So shortly after my last post on user-generated quests, Cryptic actually released a user-generated quest system for City of Heroes. The initial reaction was very positive, and Raph Koster gave a particularly rosy assessment of the situation by claiming that users were just as good at creating game content as the designers were (perhaps not surprising that he would take this stance, given the extent to which his own virtual world emphasizes UGC).
Then came the bad news: players were gaming the system, in this case by creating missions designed to provide the most experience in the least time. Of course, anyone who bought the game did so with the explicit intention of “gaming”, but there’s clearly been some confusion about what exactly that means. In the minds of the developers, the players are supposed to be contributing to and enriching a virtual game world. In the minds of the players, they’re supposed to be gaining power as quickly as possible.
So there are a few points to take from this:
1) Players will always try to game the system. You should always anticipate the most abusive way a player could use a system and then either decide that you don’t mind, or find a way to prevent the abuse. You certainly can’t just hope players will be reasonable.
2) If you want to introduce a feature that’s as fundamental to gameplay as user-generated quests, you should incorporate it into the game from the beginning. The thing that made the system abuse particularly harmful in this case was the fact that City of Heroes already had a carefully crafted set of quests that lead the player through controlled level advancement. If, on the other hand, the game had been originally created with user-generated quests in mind, other elements of the game could have been altered to accommodate it.
3) I’m afraid I’m going to have to radically disagree with Raph Koster and suggest that most players are, in fact, terrible at designing games (or levels/missions). The main reason for this is that it’s so different from what they do as players. Most games involve power fantasies on some level, and when a player thinks about what they want from the game, it’s colored by the fact that they, as players, wanted power. What does this lead to? Unbalanced design proposals.
For that matter, you might see this as a problem amongst the professional designers, as well. They started off as players themselves, and when it comes time for them to design, they're going to come to the table with "what would I want to see in a game I'm playing?" If they're used to power fantasies in their games, then the things they "want" in their game is, on some level, power. This can result in what I'll call the Dragon Ball Z effect. Stories and mechanics can become more and more unbalanced over time if the goal is to more perfectly serve up a power fantasy.
Balanced design requires a different outlook. Sure, you can make a badass main character and make the player feel special, but in order to do more than that you have to be able to think beyond "what would I want" and think about "what makes for a more interesting game?" Outside of game design itself, there are a few places to exercise this idea. One of them is being a dungeon master.
When you're the dungeon master in D&D, you have vast power. As the arbitrator of world events you can decide if the players live or die. With that much power, gaining power is no longer an interesting objective - the goal of being a dungeon master is to figure out how to make an adventure fun for the players (and if successful, yourself as well). This is what I call creative gameplay - unlike the players, the dungeon master doesn't have a clear goal to work toward within the confines of the rules. Rather, the dungeon master has a goal that exists beyond the scope of the rules, and has to figure out how to make the rules a tool to reach it.
So the point is, if we think that user-generated content is something we want, we should be encouraging creative gameplay on the part of players, something that is fairly rare in digital games.