What is user created content and how can you use it in your game?

User created content is a hot topic right now, especially with the success of games like Escape Simulator, platforms like Roblox, and the coming Metaverse experiment from Facebook (now Meta). But how can you harness user creativity in your own game or platform?

This is a question we’ve thought about long and hard here at Yvora because it’s central to the success of our upcoming project -currently known as Project Roya. We want players to build their own stories and worlds, and even tie them together into a huge expressive extravaganza. Encouraging people to create means giving them the right space and tools to do so. For us, understanding creative players all starts with knowing more about the tradition of tweaking and adding to existing games — what’s called modding.

An Exceptionally Brief History of Modding

The idea of players being able to make their own content in games is hardly a new one. Back in 1993 people were already making mods for the original Doom by id Software (the files were called WADs, which stood for ‘Where’s All the Data?’). Lead Programmer John Carmack had seen people attempting to create custom content for id’s previous game Wolfenstein 3D, and wanted to make the process much easier for Doom fans.

He succeeded, and people are still making new content for Doom even today!

Screenshot from Mr. Friendly, a Doom mod where you can finally talk to the monsters.

The skill and motivation of modders can’t be underestimated — commercial products that have their roots in fan-made custom content include Counterstrike (a Half-Life mod), Team Fortress 2 (the original was a mod for Quake), DayZ (an ARMA 2 mod), Dota 2 (Warcraft 3 mod), and many others.

Some games include more limited in-game editors, like Doom 2016’s SnapMap feature or the Skate Park Editors in the Tony Hawk Pro Skater series. Users can make cool things, and often exploit what options are available in unusual and inventive ways, but ultimately there are limits to what can be made. These limits prevent a super vibrant modding scene from developing.

There’s no reason that an in-game editor has to be so limited, though. LittleBigPlanet is a well-known title which is all about creativity. The LittleBigPlanet series was a fresh IP back in 2008 that aimed to give players the ability to build their own experiences without limiting it to pre-set pieces or enemies. For instance, while LittleBigPlanet is a platforming game, it was possible for players to create levels in other genres, like racing or sports games. As the series progressed options were added to allow players more control over non-player characters (NPCs) and more complex logic.

A screenshot of the LittleBigPlanet 3 Create Mode with some steps in a rocky area.
LittleBigPlanet 3’s Create Mode.

What LittleBigPlanet doesn’t offer is the ability to upload your own 3D models, textures, and so on into the game, which makes sense for all-ages games, but obviously puts limits on creativity. Before we go further, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Roblox again here — although a platform and not a game per se, it does allow user creation of content both in and outside the game. Custom content is checked by a Roblox moderator when uploaded, and will be denied if it fails to meet their community standards. There are also products like the RPG Maker series which allow you to include your own content, but RPG Maker is specialized for a certain style of game and visual style. There’s also no inbuilt way of finding a community or discovering other people’s creations.

One older game that did allow using your own content without restrictions was Neverwinter Nights — released back in 2002, the Toolset included with the game was the same one used by the developers to create the game — players could even open the main campaign and make changes or see how things worked. This level of freedom meant an increase in complexity, however. While some things like building environments or creating custom weapons or armour was very easy, for more complicated interactions you would have to learn a scripting language used by the game. A help wizard was included for certain basic kinds of interactions, but it wouldn’t take you that far.

It also wasn’t easy to add your own 3D models to the game, and while adding individual props that could be placed in a scene weren’t overly complicated, creating a new ‘tileset’ (which formed the basic environments) was very challenging. There were also gameplay rules and mechanics that were not designed to be modded, making it difficult to create anything with core gameplay that was too far off the D&D inspired RPG experience of the main game. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since any universal toolkit that can be used for any possible genre of game will miss out on streamlining — for instance the NWN Toolset includes a conversation editor, which many games wouldn’t need but is handy for an RPG. The creation process will always be smoother and faster with a more focused set of tools.

Another area the Neverwinter Nights toolset was limited was in allowing people to easily work together on a project. It was of course possible to import and export things between projects, but there was no simultaneous cooperative creation, and there was nothing inherent in models and creatures that would tell you who made them. People did work together on Neverwinter Nights projects, but the toolset could have done more to make the process easier.

