In my opinion, UGC is the holy grail for MMOs. We all know how developers can never create content faster than the community consumes it, so utilizing the community's creativity, time, and energy to assist in making that content theoretically eliminates a content limit. There's always something to do because people are always, always creating.
But UGC is notoriously tricky to handle in a persistent online world, and it comes with many trouble spots that haven't been fully addressed. Considering just how much Neverwinter is relying on its UGC, via the Foundry, to flesh out the game, I have to wonder: Can the Foundry succeed?
The Foundry is a toolset that allows players to create and publish their own quests in Neverwinter. It's existed for a couple of years in one of Cryptic's other titles, Star Trek Online, and is expected to be a core feature of this D&D MMO when it launches. If you need a quick overview of the system, you can read up on the Foundry in an old developer blog.
Personally, it's a huge reason I'll be playing the game. Not only do I want to see the adventures that talented players make for me, but I want to try my hand at making some myself. I think I'd be quite good at it (at least in my own mind). I tried a Foundry mission during the last beta weekend and rather enjoyed the romp through a spider-infested forest. The game definitely seems to be pushing the Foundry missions with occasional bonus sessions and highlighted adventures.
It's also a system that players can totally ignore if they so desire. It's not forced on us by any means.
So what's the problem?
With all of the wonderful potential that the Foundry offers, there are myriad issues that UGC brings to an MMO. STO has struggled with many of these, and while Neverwinter will benefit from lessons learned with its sister game, I have good reason to expect that we'll be in for a rocky road -- at least at first.
In the interest of keeping this article to a manageable length, here's a quick bullet-point list of UGC stumbling blocks:
- A vast majority of missions will be substandard, poorly written, or otherwise indistinguishable from the crowd. This references Sturgeon's Law: 90% of everything is crap.
- Players have, can, and will look for ways to exploit the system in order to benefit their characters. They will create missions that deliver pain-free XP and loot by the barrelful, which is often referred to as "farming" or "dirty birdy exploits."
- How do you separate the cream from the crop? Is a five-star player rating system really enough to do so? What if other player's interests aren't mine? What if players game the ratings system?
- Older missions will be buried under newer ones and have a harder time finding an audience (or vice versa).
- The studio simply cannot monitor the massive influx of material, meaning that there's a lot of potential for disturbing or offensive content.
- How do you balance rewards for UGC? If you make it better than the developer content, then nobody's going to want to play the rest of the game. If you make it worse, then nobody's going to want to play Foundry missions.
- How do you sort, categorize, and organize missions so that players can find the ones that they most desire to play?
- Do Foundry missions break the game's lore and immersion?
- How do you make a toolset that's accessible and user-friendly enough for the average MMO gamer?
Again, without going into detail here and having very limited experience with Neverwinter's Foundry myself, all I want to point out is that there are significant challenges to making UGC work. If after two years Star Trek Online is still struggling with it, I have no reason to expect that Neverwinter's version will be the magic bullet that solves everything.
Can the Foundry succeed? I believe it can, and I believe it must. The base game of Neverwinter will keep players busy for a couple of months, sure, but this is where its future is at. User-generated content promises a long life if a sweet spot can be achieved to tempt players with "just one more mission." But if it is to succeed, then Cryptic needs to be painfully honest about the problems it's had up to this point.
Solving the issue of how to rate and find quality Foundry episodes is what I'd place at the top of the priority list. A star-rating system doesn't cut it for many, many reasons, and there are plenty of alternatives. I'm into geocaching, and the official Geocaching website allows players to award one "blue ribbon" for every 10 caches they find. This forces players to really think about what cache deserves a special mention, while calling attention to specific caches without making the system about averaging stars. And this is just one possibility.
Cryptic's also seriously fumbled its handling of so-called exploit missions in the past, often penalizing the rest of the Foundry's players in the process. This needs to be dealt with. Either exploits should be seen as unavoidable fallout from the system and quietly accepted or the system needs to be devised in a way to prevent it prior to the game's launch. Monkeying with a running motor after thousands of players have gone for a ride is going to net you lots of grumpy faces no matter what.
I'll remain hopeful. I have a few adventures that I'd like to make and share with you, and I bet some of you are planning your own (and I'd love to see them!). Giving players tools to create, not just destroy, is something that I always stick up for in game design, and this looks promising.
Chances are that at any hour, Justin Olivetti is prowling the streets of Neverwinter to bring lawful goodness to where it's needed. He chronicles his adventures in his bi-weekly column, Neverwinter Days, and will appreciate any alms or feedback you have to give.