micro-essay on player-created content

Player created content has long been a part of western computer gaming, with modding tools having been made available to the public since the mid-1980’s. Though not all games shipped with tools provided by the developer to aid in the creation of content, there was little incentive for developers to hardcode or blackbox their games. By shipping games with modding tools or at least a well-organized softcoding the amount of time a player might spend before moving on to another game increases significantly. Some modding projects can extend well past the point of a game’s initial release date. The Fallout 2 Restoration Project for instance, which began development sometime in 2006 with an initial build being released in 2008, saw its eleventh public release on the 5th of July of 2014. The function of the mod is to restore to Fallout 2 all of the unfinished or unutilized content not present upon its release in 1998. Currently the only version of Fallout 2 available commercially is already modified by unofficial patches and graphical fixes containing numerous conflicts, and is purchasable solely through Steam following Bethesda’s acquisition of the rights to it and all other fallout games in 2014. In this way, the Restoration Project mod serves as both a means of restoring the game as it was intended and a fix for a now broken product that receives nothing in the way of technical support from the current rights holder.

Today it has become standard practice to support a product for up to a year or more with developer-created content. Initially developer-created downloadable content (DLC) served primarily as a means of extending the life of console games. While debug consoles, emulations, and other workarounds were possible during earlier console generations Internet connectivity allowed for developers to create patches and supplemental content after software was shipped. There is nothing inherently wrong with this notion, as it allows for console games to enjoy a lifespan and post-release support comparable to that of PC games. However, the emergence of paid DLC for PC through digital distribution platforms has been troubling. With games’ file structures either being made intentionally unintuitive to discourage modding and by extension encourage the purchase of developer-created content, or less organized as the result of rushes in development knowing the product can be further refined at a later date. DLC ensures that a game’s lifespan can be better approximated allowing for development timetables and greater control over the player’s expectations. The extent to which a product will be actively supported can determine and be determined by the frequency of further iterative releases. By limiting a player’s ability to – by creating or participating in the exchange of player created content – determine for themselves the amount of time they will spend with a videogame the publishers and developers may exercise greater control over that player’s experience and how long it continues to be rewarding for them.

While several PC game developers continue supply gamers with modding tools or the means to more easily modify their experience or create content, this too has created a troubling trend. The ‘Steam Workshop’, an aspect of the Steam platform that acts as both a ‘marketplace’ where mods are screened for content and changes to software code are facilitated through a managing process that allows for the player to never so much as look at the game files, impresses upon the player that player-created content is both a privilege and a ‘feature’. Steam’s Workshop allows users to rate content and keeps download counts, providing developers with an environment in which they are able to test the demand of new features they themselves are not required to conceive of or develop. This information can translate to future software patches and DLC that would be otherwise redundant if it weren’t for the stigma that surrounds player-created content and the lack of access to player-created content on consoles. Therefore the relationship between developers and player-created content is a contentious one, it is permitted where it serves and stifled when it impinges on profit. Digital Rights Management, DLC, compulsory Internet connectivity, and yearly iterations in gaming franchises, has contributed to a general sense of ‘lack of ownership’ on the part of the gamer and suppressed player expression. While there is no reason to value player-created content and commercial products differently the systems of distribution currently in place do exactly that.

Methods of distribution for Interactive Fiction

Whereas Howling Dogs can be viewed as unerringly faithful to the genre, The Stanley Parable requires a somewhat more liberal interpretation of what qualifies as interactive fiction. It is essentially a parody of the videogame in the style of a graphic fiction game, keeping the player entertained with a reactive narration whilst they move through a series of binary choice sets. It is not the degree to which either title adheres to the tenets of its genre, nor is it the exceptionally broad exposure one title has enjoyed over the other, or the difference in cost to the player that serves as the greatest contrast, but the means of distribution. The Stanley Parable began life as a modification of the Source engine and therefore, at least on Apple computers, required the player to own a copy of Half Life 2, which is owned by Valve Corporation. The standalone remake of the game, as well as its demo, is available only through the Steam digital distribution platform which requires the player to both install the Steam software and by doing so, support digital rights management (DRM).  While it should be noted that developing a game using the Source engine does not necessarily limit one to distribution on Steam, Dear Esther is, to my knowledge, the only example of a Source-based game available as a DRM-free download.  Generally speaking DRM is almost non-existent in interactive fiction when compared to video games.

This leads one to question; do games like The Stanley Parable signify a trend towards distributing interactive fiction through the same DRM-laden digital marketplaces as videogames? Perhaps not, as it is a unique piece of interactive fiction in that it looks like a videogame, it feels like a game, and it is concerned primarily with addressing how choice and consequence are approached in videogames. It is because of this that it is treated much the same as a traditional videogame, just more thinky than most.  By contrast Howling Dogs does not look like a videogame, it does not play like a videogame, it does not concern itself with videogames tropes.   In “Creation Under Capitalism and the Twine Revolution,” Porpentine constructs an appeal for developing interactive fiction using Twine. A game built on Twine can easily be distributed and requires little to no overhead cost. Most importantly however, it can be played by anyone. Twine provides an accessible means of producing interactive fiction without subjecting its audience to the same invasive policies that are now present in most other forms digital media. There is simply no foreseeable reason why a game built using Twine would necessitate distribution through steam or a similar platform and for anti-DRM players this makes a world of difference.

Works Cited

Porpentine. “Creation Under Capitalism and the Twine Revolution.” Nightmare Mode. 25 November 2012. http://nightmaremode.thegamerstrust.com/2012/11/25/creation-under-capitalism/