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9/11/2008
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User-Generated Content Gets Easier For Gamers

Interactive environments from EA's Spore, Second Life, Microsoft's Popfly, and Minor Studios' Atmosphir are helping non-technical types build and engage with other players.

Blogging applications have made publishers of anyone who can type. But the barrier for entry is higher for would-be game designers, due to the complexity of graphics and programming.

Yet on Wednesday, at the TechCrunch50 conference in San Francisco, a presentation by a company called Minor Studios showed that game asset creation and game creation are becoming more accessible to the masses.

"More and more modern games from Halo to Guitar Hero are adding content creation tools and putting them in the hands of the online community," said Dave Werner, creative director of Minor Studios, in a TechCrunch50 Webcast.

Indeed, Electronic Art's Spore, one of the major PC gaming titles launched this year, has been widely noted for its easy-to-used 3D content creation tools.

And people are using them. During a Webcast of a Merrill Lynch investor meeting on Wednesday, Electronic Arts CFO Eric Brown said that over 10 million new objects had been created using Spore's tools this past weekend.

Microsoft, with its Popfly game creator, is trying to make game creation as simple as possible. And Linden Labs has been pushing the envelope in this area for years with Second Life, though it has emphasized content creation in a social context rather than a competitive one.

Areae, through its Metaplace project, featured at the TechCrunch40 in 2007, is trying to make virtual world creation more accessible.

"As [game] technology has risen, it has been harder and harder and harder for ordinary people to contribute," said Raph Koster, the founder and president of Areae. This has driven budgets up "and the result is less creativity, less innovation, and fewer worlds," he said.

"So we want to democratize this by doing what the Web has managed to do, which is push content creation tools to a much lower threshold," said Koster.

Along these lines, Minor Studios has created a participatory game development and game play platform called Atmosphir, which is now in a limited beta test.

The Atmosphir game client runs on Linux, Mac, and Windows operating systems. It provides the ability to play "platform" games, a genre exemplified by Super Mario Bros. It also allows users to create their own platform games and share them online. Eventually, Atmosphir will support multiplayer play.

"Our goal is to become the online interactive equivalent of Lego," said Werner.

Something like Lego may be what non-technical, would-be game creators need.

Although user-generated game content has been around for years, successful game mods have tended to come from people with graphics and computing skills well beyond the average user. But as game technology has become more sophisticated, fewer and fewer amateurs have been able to keep up.

The challenge for those seeking to make game creation more accessible has been to find a way make authoring and infrastructure systems powerful without being complex, which turns out to be hard to do than it might seem.

Koster believes that through his company's work and the work of others, content creation applications for games can be made to appeal to a full range of skill levels, as opposed to being either simple and underpowered or complicated and capable.

A critical step for the industry, however, may be resisting the urge to assert ownership rights over players' creations. This is something, Koster says, the industry is still coming to terms with, and he credits Second Life with changing people's perceptions about ownership.

Not all companies are so magnanimous however. EA, for example, in the Spore End User License (EULA), claims ownership rights over "...the Spore creatures that you create..."

Koster believes the game industry needs to become more accommodating to player content contributions. "Trying to claim ownership over the things [players have] created is just overreaching," he said. "A blog platform does not claim ownership of everything written on it."

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