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Playing Their Own Way

People who love to create their own blogs, podcasts, and movies have a new outlet for self-expression: home-made video games.

Hoping to cash in on the popularity of user-generated content, a number of companies have set up websites that help average folks create their own video games.

Level design: A tool included in the video game Big Kahuna Reef inspired users to create so many levels that a sequel was released with more than 700 levels designed by amateurs.

Sites such as MyGame and Scratch, for example, provide simple personalizing or programming tools so that people with little or no programming experience can create their own kind of fun. Players can personalize games on MyGame in a matter of minutes using a basic home computer, and they can spend anywhere from hours to weeks designing a game, depending on its complexity.

Reflexive Entertainment, a video-game company based in California, has already had great success with user-generated content. In 2004, the company released a downloadable game called Big Kahuna Reef and included tools so that players could design their own levels. The feature was so popular that it formed the basis for a sequel, called Big Kahuna Reef 2, with 700 user-generated levels. Ion Hardie, director of product development for Reflexive, says that the core community of designers is small–some 30 or 40 people–but the company is working to increase involvement in new releases. Its most recent release, Ricochet Infinity, integrates more design features into the core game, with the idea of encouraging more players to participate.

Ulrich Tausend, a graduate student in the sociology department at the University of Munich and the founder of the game company Neodelight, says that user-generated content is getting attention in the game-development industry because visible game communities could attract more players. “One main goal of the casual game developers is to tell the nontypical potential computer players … that gaming is also something for them,” he says. The challenge to providing user-generated content, Tausend says, is that companies have to provide tools that are easy to use yet powerful enough to let people express themselves.


MyGame, a new site now in beta, attempts to solve these problems by letting users get involved in game creation to varying degrees. Novices can personalize ready-made games by adding their own photos, for example. People with more-advanced skills can design games from scratch using Macromedia Flash and host them on the MyGame website. Designers of popular titles become eligible to share up to 40 percent of the advertising revenue generated by their games. Most of the games produced are considered casual games because they are simple to learn and can be played in a relatively short time.

MIT researcher Mitchel Resnick led a team that created another tool for at-home game creators: a simple programming language called Scratch. Although the tool is intended for children, MIT graduate student Andres Monroy-Hernandez, who works with Resnick, says that 30 to 40 percent of the users are adults. Scratch is designed to encourage users to borrow from one another’s games and collaborate, and Monroy-Hernandez says that he has often seen groups of disparate ages and abilities working together on games.

As the trend toward user-generated content in games continues, Tausend says that companies who host the games will need to be aware of a problem common to all user-generated content: the possible inclusion of offensive or copyrighted material. Most game-creation sites have a process for reviewing content before it goes live and weeding out anything deemed unsuitable. As a counterexample, Tausend points to New Grounds, a site that gives users–most of them skilled developers–the no-holds-barred ability to upload content. Many of the games found on New Grounds could be considered offensive, he says. However, he points out, too much control of user-generated content could alienate the community.

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