The Next (two) Best Things (pt. 1)

Our playgrounds and virtual worlds are getting larger. This isn’t something that catches people by surprise; it’s pretty much commonly agreed. And they will only get larger and larger.

Donning my prophet hat on, I’d say that at some point -not really far away into the future- these games will become so massive, in terms of their own virtual expanse and number of subscribers, that “business as usual” as it relates to the way these games are managed, just won’t cut it anymore.

Perhaps in 10 or 15 years (no further than that, I’d say) we’re going to see the emergence into the mainstream of two very important things which will shape that generation of games. No, it won’t be the number of polys they cram in there, or how many gigs of VRAM you need on your card to hold all the textures properly, or anything like that. It’ll be something much less technical: The adoption into the mainstream of user-created content and the emergence of the Police Department.

The first one, user content, will fall from the tree pretty much by itself so ripe it’ll be by then. We’ve been hinting at it for quite a while, and developers are just now really dipping their feet into that cold water (see: Pirates of the Burning Sea and their user-created flags). Understand that I don’t mean simply the ability for users to create content for their games; we’ve had that for well over a decade now. What I mean is the adoption, by publishers and developers, of dedicated user content groups whose sole task is to overview and manage user content. There’s a difference.

If you think this is outlandish and extremely costly for developers, well, you’re right of course. But there’s another way to think about it. Think back, maybe 15 or 20 years back. Set your sights there, that period of gaming let’s say between 1990 and 1995. Remember what you got there when you bought a game (online or not, it doesn’t matter). You got your box, a set of floppys or a CD, in the best of cases a decent manual. Customer service, as we understand it today, was basically limited to a 1-800 number that you called. Half the time, that 1-800 number doubled as a “call here for game hints” number as well. But that was about it. Patching existed, but it was uncommon. Very few devs could afford to have a decent customer service group on that new inter-net thing for people to use. Pretty bleak, all in all.

Let’s come back to today, 2008. With all that in mind, tell me now -just 15 years later- which developer or publisher can afford to put out a game and attempt to manage it with no dedicated customer service whatsoever. Or with just a 1-800 that you call if you have a problem, and that’s it. The answer is easy: No one. Nobody would be insane enough to launch a game with no dedicated customer service group. It’d sink as soon as it leaves the drydock, and everybody knows it. Would you get a game with no customer service whatsoever? Yes, yes, I understand that some customer services out there are basically indistinguishable from no customer service at all. Granted. But it’s still there, and even if it couldn’t help you, it might have helped someone else.

There is a reason why now we have games with dedicated customer service and technical support groups tending to them, and we didn’t have them fifteen years ago. It’s because in those fifteen years platforms of hardware and software evolved, and have gotten much more complex. It’s because there are however many numbers of different platform configurations now than fifteen years ago. It’s because the games have gotten larger, and more difficult to manage, coupled with the fact that the market itself has grown incredibly and any given online game, now, today, pulls many more subscribers than any given online game did fifteen years ago.

It was a business decision, to create these dedicated groups. And make no mistake, it wasn’t a decision based on foresight and planning because that is rare in business. Business decisions are primarily motivated by need, and at some point in these 15 years someone realized that they needed to have dedicated customer service and technical support teams in place if they didn’t want to, well, get their asses kicked on the press and in the pocket by the guys who did have them. Simple as that. Competition at its finest, and where it works best: to ultimately benefit the consumer. Someone, somewhere, finally realized that yes, maintaining those dedicated groups is truly expensive… but it’ll be even more expensive in the long run not to have them.

I imagine we’ll see something in this vein in the future. Ten, fifteen, twenty years from now. We’ll see the emergence of dedicated, in-house or outsourced, User Content Teams. Why? For the same reasons. Because someone will do it first, and then everybody else will realize they better start doing it too. We’ll reach a point where nobody will be able to afford not to have them, as expensive as they might be. It will become as common as customer service is for us today.

If you don’t think this will ever happen, just think that not too far back, in a galaxy not too far away, we didn’t have any meaningful customer service or technical support for our games.

Next part we’ll take a look at the Police Department. That’s a fun one. :)

9 thoughts on “The Next (two) Best Things (pt. 1)”

  1. But Second Life is not what I’m talking about. Second Life is basically telling its subscribers, “Go, make whatever you want”. What I mean is an organized team or division, just like customer service and technical support usually are, whose sole function is to be the point of entry for all the user-created content that wants to find its way into the game.

    It will have parameters and a clear mandate. It will have processes. It will be properly staffed. It will create standards of quality and make sure they are upheld. It will sift through and find the one jewel in the ten piles of junk that were submitted (that’s usually the ratio, or worse).

    In fact the reason to be of Second Life is in complete opposition to what I’m talking about. One of the biggest selling points of Second Life is, precisely, that users can add to it pretty much whatever they want with very little oversight, if there’s any oversight at all. That and the cybering.

    This is different. This is the devs themselves empowering a division to act as judge and meter, to say what goes in and what doesn’t. Where Second Life is pretty much an anarchic implementation of user-created content, this would be dictatorial. Hell, it *should be* dictatorial if it’s to work right at all. And while that type of anarchy might be some people’s cup of tea (and I think it’s fine in principle), you can’t apply that model to other designs, with other goals, and expect it to work.

