Game 3.0 is Nothing New

Sony's claiming to put the creator's tools in the hands of the users. But this has been done since the earliest days of gaming. What's really new here?

Sony’s triptych view of gaming’s history is easy on the mind. Game 1.0 corresponds to the era of classic gaming, from the Atari 2600 to the SNES. Game 2.0 was the era of online gaming, from Quake to the present. Now we enter Game 3.0, the era of consumer created content.

While this does cleverly divide the history of videogames roughly into single, multi, and community gaming—and neatly fits into Sony's PR—it ignores an important fact: the tools of game creation have been given to players over and over again for almost a quarter of a century, since at least 1983. The lessons learned since then will be instructive as Sony again puts the players in control.

Pinball Wizard

What happened in 1983? The first popular commercial software specifically intended to allow players to create their own game was made: Bill Budge's Pinball Construction Set for the Apple II and the Atari 8-bit computers, published by a then young and vibrant Electronic Arts. With PCS, users could create a custom pinball table, complete with virtual bumpers and targets, and wire up the parts to form a unique, functioning game.

Even the gravity and physics models could be tweaked. While a completed table could be saved to disk and played by the author, the Pinball Construction Set could also create a standalone program which no longer required PCS to run. These copies could then be freely distributed to friends.

For the time, this was an astonishing bit of innovation. While some stock tables were provided in Pinball Construction Set for the player to enjoy out-of-the-box, the true burden of creating an ongoing experience rested squarely on the shoulders of the player. Moreover, by encouraging the creation of free games, the player enlisted as co-producer and independent promoter of PCS, enticing friends to buy the software without Electronic Arts having to lift a finger.

Several other construction sets followed: Racing Destruction Set (1985) and Adventure Construction Set (1986). The former was essentially a track creation tool, albeit one that many people remember fondly. With the latter, originally developed by Stuart Smith on the Apple II, players created graphical adventures from a variety of templates (fantasy, science fiction, and espionage) using actors, creatures, and items—all customizable down to the pixels and properties.

Unlike PCS, however, neither of these construction sets allowed the creation of standalone games. Still, if a friend had a copy of Racing Destruction Set or Adventure Construction Set, an author could share his creation as data on a 5.25 inch floppy disk.

SEUCK and Others

Perhaps the most ambitious of all the construction sets was Garry Kitchen's GameMaker, published by Activision in 1985. Through a graphical user interface, budding developers could create animated sprites, background graphics, and music. Then, through a simple programming language, all the pieces could be tied together into a complete game.

Like Pinball Construction Set, the end product could be made into a standalone program and given to friends who didn't own GameMaker. To demonstrate what could be made, the sample code and graphics for a complete clone of David Crane's classic Pitfall! were included.

And relatively quickly, the classic era of GUI-driven game construction sets ended. Some others arrived on the scene—Boulder Dash Construction Kit and Shoot 'em Up Construction Kit come to mind—but the next wave of user-driven game creation software would have to wait for the 1990s. While NES owners were creating custom tracks with Excitebike (which they couldn't even save), things were getting very interesting on an unlikely gaming platform: home computers running DOS.

Meet the Mod Squad

After players began modifying Wolfenstein 3D, id Software built extensibility into its next big game, Doom. Through the use of PWADs and level editors, a second generation of user-created games was born. An inspired player with motivation and talent could develop new levels and monsters, or even an entire game.

The first notable total conversion, Justin Fisher's seminal Aliens TC, molded Doom into an all new game based on the world of the Hollywood action movie of the same name. However, unlike the construction kits of the 1980s, these modifications required a high level of programming knowledge.

The release of Quake and its platform-agnostic QuakeC combined to push the mod scene into high gear, propelled by widespread public availability of Internet access. Much the same way online communities drive the popularity of YouTube videos and MySpace pages, Quake players voted for the best mods by populating their servers, leaving lesser mods to wither on the vine.

An interesting symbiosis began to emerge: Dedicated fans became mod makers and mappers, some mods became tremendously popular, and the user-created value was absorbed by the industry. For example, once Capture the Flag modifications became popular, nearly every new first-person shooter felt compelled to include that functionality out of the box, often by hiring CTF programmers from the mod scene itself.

