Were two possible futures for online games outlined by Daniel James of Three Rings Design when he moderated the "User Created Content; Boom Or Bane?" panel that I participated in at the Austin Game Conference.
In one future, giant entertainment companies spend billions of dollars building palaces of fun which millions of people enjoy visiting and make healthy profits despite their huge cost. Although I was on another panel at the time, Damion Schubert talked about several lessons that "Vegas Can Teach MMO Designers"; using celebrities or running regular events to get people through the door; making important customers feel like rock stars; banning anyone who causes trouble from every casino in the world forever and carefully laying out games so that people can enjoy playing around each other even when playing something as tedious as a slot machine.
In the other future people gather together to build communities based on self expression and possibly burn things. This is, of course, the Second Life future that I advocated. In this future people can explore their abilities as well as engaging in the identity exploration that Richard Bartle talked about in his keynote. Visitors to these virtual world discover talents they didn’t know they had, learn new skills and create real or virtual careers as well as having fun. This future is also the only one possible for the companies which don’t have billions of dollars to build the content required by virtual casinos, but the scaling of content creation with population ensures that eventually a burning man world will grow so large that no virtual casino company would be able to compete with it.
A future between these two futures was described by Andy Tepper in which players advance by creating high quality content for each other. The difficulty with this approach is in creating rating systems that can’t be metagamed by friends rating each other’s content highly regardless of it’s quality. A possible solution might be to weight player’s ratings based on their voting history. If a player consistently rates in line with all other players and has voted a large number of times then their vote carries more weight.
A big concern with user created content from the virtual casino companies was the loss of control and potential for griefing. Walter Yarbrough from Mythic Entertainment described a feature in Dark Age Of Camelot which had to be removed when some players called their group Nazis even though most people were creating groups which fitted in with the Camelot world and enhanced it. In many cases these problems are the same as traditional griefing problems. Walter talked about players in Camelot grief healing each other. It seems that as long as players in virtual worlds can communicate griefing will remain and both virtual casinos or burning man worlds will both have to deal with it.
Where users create the virtual environment the potential for griefing is reduced as players can always avoid the areas they find offensive, so the problem here seems to be one of perceived responsibility and endorsement. If someone is running around shouting abuse then it is clear that the offense is caused by the player. If a user adds offensive content to an environment largely created by a virtual casino company the responsible party is less clear and the persistent nature of the content may be perceived as an endorsement. The issue of brand management is so key to companies like Sony Online that having their brand tarnished by offensive user created content cannot be allowed to happen regardless of the benefits.
A similar cause for concern was the issue of copyright infringement. One problem is that claiming to be a common carrier may be more difficult when a virtual world contains both published and user created content. There was also the fear that despite Second Life only receiving a couple of takedown notices in its history, eventually law suits would follow and enforcement would consume greater and greater resources. The CEO of There.com commented that it was only a matter of time.
It was a very interesting panel and despite their concerns it was clear that a lot of people are both excited by user created content and interested in incorporating it in existing or future worlds. Alongside Sony Online’s announcement that they plan to build subscription free online games it seems that whether the future is Burning Man or Vegas it will be closer to Second Life.