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Ideas for User Generated Game Content

By Carolyn Allen, Editor

Promises of reward from quantitative and qualitative user generated content development seem to justify the efforts required to enable game players to add to a game's capabilities.

Player as Author mobilizes players as creative actors in a holistic experience

Games are becoming more popular than movies -- and the number of hours spent by users in gaming grows by the year. How does "creativity" fit into this trend? Is gaming expanding the ability of users to participate in core game development?

This 2005 academic paper highlights trends that are growing, and opportunities that are becoming more feasible technically to tap the inherent creative impulse of people to "join the storytelling" that is possible with interactive game playing that is also storytelling. And story creation and storytelling is an ancient preoccupation of humans!

Following are notes taken from this article about inclusion of players as authors:

Machinima Movies

A recent film category named Machinima reflects on works created by using 3D game environments to shoot animation movies. The first big success was Red vs. Blue, a kind of sitcom filmed in the 'Capture the Flag' mode of Halo.

Photo Novels

Another similar experience is the creation of a kind of photo novels with scenes taken from The Sims. Users made albums of screenshots taken inside the game and composed a story based on them. More than 77,000 of these stories were created and the most popular one was downloaded over 300,000 times.

This ongoing production of artistic works, derived from games, leads us to think that there might also be an untapped source of artistic creativity that may possibly be mobilized for the purpose of building games themselves.

Customization of Elements

Another type of player creation is the typical customization of certain aspects of the game, mainly of the player character. This customization often involves the creation of textures, models and other multimedia elements outside the game that are later imported. In most games user- created content is constituted by multimedia elements, such as 3D models or textures. E. g., in The Sims user-created content involves a little more than creating multimedia items, it involves also the parameterization of objects and the definition of simple behavior modification.

Some games take object creation to another level.

Second Life, for example, offers a scripting language to define the behavior of an object. Objects are created virtually, inside the game, and the player can add a script to the object thus defining its behavior. This type of creation is significantly more powerful as with it players can create completely new interactive objects that provide other players with new possible actions and experiences.

Benefits of User Generated Content

This single aspect opens new development possibilities in MMOG which makes this type of creation of particular importance. On one hand it can save time and money for the creators because this type of content production is very resource consuming. On the other hand it may contribute to extend game life because players can always expect to experience something new created by fellow players.

Game Mods

A more advanced type of user content creation is the creation of game modifications or mods.

Mods can be so complex that can lead to a completely new game, although the original game engine is required to play the mod. The creation of mods requires a high level of expertise by the players because it is a very complex activity possibly combining several artistic and technological competences. Mod creation usually comprises new game levels, with completely new objects for a redesigned gameplay.

Companies like Valve (creator of Half-Life) or ID Software (creators of Quake and Doom) explicitly permit or encourage players to do such modification although, rather strangely, they do not permit the authors to explore them commercially. These companies even release special tools to help players to do their moding and in this way players help the company by extending the game life and strengthening the brand. But we could also work to enable more players to create entirely new games. In fact there are some kits for developing games already available.

Game Play Improv

We should probably stress the creative differentiation from interpreting roles or acting out a script. In the case of games this acting performance can be compared with an Improv tradition from theater that with the more traditional acting of a predefined script, only even more open ended. It seems rather near a future professionalization of game playing roles in the sense that it is a valuable activity for other players wishing to participate in interesting multiplayer experiences.

Original Game Creation

To produce original games, players must be enabled and encouraged to work their ideas from the initial design stages, even if for the purposes of getting it done with fewer resources they lately resorted to modifications or reuse of previous game components. Contrary to the mod creation process, we don't envision this game creation to be one requiring intense technical expertise as that would keep a lot of interested people aside. In order to solve this ability problem we need to develop simpler design languages and simpler instruments to begin with.To produce original games, players must be enabled and encouraged to work their ideas from the initial design stages, even if for the purposes of getting it done with fewer resources they lately resorted to modifications or reuse of previous game components. Contrary to the mod creation process, we don't envision this game creation to be one requiring intense technical expertise as that would keep a lot of interested people aside. In order to solve this ability problem we need to develop simpler design languages and simpler instruments to begin with.

Game Design by Player-Authors

Player-authors should be able to focus on the game design. To support this we need a better notion of how the game design and development is conditioned. As examples, consider the following three non-exclusive mindsets that can be used together to provide a richer development perspective.

Options for Player Creativity

Simulations

Within a ludological mindset games are understood primarily as simulations and can be defined by a set of rules and objects that span the interaction space derived from them.

