Tuesday, April 21, 2009

User-Generated Gaming

Old-time favourite game City of Heroes has made a giant innovative leap by being the first massively multiplayer online game to implement user-generated gaming. While other games and virtual worlds offer user-generated content, what makes City of Heroes unique is that it has created a system that allows players to design their own missions and story-arcs within the game, and to offer those to other users (see the video here). The best-rated and most downloaded missions give "influence" to the player (the in-game currencies). An interesting feature of the new content-creation system is that it has been implemented as a "game-within-a-game" concept. A new in-game company in the Paragon Isles called Architect Entertainment sells heroes and villains virtual world subscriptions so that they can create their own missions. Simulations making simulations, Baudrillard would be proud.

The second thing that crossed my mind when I read about this innovation was to consider the many legal angles that this development unleashes (the first thought was that perhaps it was time to dust-off the spandex suit and don the cape once more, but I digress). City of Heroes, like most other MMOGs, claims ownership over all content created by users, and this is no exception. The CoH end user agreement states:

"(c) Customer content. Customers can upload to and create content on the Publisher’s servers in various forms, such as in selections he makes and avatars and items he creates for the Game, and in bulletin boards and similar user-to-user areas ("Customer content"). By submitting Customer content to or creating Customer content on any area of the Service, the Customer acknowledges and agrees that such Customer content is the sole property of the Publisher. To the extent that the Publisher cannot claim exclusive rights in Customer content by operation of law, the Customer hereby grants (or warrants that the owner of such Customer content has expressly granted) to the Publisher and its related Game Content Providers a non-exclusive, universal, perpetual, irrevocable, royalty-free, sublicenseable right to exercise all rights of any kind or nature associated with such Customer content, and all ancillary and subsidiary rights thereto, in any languages and media now known or not currently known. The Customer shall indemnify and hold the Publisher harmless from and against any claims by third parties that the Customer content infringes upon, violates or misappropriates any of their intellectual property or proprietary rights. "
As I said, this is typical of most MMOGs. All rights to content remain with publisher NCSoft, if the user has any rights by law (such as moral rights I guess), the publisher is given a licence to those rights, and the user is liable for any breach or harm arising from the created content. Typically one-sided affair that accumulates all the benefits and washes its hands off any pitfalls. However, something else has struck me when reading through the legal documents. The patch notes for the new release have updated the Code of Conduct to forbid users from making parodies! These now state that "Parodies and derivative works are not allowed." How interesting, given the fact that parodies are allowed in most copyright legislation. However, because this is a user agreement, they seem to be relying on contractual pre-emption of copyright law.

Having said that, NCSoft have been brave in allowing such a change to the game mechanics, and it seems that they were well aware of how difficult it would be to draft policies that would be both fair and would discourage trolling, griefing and abuse. In an interesting article, developer Joe Morrissey admitted as much. How can you avoid people creating obscene and/or objectionable content? If you give power to users to remove content themselves, how do you avoid "grief removals", where players intentionally flag content as inappropriate when it is not. And most importantly, how can you filter out the word "penis"? The most interesting aspect of the game self-regulation process is that NCSoft has implemented a data mining policy that tries to find out patterns. This is interesting, as it seems logical that people prone to create objectionable content will do it repeatedly, while griefers will also be re-offenders. Morrissey says:
"In MMOs you datamine. That's the only real way to know what's going on with your game once it has gone live. So for Architect, we wanted to track as much as we could. We need to see what content is getting flagged. Who is flagging it? Who is being flagged? Has the person ever been banned? If so, how often and for how long? What's a person's overall rating? Has he ever flagged content as inappropriate and been wrong? How often and what content? That last bit helps track down the grief voters."
This is both ingenious and practical; it also serves as a possible regulatory lesson to be learnt outside virtual worlds. Data mining for regulatory purposes is not a new idea, but it is a powerful tool for keeping a lid on user-generated content abuses. Although I still do not like the City of Heroes' copyright policy, I think that they are headed in the right direction when it comes to governance and self-regulation.

Before anyone interjects and mentions Second Life, no, Second Life it is not a game! Besides, it is impossible to write SL content because of the lag (/scratch).


Sean said...

How can COH ask that there be no parody or derivative when it is derived from...well...the idea of superheros.

Aside from that, this seems like a really good business model - if you can't be the best at making games, at least create something valuable from the project/franchise, especially if that item created is of use by the rest of the industry since griefers plague every game, this work has lots of value.

thewinkman said...

awesome. i hope dc universe online incorporates the same kind of system when it finally drops.