Double Buffered

A Programmer’s View of Game Design, Development, and Culture

City of Heroes User-Created Content

Posted by Ben Zeigler on May 3, 2008

This week, the lead designer of City of Heroes announced the future addition of user-created content. I don’t have any insider information (since CoH got sold to NCSoft, Cryptic has nothing to do with it), but it’s definitely still a story worth talking about. Based on the one paragraph description and my knowledge of the mission system in CoH, basically what they’re talking about is a way for users to create and share the kind of missions that City of Heroes shipped with. So, I would expect full control over things like enemy types, general map tileset, and flavor text of all kinds. This is pure speculation, but I wouldn’t necessarily expect much in the way of complicated mission behavior or custom map layouts. You might be able to make a map entirely out of that horrible 6 level cave tile piece, but if you do no one will want to play it.

This is a limited, but essential, first step towards a fully user-created MMO. This should satisfy most of the desire to create interesting story and narrative, and I fully expect users to fill out the fiction of the CoH universe, as well as create their own crazy parralel narrative spaces. The most exciting part of this for me is that it’s kind of like fully integrated, officially sponsored fan fiction within the community context of an MMO. I thought some of the writing in CoH was superb, but some of these missions will certainly reach or exceed that level. However, most of them will be useless dreck.

There are a bunch of problems that need to be solved for user-content in an MMO to be a viable and worthwhile endeavor. The first one is content guidelines. Since this is basically fan fiction, it will be about 10 seconds before someone makes a mission involving Statesman having sex with Miss Liberty or something. What will NCSoft’s response to this be? Are they planning on manually screening all content, or depending on community policing? Manual screening has huge manpower requirements that I doubt NCSoft really wants to sign up for, and community policing suffers from the problem that, hey, maybe the community really does want to see Statesman/Miss Liberty. How will the designers and managers of CoH deal with a community that doesn’t necessarily agree with them on what is acceptable or desired? The history of CoH is about this conflict between community and creator, and I’m very curious how the new management will handle it.

Beyond that, the two other major problems are exploits and the issue of content quality rating. There’s a continuum between freedom (which leads to easily exploitable gameplay that could break the rest of the game) and control (where the user’s creative urges are restricted too much and dramatically reduce fun. ie, Supergroup Bases). The current Dev team is headed much more in the direction of freedom, so I’m curious where they’re going to end up when it comes to user missions. I think the concept is cool enough that they should really just live with the fact that someone might be able to make a power-levelling mission. As for user content quality rating, I imagine they’re just going to copy YouTube. Seems to work well enough, but there’s a lot of complication in the details, and if they screw that up, the 99% of crap that is all user content will overwhelm and destroy the good 1%. There has to be a way to get a reliably good mission experience, or else most users will never try it and the system will be a failure.

This is the first step towards a new (well, or just renewed) vision of MMOs. Because of budgetary and creative reasons (competing directly with WoW is a guaranteed losing proposition), the future of MMOs is in dynamic, changing content. What the CoH team proposed won’t get us all the way there, but I’m VERY curious as to how this limited experiment works out.


6 Responses to “City of Heroes User-Created Content”

  1. Amelia said

    I think a user-rating system would work better than a user-policing one. At least then you know your Statesmen slash is going to be and at least sound like it’s plausible canon 😛

    But seriously. When I played CoH I’m pretty sure a lot of people running around were a good deal younger than I was. Hell, my husband I were even thanked once by a father playing with his kid for putting up with his clumsy use of game mechanics and the English language 😛 Not many 13 year olds are going to write missions that expand the CoX universe in line with what the designers intend. They should still be able to make missions and share them with friends. So should people who just plain suck at writing stories. The game is for everyone, not just good writers or people smart enough to hate that damn cave.

    The goal of user-created content isn’t so the designers can be lazy, right? It’s because users get something out of creating content as well as playing it. As long as creating the useless dreck enhanced the playing experience of the person who made it and didn’t ruin anyone else’s enjoyment of the game fine, right?

    If users can rate things I doubt you’d find slash or ridiculously bad writing in the top 100. The worst they’ll end up being is really boring. Serious players can just ignore things with bad ratings, therefore never exposing themselves to the Back Alley Brawler being kidnapped by ninjas and held in enormous underground caverns.

  2. Amelia said

    Also, people can badmouth A Tale In the Desert all they want, but as flawed and niche as it is, can you really call CoH’s mysterious plans “the first step” when ATITD exists?

  3. JZig said

    Did A Tale in the Desert have explicit user-created narrative that were experienced by other players? I was aware it had user-created economies and government and had emergent stories in the same vein as Eve and Star Wars Galaxies, but those are a bit different than directed user-created experiences.

    I wasn’t clear above, but I wasn’t saying that users shouldn’t be able to CREATE non-perfect content and share it with others, I was more talking about passive players who want to EXPERIENCE other user’s content, and not necessarily their friends. Sharing with friends is something I’m sure they’ll get right, and I bet there will be the equivalent of a “random video” button that will sometimes give you things you care about and sometimes things you won’t. However, to achieve maximum impact, there has to be some mechanism for which missions become “mainstream popular” at the level of a youtube video meme. CoH may go for more of a Nintendo-level system where all you have is random and explicitly friended, but that’s not the full potential of the system.

    Oh, and a good half of user-created content is, in fact, about designer laziness. Well, lack of resources rather.

  4. Amelia said

    Yeah, I never thought you meant players shouldn’t be able to create non-perfect content, but you didn’t mention trying out a rating system (or maybe that’s what you meant by user-policed, I guess that could be unclear) and it seems like a simple way to filter some of the crap out for people who didn’t want it.

    Regarding A Tale in the Desert. Heh, that’s more complicated. There’s next to no “narrative” in atitd, especially it exists is most other MMOs. It’s more about user created topography. The game starts out with a huge helping of natural resources and a few dozen tiny little buildings where players can go to learn skills. These are soon dwarfed by the hundreds of large and small structures that players build. What little narrative there is (well, besides the “goal” that all players are working towards, though that sort of ties in too) is just in watching how communities are established. Which wealthy players sponsor sculpture gardens, where some players arrange plants as they see fit, others build sculptures. There’s a lot of control over things like the architecture of your buildings and artwork. Your own character’s personal little story arc also comes from user-created content, mostly. In order to level up you need to not only build a sculpture, but have enough other players rank it. Or design a (sadly simple and kinda boring) version of a puzzle, and have enough players solve it and vote on it. Like I imagine CoH’s mission system working, some people have built the equivalent of 1970s apartment complexes. Others have built Giverny. I think it’s unfair not to give the game credit just because it isn’t “narrative.”

    Also, as for the last bit, I forgot a word I meant to put in there. It was supposed to say “isn’t just so designers can be lazy.”

    Happy Monday!

  5. Joe said

    Notably, the idea that “story and narrative” in games is equivalent to “giant blocks of text” needs to be thrown out. Without the ability to place spawn groups and construct levels – even if only in lego-style – there’s not really any narrative. Just text. I think ATitD probably fosters user-created narrative much more than CoH will.

  6. JZig said

    Yeah, we’ll see how that goes. It is definitely true that there has to be some structure modification, or else it will just be blocks of text.

    Based on what you and Amelia say, ATitD sounds more like it’s a collaborative theater experience, as opposed to a more passive, crafted narrative. They’re different types of experiences, and appeal to different audiences and are best at expressing certain types of emotions. I think there’s room for both in MMOs.

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