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Ready to unleash your inner creative genius?

Increasingly these days, gamers aren’t just "players," they’re often "creators" as well. More game makers are asking players to unleash their inner creative genius by creating their own missions, adventures and even their very own games to share with others.
Image: Spore Galactic Adventures
"Galactic Adventures" — the first expansion pack for "Spore" — gives players an easy-to-use set of tools to create their very own gaming adventures and then share them with the world. I'm creating an adventure called "A Foul Fowl" starring one unhappy mutant picken (a creature that's part pig, part chicken). But will anyone actually enjoy playing it?Electronic Arts

I’ve spent the last several days carefully crafting a little something I like to call “A Foul Fowl.” It’s a game that requires players to traverse a strange planet and get to the bottom of a vast conspiracy. There are innocent lives to be saved. There are mutant farm animals to be subdued. There is lots and lots of shooting to be done.

Or at least, I hope there will be by the time I’m finally finished. I have to admit, I’ve been a bit obsessed with “A Foul Fowl” which, to be honest, is not exactly a full game per se, but rather one mission within the larger game known as “Spore Galactic Adventures.” Still, I can’t stop tinkering with it. I want to get my mission just right before I share it with the world.

And share it I will.

“Galactic Adventures,” which launched this week, is the first expansion for “Spore” and one that gives players the tools they need to create their own gameplay adventures and to then share those adventures so that other people can play them. It’s also the latest entry in the growing gaming phenomenon known as “user-generated content.”

Increasingly, gamers aren’t just “players,” they’re often “creators” as well. “Player expression” and “user-generated content” were two of the phrases buzzing about this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo. It seems game makers everywhere are trying to come up with ways to help game players unleash their inner creative genius. 

In April, the online game “City of Heroes” launched “Mission Architect” — an expansion that gives players the tools to create missions and then publish them for others to play. At E3, Nintendo showed off “WarioWare D.I.Y.” — an upcoming DS game that will let players design their own micro-games from scratch and then share them with others.  Meanwhile, next week, Microsoft will launch “Kodu,” a programming tool that allows even novice players to create and share their very own Xbox 360 games.

Express yourself
Blame it on the Internet … and YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. Everywhere you look these days, media consumers are becoming media makers. It seems everyone wants to create stuff and share it with the world … gamers included.

“I think players and people in general have stories they want to tell,” says Matt Miller, “City of Heroes” lead designer. “Everybody has that Great American Novel in them, and this is our outlet for them.”

With “Mission Architect,” “City of Heroes” players craft their own unique missions and story arcs by using a series of easy-to-navigate menus. They type in the story details and dialogue they want players to encounter. They select the goals players will be tasked with and design the enemies they’ll face off against.  And then they post it for all to play.

Miller says they’ve been stunned by the response: Within 24 hours of the launch, players had put together 3,800 story arcs. As of this week, more than 200,000 missions have been published.

“I think that the desire to create is universal and has always been there, but now the tools are making it more accessible,” says Cammie Dunaway, Nintendo executive VP of sales and marketing.

Indeed, user-generated content in gaming is not new. For years, games like “Quake” and “Half-Life” have spawned communities dedicated to creating their own modified levels. But these days, it’s no longer just the savviest gamers who are getting in on the action.

When Sony launched “LittleBigPlanet” last year, they brought the user-generated concept into living rooms in a big-big way. The game gave PlayStation 3 owners approachable tools with which they could craft some seriously stunning levels. And players loved it — so far they have designed more than 800,000 of their own “LBP” levels.

At E3, Sony executives unveiled the next installment in what they’re calling their “Play, Create, Share” line of games. “ModNation Racers” is a PS3 kart-racing game that allows gamers to craft their own tracks for others to take a spin on. Check out this video to see just how easy it will be.

And that’s the key — ease of use. At long last, companies are coming up with ways to make gaming creation so easy that even a child can do it. In fact, that’s exactly what “Kodu” aims to be — a programming environment that even 9-year-olds could use to build their very own games. Scheduled to arrive via Xbox Live next week, “Kodu” is currently being used in schools to teach programming.

Creative not-so-genius
“We wanted to make tools that made creating for non-creators fun,” says Caryl Shaw, “Spore” senior producer.

When Maxis launched “Spore” last year, they gave players a wondrously intuitive set of digital tools for making creatures, buildings, vehicles and cities — all of which could then be used in the game’s evolutionary-themed play. But when they launched “Galactic Adventures” this week, they took it one giant step further, giving players the ability to craft entire adventures for others to experience.

They’re pitching it as “the YouTube of gaming.” That is, using the adventure creator you can terraform a digital planet, populate it with creatures that you’ve designed and tweak these creatures’ behaviors. You can set the goals players will have to accomplish — fighting, defending, exploring, etc. You’ll write dialog and plot your adventure’s twists and turns. And then, with the click of your mouse, you’ll share it all with other “Spore” players.

Of course, take a gander at the adventures your fellow gamers have made and you’ll quickly discover that many of them aren’t very good. There’s an adventure called “Fetch Spot Fetch,” which involves far too many long, tedious treks. There’s an adventure called “The Ultimate Test of Skill,” which should be called “The Ultimate Test of Patience.”

Don’t get me wrong, Maxis deserves kudos for making a remarkably versatile and powerful creative tool that is also remarkably easy to use. But herein lies the down-side of user-generated content: Sometimes users just don’t make very good stuff. I mean, after all, we’re just a bunch of amateurs.

“We know that some of it is going to be not that great,” Shaw says. “But then there will be those jewels.”

And she’s right. For all the frustratingly amateurish missions you’ll come across there’s the fun stuff like “Zyi’s Lost Paradise” — a sweet and beautifully detailed quest — and “Banana Blitz” — an absurdly amusing adventure in which you must triumph over a giant banana. And as players have more time to learn the tools, the quality is sure to improve.

Meanwhile, Shaw points out that “Galactic Adventures” offers multiple ways to sift through, rate and give feedback on the player content so that the best-of-the-best can easily be found.

I’ll confess, I don’t think my own “Spore”-spawned adventure will ever be among the best-of-the-best. In fact, I’m afraid “A Foul Fowl” might be downright ... foul.

I suppose, in the end, it doesn’t really matter how good it is. This is the closest I’ve ever come to making my own video game, and this chance to craft my own gaming experience has absorbed me far more than many of my recent playing experiences have. It’s lured my all-too-rusty creative side into the sunlight so much so that even when I’m not playing “Galactic Adventures,” I’m dreaming up ways to improve upon my adventure.

Meanwhile, as I’ve struggled to figure out how to make my homegrown adventure into something that’s compelling and full of well-balanced challenges and vibrant characters — as I've struggled to make “A Foul Fowl,” you know, fun to play — I’ve realized, these are the kinds of struggles the professionals face all the time.

It seems I now understand something in a way I never understood it before: Making a good game is really hard to do.