Aggro Me: Thoughts on Player Created Content in MMOs
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.