An attempt at a quick post: user-generated content and game developers

I frequently have game-related things I want to post about here (and writing-related things, and science fiction-related things, and…), but rarely feel like I have the time to post thoughtfully, so this is an experiment in writing something off the top of my head just as it occurs to me.

The concept of “user-generated content” has been a buzz-word for a good long while, and it can be perceived perhaps as just that, or maybe it’s something more significant, our inevitable yet exciting slide toward Hamlet on the Holodeck (and the “holodeck” is something that comes up often in any online world discussion)… because of the convenience of the business buzz term (UGC), we’re now beginning to accept in a major way that as we make advances into online space, one of the deepest drives that we have as people is to create, to shape that space for ourselves and not “merely” inhabit it.

But no one’s managed to create a truly workable, accessible UCG-friendly area yet. Second Life isn’t it. Metaplace isn’t it (sorry Raph). Thus far, properties that have made UGC their core mission have not been successful.

Maybe it’s technological limitations, the idea whose time is still not come. Maybe it’s what Will Wright says about The Sims and Spore — that people don’t really want to create, they want the illusion of creating — the illusion of the creative act in the same way Guitar Hero is the illusion and not the reality of musicality.

But I think there’s something else to it, and I also don’t mean to diminish the deep difficulty in creating a user-modifiable space with accessible tools — if it were easy, someone would have done it. The secret sauce balance between UGC and sticky gameplay — the core broad inspiration that hooks a player and makes them feel compelled to create in this space — hasn’t yet been found, though perhaps The Sims has come closest.

Again, though — something else to it. I suspect that game developers are uniquely inhibited in creating user-friendly user-generated-content… generators. We’re so used to forcing a system to do what we want no matter the barrier that it becomes very difficult to squeeze our brains into the experience of, perhaps, the one thing we can’t envision — a person who doesn’t have that immediate burning desire to bend a completely unreasonable tool to their will. And so we wind up creating only slightly less unreasonable tools rather than tools that are actually inviting and intuitive.

This is actually something that I love about designing games for kids. Kids will not give you a single inch. If you do something stupid, you don’t get away with it — they don’t stick around to see if you fix yourself. They tell you that you’re being stupid and they walk away. This applies in fundamental game design, in UI design, in art and in concept — in every dimension. It is a phenomenally educational experience for a designer, to make something for a kid you don’t know, who has no reason to cut you any slack.

And it’s also why we can learn from the web, why we need to reach out to marketing-minded folk and usability experts, because product marketing has learned an awful lot about how to track user behavior and dropoff rates, and what stems the tide. It has been abundantly clear for some time now that the future of online games is not in trapping a consumer through flashy advertising into traveling to a store and buying an expensive box — it’s in online lowest-barrier access. And that means we don’t have them shackled into stubbornly enjoying our product the way we do if they’ve already purchased a retail box — we have thirty seconds to five minutes (in the excessively patient) to differentiate ourselves significantly enough from our competition to keep them clicking. They need a reason in the first gut-check five seconds. Our hooks need to be better. Our content needs to be better. We need to stop thinking we can be sadistic and get away with it, that we can make the game entry process some sort of esoteric and bizarre hazing rather than a welcoming overture that compels and inspires.

So that’s your fast post. Have a great weekend, all!

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