‘Gaming 3.0’ lets players build their own fun

Online tools empower video gamers to play, design, and share.

By , Staff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor

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    People power: Sony will put the fate of “LittleBigPlanet” in the hands of its online community of users, who can build new levels.
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No one would ever mistake “Ambre and the Chainsaw” for a work of video-game art. The controls are too clunky. The sound scheme, too tinny. And the aesthetics – a swirled blue and white backdrop, peppered with photos of rock singer Bret Michaels’s pixilated head – too Spartan.

But “Ambre,” an homage to the winner of Mr. Michaels’s VH1 reality show “Rock of Love,” went viral shortly after its April release, spreading from Fyrebug.com, where the game is hosted, across blogs and messageboards. By this week, it had racked up a quarter million hits – no small shakes for a homemade creation strung together out of a pile of digital images.

“The MySpaces and the Facebooks were successful because they made it possible for everyone to have ownership of the Web,” says Rob Kamphausen, CEO of Fyrebug. “People want the same thing with games. They want to make something to share and show around, and have that ‘pat on the back factor,’ even if the interface itself is very simple.”

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Mr. Kamphausen says he initially had concerns about the viability of Fyrebug, which allows users to create and play games for no cost. But the recent rise of “Gaming 3.0” and the startling success of creations such as “Ambre,” proved that the one-year-old Fyrebug was “at the forefront. As we were focusing on customizable games, so was Microsoft. So was Sony.”

In recent months, user-generated content has become the focal point for video- and computer-game developers, just as Web 2.0 was the frontier for Web developers five years ago. Publishers are scrambling to move away from flat console programs, created from the top down, and embrace what former Sony Computer Entertainment head Phil Harrison has called empowerment “by audiences and dynamic content, built on open standards and powered by active communities.”

That content will likely be created, industry insiders say, both on state-of-the-art consoles such Microsoft’s Xbox 360, and on sites such as Fyrebug, which offers only rudimentary graphics. The key is interactivity: a portal for gamers to find what Kyle Shubel calls “the inspiration to envision and create their own world.”

Mr. Shubel is the managing producer for “LittleBigPlanet,” a PlayStation 3 game set for release in early October. “LBP,” as Shubel calls it, is one of the first major console games to facilitate the customization of entire worlds, from individual characters to level layout.

Those worlds can be uploaded to the PlayStation Network with minimum fuss, Shubel says, allowing other users to “play it, rate it, tag it. It’s like when you’re messing around online, and one blog leads you to another – that’s exactly what we can provide you with this game.”

A similar ethos governs “Echochrome,” a puzzle game for PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Portable that comes with a simple creation suite. The Japanese game has become popular stateside largely on the strength of an innovative content-sharing scheme. Users send in their own puzzles to Sony, which chooses the best and makes them available for download.

A program such as “Echochrome” is in many ways “the past, present, and future of the industry,” says Rain Anderson, an editor at ThatVideoGameBlog.com. “Many tend to forget that PC gaming is a part of the industry as well and that PC gamers have enjoyed user-created content in a big way since the early ’90s. And let’s not forget that extremely successful franchises like ‘Counter-Strike’ and ‘Team Fortress’ started out as just that – user-created content.”

Pointing to Microsoft’s announcement of “Community Games,” an online arcade open to Xbox owners and stocked with user-generated content, Mr. Anderson says the first steps for console gamers are already afoot. The future, he adds, will be “a creatively diverse one.”

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