The Cream Sinks

J. and the Australian Gamer Podcasters have realized an important truth, namely that most user-made content is crap. Then again, most x is crap for all values of x. The question, I comment there, is whether you have tools to separate the wheat from the chaff (to jump metaphors). The goal is to set a million people loose, let it be 99% crap, and still get the work of 10,000 talented people (and remember that even talented people produce a lot of crap to get their good stuff).

Editing is hard. I will not even get into that here, except to note that many companies edit their own stuff too poorly to consider harvesting user-made content. If your internal content-production still gives mostly crap after filtering and editing, what hope do you have?

A standard approach is to point to the most popular stuff. Granted, that means that a superior late-comer loses because its name never rises to the front page, but sometimes Firefox starts eating a chunk of Internet Explorer’s market, after IE ate Netscape’s market.

We have a problem: ripple works. The top-rated user-generated content frequently includes crap. The best stuff will usually be in the top tier, and it is a big win getting your top tier to only half-ish crap, but it is still insulting to see how poorly things are chosen.

Let’s take Kongregate. Looking at it now, the Top Five for each category is almost entirely decent games. I’m impressed. Hmm, that seems to strike at my core point, so let’s look a little closer. After all, you may want to play more than five games of some type.

We will peruse my usual favorite category, Strategy and Defense. Off the top, Sonny is pretty good, but should it really be the top-rated game on all of Kongregate, across all categories? Do we like level grinds and Final Fantasy III gameplay that much? And the trivially easy, Kongregate-edition crippleware version of Gemcraft beats Desktop TD? That’s just being picky. We have three lousy games in the school of Bowmaster that are all on that first page, one of which (Age of War) is again trivially easy, disgustingly unbalancing, mind-numbingly tedious… I must move on before I drown in bile. The real winner, though, is Pandemic 2, a Top Ten game despite being one of the worst pieces of design on the site. It looks somewhat professional, and then you learn that there are almost no moving parts, and whether you can win is entirely random. You can improve those random odds, but the dominant strategy is “re-start until you get one of the best starting spots, re-start if it randomly becomes unwinnable,” which more or less comes down to re-starting the game about 100 times. And this is a Top Ten game for the site with more than a million plays.

Hand-picked user-generated content will not help you there either. They picked it. The game has four trophies and was the card challenge one week. The Kongregate people are aware that the game is horribly broken: they gave it an Impossible trophy, mocking it with the name, thereby encouraging everyone to keep “playing” it. Please, everyone, re-start it 100 times, we can use the ad revenue. (And I am half-ashamed to say that I have those trophies. When the hard part is “wait 10 minutes between re-starts while you see if it is possible to win this time,” keeping it in the background between clients at the shelter is pretty easy.) Other games hand-picked for trophies and cards have included a buggy typing tutor with “kikes” in its dictionary and the challenge mode of a card game where some challenges are instantly failed if the computer plays one of eleven cards (luckily, the computer plays at random).

Part of the problem is that we will keep pressing that bar until we get our food pellet. “Study Claims Xbox 360 Achievements Boost Sales, Review Scores.” I have not paid to check the research methodology, but it appeals to my prejudices so I am going to believe it (ha, take that Overcoming Bias!). It is not just that people will crawl through barbed wire for candy. At the end, cognitive dissonance sets in and people rationalize that they must enjoy the hardship and character-building aspects of crawling through barbed wire. Everyone should crawl through barbed wire, or else they are not hardcore enough to be real players! l2p newb

How much overlap is there between the favorite dungeons/instances/quests/raids in your game and the ones with the best rewards? Yes, by now you are really good at getting through the barbed wire, you do it more efficiently than other guilds, and you have the most candy. You are still paying for permission to crawl through barbed wire, and you are doing it for digital candy. And if the candy were not at the end of that barbed wire, you would not crawl through it, so why…

The best games make the most entertaining things the most rewarding. Grouping should be more rewarding as well as more fun. Shouldn’t there be a trade-off there, rewarding people who are willing to undergo hardship x? No, it is a game. If you are not encouraging people to have fun in your game, you are an idiot. Do not make them trade fun for the shiny, unless you want them to leave once they have their shinies but are not having fun. (Or mudflate new shinies, what do I care, it’s your game. It’s worked for years so far.)

