A couple of weeks ago, Henry raised a key issue in the global discourse on user-generated content. That issue: should users benefit financially from content they have created with industry-provided tools (or shared via industry-provided distribution systems?) Here’s a good quote from the post:
If consumers are helping to generate the intellectual property and helping to market the product, shouldn’t they receive some economic return on their participation? Lund says no — that this would fundamentally change their relationship to the company…
I made a few comments on Henry’s post which I’d like to echo here. To the point: I think it’s clear that economic returns, while not always the best (or even appropriate) creative incentive, are not inherently contrary to the spirit of user-generated content. In some cases, financial incentives may even grease the wheels of UGC.
I love the fact that thanks to organizations like Valve, Maxis, and Bioware, user-generated content is attracting tremendous attention from industry and media alike. Still, coverage typically revolves around a single point of interest, i.e. “UGC makes games more interesting” or “UGC can help drive sales.” So I thought I’d compile a (by no means exhaustive) list of the good business-y things about UGC in the context of games:
The public release of Paul Hemp’s article on Avatar-Based Marketing has inspired me to write about something that we’ve been discussing at MIT for the past couple years. That is, reverse-placement: the idea that fictional brands can be created in games, then introduced to the physical world as real products. Also, the idea that market research can be conducted within games.
Consumer product companies spend tens of millions of dollars (if not more) attempting to establish a new brand, especially in competitive retail markets. Fighting mature competitors for mindshare and shelf-space is difficult at best. Many video games, on the other hand, offer vast acres of uncluttered virtual real estate via which to introduce a new brand.
Via Joystiq, an interesting controversy: id co-founder John Romero has accused the modding community of hurting the game industry by exposing or introducing inappropriate content (i.e. nudity) in PC games. His post was in response to the ESRB’s re-rating of Oblivion (which happened after a nudity mod surfaced.) John’s exact words: “modders are now screwing up the industry they’re supposed to be helping.”
There are a number of interesting comments on John’s original post which you may wish to read. Meanwhile, this raises a couple issues that I’ve been meaning to write about:
Whose Side Are They On, Anyway?
When consumers decide to create content for a game (or anything else), they’re doing it to indulge their own creative impulses, and/or to share something with friends, and/or to gain notoriety, and/or other reasons that have little to do with “wanting to help the industry” (or the developer, for that matter.) Let’s not kid ourselves: the guys who made Counterstrike didn’t do it to make Valve rich… that was simply a nice side-effect.
Back in January, Henry and I gave a talk at the Economics of Open Content Symposium on “The New Economics of Gaming”, which is basically a vague, grandiose way of saying “a talk on user-generated content and the video game industry.” A video clip of the entire session was recently made publicly available here.
On a fast connection, the video quality is great. Otherwise, you’ll get nothing but chop, but at least the sound quality remains consistently adequate throughout.
Danc over at Lost Garden has an interesting post (in a multi-post series) analyzing the development model currently favored by most game studios. Lots to read in there; he does a good job of explaining how/why studios are pouring ever-more funding into licensed IPs, art, and “more of the same technologies”, why studios think this is actually a good risk-reduction strategy, and how this arms-race will hurt everyone in the long-term.
Juxtapose this with the latest unhappy news: a survey found that 80% of teens intend to cut back on time spent playing video games, and 70% said they are “losing interest” in games altogether. (Oddly, the survey-taker calls this a “stabilization”, since last year 75% of teens reported declining interest in games. Why does this fail to make me feel better?)
Thanks to Wonderland, I’ve discovered a cool little game called Fastr which is based on the Flickr image-sharing service. Fastr is a multiplayer game. Every 40 seconds or so, it appears to pick a random (simple) word and then begins downloading images from Flickr that have been tagged with that word. It displays another image every few seconds. Your goal is to guess the tag word as quickly as possible (based on the images). A quicker guess yields more points. I love it!
This game has opened my eyes to a whole new world of potential design uses for open content. The possibilities are endless. For example, how about an FPS or RPG in which the player has the power to look into other people’s minds via ESP and see their thoughts (which would be expressed as images)? When the player uses his power on important characters (especially at key plot moments), he would of course see pre-defined content. But, when using his power to gaze into the minds of normal people on the street, the images he sees could be pulled directly from Flickr. Image selection could be based on a sensible set of random keywords. Or perhaps images could be pulled from a randomly-selected Flickr user’s library (preferably sharing a tag-word, regardless of the word itself), so that a truly meaningful “thought-sequence” would be reconstructed for the player. All of a sudden, “filler” NPCs in a game acquire unique, interesting characteristics. They cease to be filler, and instead truly enrich the player’s experience. :)
Thanks to a post on Clickable Culture, I’ve just discovered another user-generated-content-centric MMORPG called Active Worlds.
Apparently Wells Fargo is transitioning its private MMOG, Stagecoach Island, out of Second Life and into Active Worlds. Stagecoach Island attracted plenty of attention back when it was announced, just three months ago.
I’ve read a few rumors attempting to justify the move, but nothing that I think merits a reprint. I’d love to know more. Was Linden Lab (maker of SL) asking for “too much” money? Providing “too little” support? Did Second Life prove “too buggy” a platform? Questions, questions…
PS. My rant of the day: why are the interfaces on these otherwise fascinating user-centric MMORPGs so damned ugly and complicated? I realize that you need to empower gifted players with numerous interesting tools (so they can make interesting content), but a mass audience will never see that content if they get scared off by Frankenstein’s UI! If you can’t imagine a more streamlined and user-friendly system, then for goodness sake, make two — a simplified UI that’s enabled by default, and an advanced UI that scares the pants off of children (like we have now). You can expect advanced users to find the on/off switch; you can’t expect the average user to navigate a million options, nor learn the workings of a non-intuitive interface via miles and miles of ugly in game tutorial posters…