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Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Thoughts on Player Created Content in MMOs

by Dean Michaud
Karnatos and Mylene on EQII, Crushbone server

I recently had a discussion with an old friend of mine about EQII and the MMOs of today. The conversation meandered its way to us talking about player created content in games. Back in our University days the two of us used to play text-based MUDs a little more than we'd like to admit. The whole conversation started with us talking about how games like EQII are similar to the MUDs of yesteryear, and how they differ.

The discussion started with comparing the similarities. In the MUDs we played waaay back in the late 80s and early 90s, the majority of the main features we find in the MMOs of today were already implemented back then. Features such as detailed character creation, huge multiplayer worlds, several chat channels, quests of all types, shops, banks, guilds, food and drink, even player and guild housing.

We soon stopped talking about the things the two game types shared and focused on the differences; especially the ones that made the MUDs we played all the more interesting and memorable to us.

We agreed that the biggest difference revolved around the changes that player created content brought to the game. For the most part modern MMOs lacks player created content*; I am not talking about crafted items, but completely new content that did not exist until a player decided to create it.

* - I am aware that there are a few MMOs that currently allow forms of player created content, but so far as I am aware there are no triple-A titles, such as Everquest II, World of Warcraft, and City of Heroes, that have the depth of content creation I am speaking of.

For those who are unaware, the "End Game" of most MUDs is/was to reach the max character level (the default was level 20). Once you'd reached that point in the game you had a choice, you could remain a player and partake in the high-level content, or you could become a Wizard.

A Wizard was what a player could choose to be AFTER they completed all the requirements for reaching the max level... Wizards were immortal, but they no longer played the game; they either just socialized with the people on the MUD, or they could choose to create new content for the game. It was this player created content that made each MUD unique, and in turn made them so memorable. Each MUD out there would be built on top of the basic game server that would be downloaded and installed. The owners of a MUD would generate their own content to make their MUD less generic, but the real meat of a MUD was developed by people who would reach Wizard status in the game.

A Wizard was usually given a "zone" to play with. They could create as small or as large a zone as they wanted. They could make their own quests, monsters, weapons, lore, NPCs, towns... you name it. Anything a Wizard created was approved by the game's administrators, and once everything in a Wizard's zone was approved their content could go live.

Now, creating new content was not for everyone... there was a catch. You had to learn how to program. Wizards created this new content by writing computer code for everything. Each area in the zone had to be written in code, all quest items, NPCs, monsters, descriptions, traps, weapons, dialog... they all required the Wizard to write and test the code. This was quite a limiting factor, writing code was rather difficult if you got into doing anything that was fancier than making copies of existing content and rearranging it for you zone (e.g. for a new pub, you copied someone else's pub code, changed the pub's name, gave it a new location, and *poof*: new pub).

I am surprised that modern MMOs don't allow the players to do the same. You could have the players that have reached the End Game create new content for you... for free. So long as the content got approval, you could have a legion of dedicated players working in tandem to create new areas for your game, adding new quests, fresh ideas, new art, new armour types/model, new everything.

With the use of graphical interfaces you could even remove the restrictive code-writing aspects and replace that with content-creating toolkits that let you generate content. When content is created, let's says it is a new spell, the server-side can have rules that decide whether the spell's effects are 'valid' based on pre-determined rules for creating spells. These would be the same rules that the gaming company would apply to their own content for deciding how to balance things in-game.

You could easily imagine something like a character generator, but instead it would be, say, a 'spell' generator. If I decided to create a new fire-type spell, in my toolkit I would set the damage type to be 'fire', and then I make it a spell for people of minimum level 25. I then choose that it is to be a Damage over Time spell. The pre-determined DoT rules allow me to slap 35hp of damage every 2sec for 10sec (max dam = 10/2 * 35 = 175hp), or I can made it DoT of 45hp every 2sec for 6sec (max dam = 6/2 * 45 = 135 .. hits harder for a shorter period of time but less damage overall), or 20hp every 2s for 20sec (max dam = 200, hits for more damage overall). You could then apply a combination of predetermined particle effects that are fire-related, and choose colors for them to get a customized look to the casting and damage effect.

This is a very simplistic example purely to get the idea across, but with enough options, you could create a spell-creation toolkit that would follow pre-determined in-game rules, allowing people to create custom spells, but not allowing them to create something that unbalances the game.

Similarly, you could create generator toolkits like these for all in-game type content that people create when they are game-affecting items (weapons, armour, mounts, etc.). If you are allowing people to create in game content that does not affect game play, but more on the aesthetics in-game, then you can be a little more lax on the rule-based tools.