Team Fortress

The example of Robin Cook, John Walker, and Ian Caughley is particularly instructive. Together they created Team Fortress, one of the most important Quake/QuakeWorld modifications ever made, and that work earned them jobs at Valve. That investment in user-created gaming will still  be paying dividends almost a decade later when Team Fortress 2 is released later this year. Valve's Half-Life later absorbed its most popular mod—Counter-Strike—which then appeared in various commercial forms, even as a standalone game on Microsoft's Xbox.

More recently, Epic Software's Make Something Unreal Contest has fully embraced the mod scene, offering a professional Unreal Engine license to the winner. While the contest did produce some excellent modifications, including the winning Red Orchestra, it also marked a shift in the nature of the community. Mod teams became more like commercial software developers, some even requiring prospective team members to sign Non-Disclosure Agreements. Of course, this wasn't the first time that money altered the dynamic among amateur developers. Given the market direction, it won't be the last.

Second Life from Linden Labs is the final link between Sony's Game 3.0 and its ancestors. Second Life consists of shared, malleable worlds driven by a legion of inventive and entrepreneurial users. The members of its online community create and commercialize virtual properties in ways that seemed pure fantasy just a few short years ago. Second Life increasingly attracts the very real attention of brick-and-mortar businesses, traditional real estate brokers, and even politicians running for office. Moreover its intrinsic openness means that it hosts a wide range of creations, from the sublime to the grotesque.

So What Does Sony Really Have?

While Sony wants Game 3.0 to seem all new, it just isn't. The pieces have been around for years:

1) User-driven content

2) Straightforward creation tools

3) Content sharing

4) Community experiences with that content

5) Commercialization of user creations

6) Major industry backing

Each previous generation of user-creation tools has had three or four of these features. Pinball Construction Set had user-created tables, a relatively simple interface, and the ability to share creations. Quake had the user mods, sharing and community, and eventually commercialization. Second Life has all of the above features with the exception of simple creation tools and big money interests (although that is changing).

Sony's innovation is to bundle all these pieces together into one product. The devil, of course, is in making it work.

Consider Little Big Planet, Sony's flagship Game 3.0 title. A player will reportedly be able to create a level, share it with friends, and then play through that level co-operatively online with those same friends. Success will depend on intuitive, natural construction tools—not unlike those found in Pinball Construction Set.

The fully three-dimensional world of Second Life may be too clever by half (so to speak); Sony may find that a sandbox with two-dimensional boundaries will be rich enough for players of all levels to embrace without requiring knowledge of 3D modeling or elaborate scripting.

Coming up with the idea to tie all these threads together and call it Game 3.0 was, in some sense, the easy part. Getting the balance right in the implementation will be key. The creation tools have to be easy to use, but not so simple as to frustrate the clever users who will make the most compelling games. Users will need to share their creations easily, but also filter out the rubbish when they're browsing for something interesting. Sony will have to build communities of creators and players, but avoid tearing them apart as commercialization urges individuals to sell out. And Sony will have to put big money into a system whose users will consistently work to undermine its authority, for example by creating pornographic content.

And one mustn't forget that there is currently only one official Game 3.0 title, the aforementioned Little Big Planet. Unlike the Wii controller, which immediately inspired developers and players alike, the concept of Game 3.0 is a bit more abstruse. How precisely developers will embrace it and what types of content creation they will grant users has yet to be seen. If all Sony manages to produce is PlayStation Home with its customizable apartments filled with virtual furniture and trophies, they will have failed to make good on a very big promise.

Everything Old is New Again

We now see clearly that Sony's Game 3.0 plan is not so much a new creation as many very old ideas wrapped into one neat package. It is GUI driven game creation tools, not unlike Pinball Construction Set. It is new levels and games shared over a common network, reminiscent of Quake and QuakeC. It is a frontier ripe for creation and commercialization of the kind we've already seen in Second Life.

Sony promises to bundle all these together for the first time: the tools for creating game experiences, a user-friendly interface, digital distribution, networked co-operative and competitive play. If Sony puts its dominant PlayStation brand and corporate money behind the effort, maybe Game 3.0 won't be just another hollow buzzword.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.