Some Assembly Required: Six must-haves for creative expression

MJ Guthrie
M. Guthrie|03.02.12

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Some Assembly Required: Six must-haves for creative expression
Some Assembly Required header
Creativity. It is expressed in so many ways in so many mediums. Art, literature, architecture, music, performance... I love it all, conventional and unconventional. Heck, I revel in it! Why do you think my work and recreation include gaming?

Wait, gaming?! You betcha!

Beyond the artistry of the developers, MMORPGs offer outlets for player creativity in a variety of ways. I am not ashamed to admit that the primary reason I delve into MMORPGs is not for the gameplay but to explore and experience the creative expression of others (and to express some of my own as well). In fact, finding and sharing that very creativity by championing and highlighting player-generated content is precisely what Some Assembly Required is about.

Between (or in lieu of) the hacking, the slashing, and the plundering, players seize proffered tools in myriad virtual realms to build works of art, pen masterpieces, construct edifices, compose melodies, and take the stage, all within the pixeled confines of a virtual world. Unfortunately, not all games have adequate tools for such creative expression. While inspired players can make do if they must, having supporting features exponentially enhances a game (and positively affects retention). Thankfully, some games provide a few standard-setting features that -- in my opinion -- should be included in every game on the market. Here are six of those must-have features.

Everquest II screenshot
Little surprise that the first feature I would highlight is player housing, huh? But I am not just heralding a favorite; there is no question about it, dynamic player housing on its own is a major outlet for various forms of creativity. And the more freedoms and resources a player is given within that housing system, the more incredible the expression. For robust artistic expression, housing needs to be open enough to allow the placement of a huge assortment of items along all axes (x, y, and z), not just a few prescribed slots with a paltry item limit. Pitching and rolling along with moving an item up and down or to the right or left is instrumental in giving players the freedom to truly create. When players are given these tools, the results are incredible!

Take, for example, works of art. In my travels through various games, I have seen players take bits and pieces and form them into intricate sculptures. I have marveled at recreations of ships and spaceships, even reconstructions of solar systems. I have seen items placed in such a way as to create paintings and mosaics. Given enough freedom -- and generous item limits -- players have masterfully recreated different items (stoves and toilets, anyone?). What looks like some random piece of material to one person may be an intricate part of some creation to another. All of this creativity, and that isn't even including the beauty of simply decorating a home with originality and flair!

A great housing system can also give the artist the chance to develop some amazing architecture. I have seen actual castles fashioned from raw materials. I have wandered through beautiful gardens, lost myself in intricate mazes, admired detailed theaters with grand stages, toured impressive dungeons, visited breathtaking museums, and patronized countless taverns. I have witnessed creativity with which materials are manipulated to create whole villages or back alleyways. Truly the possibilities are endless.

Although there are games out there that give such freedom to players, I have to hand Sony Online Entertainment the crown; with EverQuest II, Vanguard, and the now-deceased Star Wars Galaxies (RIP), SOE has set the standard for giving players the tools to flex their creativity in a housing system. Xsyon adds an unique layer to building, allowing players to manipulate the terrain to create obstacle courses, build mountains out of molehills, dig moats for fortresses, and fashion swimming pools. The world itself is a canvas.

Beyond just providing visual art, housing also sets the stage for performance art. I will be honest -- the first time I stepped into a MMORPG, I felt I was cast as an extra in a very intricate and dynamic living film. Roleplay, whether on a small or large scale, is very much an expression of creativity. The story arcs that played out around me were intriguing and quite addicting. Robust housing systems let players construct places (much like movie sets) to further a story, creating an atmosphere conducive to the theatrical flourishes of roleplayers.

The pen is mightier
I have been dying to highlight this feature for a while, and I was going to find a way come to theme park or high water! Why? Because this is the most awesome feature ever! As a writer and lover of literature, I just can't fathom how so many games have missed implementing this feature, especially since it was actually first introduced eons ago in Ultima Online: player-created books. This feature was even instrumental to bringing me back to EQII.