(Disclaimer: differing ideas of fun exist, so we might disagree about the “most fun” game design, etc. Assume that your idea of fun is best and apply it here.)

Cripes I’m bitter. Maybe I can come back with some happy words or recommendations next week, but right now I am just bitter and angry and hateful about how we can take a world of infinite horizons and churn it into crap for a worse Skinner box than the last incarnation. And no, I’m not talking about whatever MMO you’re thinking of. Or I probably am: this is not a problem of a particular game, it is our entire industry, society, whatever. Why did Jessica Mulligan stop writing Biting the Hand?

One of the reasons the column is/has become stale is because there is nothing much new to write about. I mean, come on, how often do we need to hear about the same mistakes being made over and over again and what lessons we need to learn, as an industry, from those mistakes? Hell, I could just reprint old columns with new titles and dates and they’d still apply to that subject.

So I am not leaving you on an uplifting note of happiness for the gaming industry. But here, dogs close up with a wide-angle lens. The toy poodle picture can be your new quest reward.

: Zubon

But hey, it is not just us. The Happening made more than $150,000,000 at the box office. As I write this, 30% of site visitors gave it an A-rating, and it is the 6th-highest grossing R-rated film of the year. I probably should not speak ill of a movie I have not seen, but I have seen this (NSFW, bloodletting and dear god this made it through scripting and editing on a ~$50,000,000 project), which implies I don’t need to see it. Hey, this year’s Indiana Jones movie is top 25 all-time domestic and international. Too bad it did not beat those two Shrek sequels.

7 thoughts on “The Cream Sinks”

  1. I’ve found that the “Users who like X also liked Y” system of Netflix and I-tunes works pretty well. Discovered a lot of new artists and movies that way.

    “Top rated” systems like You-tube and Kongregate, on the other hand, are complete crap. If you simply let the masses vote, you end up with asshats like Bush in office.

  2. “The question, I comment there, is whether you have tools to separate the wheat from the chaff (to jump metaphors). “

    Well, imperfect tools, certainly, but I think you’re overlooking one of the best of them all: The HR department.

    Talented people don’t always get hired, but frequently they do, and then you say, “Well, that’s not user-generated content. Those people are professionals,” maybe.

    You’re right, but that just makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy sort of thing.

    The divide between user-generated content and employee-generated content is an artificial one, I think.

    Side note:

    Yeebo: Winding up with asshats like Bush in office has repercussions beyond the short term. McCain’s been a maverick in the republican party for a long time, and now he’s the Republican nominee… I mean… that’s significant (and actually, kind of a good sign if you’re not fond of the Republican party).

    It’s almost enough to restore one’s faith in the democratic process.

    And even if it isn’t, there’s not been a lot to restore faith in the alternatives, so… eh…

    Ok, this is too political. Heh.

  3. I think microtransactions can help. People might vote for whatever, or keep mind-numbingly pressing buttons, but they won’t fork over money unless they actually believe in it.

    The transactions should be very easy to make so that the effort of paying does not influence you, just whether to pay or not (such as if Kongregate had your credit card, and if you like a game enough to play just press one button and presto you get it – not having to whip out your card each time.). Part of the money should get back to the content creators of course.

    The difference between user created and created by the company that made the original game is that there are no/few controls first of all, which also means more risk taking is possible by the user creator since they have nothing vested in the framework/original game, and thirdly user created content gives you access to many many times the labor of the original company. One thing that people consume fast is content, yet no company could afford to hire all the people it takes to keep up and still make a profit – not with mmos at least.

    That user created content might indeed just be another smaller company.

