David Edery posted a small article on his blog about User Generated Content. In short it’s a list of the good points of UGC with links to existing games to illustrate each point and it’s worth a look.

There are only two concerns I have with this article. The first is that it doesn’t give any consideration to the downsides of UGC. Given that this isn’t an in depth article published in a periodical I don’t really have a right to demand an unbiased report but it would be nice to mention some of the negative aspects so that the advantages can be more fairly considered.

The other concern I have is his fourth point; It can reduce the cost of populating games with content, and make those games more dynamic and interesting.

Now I’d like to start off by saying that I am actually a huge fan of UGC. In fact often my problem as a game master was that I wanted the players to be creating their own content and I would encourage them to do so, rather than creating content for them. I know that it may sound as if I’m not fond of UGC since I bring up issues like the fact that there are also drawbacks but that isn’t because I don’t like UGC. I simply think that glossing over them doesn’t help their development.

One of the biggest problems that I see with UGC is that it typically smacks straight into Sturgeon’s Revelation. Usually referred to incorrectly as Sturgeon’s Law and paraphrased Sturgeon’s Revelation is simply Ninety percent of everything is crud.

Of course this maxim is a gross oversimplification. Crud is very subjective. If the revelation is applied to someone like doctors than for 90% of all doctors to be crud a cruddy doctor still has to be much better at his job than your average untrained person. When talking about professionals ‘crud’ simply means ‘uninspired compared to others in the same field’. It doesn’t mean ‘nearly the same level of ability as an untrained individual’.

Now I’m not trying to ‘dis’ people who create content. I’m not trying to say that an amateur can never exceed the abilities of a professional. In fact quite often the top 10% produced by amateurs produce better things than the bottom 90% created by professionals. However the bottom 90% of the amateur created content is going to be far worse than the 90% of ‘crud’ created by professionals, and that’s the problem.

World’s created entirely out of UGC mean that 90% of the world will be composed of amateur crud. Yes, there may be gems out there such as Laukosargas Svarog’s eco-system on Second Life that far outstrip what professionals create but to get to those gems there’s going to be a lot of really awful stuff you need to sort through.

Still UGC is often heralded as the Holy Grail of game design. Most people seem to think it is simply a matter of designing the right tools so that players can sift through all the detritus to get to the bits of gold and they’ll never need to create content again.

I can certainly see why it is an appealing idea. Content is expensive to create. In fact it is probably the biggest reason that MMO’s cost so much to make. Single and multiplayer games can get by with far less content, giving you just enough for the storyline you’re going to progress through, but in the case of MMO’s you literally need a world of content, and all the people it takes to create that content are expensive. If there was some way to make the players carry that load it would cut out massive amounts of the game budget and that idea is really seductive.

This idea is so seductive in fact that it leads into what I perceive as the huge hurdle of UGC, namely that people want to use it as a replacement to professionally generated content. Solve the riddle and you get all these wonderful benefits that David Edery has listed, you can slash your development costs, and best of all you actually have people paying you to do the work you use to pay those professional content creators to make.

Unfortunately 90% of everything is going to be amateur crud. Yes, there will be areas that are truly spectacular, but to get to them players will need to slog through some really abysmal stuff.

What seems to be missed is that UGC and professionally generated content don’t have to be exclusive of one another. Just because people are able to create content doesn’t mean that the game developers can’t. UGC should be viewed as an augmentation of professionally generated content, not as a replacement. This allows for a world in which the content can expand and change dynamically without having 90% of it be amateur crud. While such crud will still exist it will be much easier for players to avoid as they head to the spectacular things other players have generated, creating something that is the best of both worlds, I think.