15 Minutes of Fame, Times Infinity

Last week was an interesting one for enthusiasts of user-generated content.

“You” rock

Time Magazine named “you” (as in everyone) the person of the year. Not surprising, but notable in a “cultural signpost” kind of way. Do “you” feel good about yourself yet?

You rock (with a little help from Microsoft)

Microsoft officially launched XNA Studio Express and the Creators Club, then followed with a number of interviews that declared an unambiguous commitment to UGC. Just a few short years ago, most people in this industry thought that users were good for nothing more than their wallets (plus the occasional UG multiplayer map.) Now Microsoft is dedicating real resources to helping regular people make video games from scratch.

You rock, in a capitalist-kind-of-way

A player-created (virtual) corporation in the MMOG Eve Online announced that it would be going public. That’s right: selling shares for what amounts to about $75K — not on NASDAQ, but selling shares all the same. Not a milestone in terms of value (virtual “property” has sold for greater amounts, even in Eve Online), but a conceptual milestone all the same. And how would shareholders in this Eve corporation feel about Raph Koster’s views on virtual property rights?

Chris Rock thinks you rock

Actually, Conan O’Brien thinks you rock, but I couldn’t resist the name game. They’re both comedians. Sorry…

O’Brien (like many other TV personalities) recently discovered what it means to have a “comedy dialogue with the audience“. An off-hand comments about, ummm, masturbatory marine life snowballed into a website featuring thousands of user-generated submissions in the same vein. Like Steven Colbert, Conan has discovered that a well-framed 15-second joke can generate thousands (perhaps millions) of dollars in subsequent eye-ball revenue… all thanks to dedicated fans.

What about pet rocks?

By now it should be pretty clear that the next “pet rock” (and indeed, the next media landmark) will someday be as likely to appear on YouTube (or the equivalent) as it is in a media conglomerate’s back room. So what’s a conglomerate to do? Or, for that matter, a video game console maker, publisher, or developer?

IMO, the answer lies in the twin forces that drive UGC: the desire for self-expression and/or recognition. These seem like such basic things, but we’re barely scratching their surface right now.

Self-expression is limited by the tools and network available to users. We seem to have solved the network problem (though full-3D UG worlds like Second Life are still choking on bandwidth and processing constraints.) However, many UGC tools remain too crude or far too complex for the average person to enjoy. The companies that effectively tackle this problem (within as “limited” a context as a game or as “broad” a context as a platform) will have a real advantage.

Self-expression is also limited by the rights given to users. As long as companies are afraid of “losing control” over their IP and/or brands, they will dampen the creative potential of their fans. Which is OK while everyone is being paranoid, but that won’t last forever. So remember: most consumers appreciate the difference between UGC and corporate content, even if most marketing executives do not. Consumers simply require an effective filtering system in order to find the content they’re looking for (and to avoid the content they dislike.)

Finally, self-expression and recognition are limited by identity platforms. Take Xbox gamertags and gamerscores as an example. These have proven to be remarkable platform innovations, despite their simplicity. Gamers go to incredible lengths to increase their gamerscore, despite the fact that it has little tangible consequence (outside the realm of personal and social satisfaction.) To what lengths would gamers go if their identity was more than just a name, static picture, reputation rank, and score? More to the point, how could their enthusiasm be channeled into applications that enrich the community as a whole? To some extent, we already know the answer to those questions: just take one look at MySpace, Second Life, etc…

I suspect that, like Microsoft, Nintendo has begun to recognize the possibilities, as the Wii now facilitates self-expression of a sort via “mii” avatars. But again, both Nintendo and Microsoft are still just scratching the surface. There’s room for so much more….

PS. If this hasn’t bored you to tears, see my post on Viva Piñata. It’s all related.

6 responses to “15 Minutes of Fame, Times Infinity

  1. I still find it odd that XBL doesn’t let you upload an image (maybe through the XBL website) for your userpic. If it was Nintendo, I’d understand… anonymity is important to protect Nintendo from liability, but this is a feature I had hoped for XBL since day 1, with its emphasis on personalization. As a content creator, the idea of having to use someone else’s image to represent myself is extremely off-putting.

    At least some sort of Harmonix-type “FreQ” creation system would be extremely welcome… I see Miis as a step above that.

    I guess userpics and dashboard customizations are meant to generate revenue through microtransactions. Any info you could disclose about how much revenue?

  2. > Any info you could disclose about how much revenue?

    Unfortunately not. :-/

  3. Phil: If you look at the Asian casual MMO KartRider, you’ll see tens of millions coming from avatar customization microtransations, in addition to two or three times that coming from microtransactions that actually help you win. Not quite UGC, but its a ballpark.

    Which brings me to a really intersting convergence: how can UGC and the free2play model synergize with each other?

  4. (Bah, there are silly grammar mistakes in my previous post. Dave, could you delete it?)

    I don’t feel comfortable lumping microtransactions for developer-created content (e.g. for MMO avatars, or pre-generated userpics) in the same group as User-Generated Content. It may scratch a similar itch on the part of the individual, but I feel the two approaches reflect fundamentally different attitudes towards the user community. On the microtransaction customization front, there’s the assumption that users have money, want to personalize or improve their experience, and will give up one to be able to do the other. On the user-generated content front, there’s the assumption that UGC enriches the experience for other users, so allowing more user-generated content makes the game actually better, not just for the creator, but for the entire community. These are not mutually exclusive, but they are different.

    Dave has identified something highly important to XBL players, their Gamertag identities, but a fundamental option for Gamertag customization, user upload and creation of Gamertag pictures, has never been available. The other communities that Dave identifies, e.g. MySpace, YouTube, Second Life, all recognize this a “day 1 feature,” because they recognize that the value of the experience comes from the user community, not just from the developer. Some make money off that feature.

    Userpics should be the first thing you see when you meet someone new, a chance to make the first impression that you want to present to the world. They’re sidelined in XBL… all you get on XBL is your name (no malleability), a ridiculously short line of text, and scores and achievements, which is more reflective of the money and time one spendes on games and less about how one wants to present him or herself to the XBL community.

    There’s nothing preventing Microsoft from charging for the privilege of uploading and making money on it, and it’s not mutually exclusive with developer-made userpics (for the fans of various games), but it comes back to the fear of “losing control” that Dave mentions in his post. XBL has this weird dichotomy where the service parades the community that makes the service genuinely valuable, but gives its users surprisingly few tools to address that larger community, unless you’re a celebrity designer like the Penny Arcade folks. As for giving the community a face, Harmonix’s (Frequency-era) FreQs and Nintendo’s Miis are a step closer to balancing anonymity and self-expression, and I’m hoping Microsoft will step up to the plate to allow UGC to shape the visual aspect of Gamertag identities.

    Does the new camera add-on for Xbox 360 allow you to upload a photo? If so, then my entire rant is outdated 🙂

  5. >upload gamerpic

    You can using the camera.

    >Virtual corporation, Raph’s views on it.

    Interesting. My views are similar to his in that “virtual property” is, IMHO, essentially a promisory note indicating a promise of a service to be delivered in the future. In which case, shares of a virtual corporation that garners revenue from selling such promisory notes becomes basically a form of derivative.

    P.S. You *HAVE* to get a better captcha solution

  6. Kim – That’s great about the camera. Microsoft should hype that up a bit… it doesn’t immediately make it a must-buy camera but it certainly does address a longtime concern.

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