is a bit foggy.
Taking it mobile
Caryl Shaw knows a thing or two about user-generated content in video games. She worked on EA's The Sims 2, which delved into user-generated content, and also Spore, which had an even greater emphasis on player-created content.
Currently an independent consultant at Backyard Monsters developer Kixeye, she's still thinking about how games can enable creation and facilitate sharing within a game's community.
"I think we'll start to see more room for [user-generated content on] mobile," she says. "I'm not sure how it's going to play out on mobile, just because it's a really different environment for user-generated content."
She's also worked on mobile developer Ngmoco's successful game WeRule, which allows players to build up cities in their own unique way. Shaw was compelled by how players shaped their own towns, but it wasn't centered completely around the user-gen experience, or around sharing. Shaw wants to explore creation and sharing on a deeper level, and thinks user-generated games that aim deep instead of wide might be the future.
"Games with user-generated content are going to appeal to a certain kind of player, and I think that player is going to become very invested in [those games]," she says. "I don't think it'll be like The Sims, where there's this huge, broad, mass market where lots of people have played it. Some played The Sims for the fabulous user-generated content, and some played it for the sim.
"Maybe there's a game for mobile where you get a little bit of both, where you can get that user-generated, content-sharing, community feeling that I love."
The term "user-generated" revolves around the creation of content, but the concept is just as much about the ability to share, Shaw points out.
"I actually think Draw Something was an interesting user-generated, shared-content game," she says. "[Developer Omgpop] actually did stuff for sharing, like posting your drawings on Facebook pretty easily. There were problems I had with that game, but they did those parts pretty well, and it was pretty entertaining. There's a direction to go there -- there's something there..."
To Joost van Dreunen, CEO at SuperData Research, user-generated content is more than just a way for online game makers to keep a constant flow of content coming in to players.
"I think that online, you'll have a different need for user-generated content in the sense that it allows people to take ownership of the game they're participating in," he says. "I spent a lot of time for my dissertation studying Command & Conquer: Generals. You had a few types of gameplay: single-player mode, online, then you have people who take the editor, and tell a story with their own maps.
"They create this mythology around a particular game," he continues. "To allow that is to ensure yourself as a publisher that you'll have a very loyal fanbase. That's really the way to rope them in. The difficulty on the design side is that you have to develop something that allows a degree of agency, real or illusory, and that's very difficult to do.
"It's quite remarkable how, with less control, less authority, from an IP holder or a license company, how much creativity and innovation you run into. ... Just give people and inch of rope, and they come up with some really good stuff."
A mile of rope
David Baszucki, co-founder of online building community Roblox (that's Robots + Blocks) gives his players more than just an inch of rope. His company is 100 percent dependent on user-generated content. If its user-gen strategy fails, if its game-making tools or community integration fails, the company fails.
"We're very bullish on user-gen, and we're 100 percent committed to it, in that every single game or experience in Roblox is created by our users," says Baszucki. The company makes money in a variety of ways. One is via its Builders Club, which works like a developer license for Roblox game makers. Along with other developer perks, the license lets them sell items.
There's also the virtual currency Robux, which players can buy and spend on various virtual items, such as clothing or weapons. Content creators are not currently paid in cash for any sales of virtual items, but are paid in Robux.
"We have a vision that creation and building is very fun and interesting," says Baszucki.
"I think our philosophy centers around 'Everyone is here because they believe in the creative process.' And the games themselves on Roblox are interesting because other people have made them."
Baszucki says players log around 40 million hours of play time on Roblox per month. He estimates that, conservatively, 5 or 10 percent of that time is used towards content creation.
"That ends up being an enormous army of content creators," he says, "just like you'd get with YouTube. And that variety of content is what powers our site and makes it interesting for others."