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A Missed Opportunity in UGC?

Michael Bitton Posted:
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We’ve seen a deluge of information on The Elder Scrolls Online in the last couple of months and we’ve been offering you both the information and our reactions as it all comes in. More recently, we’ve given our take on what Zenimax is doing and could do to make The Elder Scrolls Online really feel like an actual Elder Scrolls game, but there’s one area we may have overlooked: user generated content.

There are many aspects to an Elder Scrolls game that make it feel “Elder Scrolls”, but the series’ thriving mod community and creations are almost equally part and parcel of the Elder Scrolls experience. Of course, if you’re playing the series on XBOX 360 (or worse, PlayStation 3) and don’t count yourself amongst us in the elite “PC Master Race”,  you haven’t been enjoying this aspect of the Elder Scrolls games. Though I’m sure you’ve been privy (and understandably jealous!) of the great stuff that comes out of it.

It’s with the Elder Scrolls series’ celebrated history with regards to user created content and modifications that I feel Zenimax Online may be missing an opportunity to play to one of series’ peripheral, yet significant, strengths. For all that we know about what The Elder Scrolls Online does so far, any mention of user-generated content is curiously absent. It’s no easy feat trying to integrate UGC into an MMO, but a number of developers have done this with some level of success thus far. Notable examples include: Paragon Studios with City of Heroes, Cryptic Studios with Star Trek Online and the upcoming Neverwinter (for which UGC is a marquee feature, no less), and even lesser known titles such as Ryzom.

Perhaps Zenimax does have plans along these lines and hasn’t revealed them just yet. Just as well, we’re going to spend this week’s column mulling a few ways the studio can really take charge in this area and innovate in a way that would be sure to set the game apart amongst the crowded MMO landscape and likely pique some non-MMO playing gamers’ interest in the process.

First off, we do have to recognize that The Elder Scrolls Online is still an MMO, and so dreams of some of the more popular Elder Scrolls mods that may or may not be dancing in your head (incredibly voluptuous female player models, anyone?) are not likely to work with this particular format. Even so, there are still many ways to do UGC in an MMO. We have the aforementioned existing examples of this, but there are still more ways to skin this particular cat.

Instanced Content Creation

Again, in a nod to the existing examples, the most basic way to implement UGC would be to allow for some sort of quest creation tool where players can put together their own elaborate quest lines and story arcs, including NPC dialogue, monster scripting, and the like. All of this content would be easily found via a content browser in-game or perhaps even take a page from Neverwinter’s playbook and integrate user content discovery into the game world itself. At the very least, I’d want to see this in The Elder Scrolls Online in some form.  This sort of implementation would be adequate, but not ideal. I really think Zenimax Online could go a step further.

Test Realm with Development Tools

One of the more interesting things The Elder Scrolls Online does is make use of megaserver technology to allow for tons of players on a single server with some sophisticated underlying tech to allow for copies of the same area with significant levels of variance. Imagine then, if you will, a test server where players are essentially given development tools and access to their own copy of each area of the game world where they can then do some pretty extensive content creation, including the use of custom created assets. Other players can then visit these area copies (perhaps streaming the required data over, a la joining a Team Fortress 2 server with custom files), check things out, and then leave feedback and a rating on the content. All of this data would be tabulated and with enough community support, Zenimax Online could consider bringing certain modifications over for permanent integration into the live game. This content could range anywhere from the addition of new, full dungeons designed by players to something as simple as new lore books to scatter throughout the world.

‘Steam Workshop’

Something along the lines of Valve’s relationship with the Steam community via the Steam Workshop, either on its own or in addition to either (or both) of the above suggestions, would probably be particularly enticing for modders as well. Imagine a marketplace where players could purchase content created by Zenimax Online in addition to content created by other players. We’ve seen tons of developers sell all sorts of stuff, including widely popular cosmetics, in their own cash shops, so why not take things to the next step and allow players to create their own additions and maybe even make some money in the process? Apparently, there’s a guy who supposedly brings in $150,000 a year making hats on the Steam Workshop for Team Fortress 2.

This stuff would have to be reviewed for approval (forget Cloud Strife’s Buster Sword going up for sale, for example), but the relationship between Zenimax Online and a thriving mod community could  actually work in an MMO and be both financially and creatively beneficial for both the studio and its community.

Wrapping Up

I realize I’m being a bit of an armchair developer with a number of these suggestions. The notion of putting together any or all of the above probably sounds like a nightmare on a technical, support, and legal level, but you know what? Who cares?! Somewhere along the lines I think we forgot that the MMO genre is uniquely equipped to provide gamers with an experience that no other genre can touch and core to this potential is the cultivation of communities. The Elder Scrolls series draws many fans, but it also has a thriving, vibrant, mod community already built in. UGC in The Elder Scrolls Online doesn’t need to end up looking exactly like I’ve outlined above, but something should be done to figure out how to push the envelope in this area.  Ignoring this aspect of what has really given legs to installments in the series years after they are released would be a crying shame.

Figure it out and dream big, Zenimax.

Would you want to see UGC embraced in The Elder Scrolls Online? Have your own ideas on how this could feasibly work in an MMO? Share ‘em with us in the comments below!

Read up on more recent Elder Scrolls Online content.


Michael Bitton

Michael Bitton / Michael began his career at the WarCry Network in 2005 as the site manager for several different WarCry fansite portals. In 2008, Michael worked for the startup magazine Massive Gamer as a columnist and online news editor. In June of 2009, Michael joined MMORPG.com as the site's Community Manager. Follow him on Twitter @eMikeB