  4. “The divide between user-generated content and employee-generated content is an artificial one, I think.”

    Of course it’s artificial. Professional work environments are created purposefully by whatever management is in place. Any structure to user creation will also need to be provided by whatever professional organization is in place. But the point where cynicism over the quality of professionally created work leads to players paying for the privilege of making their own fun is when the game industry starts to die.

    Maybe certain people want it to die, but not /yet/, damn it.

    I’m not against the creation of incubators for potential employees, and in fact I think the FPS genre has that down pat with the release of SDKs and map editors with nearly every major product in the genre. But suggest anything like that to those who make MMOs and RPGs and you’ll get a lot of hand-wringing. Except that the organization of fan-driven projects will continue to be entirely unpredictable unless companies who enable users to create their own content get the help and guidance they need in the form of something other than just a load of docs.

    For all the pretense of how great it’d be to allow players to create their own fun, a daily glance at the IGDA forums is all I ever need to note how few fundamentals of game production seem to filter through the thick skull of a typical game enthusiast. It’s almost as though a lot of them expect a “game engine” to be some magical piece of software where someone just presses a button and a nearly-functioning game is suddenly available, and all that is left to do is “tweaks” and “balances.”

    In short, the game industry is making people stupid. That should stop before people get all fired up about them making content. “Procedural” content is only going to warp their poor brains further.

  5. Frequently on sites that have a lot of games on and users can rate them I have to wade down to the middle to get to the games I played and liked. And there are a lot of games that I’ll play once and not enjoy enough to keep playing. Around 99.9% of games I load. I suppose I should start filtering by how many load with music that I can’t turn off (yay opening multiple games in tabs). “People who liked this also liked …” are probably much more useful as you say.

    Blogs. Not to be harsh, but frequently there are many blogs all saying the same thing. Whether it is posting the same link to the same news story or fake news story or linking to some other guy’s blog, frequently they are all saying the same thing. Though finding blogs to read by clicking other’s blogrolls is a much better way of filtering. Find one blog that has well thought out and well written posts and it will frequently lead to more.

    Oh look, you let me descend into rambling. Not sure what my point was. I read too many blogs at work, and we need better ways to filter out the crap. I’ll make those my points.

  6. It comes down to a simplistic algorithm for judging popularity. A good game that doesn’t crash and people play for hours at a sitting, or leave up between sessions to save their position, won’t get a lot of “Starts” (page reloads), and therefore won’t do well on the popularity algorithm for Kongregate, which simply ranks how many times the game’s page is loaded.

    Of course, you can game this with your design. Reload between levels and have very short levels, and you’ll pump up your popularity. Have random opening conditions, many of which are obviously poor ones, and the players will reload until they get a playable position (as in at least two of your examples) and pump up your popularity. Have a lot of bugs that lock up or crash the game, and the players will reload to get back to playing, and….

    Not that coming up with rating systems that are both unobtrusive and effective at rating actual entertainment value isn’t a hard problem. But it sounds like Kongregate didn’t even try.

    There are two reasons for someone in the industry to stop writing about it:

    1) You very quickly get a reputation for being a thinker and a talker, with the implication that if you were really so smart, you’d be rich and keeping your mouth shut to avoid helping the competition. Nobody likes arrogance, and it takes arrogance to broadcast your opinions across the internet, as if they were better than other people’s.

    2) The Eleventh Commandment of the game industry is: Thou shalt not point out the stink of thy neighbor’s shit. It’s the definition of “Professional” to most people in it. Beyond a certain very narrow range, where we have mostly either established consensus and there’s little to talk about (“Community is important!”), or we’ve hit circular reasoning dead ends (“Permadeath would be awesome if somebody did it right!”), it’s impossible to discuss game design without getting into specific implementations of it, and contrasting them. As soon as you do, you’re going to piss somebody off, and that’s going to affect your career (there is a whole set of people who flat-out won’t work with me, because I trashed their game’s design 7 years ago).

    –Dave

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