User-Generated Content: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Via Joystiq, an interesting controversy: id co-founder John Romero has accused the modding community of hurting the game industry by exposing or introducing inappropriate content (i.e. nudity) in PC games. His post was in response to the ESRB’s re-rating of Oblivion (which happened after a nudity mod surfaced.) John’s exact words: “modders are now screwing up the industry they’re supposed to be helping.”

There are a number of interesting comments on John’s original post which you may wish to read. Meanwhile, this raises a couple issues that I’ve been meaning to write about:

Whose Side Are They On, Anyway?

When consumers decide to create content for a game (or anything else), they’re doing it to indulge their own creative impulses, and/or to share something with friends, and/or to gain notoriety, and/or other reasons that have little to do with “wanting to help the industry” (or the developer, for that matter.) Let’s not kid ourselves: the guys who made Counterstrike didn’t do it to make Valve rich… that was simply a nice side-effect.

Modders (and other creative consumers) are not industry proxies, nor are they free labor. Some may feel real loyalty and affection for the developer of a game, but others may simply be looking for a particular tool at a particular moment. Heck — some may even be looking to satirize a hated developer or publisher, and you’ve just provided them with the necessary engine!

Consumers are going to produce boring stuff. Bad stuff. Broken stuff. Morally and/or legally questionable stuff. They will subvert games for their own purposes: to make political statements, to embarrass their friends, and to indulge “inappropriate” fantasies. A game developer ranting about this is the equivalent of a pencil maker ranting when customers draw dirty pictures. Get over it.

The nude skins in Oblivion were exposed by modders, not introduced. The Hot Coffee functionality in Grand Theft Auto was similarly exposed, not introduced. The developers of these games left themselves vulnerable to a negative political climate, and are suffering the (overblown, unfair, but nevertheless inevitable) consequences. Do not blame the modders. Instead, do what you can to keep things “clean” on your end, then make it clear that mods are independently-created works that you have no control over.

User-generated content extends the life and profitability of a game, and can occasionally result in great, industry-changing works. A vibrant, creative modding community is one of the best things a game can have. Most developers get this. Those that don’t will find it increasingly difficult to compete in an environment characterized by higher development costs, greater competition, and fragmented audiences. You cannot out-create the public on a regular basis, and you will have trouble beating the companies who embrace the public more fully than you do.

Resistance is Futile

Technology is making it easier and easier for consumers to modify all forms of media, not just games. Savvy consumers are inserting all kinds of things into their favorite movies and TV shows on a regular basis. This trend will only intensify in the coming years as startups and large conglomerates alike try to cash in on user-generated content and content-creation tools. (I can’t go a month without hearing a new UGC plan from a startup or VC!) And, as geographic boundaries continue to fall by the wayside, yet more user-generated content will be exposed to the American public, and yet more people will be offended and delighted. Cultural clashes are inevitable. (As one commenter on John’s post noted, topless figures don’t raise eyebrows in Europe.)

The point is: you couldn’t stop consumers from modifying games (or movies, or anything else digital) even if you wanted to. They will find a way because there are hundreds of millions of them and (at best) thousands of you. They have every incentive to break down walls, because entertainment is what ties people together in this day and age. You may know nothing about the staggering throngs of people you meet in the real and virtual world, but chances are, they’ve played Halo or watched Star Wars. Mods, maps, and other UGC are a way to connect with those people, express yourself, and maybe even gain a bit of fame. In an increasingly digital and suburban universe, this means everything.

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