Playing Their Own Way

Playing Their Own Way

Friday, August 03, 2007

People who love to create their own blogs, podcasts, and movies have a new outlet for self-expression: home-made video games.


Level design: A tool included in the video game Big Kahuna Reef
inspired users to create so many levels that a sequel was released with
more than 700 levels designed by amateurs. – Credit: Reflexive Entertainment

By Erica Naone

Hoping to cash in on the popularity of user-generated content, a
number of companies have set up websites that help average folks create
their own video games.

Sites such as MyGame and Scratch,
for example, provide simple personalizing or programming tools so that
people with little or no programming experience can create their own
kind of fun. Players can personalize games on MyGame in a matter of
minutes using a basic home computer, and they can spend anywhere from
hours to weeks designing a game, depending on its complexity.

Reflexive Entertainment,
a video-game company based in California, has already had great success
with user-generated content. In 2004, the company released a
downloadable game called Big Kahuna Reef and included tools so that
players could design their own levels. The feature was so popular that
it formed the basis for a sequel, called Big Kahuna Reef 2, with 700
user-generated levels. Ion Hardie, director of product development for
Reflexive, says that the core community of designers is small–some 30
or 40 people–but the company is working to increase involvement in new
releases. Its most recent release, Ricochet Infinity, integrates more
design features into the core game, with the idea of encouraging more
players to participate.

Ulrich Tausend, a graduate student in the sociology department at the University of Munich and the founder of the game company Neodelight,
says that user-generated content is getting attention in the
game-development industry because visible game communities could
attract more players. "One main goal of the casual game developers is
to tell the nontypical potential computer players … that gaming is
also something for them," he says. The challenge to providing
user-generated content, Tausend says, is that companies have to provide
tools that are easy to use yet powerful enough to let people express
themselves.

MyGame, a new site now in beta, attempts to solve these problems by
letting users get involved in game creation to varying degrees. Novices
can personalize ready-made games by adding their own photos, for
example. People with more-advanced skills can design games from scratch
using Macromedia Flash and host them on the MyGame website. Designers
of popular titles become eligible to share up to 40 percent of the
advertising revenue generated by their games. Most of the games
produced are considered casual games because they are simple to learn
and can be played in a relatively short time.

MIT researcher Mitchel Resnick
led a team that created another tool for at-home game creators: a
simple programming language called Scratch. Although the tool is
intended for children, MIT graduate student Andres Monroy-Hernandez,
who works with Resnick, says that 30 to 40 percent of the users are
adults. Scratch is designed to encourage users to borrow from one
another’s games and collaborate, and Monroy-Hernandez says that he has
often seen groups of disparate ages and abilities working together on
games.

As the trend toward user-generated content in games continues,
Tausend says that companies who host the games will need to be aware of
a problem common to all user-generated content: the possible inclusion
of offensive or copyrighted material. Most game-creation sites have a
process for reviewing content before it goes live and weeding out
anything deemed unsuitable. As a counterexample, Tausend points to New
Grounds, a site that gives users–most of them skilled developers–the
no-holds-barred ability to upload content. Many of the games found on
New Grounds could be considered offensive, he says. However, he points
out, too much control of user-generated content could alienate the
community.

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