You could provide a simple 3D modeling kit (or support existing ones out there - there *are* plenty already) to enable the 3D artists out there to create new object models. They could create their own candelabras, or chairs, or trophies for house decorations. They could use them to create new armour and weapon types, even new monsters, trees, and buildings.

You could allow digital artists to create new paintings for your homes. The musically gifted could create music boxes that play their music, or allow dirges to play them on their lute as part of a new spell. The would-be bards out there could write their own stories down in books or scrolls to build upon the in-game lore and bring the art of story-telling to life. The possibilities are endless so long as you provide the community with the ability to create it.

As you can see, there are ways to approach player generated content and maintain balance in-game with the new content. If a game is designed from the ground up with this goal in mind you could create a game where the dedicated players who love the game could create content in the worlds they love, benefiting both them and the player-base, and even the gaming company that chose to support a player-content driven game. I, for one, hope that the trend of adopting features from the days of MUDs continues to one day bring back player-created content for us all.


Blogger Aggro Me said...

Thanks for the great article, Dean! I asked Dean to write up his thoughts on this subject after reading some posts of his in the Aggro Forums. I have recently been thinking a lot about the lack of player created content to MMORPG’s but I didn’t have any great ideas myself. Player created content is such a force in gaming today (mods for any FPS on the PC, Neverwinter Nights, Morrowind, etc.) but it is absent from current and next-gen MMORPG’s. Sure, you have There and Second Life, but those aren’t really games per se. I really hope an MMO company uses ideas similar to Dean’s in the future because I think it would attract a lot of subscribers and unlock the creativity of the player base.

11:58 PM  
Blogger kirkgibson said...

Haha, I remember the Wizards from my MUD days. I was a Wizard myself and it was fun to make cool stuff and then see your friends enjoy it. My stuff had a lot of in jokes. Would be cool to see similar things in Everquest type games.

12:13 AM  
Blogger Karnatos said...

kirkgibson: Being a Wizard on a well established MUD was a lot of fun. As a programmer I had the chance to create some pretty interesting stuff; from creating new zones, many quests, improving monster AI... gads, you name it, I had the chance to really have fun. The MUDs I was Wiz on required us to always create content that fit the game's theme and story, so things were fairly well organized.

I have seen some MUDs where things went awry because the owners of the game had a laissez-fair attitude, and anything was allowed (such as mages wielding Jedi-sabers, and even the starship Enterprise... crazy). I tended to stay far away from those becuase I enjoyed RPing more than some.

But, if a company made a game these days that allowed the people that made it to the End Game... these people know the world, they've spent an enormous ammount of time playing, and as a reward they could choose to contribute if they welt they wanted to.

I hope the days of player-created content returns one day; it's a lot of fun to create extensions to a world you've come to know so very well on your journey through the game.

10:14 AM  
Blogger warm_machine said...

Good job Dean, you seriously covered the topic! Like aggro me mentioned, lets hope the major players in the MMO arena get a clue and one day add this feature.

10:26 AM  
Anonymous Nazeroth said...

Yeah, i wish Dean. Unfortunately theres a lot more to it than with MUDs. Don't get me wrong, i'd love what you have described just as much as the next guy, but you have severely over-simplified the subject.
You say that player created content is free. Is it just? What about the massive amounts of space required to store all those models and textures? What about the gigabytes upon gigabytes of extra data being sent to every single player? What about the GM staff who have to supervise and approve each and every item, who have to make sure that piece or armor works on all of its intended races?
Its quite obvious that player created content is not as FREE is it would seem.

Thats only the tip of the iceberg too. The sometimes almost nightly updates are quite bothersome, and i'm on ADSL. Imagine those poor souls on 56k, and then to slap them with almost every hour updates with player created content.

Furthermore, you would have to be extremely skilled to be able to create a half decent item in EQ2. Being a modder my self (On the D3 engine) i can assure you that there would not be many who would be able to create high quality items, as it is not as easy as it used to be.
I choose quality over quantity.

I am afraid to say that player created content will be much of a pipedream for a long time to come. Until MMORPGS become mainstream (it is happening) you probably won't see such innovative engine design for awhile yet.

12:41 AM  
Blogger Karnatos said...

Hey nazeroth,

Yeah, I did think about all those issues... and the largest problems you make point of is that it takes a lot of storage space for the content, and a lot of bandwidth to download it. You then go on to say that it would take a lot of skill to create the more complicated content-type items, like custom 3D models for weapons, armour, buildings, and even maps/zones/areas.

