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Embracing Creativity: How User-Generated Content Has Transformed Gaming

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Photo Credit: Yanko Design, Designers: Transparent House & Eduard Zhikharev
Photo Credit: Pledge Times: Epic Games announces the arrival of Unreal Editor to Fortnite and more news

Occasionally, a seismic shift occurs in an industry that marks a clear “Before and After.” These transformations may not always be tied to a specific event. For instance, the current state of filmmaking is challenging to envision without recognizing the impact of 3D technology’s explosion in popularity. This shift led to an environment that persistently pursued spectacular visual effects, revolutionizing how movies were made and experienced. Some may credit James Cameron’s Avatar; others remember getting their minds blown by the seminal cinematic masterpiece Spy Kids 3D: Game Over. I digress… In gaming, these shifts happen at breakneck speeds; all it takes is for one game to gain unexpected popularity, and the entire industry starts to pay attention. One genre that wasn’t popular a week ago can become a dominating force in players’ gaming time. As it turns out, we are undergoing one of these significant shifts, predicated entirely around user-generated content.

The rise of user-generated content (UGC) has empowered countless players to become creators, democratizing game development and recontextualizing how content falls into the hands of the player. UGC is nothing new, though, with deep roots that go back to the advent of PC gaming. So what’s changed in the past few years and weeks that makes me so confident that there is a rock-solid future for UGC that will impact gaming as a whole?

User-generated content in gaming has a storied history. Likely the earliest and historically most mainstream example would be its roots in the world of modifications, or mods for short, which have been a massive staple for innovation within gaming for decades. I don’t say that lightly, by the way. I was curious while writing this, so I just pulled up the Steam storefront and checked the most played games while writing. The top 3 spots belong to “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive,” “DOTA 2,” and “PUBG: BATTLEGROUNDS.” Counter-Strike is over a decade old, and the other two titles aren’t much younger. Yet, spectacularly, these games are consistently at the top of the Steam charts for most played games, having never left the top 15 spots at their lowest. Aside from their undeniable popularity, what links them all is that they all originally started as mods for other games.

Counter-Strike was a mod for a popular game called Half-Life 2, DOTA a mod for Warcraft III, and PUBG was a mod for DayZ, which itself was a mod for another game called Arma 2. One could argue that PUBG was the first game to explode the “Battle Royale” genre into public awareness, launching a genre that would lead to some of the most lucrative games in the current industry. All because someone made a mod inside a mod and set it loose on the world. Another critical aspect of this is asset stores, where people less skilled with art or character creation can buy prebuilt designs and plug them into their own games. Without resources like this, Vampire Survivors would never exist, one of the top-selling games of 2022 and BAFTA winner for Game of the Year.

Not so long ago, smartphone app stores were one of the top go-to platforms for indie developers looking to make a splash. It was the wild west, and any game could be the next to explode into popularity, striving to reach the cultural highs of something like Flappy Bird (of which I proudly held the high-score among my friend group). But as the market became increasingly saturated, it became more difficult for small teams and solo developers to stand out. Production values on mobile games were ballooning, and massive development studios once again drowned out low-budget indie games.

UGC platforms like Roblox stepped in to fill the void, encouraging people without an engineering education to hop into game creation, providing creators with easy-to-use tools and a way to monetize their games, all while reaching wider audiences. Epic Games recently took things a step further, integrating UEFN (Unreal Editor for Fortnite) created games directly into their Fortnite platform, making game development more accessible and allowing players to discover a wide range of experiences without leaving the client.

UEFN and the competition they provide to competitors like Roblox represents, in many ways, a seismic shift for the state of user-generated content and the gaming industry as a whole. Now, with minimal knowledge, I can hop into a suite of easy-to-access tools and begin making a game within minutes. These tools provide assets, a heavily simplified coding method, and a base of operations many players are familiar with. I can begin grabbing trees, rivers, and roads, and suddenly I have a complete map. With a bit more exploring, I can grab a finish line for a racetrack, add in some ramps, and I’ve just built a fully-fledged racing game ready to be shared with my friends and played by anyone.

It’s easy to understand why players would be excited about the ability to create their own maps and modes, but what’s shocking is how intensely players have come to love and expect tools like this to be available in long-term games they play. The launch of Halo Infinite is a recent example that sparked outrage among fans due to the absence of Forge mode, a popular feature that allows players to create custom levels and game modes. Having existed since the early days of Halo, the community made it clear that the ability to create maps and game modes wasn’t just desired but considered an integral part of the entire Halo identity. We increasingly see how much players value the ability to shape their own experiences and express their creativity.

Of course, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. With a democratized toolset comes an audience that is more diverse and less familiar with game-making rules and the industry overall. Whether it’s poorly thought-out projects or breaching IP by using popular characters in situations the IP holders would disapprove of, there’s still a large sea to navigate when it comes to finding the diamonds in the rough. This is just a byproduct of the fact that anyone can make a game now, even a 6-year-old with no concept of what makes a level fun to play or navigate. When left without moderation, it’s easy for these marketplaces to become overwhelmed with repetitive and uninteresting experiences. 

By enabling gamers to transition from players to creators through user-generated content, we’ve unlocked a tremendous surge of creativity that is unlikely to fade away. These tools are widely embraced by players who relish the opportunity to express their creativity and easily share their creations with the world. Integrating audiences as a creative force in interactive content presents a new norm, and I find it hard to envision a return to the previous status quo. With players more empowered and involved by the games they love, we have entered a new era of limitless possibilities.