At GDC recently, Joe Morrissey, Senior Designer at NCsoft and Lead Designer for Mission Architect talked to an audience about the challenges of implementing a user generated content system in a 5-year old MMO. Afterwards, we had a chance to sit him down and ask a few questions of our own. But to start with, the basics, for those of you who haven't been following Mission Architect's development: it's a system that allows any City of Heroes or City of Villains player to create their own missions, complete with their own characters and stories. (If the idea of user generated content sounds strange and foreign to you, let Captain Dynamic explain the idea to you.) Currently in beta, this content Godzilla will be released upon the live realms in Issue 14. (For people who haven't yet dived into the City of franchise, there will also be a new game box coming out for Mission Architect: the aptly named Architect Edition.)



But before we can get into the meat of our interview with Morrissey, here's what you need to know about the Mission Architect system...
  • What we now know as "Mission Architect" started out as a developer's tool that City of Heroes and City of Villains developers used to make the game's mission content. Originally missions were created in plain text files. Later, missions were created in Excel (85% of the game's content was created in Excel with macros). Morrissey wanted to make a GUI interface that would be easy enough that absolutely anyone on the CoX team could make missions. It was only later that they thought about opening it up to the players.
  • The UI is based off of the costume creator, which everyone is be familiar with -- so it immediately feels intuitive. There are lots of tooltips and help documentations to explain all of the features -- so the content is as easy as possible to create.
  • User-created missions that take place in a holodeck-like virtual environment within the game -- so players have the freedom to tell whatever sorts of stories they want to tell without impacting the game's storyline.
  • Players gain rewards for creating popular missions, which can be selected as Developer's Choice (by the developers' selection) or the Hall of Fame (by the players' ratings). Each has its own badge reward and winning either will allow the author to write additional missions. (Players are limited to creating three story arcs, with a maximum of five missions in each arc -- unless they win one of these awards.)
  • Players gain rewards for playing Mission Architect missions that are equal to the rewards they'd gain by playing other missions. If there weren't full rewards from Mission Architect, it would never be compelling for players. But to prevent abusing the system, rewards are strictly based off the difficulty of the enemies you defeat in an encounter. The risk/reward ratio can't be tweaked by a mission's author. On completing a mission, players are given tickets that can be redeemed in game for a variety of rewards.
  • For people playing content, the GUI helps them find missions with easy filtering and searching tools. (Robust search options are necessary because there's the potential to be a lot of content.) They'll automatically see the top rated content first (highest rated, Developer's Choice, and Hall of Fame), so they can immediately dive in to the best of the best of what Mission Architect has to offer.
  • For people writing content, there's a detailed feedback system, letting content creators see ratings and comments. (This has lead to what Morrissey sees as a new player type: the critic! Some players have a high level of interest in playing and writing detailed reviews and comments on user-created missions.)
  • All missions submitted are scanned by NCsoft for content violations (inappropriate language or content) before hitting the live servers. If the scanner catches something, it will automatically prevent it from being published and ask the author to fix it. And if a mission gets published that isn't appropriate, players can report it and customer service can review it and ask the author to change it if necessary. If a certain number of players report a mission, it is automatically pulled, even before customer service reviews it.
  • To prevent report griefing, who reports missions for inappropriate content is also recorded, and anyone report content purely for griefing purposes could find themselves in trouble.
So, should the game be making the missions or playing the missions? Ought missions be fun to make or fun to play? Apparently, the development team is still arguing about this. On one hand, you could say that if it's not fun to make, no one's going to make it. But on the other, perhaps it doesn't matter how difficult it is -- because if only 1% of players make content, that's still more than enough. This ongoing argument seems to have given us a system that's a little bit of both. And, though no one will comment on exactly what happens next with Mission Architect -- and City of Heroes -- it's obvious that a lot of it depends on us, the players. User generated content -- or, as Morrissey calls it, "the content Godzilla" -- is yet untested in the MMO space.

This article was originally published on Massively.