Mike Bithell Asks Daily Reaction: How Much do you Care About User Generated Content?


On today’s Daily Reaction, we have yet another special AskDR, where a celebrated games developer asks us a question. This time, Thomas Was Alone mastermind Mike Bithell poses a question to Seb and Dan about UGC.

Mike Bithell:  How much do you care about user generated content?

Seb: Thanks for the question Mike! I’ll start by saying the obvious, I love the concept of user generated content, as it can lead to fantastic gameplay experiences unlike any other.

User generated content (UGC) has a ton of benefits that simply can’t be ignored. For people who just play games, it means an endless flow of new content, which is varied and from the minds of potentially millions of different people, allowing different stories and perspectives. For those who like building levels, it allows them to flex their creative muscles, express their artistic desires, or simply have fun making silly things.

And, perhaps most importantly, it can serve as a way for people to dabble in game development and see if they like the idea/are good at it, without having to first do some serious researching. In PlayStation, the most famous example of a UGC game is obviously LittleBigPlanet, with Media Molecule even going as far as to hire people who designed awesome levels.

I’m always excited to hear that a game is embracing UGC, so when Mike announced that his next title, Volume, will support UGC. The plan is for the game to be a “Metal Gear meets Minecraft” of sorts, with a community that supports the title for years to come with new content. As the tag suggests, Bithell was inspired by Metal Gear, but wanted to add USG support. He explained to Eurogamer that “[Kojima was] talking about the process of designing levels, and he did it with Lego. The camera panned across basically the entirety of Metal Gear Solid 1, with all of Shadow Moses laid out as a Lego set. That just blew my mind. I bought Lego. I thought, that’s actually something I could do. I could make a level.”

So with Volume aiming to do just that, perhaps many future devs will owe their career to picking up that game, and at the very least, normal consumers will be treated to far more content than Bithell and his team could ever have created.

Then there’s the fact that you can have games like Minecraft that are purely about creation, or it can be used to help developers create worlds, as with EverQuest Next Landmark, where people will publicly build objects that may be used in EverQuest Next. Oh, and there’s even the possibility of some gamers earning money off of their creations, as we can see on Steam Workshop and SOE’s Player Studio.

That’s why I really care about user generated content, Mike, both as a gamer and a journalist. But of course, it’s not vital to the success of a game. After LBP first released, I remember every publication, both big and small, jumping on the bandwagon and saying “every game will have level creation, this is the future”. Now on PC that’s more likely because of mod support, but we’re talking about console, and about games with far more fleshed out creation tools akin to LBP, ModNation and probably Volume.

Making a game support UGC with comprehensive tools and a simple distribution method is no mean feat, especially for the more complicated types of games, and it’s not something every developer should embrace. Developers have finite funds, capital, manpower and time, so they should only focus on something like this if they really believe it works for their type of game, and that they don’t need to spend more time on the singleplayer/multiplayer/etc.

And then there’s the issue of whether the community will support it or not. On PC, where there are more UGC games, there are plenty of examples, but on PlayStation a game that immediately springs to mind is Sound Shapes. While it has got a loyal following, most of the songs made with it are simple and short, and playing them makes it feel like so much potential has gone untapped.

Finally, there’s my own personal worry about the increasingly transient nature of modern video games, and how games become unusable when they’re old and their servers are turned off. As someone who loves to both play UGC, and make my own horrible creations, it’s sad to think that they may eventually be lost. But that’s because I care about UGC.

Dan: Again, thank you for the question Mike. But, yes, UGC is a great thing on many levels and has extended the life of numerous titles. Going back to the Tony Hawk Pro Skater era, besides trying to master my million point trick, most of my days were spent creating skate parks for my friends to mess with.

These constructs become memorable, not only because they were shared experiences, but because the product themselves worked well with the design. Games like LBP do a great job of giving the user the ability to create a level, but I do think that games like that are taking the concept too far and asking users to create their own game. This is something that is becoming more of a true statement, as we are seeing titles launch with the tools that were actually used to create the original experience.

One such game was Motorbike on the PSN, which was little more than a stunt game with a built in level creator that the developers seemed to have used to create the game itself – albeit poorly.

This is where I think the UGC scene starts to fall apart, as games can become narrow experiences and crutch themselves on the hopes that fans make it better themselves, removing the whole point of buying a packaged good. This is similar to the concept of going to a restaurant and having to make the food yourself if you want something to eat, instead of just modifying things to your taste.

I genuinely do love the idea of UGC and the mod scene, but I think there needs to be limitations between the two and neither should ever take away from the designed experience, otherwise you are just selling a toolset, not a game. The best example of a product that I feel has handled the mod scene on the consoles and give a packaged good, has to be Unreal Tournament 3 on the PS3. A console shooter that allowed mods to be installed that turned the 3D shooter into a 2D sidescroller, because a fan created it – but, was still a complete Unreal title from beginning to end.

This of course doesn’t work for the layman user, which is why we generally have UGC tools that allow more simple constructs, reorganizing a level or placing enemies. The issue is where should we draw the line between the two styles, without ruining it for either side and still be able to give a core gameplay experience. As I said, LBP was a lot of fun, but I think a great deal of what it offered was hurt by the concept itself, as it wasn’t able to deliver the ability to easily create worthwhile levels, without a major investment by the user. That cut off the majority of the product for gamers who simply couldn’t get how to use the designated toolset to make something fun, leaving them at the whim of the general public.

So, to answer your question, I care a great deal about user generated content, as it adds a great deal of content where none would normally exist, but I am not willing to give up a complete experience just so I can be attacked by someone’s penis monster.

How much do you care for UGC? More than for your child? Less than for a taco? We demand to know, so express your love in the comments below email us your own creations at [email protected] or rip off better people’s stuff by retweeting messages from Seb and Dan.