    As an aside, one of the reasons I dislike Second Life is how it managed to polute the discourse on user-created content by now. The fact that one mentions “user-created content” and for half the participants in the discussion what first comes to mind is Second Life, well that speaks tons. I think we need to move away from the idea that Second Life = User-Created Content. There are other, better I think, ways of working with user-created content.

  2. In the long run, I would bet user created content will be cheaper than developing it all on your own. Of course games that incorporate it will be much different. Look at NWN, or the plethora of RTS, to see user created content giving long life to games. Those aren’t “massive” but.. Vernor Vinge had a similar idea that included the Massive part.

    In fact it seems to me one of the biggest problems with MMOs is the lack of enough content. No one can afford the huge staff to create enough content fast enough.

    The content management doesn’t have to be dictatorial though. it could be perhaps a voting or feedback system. They can be gamed of course, they can all be gamed, but some way to track how much people like some content, then that content would be bumped up in priority/searches/size whatever.

    In Vinge’s worlds, one way content was improved/brought to the forefront was through microtransactions, which may be better than voting. If someone’s willing to pay for something that’s a better indicator that they liked it than if they hit a button, plus, the BIG PLUS, is content creators would be compensated which would give incentives to talented people to contribute even more.

  3. May I cite City of Heroes?

    …one of the things I can talk about is a feature that we are planning. Similar in concept to our character creator, it allows you, the players, to create missions and story arcs for your characters and others to participate in. You’ll be able to pick the map, villain group, and objectives, as well as write the dialog and any clues needed for the missions. When you are satisfied with it, you can upload it and have other players across all servers play it and rate it. Fame will come to the players whose stories rate the best overall. It is features like these that we never dreamed of including when we first shipped, but are excited to be able to offer players very soon.

    For the Vinge reference, I recommend Rainbows End.

  4. That’s a pretty good first step towards this whole thing. I’m not personally a fan of the whole ‘rate’ deal, particularly if it ends up giving an in-game advantage. As yunk mentioned above, we need to keep in mind one of the principles of MMOs (and the internet as well, while we’re at it): If something can be gamed, or exploited, it will be.

    But I definitely agree that at this point it’s a very good step.

  5. I agree tremendously with this article in the main point that user-created content will become dominant eventually.

    BUT the key issue is: How do we ensure that user-content stands up to acceptable quality standards? The only way to do this is to build motivational devices into the game that reward exceptional content and punish poor or disruptive content.

    The game is a Skinner box, there’s no doubt about that. But the trick is to compartmentalize; use each part of the game to reward the other parts. Some people could enjoy playing the game, while another more highly-rewarded and controlled group would enjoy making satisfying content for them to play.

    Another big issue is consensual value: how do you ensure a consistent level of difficulty in exchange for a consistent level of reward? This is why the content creation group needs to be carefully managed. Perhaps yet another group of specialists could be given the task of enforcing play balance and reward value balance.

    So how do we get from here to there, from professionally-created content to user-created content? We obviously can’t just jump off the deep end. User-created content has to sneak in the back door, building credibility with successful content. But the MOTIVATIONAL DEVICES MUST BE THERE or it will just go all wrong right away.

    In conclusion, it isn’t just a matter of giving the tools to the users: they also need a motivational structure that guides the content in the right direction and makes it satisfying to the players.

  6. User created content is like the flea market compared to a department store (say, Wal-Mart or Target). The vast majority of stuff you find at a flea market sucks or is just trash. There is a good bit of nice home-made stuff and plenty of people trying to make little businesses (custom jewelry, custom leathergoods, furniture, etc.), and every now and then you find a really unique table/space there selling some really cool stuff that is high quality and completely different from everything else.

    But my point is that the majority of stuff you find at a flea market is trash or low quality.

    Now, having said that, I’m a big believer in user created content, but I think that we will see more user *generated* content first…that is, content mostly generated through the game and game tools. This brings a lot of options to the table early, minimizes learning curves, and adds some level of consistency while still offering a lot of variety and customization.

    Later, user-*created* content will become more mainstream, but it must be moderated, not free for all willy nilly anarchism like you get in Second Life. SL is an example of “how NOT to do user created content”. Anyway, quality should rise to the top, but you need a mechanism for people to submit their content and have it reviewed/rated by *other users* not developers. Quality and Popularity should determine what eventually becomes “official” or most distributed. If it sucks so bad, it should eventually fall off the list or be deleted.

  7. The problem I have with voting/popularity systems is that you’ll inevitably (yes, inevitably and we all know it) end up with content like the “No-Breastplate Breastplate” and the “2H Cocksword” rising to the top, while maybe a whole instanced dungeon that took a group of guys six months to come up with and balance, sinks because most people find it too hard or something like that.

    Granted those are extreme examples because they have no limits, in any (sane) application of this there will be limits, but I’m still unconvinced. Don’t know if we should really be free-marketing content away like that, let the market decide, etc.

    I have to differ with Nic slightly on this one. Saying “quality should rise to the top” is so close to saying “the market can regulate itself”. History shows us that yes, it can, but it rarely does. Crap will rise to the top alongside quality, and I think the best way to avoid this is to have *some* authoritative control injected in the process, beyond TOS limits. It needs to be active and managed.

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