Tomorrow's games, designed by players as they play

Top game developers say they're increasingly tapping players' creative talents to fill out expensive game worlds.

LOS ANGELES--Game budgets are skyrocketing. Development teams are swelling almost to film studio's proportions. The only way out of this trap is to enlist players to help create their own worlds, a pair of top game creators said Thursday.

Speaking at The Entertainment Gathering conference here, "Sims" creator Will Wright and Microsoft Xbox team head J. Allard both cast a spotlight on the growing role that game players will have in creating content for the biggest games.

Wright's newest game, dubbed "Spore," will populate fictional planets with animals and cities created wholly by other game players. Allard said the Xbox 360 will increasingly encourage developers to let their players add on to worlds, and even sell their creations though a central Xbox store system.

"(Gaming) is the only medium where we yield control of the protagonist. Let's yield control of the director--and the producer," said Allard, a vice president at Microsoft. "We're going to take on the Wikipedia model. We're going to take on...the open-source model, if you will, for gaming."

Indeed, the idea that consumers have a virtually infinite appetite for customized entertainment and are willing to invest both time and money in tailoring their own experience is rippling through the media world far beyond gaming with deep financial consequences.

Record labels see the personalized ring-tone market that brought in more than $600 million in the United States alone last year, one of the most promising bright spots in years of declining revenues. TV companies have finally adapted to the idea that consumer may want on-demand versions of their shows online, and are beginning to release shows in bulk to Apple Computer's iTunes store for sale the day after they air.

But gaming has had the most experience with the power of the consumer-director, and is going much farther than any other medium in opening the process of content creation itself to its customers.

Players' eagerness to go beyond the conventional boundaries has been seen in almost every online game. In the first major massively multiplayer game, Ultima Online, developers saw their swords-and-sorcery stories expanded by players who opened taverns to host online friends and create theater groups to perform "A Christmas Carol" inside the game.

That behavior helps create new content for the game and gives players a stake in the game to keep their interest piqued longer--a critical thing for online games in which players pay a subscription fee every month.

Wright said he had learned the power of the phenomenon by watching players in his "Sim City" and "Sims" games spend hours customizing their characters and creating in-game objects that were traded online.

His new game "Spore," still under development at Electronic Arts, is built wholly around this phenomenon. Players will control a species at it evolves from single-cell organism all the way to interstellar space-traveling "Galactic God," creating the look and personality of the species and, later on, the tools, cities, and even planets they used and inhabited.

The game is created so that simple choices on the part of the consumer--mouth shape, leg placement and so on--will be amplified by the computer's physics and behavior models to create creatures worthy of a Pixar movie, he said.

But the real secret weapon for the game is that each player's creations will be uploaded to the company and then downloaded to other player's computers. Once a species reaches space, for example, it will visit other worlds inhabited entirely by cities full of beings created inside another player's game.

"Instead of putting players in the role of Luke Skywalker, or Frodo Baggins, I'd rather put them in the role of George Lucas," Wright said.

Allard told a story of meeting a 12- or 13-year-old inner-city child last year and introducing him to a basketball game on the new Xbox 360. Instead of spending hours dunking or trash-talking with his friends, the boy spent two hours creating a pair of sneakers, saying that was what he wanted to do when he grew up.

Maybe that boy wasn't typical of every single game player, but he didn't need to be, Allard said.

"If only 1 percent of our audience that plays Halo helped construct the world around Halo, it would be more human beings than work at Microsoft corporation," Allard said. "That's how much human energy we could harness in this medium."

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