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Who Owns User-Generated Content?

Users are increasingly becoming involved in the process of generating game content. But who owns user-generated content?

I recently downloaded the second DLC installment for Trials HD, which provides a wide variety of new levels. I was surprised to see that 25 percent of the new content was user-generated content for a competition.

It seemed weird to pay for content that had been generated by the Trials community, because I would typically expect it to be freely available. Trials HD is able to pull this off, because you can access custom-generated levels from only your friends on Xbox live. It seems this design decision has enabled the use of user-generated content as a secondary revenue resource, given users’ consent.

The winners of the level design competition were offered rewards, so I do not see any problems with this model. However, if users are given too much control, such as the ability to modify game mechanics, then monetizing user-generated content becomes more difficult.

When I originally purchased Trials HD, I was excited to see what user-generated content would be available for download. This was a feature that was missing from the game and I was disappointed, but I did not mind given the fact that the title is an Xbox live arcade game. I expected what I had seen in games such as Skate, which provide top lists of custom built skate parks from users.

However, Skate allowed only a very narrow set of objects to be manipulated by users. While Skate shares user generated content, the level design affordances offered to players is much smaller than the tools offered by Trails HD. Halo: Reach offers affordances similar to Trials HD in that users can generate custom maps within a constrained game space with fixed mechanics, but it is easier to share maps given the Reach community.

Where things get convoluted is when users are able to modify the rules of the game. StarCraft: Brood War’s map editor enabled users to add triggers to modify the game rules in addition to designing a level. Several custom maps were developed by users including massing maps, tower defense maps, and scenario training maps.

Some of these game modes were not anticipated by the developers, they were novel games built using the level tool provided. This was not a problem with StarCraft, because users could freely share maps and create custom games. Warcraft III continued this tradition of free custom maps, and offered even more support for custom maps.

One of the outcomes of the Warcraft III campaign editor is DOTA, which is a completely different game experience than what the developers had anticipated. But DOTA is not a mod; it is a custom map utilizing the tools provided by Blizzard. DOTA is interesting, because it changes the gameplay mechanics of Warcraft III in addition to providing a new map.

Given the success of Trials HD, I expect user-generated content to be a viable source of secondary revenue for the near future. However, I anticipate that user-generated design, as in the case of DOTA, will be more difficult to monetize. 

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