User Generated Content in Games

Today’s game design topic is about letting the players change the game.  We game designers know how much fun it is to design levels,  tweak the game code,  and generally change things in our games just to see what would happen.  Why not let our players experience this as well?

Traditionally the industry frowns upon this concept.  The most serious problem is that some of our players want to make obscene and/or illegal content.  Also, most of our players are untrained in game design and as a result they make content that is just plain bad.  On the other hand there’s some truly great, fun, legal, user generated content out there,  so it’s definitely a double edged sword.

On top of all that,  there’s some very nasty technical challenges to allowing user generated content.  Most design tools are gnarly, proprietary tools that easily break.   It’s one thing to use these tools during development,  but another can of worms entirely to release them to the public,  documenting them,  and fixing the bugs.

So let me say right up front that I’ve decided against user generated content in my current project, fatjumper.  Sometimes you just have to take the easy path,  and it’s definitely easier to keep all content and the content creation tools in-house.  Still,  I’ve thought about this issue a bit lately, so here’s my list of techniques to deal with the problems of user generated content:

is it legal?

I am not a lawyer,  so I’ll do my best not to give legal advice here.  When a user makes Pacman or Mario level using your tools,  what are the legal consequences?  The industry currently deals with this by quickly responding to takedown requests by the copyright and trademark owners.  It’s a good idea to encourage the content creators to avoid the creation of infringing content,  but of course that won’t stop anyone.

Another technique for dealing with this issue is to limit the content creation tools so severely that it’s impossible to create infringing content.  If you don’t let users enter their own text, graphics and sounds but just manipulate prebuilt elements you might be OK.  All in all though this approach throws out the baby with the bathwater.  If you cripple the tools in this way the content creators won’t be all that interested in using them.

A reasonable line of defense is censorship before publication.  That means putting a human into the loop.  When someone makes new content it gets submitted to the publisher and someone who works for the publisher has to review the content before it gets released to the public.  This won’t catch all infringing content,  just the obvious stuff.

By the way, and off topic, I’m filtering comments in this blog the same way,  though so far the problem isn’t infringing content but rather spam.

is it obscene?

This problem is really handled the same way as the legalities.  Additionally,  there’s the method used by the XNA Creator’s club.  Essentially,  the idea is to form a community of game creators who are willing to do the gatekeeping for you.  This is called peer-review.  You need to make sure that the reviewers are all adults and have at least some level of experience in game creation.

The biggest problem with peer-reviewing is that it takes time on the order of days or even weeks.  This won’t make your content creators happy,  so anything you can do to speed up the process would help.  Unfortunately,  without a human in the loop you’re just asking for big trouble,  angry parents,  bad publicity and lawsuits.

One feature that’s worth considering is to designate certain content creators as “trusted” or “valuable”.  Those people could get higher priority in the queue,  which would alleviate the delay problem for them.

is it good?

In a word,  no.  User generated content tends to be two or three notches below that made by the pros.  There’s exceptions of course.  A reasonable way to allow the cream to rise to the top is to implement a rating system.   Still,  rating systems aren’t perfect and can be manipulated.  It really helps if the content creation tools are powerful enough to make anything made by the pros yet they give automatic evaluations and warnings to help the new content creators make acceptable stuff.

how to implement this?

It ain’t easy.  I went through this process once before on Gubble and Gubble 2. For Gubble we made a very powerful in-house level editor that was a lot of fun to use.  So for Gubble 2 we released the tools as part of the product.  Unfortunately we didn’t document the tools very well nor did we promote this feature.  As a result the Gubble 2 level editor wasn’t getting used.  This was back in the 1990s before widespread use of the internet.

Here’s a screenshot from the original Gubble Level Editor,  revealed here for the first time:

Gubble level editor screen shot

Gubble level editor screen shot

In Gubedit you use various keyboard shortcuts to move the cursor around to draw the level,  place objects,  and edit numeric properties of the objects. It would generate a data file which was used by the game itself as well as 3D Studio to serve as a starting point for the artist to create the prerendered graphics of the level.  We couldn’t expect our users to have access to 3D Studio,  so this made it impractical to release this tool to the public.

I resurrected Gubedit and used it again in 2007 and 2010 to help in the creation of the updated Gubble versions Gubble HD and Gubble iPhone/iPad.

The prerendering technology used in Gubble is very obsolete now.  The technology hurdles on your game will be different,  but I would advise you to plan it all out carefully and don’t underestimate the amount of work it takes to support user generated content on your project.

Now what?

As you can see,  this is a complex issue with legal and technical ramifications.  Most commercial products out there don’t support it,  and I’ve listed some of the reasons why most developers shy away from this feature.  Still,  there’s some notable exceptions such as Little Big Planet,  Roblox,  Minecraft and the Sims.

Looking ahead to the future is dangerous in this business,  but I’ll give it a shot.  There’s definitely a trend in technology in general to give a voice and a creative outlet to users.  So I expect that UGC will become more common in the future in spite of the many difficulties.


About Franz Lanzinger

Franz Lanzinger is a classic video game developer with video game credits for Atari's coin-op Crystal Castles, Tengen Ms. Pacman, SNES Rampart, and the Gubble series. He has a degree in mathematics, wrote "Classic Game Design", a book about how to make classic video games, and is a professional pianist, accompanist and piano teacher.
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