Games like Counter Strike, Team Fortress and Dota 2/League of Legends all began in the late 1990s and early 2000s, coming from a melting-pot of third party modding and creativity from open-ended game engines and modding tools like Valve’s Hammer editor and Source engine and the early iterations of the Unreal engine. However in addition to systems like achievements promoting more player engagement but less creativity, these flagship games have become more stringent ‘services’ which are the opposite of the creative spirit.
The addition of paid and consumable spray decals for Counter Strike Global Offensive, a game whose previous iterations let users load their own images as sprays to use as many times as they want, is an example of this shift away from user-generated content as a builder of community cohesion towards a more service-oriented model where content is more controlled and crucially monetised. As much as achievements encourage you to explore a game further through replays on higher difficulties, progress milestones or specific player actions they have had the compound effect of limiting player creativity. Open-world games have a lot of space, content and systems in place to give you plenty to do however most of it involves box-ticking side missions which equate to tidying up the map rather than having any creative input. On the other hand more linear shooters are often scripted to ensure the player sees all the set-pieces or that the multiplayer can be monetised for as long as possible. For example Call of Duty Black Ops III only got Steam Workshop support towards the end of its year of support/interest and not long before Infinite Warfare’s PR kicked into life.
This doesn’t mean that it is impossible to make your own fun. Engaging in the user-generated content systems of games which have them is a great way to extend their lifespan through fostering creativity and a collaborative community well beyond the lifespan of its core content. Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls and Fallout games are the most popular and prevalent mainstream games which openly support modding (despite criticisms that this approach lets the community fix the games for the developers free of charge) and even the Doom reboot included a level creation toolset of sorts. Halo’s Forge editor has opened up its multiplayer mode to survive competition and maintain relevance in the face of the more bombastic Call of Duty and Battlefield games. CoD has its own limited USG in the form of player-created profile logos, but outside of these we have to look slightly further outside mainstream games to the relative periphery of the market to find games which openly facilitate user-generated content.
The Forza Motorsport/Horizon series has distinguished itself through its livery creation system which lets players create and share custom car designs and images with each other. The toolset gives you a large selection of shapes, curves, gradients and letters which can be stretched, skewed and resized over the bodywork. Over the last 10 years the community for this has produced absolutely stunning artistic designs and accurate replicas of real-world car liveries to be shared and used by others:
I find recreating real-world designs or liveries from other racing games to be a relaxing creative outlet with practical ingame application; in order to share a design you have to have used your own layer groups and designs. If you download someone else’s sponsor logos or art to make it you can’t share anything you make with the wider community. Every time someone downloads, uses or likes your designs you get a small amount of in-game money as a reward and an incentive to produce better designs in the future.
I’ll discuss the game more in the future, but the PC version of Star Trek Online has a powerful set of tools which enables players to create and write their own story missions which others can play through. You choose the start locations, environments, encounters and write the dialogue for every interaction therein. This system is almost as feature-rich as the tools used by the developers and is an extensive avenue for the creatively-minded to get significantly more life out of an already large game:
The PC version of Neverwinter (also made by Cryptic, the developers of the UGC-heavy and unfortunately deceased City of Heroes) also features a similar system which plays to the storytelling/roleplaying nature of the Dungeons and Dragons IP.
The problem with these systems is that they require an audience to get the most out of them. Far Cry 3 included team multiplayer with a map editor however the population dropped off relatively quickly, so what would be the point of spending time making a map for it? I had some plans for a few Far Cry 3 maps including the ruins of a coastal town which a plane crashed through the middle of as well as a precarious cliff-side temple but then I saw that there was nobody playing the multiplayer so nobody would ever play them. Other games like Trackmania present track creation in an accessible drag-and-drop package so there is a low barrier to entry but like Far Cry 3 its popularity has markedly declined in recent years.
These systems let players channel their creativity and potentially extending the lifespan of a game and its community indefinitely, however the reality of a game’s community can be at odds with the intentions behind the creation of such systems. There are of course other games I’ve missed here; Arma 3 has a deep level editor which underpins its community, Mario Maker and Minecraft are entirely built on user-generated content and have both been incredibly successful. The WWE wrestling games continue to expand on their creative suites letting users create individual wrestlers, shows, arenas, belts and entire story-lines to play and share. There are a surprising number of smaller indie games whose bite-sized structure mean that level editors and infrastructure like the Steam Workshop can be combined to build a community, offer more to prospective buyers and maintain collective interest in games which are often much cheaper than larger but more restrictive AAA/mainstream counterparts.