Law in the Internet Society

The future of community gaming

Community-based gaming made a great advance last month with the release of Media Molecule’s LittleBigPlanet for the PlayStation 3. The game is playable out of the box as a traditional platformer. What distinguishes LittleBigPlanet is its addition of tools that allow gamers to design new levels and then share their creations. Although user-created levels are not new even to consoles, this game’s scheme features an unprecedented combination of user-friendliness and sophistication. It permits more than simply choosing where to place objects already designed by Media Molecule. Gamers can also design their own objects, such as vehicles and enemies. Early creations include a rudimentary replica of the first level of Super Mario Bros. and a calculator. This release poses a threat to other platformers on the market. If LittleBigPlanet sells as well as the hype suggests it will, the video game market will soon look vastly different. Fewer games will be released, each game putting more power into the hands of user-creators.

Empowering users to create complex levels means that the gaming experience is potentially endless, thereby reducing the need for buyers to buy other games. Of course, LittleBigPlanet is a limited tool, so it won’t inhibit sales of most kinds of games. For example, users are not permitted to adopt a first-person perspective, so it is impossible to recreate games like Halo. Nor is it possible to implement an experience points scheme as in a role-playing game, so LittleBigPlanet probably won’t challenge that market.

Additionally, many popular games differ from LittleBigPlanet in that their appeal derives in large part from their storylines. LittleBigPlanet's fun derives from the act of playing itself. By contrast, in story-driven games such as Metal Gear Solid, gamers are motivated at least as much by the triggering of cut scenes that advance the storyline as they are by the sheer fun of completing the levels.

So LittleBigPlanet may drive out some traditional platformers, but not story-driven games, nor games of genres that are impossible to recreate in its level creation scheme. But since almost any platforming experience is reproducible in LittleBigPlanet the game will likely swallow a huge chunk of the platformer genre.

Smart developers seeing this phenomenon should produce powerful user-creation tools for other genres. If a company releases a tool that allows users to recreate games like Halo and Half-Life, it can reign over the first-person shooter market. Within any genre, as user-creation tools become increasingly powerful, the need for traditional games will dwindle. The creation tools will encompass the possibilities expressed in the professionally designed levels, and those possibilities will be available gratis from users.

Or will they? Although user-generated content in LittleBigPlanet is now shared at no cost, that might not always be the case. David Reeves, President of Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, has stated that users who devise the most popular levels may in future be permitted to charge other gamers for their creations. He did not say whether Sony and Media Molecule would take a percentage of the fee, but such a scheme is not difficult to imagine.

A program like this is unwise because it drives gamers towards the competition. The very appeal of LittleBigPlanet, namely its open-endedness, is undercut if new content costs money. Further, if a sufficient number of popular user-creators refrain from charging for their levels, few will be enticed to pay for the levels created by others.

In any case, LittleBigPlanet represents what is likely to be a growing phenomenon in console gaming. As creative tools are released for other genres, developers’ releases will become primarily tools that facilitate user creation and only secondarily will they serve as a pre-designed gaming experience. Since games with user-creation schemes are potentially endless, gamers will be buying fewer discs, each disc putting more creative power into the hands of users.

-- TedKreit - 11 Nov 2008

This seems to me a perfectly plausible set of predictions about what will happen in a corner of the community I know too little about to make predictions of my own.

But I have talked to developers around the world about related problems, and I have some general expectations gained over the course of years. The ability to add user-generated levels to games almost certainly leads to the development of replacement engines, too. Replacement engines means the triumph of free software over proprietary software throughout the stack.

Console game engine toolchains are pretty heavily protected by the manufacturers, which is why what they are allowing people to create is essentially data, rather than adopting, say, a plugin architecture for engine code. But as money dries up over the next two years, some game businesses may decide to free their engine code in order to benefit from community development effort throughout their stack. If that happens, the game software world will begin to sustain a more thoroughgoing conversion to freedom. Or so the developers I talk to both inside and outside the major producers believe.

-- EbenMoglen - 15 Nov 2008

I must confess that I have no experience with LittleBigPlanet? . However, I think it would be useful for this argument to consider the specific characteristics of platformer gaming, as opposed to other genres of games that have previously put content creation in the user's hands.

For example, Neverwinter Nights allowed users to create their own multi-player online role playing game (RPG) content, but that has not caused a demise of either the RPG generally or the online RPG market (World of Warcraft's second expansion, Warhammer Online and Age of Conan were all recently released, and the announcement of Diablo 3's development has been greeted with much excitement).

Similarly, the vastly popular Counter-Strike mod was created for the Half-Life first-person shooter engine about a decade ago, but it does not seem to have discouraged commercially produced content for such games (such as Call of Duty). And while Counter-Strike was initially released as a free mod, it was eventually packaged and sold as a commercial product.

Alternatively, does your argument relate to console gaming specifically? If so, the recently-released Guitar Hero World Tour also allows users to create their own content:

-- JasonChan - 10 Dec 2008



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r3 - 10 Dec 2008 - 23:04:42 - JasonChan
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