EverquestII screenshot
Basically, a crafter (Sage) makes an empty book, and any player can then add her own words to it. These books can be traded, sold, displayed, or what have you. In these books, I have read original poetry and stories from fellow players. Guilds use these to secure an in-game accounting of their histories and their charters. I have seen them used as menus in RP establishments and as a resource for customers who may not understand what different stats mean on items for sale. I have used these book to leave clues in dungeons to help further an adventure.

And let's just be totally honest here... any writer knows that there is a definite rush to seeing your work in print, published for the enjoyment of others -- even if the others are just a small circle of friends. This feature truly gives that opportunity to have your words heard. And on the plus side, there's no chance of rejection slips!

The beat goes on
Not too much more can be said here that wasn't trumpeted back in issue #4. What I cannot believe is that no other games have tried to bring music and music composition into their worlds like Lord of the Rings Online did. This system is simply amazing! The ability to actually play music on different instruments in game, from popular tunes to original compositions, is phenomenal. Either as a soloist or together with a band, music is definitely an amazing way to express creativity.

 Houston, we have a problem
And that problem is very few games have quest builders! These must-must-have features allow players to express their creativity in various ways, sometimes mingling performance and writing together like in Star Trek Online's Foundry, and sometimes relying on decorating skills as in EQII's dungeon maker. By their very nature, these palettes of artistry are meant to be shared with and enjoyed by others. In my thinking, having a quest or dungeon builder is a no-brainer. I mean think about it: Gamers are always clamoring for more content, so why not just toss out some tools and have those very players make the content for you? There are certainly more players in a game than there are developers, so why not tap all that potential creativity?

Does this make me look...
LoTRO screenshotYou may envision finicky females in a room tossing about outfit after outfit when you think of someone trying to get "just the right look," but I can assure you that plenty of guys put a lot of thought and effort into how their in-game avatars look as well. Whether it is to optimize the appearance of flesh on a female toon they want to ogle constantly (hey, plenty of guys openly admit this!) or to give their guy the right attitude, many males spend just as much time -- if not more -- personalizing their characters. And this should be encouraged with a plethora of customization choices.

Like in life, we often want appearance to match personality. Artistically, our bodies are our most accessible canvases; how we look in life is our first and most noticeable way to express personal creativity. Who we are and what we want to project to others is demonstrated in how we alter our appearance, both clothing and looks. Because of this, appearance slots are simply mandatory. This also helps with the performance aspect, as looking the part is just as important as having a script and a stage.

Let me hear your body talk
As minor as this may seem on the surface, the ability to create and use personalized emotes in a game is vital to the performance aspect of creativity. Used primarily by roleplayers, this tool allows for others nearby to know what a character is doing even when specific game mechanics do not allow it visually. When you're acting out a part or telling a story, the more details, the better. And it is hard to react to something if you don't know what happened! Every game needs a simple /emote or something to enable the sharing of body language.

Of course, ways to express creativity are as numerous as there are people to be creative. And just because we choose to enjoy gaming doesn't mean we shouldn't have the opportunity to be expressive. Alongside clay and paint and a dance floor, pixels are just another medium! But just like our in the nefarious "real world," creativity in games is best expressed when there are supporting tools. Thankfully, some ingenious individuals have developed and implemented some of these tools, but it's only the beginning. For full expression, these tools should be everywhere! That way, whether you yourself are artistic and want to explore creativity in the medium of the virtual realm or you are an aficionado who prefers to enjoy and admire the fruits of others' labor, you will be rewarded no matter where you happen to play.

Every two weeks, Jef Reahard and MJ Guthrie take a break from their themepark day jobs to delve into the world of player-generated content. Comments, suggestions, and coverage ideas are welcome, and Some Assembly Required is always looking for players who'd like to show off their MMO creativity. Contact us!
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