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The Devil's Advocate: Making Stuff, Breaking Immersion

Column By Victor Barreiro Jr. on July 12, 2013

I had a different topic in mind for this week’s Devil’s Advocate, but before I got to writing, I saw the comments on the ArcheAge column I wrote. That article, which is linked at the end of this piece, discussed three things I found during the two weeks in between articles. There was a discussion of a roleplay-centric music crafting tradeskill, a gallery of fan art put on frames and posted in-game through content generation, and a video from XLGames showing off swimsuits.

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A good number of the comments in that article were preoccupied with anachronisms and immersion-breaking in the context of user-generated and developer-made content. That discussion is fine and all, but I thought to use this week’s Devil’s Advocate to discuss why the ability to make stuff and to have it reflect in a game world is a powerful thing, and what game developers may want to consider doing if they want to create a world that maintains their worldview while allowing people to add onto that world.

Content Made, Immersion Broken

Using developer-provided tools, gamers in a certain subset of games can actually add their own content to a game aside from actually playing in it. There are a number of ways this can be represented, since we can easily say that housing and decorating that home are as much user-generated content (UGC) as creating a full questline using the Foundry of Star Trek Online or Neverwinter. The difference is in degrees.

For the purposes of our discussion, let’s zero in on a specific type of user-generated content: the kind that people noted in the ArcheAge piece as being immersion-breaking. Based on the discussion, user-generated content would be immersion breaking if it fulfilled at least one of the following criteria:

  • It has to be seen by others as something that would not fit the setting of the game world.
  • It is an outright representation of things that would exist in a different fictional universe.
  • It is anachronistic to a degree that goes beyond the possibilities of the game world.
  • It is content that exists in the present physical world that is put into a game world where such could not reasonably exist.

Critcisms Against World-Shattering

Now, it’s possible that I’m mistaken in what they’re saying, but these are the four basic ideas I could sort of conjure up as statements against UGC. They’re valid criticisms, to be fair. At the same time, the depth and breadth of fiction is the ability to make stuff up as you go along so long as it’s reasonable enough within the confines of the world one has created. The trouble is, well-defined fictional worlds can make magic and science hazy. They can also adapt current sciences to the technology of a given age.

For instance, Robert Lashley discussed the foundry quest Bored of the Rings for the Neverwinter Foundry Focus. by @Sourcreamking. You know it’s obviously a Lord of the Rings parody in the Neverwinter universe. At the same time, it’s entirely plausible within the confines of nearly any fantasy world for an adventurer to go on a fully-formed quest to dispose of a terrifyingly powerful magic ring by traveling to a place that held the only substance that could destroy it.

Here’s the kicker: With enough “logical”  tweaks to such a storyline, any sufficiently equipped member of a starship could go on an away mission that tasked him with disposing of a ring (a literal large circular object) that could disrupt the time-space continuum by finding a substance that could dissolve the materials that made it without causing a catastrophe... while evading the BORG. I’d call it The Borg and a Ring.

Worlds Rent Asunder?

In much the same way, World of Warcraft and The Secret World (among others) have developer-made quests that function as throwbacks to popular culture in varying degrees, and those are actually enjoyed by gamers. Linken’s Boomerang from pre-Cataclysm WoW, Indiana Jones-like quest lines, and rabid zombies are crazy enough in one world, but they can plausibly exist in multiple realities that I can play.

Can’t a world that amalgamates high fantasy and steampunk, with some fictional maneuvering, enjoy the equivalent of a cola or a coffee that comes from something that looks like a real-world vending machine if that very machine’s roleplaying backstory is that it’s a steampunk or magical artifice?

Can’t an alternate universe, and by that I mean any reality existing in a game or fiction that is not EXACTLY like ours, have swimsuits made of fabric and music that sounds like Snoop Dogg or Snoop Lion but uses lutes, drums, and chimes? If I wanted to listen to Snoop Liger and Professor Dray in the future localization of an MMO as they play their rendition of part of “Nuthin’ but a G Thang” while my character sips a roasted bean concoction in his swimming trunks, is that so wrong?

Enhancing Creativity

While the creativity of adapting is all well and good, I do acknowledge that the creative spirit can be hampered by the very reality we live in. That’s why parodies of Starbucks exist in ArcheAge and why cabinets can be made to look like Pepsi vending machines. While the vending machine can reasonably exist in a game world, we can go a bit farther than simply mimicking our own realities.

For one thing, if a UGC creator really wanted to be creative, he would be better served by going beyond the norm, by creating his own brand name and logo, and by being a bastion for role-playing awesomeness. The alternative to this is causing potential trademark infringement suits to appear by ripping off existing works for use in an MMO, then being forced by developers to have stuff removed to respect trademark holders and companies.

The bottom line, then, is simple: if you’re a developer who’s going to give gamers the ability to create and innovate, give gamers limitations that prevent abuse and infringement, promote innovation, and otherwise encourage the use of your tools to foster more content creation and increased popularity of your game.

Victor Barreiro Jr. / Victor Barreiro Jr. maintains The Devil’s Advocate and ArcheAge columns for MMORPG.com. He also writes for news website Rappler as a technology reporter. You can find more of his writings on Games and Geekery and on Twitter at @vbarreirojr.


Victor Barreiro Jr. / Victor Barreiro Jr. maintains the the Landmark/Everquest Next and Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn columns for MMORPG.com. He also writes for news website Rappler as a technology reporter. You can also find him on Twitter at @vbarreirojr.

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