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Power To The People

Chris Satchell, Microsoft's XNA group manager, commented this week that he believes that Sony and Nintendo would be "inviting trouble" by allowing user-generated content to get too close to the metal of the system, rather than being confined to a sandbox environment.

His comments are revealing, not so much on a technical level - the reality of course is that none of the above companies are allowing user-generated content to have that kind of hardware access without passing similar strict technical checks to the ones which commercial games must pass - but rather as a clear sign of where the industry is headed in the coming months and years.

It's not so long since the question of whether there was any real value to user-generated content would have been a divisive issue between the platform holders. When you get to the point where they're instead taking pot-shots at one another over the relative security of their user content offerings, you know we've come a long way.

Or have we? Scratch the surface and you'll find an industry which is happy to pay lip service to user created content - but which is far from committed to this emerging ecosystem in reality.

Microsoft's XNA is arguably further down the path in some regards than anything its competitors are doing - since neither WiiWare nor PSN title development is remotely open to users. Sony's apparent willingness to embrace user-created mods for some titles is also a positive step in a similar direction - but hardly represents a widescale commitment to the vision of user-created content.

Game companies and platform holders like to tap into the lexicon of online success by talking expansively about a "YouTube for games", but the reality is that while this is a valuable concept in some regards, it's a lazy and over-simplified way of looking at how user-created content could - and should - change the way videogames work.

The concept of a gaming YouTube is comfortable for game publishers, who think of it in terms of talented amateur teams putting together small shareware titles in the hope of breaking into the market. The volume of titles would always be low - and the quality always well below the benchmarks being set by 100-person teams at professional development studios. It would provide a handy way to spot up-and-coming talent, and shut up the people who complain that the industry stifles innovation. It's a nice, comfortable, cozy idea.

It's also entirely the wrong way to approach this development in consumer behaviour. The vast, vast majority of consumers don't want to get together into small development teams to develop their own small titles. Instead, they want to be given the power to play around within existing games - to create within the contexts of the worlds they love, and build new content that they can share with friends.

What I'm talking about, of course, has existed in some form on the PC for decades. I'm talking about building new levels, new character models, new weapons and new puzzles - some of which may be minor changes to the game, some of which may be large, involved mod projects. Most of it, of course, will be rubbish - but some will be superb, and taken as a whole, the offering will be compelling. This, at least, true videogame user-created content would have in common with its counterparts in all other media.

Moving this entire ecosystem - all of this openness - onto console platforms would be a key step forward. As it stands, most PC games don't offer any kind of discovery system for user created content - it's a haphazard case of searching for content, and then installing it by dragging it to the right folder on your system. Content rating and reviewing, let alone safeguards against malicious content, are practically non-existent. All of these things could be solved relatively easily by a platform holder dedicated to this ideal.

It's a shame then that for some publishers - and most platform holders - this is a concept which is essentially terrifying. It means turning the games you ship into creative tools in their own right, by polishing up and releasing cut down versions of the development tools themselves. It means allowing users to muck around with your IP, bending it and twisting it to their own ends - something which is essentially a brilliant, fanbase-supporting idea, but which gives the legal departments of most publishers apoplexies.

More than anything else, though, it means allowing content for your game to be distributed free, gratis and for nothing. There's no revenue stream to be made from user created content - not directly, at least - and in fact, there'll be a cost incurred in implementing and operating it. The benefits, instead, will be in a boost of health for an entire product line - a happier fanbase, a wealth of free promotion, a long lifespan for your existing game and a huge level of anticipation for your next.

Some publishers get that. EA's Sims business unit gets it; those at Sony involved with Little Big Planet get it. If that carrot isn't enticing enough, though, don't worry - the stick will be along shortly. Videogames have taken a huge chunk out of the audience figures for mediums like television among key young audiences, but the next big thing isn't on the horizon any more - it's right here, and getting bigger by the day.

User-created content on the Internet, everything from YouTube to Flickr, from blogs to MySpace, from Flash games to MP3 mash-ups, is absorbing more and more time from the generation videogaming would like to have called its own. If this industry is going to sit back en masse and act as though encouraging a select few to put shareware-style games on consoles is enough of a response to this revolution, then gaming risks taking a serious blow - knocked off its perch, ironically, because the most interactive medium of all refused to let its audience interact.

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Rob Fahey avatar
Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.