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Some Assembly Required: Creating content for cash

MJ Guthrie

Housing. Mission generators. Player-run festivals. Music. Overall general sandboxy goodness. Since its debut over a year ago, Some Assembly Required has covered a number of topics related to player-generated content as well as the games that offer such features. However, recent events have turned my attention toward a different aspect of PGC.

Between the Dota 2 incident and last week's announcement from Sony Online Entertainment, I am actually looking at player-generated content in a whole new way: as a revenue generator. That's right -- collecting cold hard cash for your creativity. Although plenty of titles allow players to create content and share it within the games, very few let players sell that content for real-world money. This column explores the cash-for-content phenomenon in MMOs: what games have it, how to use it, and whether it is likely to become the next big thing.

Some Assembly Required  Creating content for cash
I knew that a number of games provided the means for players to earn in-game currency for their creative efforts. Games such as Minecraft, Spore, and APB: Reloaded come quickly to mind. From clothing to creatures, some games have specific tools for creating and disseminating the content. However, players don't even need specific tools to earn money, like charging to decorate houses in EverQuest II or power-leveling in just about any game. But most of the game that deal in this type of currency are not MMOs.

The fact is, very few MMOs have ventured into the earning-cash-for-creativity field. Is it because of potential minefields that might blow up in the company's face? Obviously, there is a chance for copyright infringements, as we saw in the Dota 2 instance when a so-called creator tried to pass off one of Aion's weapons as his own. Or is it just an untapped resource begging to be mined?

The vanguards of cash-for-content
When the aforementioned incident was reported, I filed the whole idea of selling user-generated-content for cash in the back of my mind. I knew that Second Life also dealt in the exchange of earthly moolah for in-game stuff (especially developed islands), but since the game wasn't on my personal radar, the issue wasn't either. Then came the announcement of the Player Studio for the two EverQuest titles; now suddenly the whole idea impacted me much more personally. I was paying attention and wanted to know more.

Dota 2 PGC shopAfter scouring my sources (and possibly promising copious amounts of snack foods), I came up with a relatively short list of MMOs that allow players to earn real money for their creations. And by relatively, I mean very.

Of course, Second Life heads the list as possibly the most well-known game. But even though it's well-known, I wouldn't consider SL particularly mainstream. Other lesser known members of this list are There, IMVU, and Whirled. Valve also offers the feature (in Dota 2).

Although only in alpha at the moment, the upcoming new game called Xulu Universe features the ability to create content on a world-building scale and plans to allow players to earn cash by selling their creations to each other. (Heck, I was even going to highlight Xulu this week, but Beau beat me to it!)

Now, EverQuest and EverQuest II will soon be joining the ranks, with Vanguard and Free Realms to follow sometime in the future. SOE even noted the possibility that other titles might also be included.

While I don't want to focus on step by step instructions for the different games, the general idea is that the game offers players a medium to create items. Players can then use a variety of design tools at their disposal -- either directly in the program or more likely through third-party programs like Blender and Photoshop -- to create weapons, armor, clothing, furniture, and host of other assorted items. Players manipulate the look of the item, name it, and in some circumstances even write a history for it to tie it into the world. Sometimes the combat-focused items can have powers of their own, other times they are just skins.

After a player is happy with his or her creation, it can be uploaded directly to a marketplace like SL (full instructions are found on the official site) or submitted to the related game for consideration. For companies that require approval, not all creations will make the cut. Items that pass muster are then offered in the official cash shop and opened up for other players for purchase.

While SOE's Player Studio is not functional yet, the other games have have specific tools and/or tutorials available for creating in their worlds. They are:
You're in the money!
Cashing in on your creativity is different for different games. For instance, in Whirled, in-game purchases are made with in-game currency, but the currency can be converted to a type that can then be cashed in. Others may send funds through PayPal. There can also be limitations, such as how frequently you can cash out or having a minimum amount before you can. And as folks are earning income, there is some paperwork associated with the process. Be sure to read the fine print in whichever platform you are working in.

Different companies also offer different cuts of the profit pie: Whirled players earn 30% of the sale price, while SOE plans to give folks a 40% cut. Obviously, the more content created and available in game, the more money a player can make.

The future's so lucrative
The question to whether or not this feature is just starting to blaze a trail to glory or will remain relatively obscure in the shadows is open for debate. Personally, in the case of games with cash shops, I would like to see this feature implemented more. I think some games lend themselves well to this; I even requested this ability to create items (specifically furniture) in Aion! So i am hopeful that a successful implementation of this in the EverQuest games will make other publishers take note and consider adding it.

After consideration, I also prefer the system in which developers have to approve what items are offered for sale. This way, the items won't clash with the world the developers created... well, any more than some of their creations clash at times!

Is there appeal for this product? I myself plan to use the tool when it is launched for EverQuest II. Although someone already beat me to the flying squirrel (*shakes fist at devs*), I definitely have other ideas! With it, I will create the wildly popular... er, actually I think I will just keep that under wraps for now. Trade secret, ya know?

EverQuest II screenshot
Opinions, please!

Maybe it's because I have Choose My Adventure on the brain, but I want to get your opinions on this content-for-cash idea. And the funnest way to do that is with a poll! WOO! Is this feature something you would dabble in, or would you toss yourself in head first and not come up for air? Or perhaps you would dismiss it entirely and never give it a second thought. Tell me, tell me!%Poll-77659%
We really should name this phenomenon because Selling Player Generated Content For Real Cash is a bit unwieldy. How about simply Cashing-In? Simple, direct, and to the point. Do you have any ideas for a phrase we can coin (and maybe put in a cash shop to sell!)? Add your thoughts and suggestions to the comments below. And if you know of any other MMO cases where players can cash their creativity in for real-world money, let me know.

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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