Sunday, November 16, 2008

Everything in Moderation

The Sony PlayStation 3 has had a hard life, up to this point. It is expensive, has few games worth playing, and fewer exclusive games. There has been trouble even getting developers to work with the platform because of its complexity. Sony has also woefully mismanaged the advertising, distribution, backwards compatability, and brand loyalty of many hundreds of thousands of devoted PS2 owners. There is nearly no reason to buy a PS3 these days unless you want a BluRay player on the cheap.

Which is why Sony has been betting so heavily on LittleBigPlanet for this holiday season. If you haven't been following it, LBP is a light-hearted 2D-ish platformer that has set its sights on changing how we create game content. The developer, Media Molecule, has spent the last couple of years doing nothing but making the game capable of incredibly intuitive user level design and content creation.

What that means is that when you buy LBP, you get 50 levels of fun single and multi-player competitive co-op gaming. You also get the tools to make just about anything that the very robust physics engine can handle. Want to make a complicated arithmetic machine? Can do. Re-create scenes from your favourite movies and games? Totally do-able. Design elaborate, complex, and creative levels that are worthy of being shipped with the game? The only limit is your time and imagination.

Then you can share your creations with the rest of the world.

Except that complaints are coming in that Sony is moderating the content with extreem predudice. It was made plain from the start that moderation would be in effect. The game itself is supposed to be family friendly, but when the tools to create anything are in the hands of the masses, vulgar things are bound to appear. And quickly. Levels with inaapropriate content were not going to be tollerated.

Then it was made clear that copyright infringement was off limits too. No homages to classic games then. Or movies. Use your own creativity, and do not steal. Harsh, but understandable. Sony, after all, is hosting the content and is liable for whatever legal action could come from your content.

But now there are reports that levels are disappearing for no good reason. And without reason given. Levels that have been recognized by Media Molecule and the community at large as being some of the best on the servers. The creators have been given no warnings, no explanations, and no way to appeal. Content is taken down unilaterally and cannot be re-submitted; even after edits have been made to correct any legitimate problems.

Sony has assumed that moderation is a one-way street; judgement that must be handed down from on high. They have, yet again, smacked their community across the face.

Looking For Talented People
Games that rely on user generated content have a very small window in which thay can be successful, and it depends entirely on the community that grows around them. Of the users who will buy LBP, only a relatively small percentage will ever bother to create anything more than one or two levels for goofing around in. Of those that are commited to creating content, only a small percentage will create notable work which will be capable of spreading to the larger community. Thus, you need to either attract the creators early (as they tend to be early adopters anyway) and keep them, or you need to establish a very large community to generate the gestalt needed to form a creative core.

The PS3 does not have the install base to do the second (even if every person with a PS3 bought LBP). However, they have every possibility of dong the first. The evidence of many YouTube videos (as seen in the links above) is that creative tallent has been present since the Beta of the game. Many more people have been looking forward to the release just to get their hands on the tools. But the prospect that hours of work can be moderated out of existence for no stated reason, and with no appeal, may scare a lot of potential talent away. Content creators will not hang around just to have their work disappear, and without content LBP is nothing but a very fancy physics engine.

What Sony Needs to Do
Sony has only one option if they want LBP to survive. It is not to remove moderation: it is needed to ensure the game remains a safe place to explore and create in. However, it must become transparent in process and execution. The community should be (and as I understand is) tapped to help identify inappropriate content. Content with warnings should be reviewed by moderators, preferably multiple people, who can concretely pinpoint what content is outside the agreed upon standards. For major or total violations, the content should be removed (with notice). For minor violations, the creator should be given the chance to edit and re-submit their work. Creators should also have channels through which they can appeal the decisions made about their work. Above all, all of this must be done in a documented and accessible way.

Removal without stating a reason is the same as removal for no reason. Moderation without a chance to ammend or appeal is the same as unilateral censorship. Sony has to understand that creating a community takes communication and work. They have to be willing to listen and revise their point of view just as much as the creators do. But if Sony was good at listening, then maybe they'd have a larger community to start with.

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