The Weight of Creativity: How modern console games are finally embracing consumer creativity

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In a trending world of social media, the top priority for any company is to be seen as many times, on as many screens as possible. If your products aren't being shared via Facebook and Twitter, impressions and potential sales are being lost. More and more games today are integrating social media into their titles, and the benefits are monumental. Allowing users to share their latest Uncharted 2 Trophies instantly via Twitter, or having them work meticulously to unlock the branded "Miracle Whip" achievement in Skate 3 is priceless for companies. Whether it is a brand looking to attach themselves to a popular title, or the actual video game publisher themselves seeking additional sales, this type of content sharing and social media tie-in is only the beginning.

So what's next, and how do video game companies push the boundary of social media while at the same time offering a greater value to the gamer? How about player-created content? Sure, having your consumer spam everyone they know with their latest exploits, milestones, or achievements is worth its weight in gold, but how about letting the user create content and then share it for millions of other gamers to download? This, in my opinion, has much greater potential and looks as if it will dominate the future landscape of the industry.

Player-created content can be mildly labeled as video game assets created by the user, instead of the game's publisher or developer. This tool set can come in all shapes in sizes: everything from map and level editors all the way up to complete open-source game engines have offered players a chance to build unique content in the past, whether it be for 10 minutes or entire months and at a time. In theory, player-created content has been around for ages on the PC, and can even be traced back to home consoles circa 1985 via the NES. Nintendo's Excitebike came packaged with a design mode which let players create and race instantly on their own courses. The ability to share your tracks with friends was missing due to technology caps at the time, but nonetheless it was a novel idea. Since then, however, the home console market has nearly been a barren wasteland when it comes to player-created content.

So, why has player-created content lagged so far behind on consoles, while PC gaming has all but survived from this type of service? Somewhere along the way major video game publishers like Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft made the decision to lock you out of their hardware at nearly any cost. By doing so, the "Big Three" all but killed community creativity that could have been used to their advantage, much like publishers Valve Software and Blizzard Entertainment did with Half-Life and Diablo on the PC. Free player-created content not only kept these titles fresh for years to come, but some were so magnificent that they spawned entirely new titles themselves such as Valve's Counterstrike and Portal. These award-winning, multi-million copy sellers simply wouldn't exist if it weren't for a dedicated community that had access to some pretty phenomenal tool sets.

So I ask you again, why is this type of freedom simply not allowed on home consoles today? Or, are we just overlooking a few signs that point towards a trend that will soon skyrocket? At first glance the correct answer would have to be a resounding yes. Clues are everywhere you look when it comes to home consoles. Twitter, Facebook, and have invaded Xbox Live and PlayStation Network, along with ESPN, Hulu, and Netflix. It's apparent that home consoles are growing up fast, and sharing all types of media with your fellow gamer is become easier by the minute. Before too long I wouldn't be surprised to see my playlist pulled directly into my game. Yes, these services are becoming that integrated, and in the long run both brands and consumers stand to benefit greatly from this merger.

So it's easier than ever to see why video game developers are starting to embrace this concept: allowing the consumer to create custom maps, snap in-game photos, or build entire new levels and share them via the endless social media avenues only makes perfect sense in this day and age. The last decade, not so much.

This isn't just some brand-heavy concept that's only valuable for marketing purposes, either. Gamers everywhere actually want this technology, and there's plenty of proof. Take Call of Duty: Black Ops for example. Activision's latest blockbuster shooter includes a Theater Mode which saves your latest multiplayer sessions and then allows you to watch, edit, and upload the footage to the internet for anyone to see. Bragging to your friends about an unbelievable kill you had the night before is one thing, but actually showing them is another. Especially if your friends are on the receiving end of your latest escapade. As of recently there are over 500,000 Black Ops videos on YouTube, many of which were created in Theater Mode. Pretty impressive. Sony Computer of America also has jumped on this bandwagon. The company's adorable platformer LittleBigPlanet has shown that consumers everywhere are willing to share their creations. This PS3 exclusive game lets players create entire worlds from scratch and is so diverse in assets that no two levels rarely look identical. The game sold a hefty 4 million copies, and up to this point had just over 3 million levels created and published online for download. LittleBigPlanet 2 is set to release on January 18th with an even more impressive creation toolset. Expect the numbers to be just as staggering.

The benefits of offering this type of service to consumers go far beyond the examples above. Allowing players to tap into their imagination is just as valuable to the video game developer internally as it is to increasing brand awareness. Take Call of Duty 4 on the PC for example. Unlike the XBox 360 and PS3, the PC version of the game allowed players to make modifications to the game engine and add new features. One of the "mods" that stemmed from the community was called "X4", which featured a third-person perspective and the option to pilot the AC 130 Gunship. These two aspects were so impressive that the game's developer Infinity Ward decided to include them in Modern Warfare 2, also part of the Call of Duty franchise.

However, there is one major obstacle that stands in the way of this movement, and it comes in the form of downloadable content, or DLC. Video game publishers have made millions offering new maps, worlds, weapons, characters, and nearly every other type of content to consumers over XBox Live and PlayStation Network. So why let users create their own "DLC" for free when you can charge them for it, especially when DLC sales are so beneficial to video game companies. The Call of Duty franchise alone has sold more than 20 million map packs to date. And at $14.99 per map pack, that's around $300 million in retail revenue for the publishing giant. So you can see why companies would rather take the paid route.

So in light of this concept is it possible for both the consumer and video game industry to reach a common ground? I think so, but at some point the industry leaders will have to figure out where they stand. Do they keep charging their fans for minuscule items, or do they let users create it for free and hope that positive word of mouth will result in higher sales? Either way we are on the cusp of a technological and social media movement that will affect the home consoles for years to come, and what the industry decides to do now will change it significantly down the road. If the right decisions are made, expect some amazing creative concepts to blossom over the next few years.

Ronnie Hobbs is co-founder and gaming expert at video game consultancy, Gun, part of Venom Cartel.
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