I agree with you 100%.

It would take a lot of storage space to store that type of content if everyone was making it, but from my experience in the modding community the vast majority of people would not choose to create the more complex types of content. They might tend to create customized spells and such which would all be doable right in-game via a bunch of slider bars, checkboxes, and pull down menus (as I mentioned in the article). Code wise, in EQII a large amount of items are just clones of a same object with slightly modified stats/flags/etc on it, and a different icon (spell scrolls, collection quest items, books, etc.)

As you mentioned, the more complex content like custom 3D models and such, would require a deal of skills. It is for this reason that I do not think that there'd be a large issue with the 2 issues you mentioned; if there's not a lot of it being created there's not a lot to store, and there's not much to download either.

As for the free-side of things; the only big cost would be for the payrolls of people to verify the content... see, this type of game would have to have the player-generated content be a driving-force in the continuing development of the game. As things are right now gaming companies pay people to verify the content their own programmers/artists/etc generate, and it would be these same people that'd do the verifying. When it comes to applying stats to an object, let's say its body armour, you can easily limit the stats you can apply to it in game-code. If you make it heavy armour, and its AC is to be 150, the game rules would say it's for a minimum of level 30, for a fighter class, and the weight is 55 lbs. I pull these numbers out of the air as I type, but a game could have the whole item balancing in game code, we used to do it 15yrs ago... it could be done today too. Failsafes like these could be used to quicken the verification process.

There *is* one issue you almost touched on that I was hoping someone would bring up, and I’ll just mention it quick here: is it ethical to charge people to play a game whose content might not have been created by the company that created the actual game? Should the person(s) that made the content get paid for their work, or is it payment enough to just see your creations being used? It’s food for thought.

Anyways, I could go on and on. I agree with what you mentioned about storage space and bandwidth, but I feel it’s probably less an issue that you’d think. I also agree it's probably a ways off yet before the companies and the majority of gamers are ready for it, but I am ready for it now. Creating content is a lot of fun, it build the sense of community, its a great reward to players that have dedicated a large amount of time to a game, and its a great way to keep a game fresh with new content.

9:20 AM  
Anonymous Skale said...

Good article, thought I would just say that the player created content/areas and the ability to make new spells/abilities has been in use for some time in the Morrowind/Elder Scrolls line.

Although not a MMO this game very well could be made into one, if Bethesda was so inclined. I know many people are awaiting the new ES4:Oblivion, many more were hoping that it would be the first to make the jump to MMO.

If Vanguard:SOH does implement the "player created" zones/abilities (with limitations of course) then I feel many people will leave the as now dead worlds of EQ/EQ2 and WoW.

Anyway good ideas.

6:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I want to touch on MUDs first.

There are a few basic MUD types out in existence. Most are either LPMud/MudOS or DIKU derived. The main difference in the two are how you go about creating content.

LP-based MUDs use a language called LPC. This is a C-link grammer. Everything above the driver is usually implemented in LPC. This allows you to make changes to a running server by just reloading an object. This is also the type of MUD I coded on for a few years.

DIKU-based MUDs use text files to describe the rooms and objects on the MUD. Base implementations of various objects are written in true C and complied into the MUD. Builders (what they call wizards who only make content, not class/race stuff) create these files to describe their zone and everything in it.

Of course, even this is a simplification of the world of MUDs. But it at least illustrates the variation in complexity.

Now to switch to EQ2/MMORPGS.

MMORPGs are a paid service which comes with a few extra overhead items. These companies have to be careful about not allowing exploits, ruining the game economy and maintaining their class system for the enjoyment of all paying subscribers.

On a MUD, if you ticked off a Wizard, they could 'kill' you on the spot and not worry about it (mostly) or you could be banned for a week. These were both common occurances. MMORPGs have to provide better customer support; which is too bad because some people need to just be killed ;)

Personally, I would love if it we could create some types of content for these games. I would suggest only using the supplied textures to remove dependency and qualification of external artwork, not to mention all the meshes that have to be verified for character model stuff (armor, weapons, etc). I also don't think the community should be able to provide class spells/abilities. Leave these to the designers of the game.

What we should be able to create are new weapons, armor, areas (zones) and quests. Even with just this, there is a lot that can be accomplished. Tools like Auror from NWN or the Morrowind editor (forgot the name) already show powerful builder tooles and something similar, no doubt, already exists for these MMORPGs.

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