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Interview: Making User-Generated Content Friendly But Deep With  ModNation Racers

Interview: Making User-Generated Content Friendly But Deep With ModNation Racers Exclusive

June 7, 2010 | By Leigh Alexander

When Vancouver-based developer United Front Games (True Crime) came up with the idea for a customizable kart racer, it visualized some user-generated elements. But, in talking to publishers, it found in Sony a chance to be part of a strategy where user-contributed content played even more of a central role.

The title UF would eventually develop, ModNation Racers for the PlayStation 3 [YouTube launch trailer], is more predicated on encouraging user creation than almost any other console game. "It lined up exactly with what we imagined, and pushed us even more in that direction than we initially intended," producer Dan Sochan tells Gamasutra.

From there, United Front got some advice from folks who knew -- Media Molecule, who'd kicked off Sony's "Play, create, share" initiatives with the widely-acclaimed LittleBigPlanet.

"We talked about the general philosophy of user-generated content and what it means to the end user," Sochan tells us. "And we did talk a little more specifically about things they had learned from the network technology side. Then, after that, we just sort of stayed in touch a lot.... generally about sort of broad topics that arise in creating a game that is so empowering to the users."

Among these issues is a challenge central to UGC games: "The balance of creating editors and tools that are easy to pick up and play, that feel fun, but that also still have enough depth that people can create really impressive-looking [content]," Sochan explains. And according to UF's experience, there's a key way to achieve this: developers should work with the very same tools.

The Tools Should Be Fun

"Early on, we decided we were going drink the Kool-Aid -- everything that was built, everything that shipped on disc, was built using the same in-game editors", he says. "There's no smoke and mirrors or magic. Instead, we took probably 18-20 months to get our first track truly done because, it was a constant back-and-forth between the needs of our track designers, track editor team, and then putting a good user interface on top of that. We did a lot of editing."

Focus testing was key, too -- at Sony Europe, focus test group teams were dedicated solely to using the game tools. UF brought in family, friends and strangers for less formal reactions, too. "We wanted to keep working toward... 'everyone needs to have a fun time using it'... You have to have that goal up front," Sochan adds, and then iterate continuously toward that. Without fun tools, user-generated content might feel too much like work for some players.

The ModNation Racers PS3 team at United Front (the PSP version was created in association Sony's San Diego studio) feels it has built tools that offer complexity to invested users, simultaneous to accessibility for newer or lighter users. Most modification options have a basic editor and then a more complex one, where users have control over more elements in a character, track or kart to a finer degree.

Unified Style

Despite the fact that users create everything in the game world, ModNation Racers somehow manages to have a distinct, immediately-recognizable visual style, something important to the overall look and feel of a game. How do developers of user-generated content games think about keeping visual style consistent while still allowing users creative freedom?

"That's definitely a challenge," says Sochan. "We wanted all the characters to feel unified; there could be 100 different characters randomly chosen all on screen at once, but we'd want to make sure it felt like they were all from the same family, the same game."

Much of the game's look, particularly its round-bodied, cartoonish characters, was inspired by urban vinyl art and customizable figures like Munny -- strong shapes that retain their identity even when changes are made to the basic silhouette.

"Often, to be the most creative, you need some boundaries," says Sochan -- that starts with giving every player the same starting canvas to work on. "When you see how someone has taken that-- someone makes a robot, someone else makes a princess, someone else makes an abstract art that has no eyes, mouth... and that's what we love about the urban vinyl artwork, is how each artist interprets that platform, that canvas, however they want."

All Are Welcome

Kart racing in particular is a good fit for a diverse user-generated content game, because of how accessible it is -- the genre's extremely popular among less experienced and more casual gamers, but it also enjoys fervent interest from longtime gamers, too.

"We tried to do it in a more sophisticated way," says Sochan, "but we really tried to lower the barrier as much as possible, in terms of the entry level." Is there a challenge in a more casual consumer feeling motivated or comfortable with content creation?

"That's really challenging in most user-generated games; it can be very intimidating," Sochan says. "Some of the stats that we've seen is that 2-5 percent [of players] are creators, and the rest just play and are consumers of that content."

That's fine, but that's generally not what most players have said they wanted, he explains. "It's just that the barrier to entry was too high for them. What we tried to do is always give you a couple of options at a time. we sort of lead you, at least or guide you. It's the same thing on the character side; there's no 'where do I start?'"

New Here

"It's been exciting for us being a brand-new studio," says Sochan of United Front, which opened its doors in 2007 -- "Two and a half years later, we just put out a brand-new game that's quite innovative and pioneering in a lot of ways."

"We've been sort of growing together as a studio and as a dev team; it's been a really good experience that way. We're fortunate that we spent a lot of time hiring the right people, and have a seasoned veteran group." At last check, says Sochan, the average amount of time in the industry at the studio was 11 years per employee.

"That allowed us to make less big mistakes and kind of get in there and sandbox ideas and iterate quickly, and get things in the game and then do more focus testing," he says.

The successful launch of the game has been exciting for the team. "The response so far has been fantastic," he says. "We're rabid fans of the game as well, and it's great for us being able to sit back and just marvel over what people have been able to build in [just the few days since it launched]. We can't wait to keep checking back once people are getting more familiar with the tools."

"People are posting their tutorials on how to do really advanced features to help other user -- that's exactly the community spirit that we'd always wanted, and something that the Media Molecule guys definitely inspired us in that way... we become a service provider and [allow] everyone else to become the game designer and artist, and we get to marvel at what they've built."

Next Steps

Sochan says United Front remains "really excited" about user-generated content -- "in our future endeavors, it's something that we'll always consider now that we have this much experience. We'd like to continue to build on it; we're always looking for what the next opportunity is, and where there's another genre of game that we can innovate, that's what we'll do."

But the team's hardly in a rush to move onto the next project, preferring instead to stay focused on supporting and nurturing ModNation Racers' community. "We've been working on some DLC for a couple of months; we've been working on some patches to improve load times," he explains. "We're still fully dedicated, and Sony's allowing us to continue to support the community."

This isn't just on the content side, but includes tournament events, direct-to-user support and instructions, mini tutorials, feedback gathering and more. "It's important to be well-integrated with the community," he says. "That's really our focus right now, which is again very cool and very different from what we're used to."

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