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The thing that captivates me the most about older games, is the creative freedom that they allowed you to exercise. I’m talking primarily about a game I played in my teens called Neverwinter Nights. It was a fantasy role-playing game that was based on the Dungeons & Dragons third edition rule-set.
The single-player story mode was created using the same tools that they gave you for free, as part of the game in its 4-disc cardboard box. DVD-style cases were still in their infancy. The editor was both simple to grasp, and complex enough to suit the needs of any dungeon master. It had all of the tools (aptly named ‘Wizards’) to create seemingly infinite amount of content.
Online communities sprung up around it and would share, create and play each other’s levels or ‘modules’. Quests were easy to work into conversations, and could be generated with a few simple clicks in the Plot Wizard. Areas could be created with the Area Wizard, and characters with the Creature Wizard. After that, it was all down to the design and writing of your module. You could even string modules together to create a series of chapters with overarching stories. Over the past few years, there hasn’t really been a release that allows players to exercise their creativity in the same way. Frankly, I’m tired of being spoon-fed by triple-A titles.
There have been a few glimpses of genius in the current market. Crusader Kings II allows players to re-forge the course of history, and customise their own characters that rule certain regions of the world. The Might and Magic: Heroes series has always been good with including map editors. However, the games are much less focused on narrative, and their ever-decreasing popularity means that map-makers have a declining audience.
Perhaps there’s a rationale behind the lack of tools to create content in modern games. Would it hurt a developer/ publisher’s profits if user content out-performed future expansions or DLC? It’s understandable that a publisher would want to protect its revenue by keeping the intellectual property strictly inside the company, but this stance only holds water if they continue to add content at the rate that consumers find acceptable.
Considering the rate that an experienced RPG player exhausts content, it’s very unlikely that any developer could keep up. Also, if your content is sub-par compared with the content created by a team of amateur users, your DLC simply isn’t worth the money anyway. It begs the question: ‘why isn’t that publisher hiring that group of talented individuals?’ This has happened, by the way.
Portal 2 released a free patch called the Perpetual Testing Initiative (PTI), which was a simple yet effective tool which allowed players to build their own puzzles, complete with switches, timers, laser beams and choosing which surfaces are portal-friendly. It’s linked with the Steam-Workshop, which is essentially a forum which allows for the download of work from each user. Valve have actually hired level designers based on their stellar work on the PTI, which makes the PTI a great tool not only for appeasing gameplay-hungry users, but also as a talent scouting system. You might even say that it’s a… portal into the business? No? Please yourself.
Whichever way you look at it, you simply have to admire the creative potential within gaming as a hobby, particularly with regards to user content generation. It’s becoming more and more ubiquitous, and even more respected as the years pass, making the old stigmas attached it seem horribly out of date.