When you go to the movies, it makes you want to be a movie director, or an actor. When you play games, you wish you could design games, that is a normal expectation that builds up from the interaction with a creative medium. By providing means for the user to customize the game, you really provide a visceral connection. A game that you have invested customization time in will always be a special experience to you.
This is a key understanding that now drives game design at Maxis. It is impacting everything we do, and it has a more profound impact that people realize at first.
Customization is not about giving more options to the users to modify what he sees in the game. It is about opening the system, not about adding more controls within the system.
– “Lego” are not customizable. They are a closed system. Even when developing Lego Mindstorm, Lego clearly did everything they could to keep the integrity of the closed system. In my opinion Lego Mindstorm is a failure, there is a mismatch between their target and what they provide, and if they succeed it will be because users have reversed engineered and opened the system.
– In The Sims, we want the user to be able to change every pixel that it visible in the game. It will not be possible from the moment we ship, but it is the goal. We have an editor to change the code of the objects in the game and we want to make the editor available to the users. We know that less than 1% of the users will take advantage of it, but we know there is a 100:1 ration of downloads to uploads among our users. This means that a significant % of our users can be impacted by a small percentage of creators.
– Rather than building a content, I’d rather see us develop a tool I can give the user to create the content. This could not be better explained than by the “Home Master 5000 DX” a funny name for an over simplistic tool that let users create wall paper and floor patterns for the Sims. We started to provide the tool in June 99, six months before the game was released. At the beginning users did not create any patterns because we were also providing a skin making tools, and future users where focused on that. As I write this in November 99, there is a user web site with 600 wall patterns to be used in the game. Maxis created about 20. Same thing for the floor patterns.
– Because users are recognizing our commitment to this customization they also start to write code to participate in this creation. For SimCity, two users created “Terrain editors” that are freely downloadable. We plan to open more and more the file format of the product and publish technical documents about the games to help users create data and tools to support our games.
I hope the next level will be that we will solve the problem of releasing user content in our games. This will enable us to put the tools out there and then harvesting the content before shipping
I believe in a massive multi player game based around that concept. We provide the frame and we provide tools. The users create the content. It is challenging because of bandwidth in that environment, but it is an experience some of our players want.
If I am expected to play a game for a hundred hours or so, I would like to have some control over the user interface presented to me, so that I can play with it, and customize it a bit. In maxis games I would like to see us provide some level of customization, in color schemes (like PowerPoint), shapes and global positioning. The Mac is a good example of an environment that gives the user the feel that they are in control, and yet does not change much of where the interface is.