You're Controlling Games, Too

Developers and publishers are incorporating user-generated content into the gaming world. A look at the pros and cons

Time magazine's 2006 Person of the Year was "you." Not because you're special, but because of your collective ability to readily produce, publish, and share content with others. It's called user-generated content, and it's slowly starting to creep into console video games.

While user-generated game content is no stranger to PCs, it's clearly in its infancy; especially on consoles.

Wikipedia fittingly describes user-generated content as "various kinds of media content that is produced or primarily influenced by end-users as opposed to traditional media producers, licensed broadcasters, and production companies."

More crucially, articipating creators produce content for the benefit of others in addition to themselves. The creators literally take the place of producers with the end goal of sharing, adding to the overall gameplay experience. If something can't be easily produced, published, or shared on a console by the masses, it cannot truly be considered user-generated content. Two-way media, like that of traditional media, must have an inherent value for others. Thus, sharing is key.

Why now?

First, consumers want it. The empowerment and popularity of the social web is sure to transfer to console video games. "It would be very difficult for anyone to ignore the influence sites like YouTube, Grouper and MySpace have had on our society in recent years," said Dave Karraker, senior director of corporate communications at Sony Computer Entertainment of America. "Put simply, this is what a great number of the consumers in the video game demographic are doing for entertainment and communications. You will see a dramatic increase in community-based and user-created content in video games in the next few years, if not months. "

Second, console makers are likely feeling the pressure of widespread network computing. Consoles were born as low cost home gaming alternatives to what were originally more expensive personal computers. But technology has since decreased prices while increasing the quality of both hardware and software. In the process, the line between consoles and computers has been significantly blurred, if not obviated.

"As people gain more control over what they do online, they're likely to get bored with the old closed box, plug-and-play model for game consoles," writes Kenji Hall of Business Week. Therefore, blogs, social sites, and other online activities further divert the attention of the elusive 18- to 35-year old gaming demographic; an audience that also makes up the core constituency of console manufacturers. It's no longer just a console gaming war, it's an attention war.

Last but not least, accessible tools readily exist for the mass population to participate in user-generated game content. Without such tools, the viral effect of user-generated content cannot take place. "The ones that don't take user interfaces and user tools as seriously as have Nintendo and the Spore team will find themselves wondering why they've built it, but no one has come," says N'Gai Croal, general editor of technology at Newsweek. Easy tools aren't an option, they're imperative to the success of user-generated game content.

Nintendo starts the game

Though Nintendo is hardly the father of user-generated game content, they are clearly paving its way onto consoles through the use of shareable, cross-game avatars known as Miis. In case you're out of the loop, Miis are cartoonish 3D characters of oneself or others that are easily created through a simple graphical user interface as opposed to technical code.

The rudimentary profile system—officially unveiled by Nintendo in September 2006 —is currently incorporated in only three games; Wii Sports, Wii Play, and WarioWare: Smooth Moves, all of which are first-party titles. But the true allure of Miis is in their ability to be played among different games by different users, across multiple consoles.

By enabling a feature called "Mingle," a given Mii infinitely duplicates itself like that of a splitting cell spreading onto other Wii consoles connected to the Internet. This is truly a first for user-generated game content on consoles, however basic.

But Miis aren't without their problems. Nintendo currently allows only 100 unique Miis per consoles, a far cry from the millions of Miis in existence. And differing graphical styles could pose integration and consistency problems for realistic games considering the playful, "cutish" looks of Miis. But perhaps the biggest weakness of Miis at the moment is the lack of third-party support.

According to EA producer Eric Chartrand, Nintendo hasn't released the necessary tools to put Miis into third-party games yet. If the company wants Miis to become a lasting sticky application, it'd be wise to acclimatize third-party developers sooner rather than later. Regardless, Miis have the potential to usher in true user-generated game characters on consoles. Unless you’re ginger -  Miis still don't support legitimate red hair.

Sony and Microsoft follow suit

Nintendo's not the only console maker trying to leverage the social games movement to its advantage. Both Sony and Microsoft have similar plans up their sleeves. At the 2006 Tokyo Games Show, Sony CEO Ken Kutaragi suggested that PS3 owners would someday be able to use their own real-world neighborhoods as 3D backdrops during online play. Also, executive vice president Phil Harrison demonstrated a new SingStar game for PS3 just last week where user-created videos can be shared and rated by people around the world YouTube style. "This is just the tip of the iceberg of what you can expect from Sony in the coming months," said the aforementioned Karraker after calling user-generated content a "top priority" for his company. " We will be announcing new applications that expand the community aspects of the PS3, dramatically allowing for even more consumer interaction."

Microsoft, for its part, says players will have the ability to create and share user-generated maps on the upcoming Xbox Live Arcade title Band of Bugs. Using a built-in level-editing tool like Konami's Elebits on Wii, players will be able to share maps with others over Xbox Live. And though the company is heavily betting on its XNA framework for independent developers, the ability to create and release console games for Xbox 360 is hardly a true user-generated content tool due to its technological and financial barriers; one must know code and pay an annual fee of $99 to participate.

Still, games analyst Michael Pachter says "I think you'll see innovation [on XNA] analogous to what we've seen with Google Earth, where users develop maps that show where the best burger joints or bars are in a specific geography." And on the whole, Microsoft's Live platform lends itself well for sharing content with others. "W ith the open-ended structure of Xbox Live Marketplace, there is a lot potential in the future for user-generated content to be shared among Xbox Live users," said Aaron Greenberg, marketing manager of Xbox Live .

Moving forward

Other than the possible mismanagement of creation and sharing tools on the part of console makers, user-generated game content does have some impediments. First, if Miis are just a crude start, is there a workable solution beyond their inherent simplicity? Second, authorial intent and storylines could be compromised by user-generated content. Hence, some developers may resent the social games movement in favor of full creative control. And what about gamers that don't want their game play experience meddled with? "I prefer my games alone," said analyst Michael Pachter in candid form. "I have plenty of opportunity for social interaction, and prefer to play games to escape. Single player games are challenging enough, and I don't derive a great deal of pleasure from a 16 year-old with lightning fast reflexes kicking my butt in Halo."

Perhaps one of the greatest benefits to user-generated game content is that it's rooted in choice. Gamers have a choice. They can simply turn off connectivity features to enjoy a holistic console experience. Developers have a choice. They will ultimately decide where and when user-generated content presents itself. But traditional and user-generated game content can and will coexist on consoles. Two-way content merely expands the diversity and propensity of games. So as the $14 billion dollar game industry continues to grow, expect user-generated game content to grow right along with it.

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