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OGDC2007 Report - Creativity in MMOGs: Engaging the Community

Carolyn Koh's most recent article from the Online Game Developers Conference investigates the idea of player creativity in MMORPGs, pointing to games like: Second Life, Pirates of the Burning Sea, Lord of the Rings Online, and more.

OGDC2007 Report – Creativity in MMOGs: Engaging the Community
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One underlying theme in many of the panels I attended and the meetings I had (admittedly, with Community folk) was the need to engage and serve the player community. Building loyalty is the keyas each game seeks to grab and hold the imagination of the fickle MMOG player of today, distracted as they are by the myriad choices available to them.

"User created content is one way of engaging our community," Troy Hewitt, Director of Community Relations at Flying Lab Software told the audience during his panel. "We use player created and submitted sails and ships in Pirates of the Burning Sea."

Victor Wachter, Online Communications Relations Manager of Cryptic Studios waxed philosophic about his plans for the upcoming Cryptic Website that would link fans of all Cryptic games. He spoke of tearing down the "one game, one forum" model and opening up the ability for the community, "not only to read content but to participate in building and rating and managing that content," and making use of Web 2.0 tools to connect and engage the community.

"Creativity is underserved," said Mike Goslin, VP of Virtual Reality Studio, Disney Online, explaining why the character creation process is so important to a large segment of MMOG players. It is important for players to identify with a game and player avatars seem to be the key in yet another facet of player loyalty. These avatars are even present in "vehicular" games where the avatar itself plays little part. Certainly, the character creation process in City of Heroes was one of the most talked about and beloved features of the game. Players and game developers admitted to spending hours just creating their characters. The MMOGs that followed in its footsteps have deemed avatar creation to be so important for players to identify with a game, that more and more complex character creation features are being placed in these games. Currently, many MMOG players gauge how "great" a game's character creation process is by the number of "slider" bars available to change the features of an in-game avatar.

All panelists who touched on the community agreed also that in-game events were good. "We should do more of it," was the common cry. But in-game events often require more resources than some companies can afford to dedicate to them. How then, to involve players? What other creativity is there besides the role-playing and direct interaction affordable by in-game events run by GMs? What about trade skills? That "creates" something doesn't it? However, trade skills in games are highly formulaic and hardly creative. Some games such as Asheron's Call and Ryzom allowed you to create spells after a fashion.

The only game out there where players can actually create objects in a more or less free-form manner currently is Second Life - but that's done more as a business than art itself, so what about the creative process itself and creativity in a game? Markus Weichselbaum, CEO of TheBroth was happy to clarify as he introduced TheBroth. "Players make things in Second Life to sell. TheBroth is about creating art."

TheBroth is a tongue in cheek reference to the proverb "Too many cooks spoil the broth," and currently is a web-based collaborative art site where players enter "sets" and move mosaic tiles to create art - as well as a social networking site, integrating many of the features of Web2.0 such as users contributing the content on the site and exercising control over the content via an architecture of participation.

Markus was happy to run me through the features of the collaborative art site as it currently stands, where users create mosaic sets and move colored tiles in a solo or collaborative endeavor to create art which can be saved, published and also transformed into tee-shirts and other items through collaboration with Cafepress.com. The sets include a chat window for talking to other members in the set and everything moves real-time. Their plans are to incorporate this into a creative MMOG where players can collaborate in building 3-D objects and create 2-D art such as graffiti using the cityscape as a backdrop.

"Mosaic is just a beginning," Marcus said, showing yet to be released brushes and tools to be used for graffiti. "The simplest way we could think of to start players off in collaborative art."

In TheBroth, every contribution is tracked. The number of tiles moved by each user can be seen, and what the last user did with the artwork can also be tracked. Run your mouse over any piece of art. You will see each tile labeled with the handle of the person that moved it.

In a salute to player creativity, developers recognize that players will always find ways to use game features for uses other than planned - and we're not just talking about exploits. In TheBroth, the ability for players to "rewind" to go back to a previous step in the creation process and "replay" to see how a piece of art was created became a way for artists to create animations - a use that surprised and delighted the developers. But where people congregate, there will always be the disruptive element. Who... when tossed into Exile, the room or "set" where disruptive users are tossed, created... art! Check out the gallery created by users in "Exile" Amazingly enough... even in exile, the users moderate each other, as evidenced by the comments posted by a couple of exiled users in this piece of "Exile" art.

Creativity in-game, are you there yet? Probably not, but it's getting there and getting more recognition. The developers of Turbine's Lord of the Rings Online found that players enjoyed its music creation system so much in beta testing that it became a feature at launch with devs dedicated to its improvement and function. That is a first paean to in-game player creativity. Will creativity become a buzz word and "must have" in any MMOG? It might. With the attention given to player created content, the rise of innovations such as Turbine's music system, TheBroth, the sharing of tools game developers use such as CrypticAR and other experimentation out there, we hope to see much, much more.

Carolyn Koh / Carolyn has been writing for MMORPG.com since 2004 and about the MMO genre since 1999. These days she plays mobile RTS games more, but MMOs will always remain near and dear to her heart.