Working Together

Modding communities have always been places of collaboration, and it’s not uncommon to see people sharing things they’ve made for other modders to use or edit in their own creations. Some communities even put together content packs specifically intended for use by other creators in the community. A Community Expansion Pack for 2002 RPG Neverwinter Nights contains hundreds of items solely for modders to use, and weighs in at more than 1GB.

An in-game Neverwinter Nights screenshot with different modder made shields lying on a tiled floor.
A collection of shields — just a handful of the new items in the Neverwinter Nights CEP.

On one hand this is a great way for the community to share things they’ve created and save people having to download individual items, but it’s also necessary due to complications with how custom content works in the game. Due to the freedom available to modders, it’s possible that two different bits of custom content could conflict with each other, causing strange behaviour or even crashes. Having all the content organized into one large project means that everything can be organized and arranged in such a way as to avoid these conflicts.

What Yvora aims to do with Project Roya is to make the process of collaboration as easy and intuitive as possible, and save creators from having to worry about things like content conflicts.

We want the ease of use and elegance of Little Big Planet combined with the freedom and custom content of Neverwinter Nights, all in one shared, interconnected space.

Modding Hubs

Once your mod is finished and ready for the public, how do you get it out there? Nowadays, games tend to include in-game browsers (like Super Mario Maker), they support something like the Steam Workshop or mod.io, and failing all that you can probably try Nexus Mods, which started out as an Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind fan site but has since grown into a major modding hub, hosting mods for more than 1000 games.

Steam Workshop aims to make installing mods easy, as well as allowing people to create compilations of mods (or sets of required mods for their own mod to work) and it’s easy to see who created a given mod, and then check out everything else by the same creator. There are comments and threads for mods, which allows community feedback and discussion, and ratings.

Born out of ModDB.com, mod.io offers much the same as the Steam Workshop, plus cross-platform support and extra social media options.

Nexus Mods isn’t integrated with games in the same way as Steam Workshop and Mod.io, although they have released a mod manager called Vortex aimed to make the process of installing and managing mods easier. Alongside the typical comments and ‘endorsements’ feature it also has a dedicated section for tracking bugs with each mod.

The front page of Nexus Mods, showing a panel of different mods.
The most popular mods on Nexus Mods — most are for Skyrim.

With Project Roya we want to allow people to build communities and share their creations within the game itself — to build a real world if they wish, where different people’s stories can connect to each other. Players who aren’t interested in creating things themselves will be able to discover new experiences by adventuring, or by seeking out specific planes that they’ve learned about outside the game. Players who are interested in creating will be able to identify custom content they encounter, and might be able to use it in their own creations. We’re also aiming to encourage a social creative experience for those who want it, with players able to form groups and work together.

The plan is for people’s creations to be as easy to integrate and access as in Super Mario Maker, but with more of the social features of the Steam Workshop or mod.io.

Mods and player created content aren’t going anywhere

At times over the last 20 years there have been concerns that overzealous copy-protection and apathy or antagonism from major publishers might choke vibrant modding scenes and make it an extremely niche enterprise, but fortunately things haven’t turned out like that. There are many indie games and a good few AAA titles that allow or even encourage modding, in addition to the games which are all about creation, like Super Mario Maker, Little Big Planet, or Dreams.

One issue that has remained is the increasing graphical fidelity of many games making it harder to produce content for games that meets the standards of the base game. There are ways to mitigate this though! Free modelling tools and other art programs make it viable for anyone to learn how to make their own game content, and for our part we are hoping to support the best tools to allow people to create for Project Roya without needing to invest in expensive subscription services. This also means making import processes easy for people adding custom content, and a bunch of other technical details that make a modder’s life so much easier.

A screenshot of a yeti in a green forest landscape with mountains in the background.

Project Roya

So, to sum up, our goals with Project Roya are:

  • Give players tools to create worlds with stories that can be woven together
  • Support collaborative creation and social connections between creators
  • Host custom content in-game in an intuitive way, easily accessible to non-modders
  • Allow players to create easily in-game, while leaving enough flexibility for real creativity
  • Support software to make it easy for people to import custom sounds, models, etc

With these core tenets, we’re confident people will be able to make and share some amazing worlds. And it’s not just about the people playing either — the act of creation itself, alone or with others, should also be a satisfying experience. The journey is just as important as the destination, not to mention friends you make along the way!

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