In simulations, what seems to matter mostly is gameplay and every design object concurs to support or hinder. To empower the author to explore the ludological approach we would require simple and efficient ways to design and experiment with new forms and object behaviors, game rules and goal settings, interactively.

Narrative Games

A narrative mindset promotes an understanding of games as interactive stories and a focus on the dramatic intensity and player involvement in the story behind the game. It is hard and tedious to develop linear stories and to manage an hypertext of storytelling possibilities is even harder. In this approach the author wants to provide multiple dramatically interesting paths to follow, something which is especially difficult is to make in a coherent and interesting way.

The narrative mindset could be supported by interactive storytelling techniques and instruments that could empower the author to manage the complexity of scripting and character building, while providing helpful indicators of the interaction space being spawned.

Cinematographic Games

A cinematographic mindset would focus on visual language and aesthetics as a primary form of communication and involvement and there are good examples of games with a strong cinematography flavour (e.g., the Resident Evil series and Final Fantasy VII explore typical camera positions and movements that change as the character advances). The camera language of the game should be analyzed with the cinematography approach. If an author wants to make a game with great storytelling, camera control and movement can be used to emphasize dramatic moments and provide a richer aesthetic experience. A simple way for an author to explore alternative “photography” could enhance an existing title and when available could empower the players to spawn new collaborations and forms of expression.

Open Source Game Development

Another aspect that the authors consider particularly interesting for extended original game development is the explicit support for collaborative development efforts. Some cases following the open source model of software development show this is a viable way although the questions of sustainability and distribution of benefits seem largely un-taped aspects.

The idea of an infrastructure especially designed to enable the collaborative and distributed creation and deployment of online games that mimics the hypertext development success of the world-wide- web seems a reasonable enough challenge.

In this case we must learn the powerful lessons of simplicity and standardization that permitted such a general infrastructure to emerge, enabling such diverse forms of creativity to flourish over it. In fact, simplicity and standardization as still strange words to the games industry and commonly confused with limits to creativity.

Making It Happen!

An infrastructure would need to be built to support and enhance new author and player relationships, attractive to both expert and novice users. Some design challenges for such an infrastructure are readily apparent from the previous discussion:
  • progressive support for the creation of simple and complex objects,
  • definition of generic game rules and parameters, and goal setting,
  • support for the definition of some narrative elements,
  • support for the definition of cinematographic aspects like camera control.

One of the most defying challenges is to create a game development infrastructure that is attractive to both expert and novice users.

For novices we could think of a parametrical set of possibilities, by tailoring

  • objects,
  • behaviors,
  • characters,
  • settings,
  • visual appearance
  • interface,
  • etc,
...from a toolset of possibilities, that would spawn a specific game experience.

Experts would likely venture into:

  • detailed creative dueling, that could involve the introduction of new unthought-of elements and variables, even if to avoid a repetitive look and feel.
  • The teaming up of people with diverse technical backgrounds empowers them for this kind of detailed tinkering.

Metaphors

Interfaces and interaction models can be devised to ease the player experience and attract novice players and the same can be made for design tasks. A known method for achieving this goal is the use of metaphors in interface design. Metaphor is thought of as the most common way through which we comprehend and abstract concepts and perform abstract reasoning. We use metaphor intensively in the way we speak, in the way we think, in the way we learn, although we mostly don't notice it.

For example, in the way we talk about issues as seeing an object: “sometimes we must have a closer look at an issue”; “we may even have to approach it from a different direction to get a new perspective on it”.

Metaphors are quite common and usually tacit, intrinsic in language, largely unnoticed. In Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) metaphors have been studied and used as an important approach to interface design, with the most common example being that of the desktop metaphor.

The use of metaphors in personal computation empowered a whole new generation of computer users. Newman and Lamming offer us some heuristics in the use of metaphors and mental models by the users to recognize and reconstruct metaphors.

While metaphors can be used for quick learning and use they have interpretive limits depending on actual users’ metal model.

If taken too far metaphors can also be prone to confusion (e.g, deletion of files and archives in the Mac and ejecting a disk shared the same mechanism: sending it to the trashcan. Even expert users felt uncomfortable with this extension.

SOURCE: This article is based on an academic paper entitled "Player as Author: conjecturing online game creation modalities and infrastructure" by José Pedro Tavares, Rui Gil, and Licinio Roque, of the University of Coimbra, Portugal.

RESOURCES:
Academy of Machinima Arts & Sciences, http://www.machinima.org/

ID Software, http://www.idsoftware.com/

BioWare Corp, http://nwn.bioware.com/

Second Life, http://secondlife.com/

The Sims, http://thesims.ea.com, Electronic Arts

Valve Software, http://www.valvesoftware.com/


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