When Sony first unveiled LittleBigPlanet back in 2007 the excitement for the game was tempered by a simple question – does the player have to make their own fun? Though user-generated content in games wasn’t a new idea, it wasn’t yet clear how much of a game people would be buying and how much they’d have to either make for themselves or rely on others to do for them.
Years later, when LittleBigPlanet finally launched on PlayStation 3, it was welcomed with universal acclaim from both the press and gamers. What’s more, it had the best of both worlds – a story mode created by the developers, and a sandbox mode for making your own levels with the skills you learned from playing the story.
In many ways, it marked a tonal shift in how people looked at games that gave gamers such creative freedom. It also coincided with consoles that came with hard drives and broadband connections as standard, meaning they were finally catching up to their home computer rivals. The shackles were coming off, and the rules of what games could be were being rewritten on the fly.
Obviously, creativity and video games have gone hand-in-hand since the very beginning, but the rise of user-generated content in video games has really only started to be a powerful force in the past few years. Players are becoming mini-developers within walled gardens designed to foster their desire to do more than just play a game – they want to design, build, and share their creations.
BLAST FROM THE PAST
In the past, if you wanted to make a level for a game you had to hope that it was designed to allow for custom maps, and you also have some level of technical skill. Understanding how to make a stage for Doom back in the 90s was about more than just slapping together floors and walls then placing weapons; you had to know how to design a map within the limitations of the engine, and how to program things like switches to open doors. It was great at the time, but for newcomers, it was never easy.
Now in 2017, the latest version of Doom comes with a SnapMap feature that allows players to make their own stages from within the game and share them online. There’s no need to fire up a separate map editor program and learn some basic coding, just snap a few different rooms together and you’re good to go.
As has become typical of games that allow for this sort of gamer-built add-ons, people started making bizarre yet incredibly inventive maps with this little toolbox. One such example is a map that asks you to memorize the number of item or enemies in a room, then give the correct answer when asked in the next section of the map or face instant defeat. There are other game types too – a Doom-based version of basketball, a parkour game – they’re all simple games for sure, but the fact that someone can make them in Doom shows how far developers are going to embrace user-generated content in games.
WALKING TO THE END
If you’re going to talk about the rise of gamers being creative in games, you have to talk about Minecraft. At this point, it needs no introduction, and we’ve all seen the nearly limitless possibilities of Minecraft. Entire cities, working calculators and one-to-one creations of things like the Starship Enterprise have impressed those playing the game and casual observers alike. And what makes even more impressive is the limitations players are working under.
But what about those that want to take those limitations and push them to their extreme? Kurt J. Mac set out to do just that when he started walking in a straight line inside his Minecraft world back in 2011. Over six years later, he’s still going. More than 600 episodes of his series Beyond the Far Lands have been uploaded to YouTube, chronicling his journey through the procedurally generated cube-world as it grows ever more glitchy and broken the further he goes.
The term Far Lands is used to describe the ‘end’ of the world in Minecraft. A border to keep players inside of the supposedly infinite world. Though getting your head around the math is difficult, the basic idea is that the worlds of Minecraft are generated by a seed, and that seed governs what that world will look like and contain. In any game of Minecraft only the parts of the world seen by the player actually exist, so as Kurt moves in one direction more and more the world is created using this seed.
What makes Kurt’s journey so interesting is seeing the game begin to break under the pressure of generating a world far larger than the creators had ever expected anyone to see. Later updates have changed how the game handles this ‘end of the world’ information, but Kurt’s world was created before this change, so the finale of his adventure remains unknown.
The reality is that in a regular video game, with predefined areas and hand-made stages, this couldn’t have happened. But the combination of a game with no borders and a player who wants to see how far it can all go has led to this strange journey into the unknown.
MAKING YOUR OWN MARIO
While Minecraft relies on gamers bringing their own ideas to life, other games let players mess around in worlds they’re already familiar with. A great example of this is Nintendo’s surprise hit Super Mario Maker for the Wii U.
Using the assets from the original Super Mario Bros., as well as Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, and New Super Mario Bros. U, every gamer now had the chance to make their 2D Mario game. Within weeks of its launch, the game was filled with some of the most bizarre and inventive levels ever seen in the series’ history.
Oddly dark stages, such as a journey through the tormented mind of Wario, sat alongside absolutely punishing levels designed to push any platforming fan to their limits. What made Mario Maker work so well though was we all knew the rules – it’s Mario after all – so seeing them bend to the point of breaking has been incredibly fun.
Though the game could have worked without Mario, the fact that we as gamers knew what a Mario game should be like meant seeing what it could be was all the more fun. It also showed us all how an established franchise can take the idea of user-generated content and run with it. I mean, seriously, can Sega do this with Sonic The Hedgehog already? Could you imagine what the fans could do with that toolset?
BUILDING THE FUTURE
What makes so many user-generated creations amazing is the fact that players can be given very limited tools, and yet somehow make the most amazing levels and worlds. And as the industry pursues new technologies, so too do gamers find themselves with new ways to create.
The rise of virtual reality means there are new ways to create worlds and new tools for them to play with. Facepunch Studios, founded by Garry’s Mod creator Garry Newman, has begun testing the waters with Chunks, a block-based building game playable entirely in VR.
Like so many VR games, Chunks is an experiment where even it’s creators aren’t sure what they have yet. “It was really a way of us to test the VR waters,” said Garry. “to see what sales look like. There’s only really [game designer James King] working on it, but it’s our hope that one day it’s grown into something that’s actually fun.”
There have been stumbles along the way, though, and lessons to be learned too. The much-hyped (by Microsoft at least) Project Spark launched on the PC and Xbox One in 2014, promising to allow players to create their own games within the game. While something like Minecraft focused on building, Spark encouraged players to make full-on games – kart racing, sports, story-driven adventures, tower defense – whatever they wanted.
The problem was that Project Spark didn’t give enough tools to the players, locking away many of the best ones behind paid downloadable content. That’s not to say there wasn’t a lot you could do with the base game, but the failure of Project Spark proved that if you’re going to rely on user-generated content to survive you have respect its player base’s time and money.
Setbacks aside, the democratization of game creating tools and the ability for people to collaborate like never before means the potential for the future of user generated content is virtually limitless. For the longest time players were happy being passive participants, and though there’s no reason that has to end, there’s something brilliant about being able to take the reins and make your own damn fun.