17 Oct 2011

Hobbyists, Indies and the Doom Moment

Have you ever wanted to change something about your favourite MMO? Maybe write your own questline or create your own models? Perhaps build your own game world or maybe even write your own game? Have you wanted to go from just being a passive consumer to an active creator within the genre?

If you do, I know how you feel. I’ve been looking at creating my own online games to play around with various concepts and ideas I have, and it’s been a real struggle. The current techniques that most MMO publishers permit are restricted to user interface addons and extensions, which is great if you want to build your own UI but not much good for anything else.

I’m a lot like the legions of other coders who’ve experimented with creating their own in-game content. From Doom through to Half-Life and beyond, some gamers have taken their games apart like clockwork wristwatches just to see how they work, before tinkering and experimenting with them to change the game in new ways.

I’m not yet sure if MMO developers and publishers are coming round to this way of thinking, but there’s a little glimmer of hope.

The first problem with letting players tinker with an MMO is working out how to provide them with a space to play. Do you give them a way to import their content into your game world to try out, or give them their own sandbox to play in? If you allow importing into the main game, how do you ensure that the new content fits the game and is of high quality?

This is the battle Blizzard are currently trying to work through, as Chris Metzen revealed at GDC Online recently. While games like Little Big Planet allow players to create their own levels, content remains in an isolated package away from the main game. Warcraft by contrast only has a single regular version of the game world. Putting player content on a psuedo test realm may be an answer, but moderating and curating content then becomes an issue.

The second problem is a little more fundamental – if you’re going to let hobbyists create their own games from your original, how do they get it online? With a single-player game it might be as simple as distributing a few data files, while with an MMO there’s the server or realm software build, the client software, infrastructure for the server to run on and so on.

At first glance it looks like Rift developers Trion Worlds are trying to meet this need through the Red Door project. While this initially looks like it’ll offer everything a budding developer needs, reading between the lines makes the subtleties clearer. This initiative is there to help the top-flight developers put together online triple-A titles quickly by providing a ready-built platform to run, support and bill for their games. It’s not clear if indie developers and hobbyists will get the same chances.

This leaves MMO gaming in an unusual situation. Currently there’s little opportunity for experimentation – there’s no such thing as building one on the cheap just to try out a few concepts. Likewise there’s little way in which hobbyist coders can muck in and learn things as they go. This isn’t like a minecraft server that can be hired for $10 a month so that you and your mates can go and play forts.

Ultimately I’d like to see more MMO players get the chance to create things for themselves. I’d like to see indie developers experiment with the genre. I’d like to see hundreds of game worlds created by thousands of enthusiasts who have an idea but currently never get beyond that. I’d like to see ways for potential MMO designers and developers to showcase their talent in affordable ways.

While I think that the MMO industry is moving in the right direction to start supporting this kind of activity, I don’t think it’s yet gone through a Doom moment in embracing user generated content and encouraging the next generation of MMO developers. But with the recent noises coming from the industry, that moment can’t be far off.

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