Each generation of consoles has made an advance in gaming unlike any other. For the N64/PS1 generation, it was the jump to 3D; for the Xbox/PS2/GC generation, it was online gameplay and sandbox games. But what about now?
Aside from prettier graphics, micro-transactions, and (arguably) motion control, what has defined this generation of consoles? The answer: nothing. Yet.
This year, however, that's going to change. 2008 will go down in gaming history as the year of user-created content's rise to prominence, with XNA and LittleBigPlanet leading the charge.
XNA was actually touted before the Xbox 360 had even made its star-studded debut on MTV. But regardless of its apparent age, the idea behind XNA has always been the same.
Through it, Microsoft wants to provide budding game designers and hobbyists with a method to realize their dreams. And now, with Microsoft's announcement that XNA-developed games will appear on Xbox Live for even the lowliest of gamers to play, XNA's true potential is beginning to show through.
LittleBigPlanet appears, at first blush, to be a traditional-style game. But first glances can be deceptive. The player guides a hilariously (googley-eyes are merely the beginning) customizable "sack-boy" through 2.5D platforming-focused stages. After a few seconds of random button-pressing, the player is sure to encounter the "create" menu, which enables players with a nearly infinite amount of possibilities.
As you can see, XNA and LBP present differing executions of a similar idea. But upon examining their many differences, you'll find that these two methods, like the consoles they reside upon, have plenty of space to do their own thing in this soon-to-be burgeoning sector of our medium. Here's why:
If you just thought, "Hey, C isn't a number!" then XNA isn't for you. While gamers can certainly take a crack at XNA development, they'll have to crack a book or two first. Really, the XNA platform is more suited to budding developers - the guys who, back in the day, would've been modding Doom or Quake. With the modding community in a less-the-ideal state due to complex next-gen engines, XNA seems primed to offer a cheap alternative. In fact, Microsoft has struck up deals with many universities that allow programming students to learn through XNA. Cool, right?
LBP is, in theory, aimed at those same indie/entry-level developers - and so many more. Can you beat World 1-1 in Mario? If so, you can wrap your brain around the initially simple stylings of LBP. Beyond that, things get a little more complex, but not so much so that Joe Everygamer couldn't handle it.
The "Create" menu allows you to drop objects into a level and poke, prod, and mold them to your heart's content. You never exit the level, however, so LBP is less like programming and more like those ITT Tech commercials where students make games with PlayStation controllers. And so, while LBP is less versatile than XNA, it's far more accessible.
Peer Review Systems: Both XNA and LBP will involve gamers beyond even content creation. Once a level or game is created, peers - other developers for XNA, and other gamers for LBP - will rate it using a YouTube-esque system. Yep, both of these platforms are vying for the vaunted "YouTube of Gaming" throne, although they're rising to power through different means.
LBP, in spite of its quirky, cutesy aesthetics and simple design techniques, can be likened to a dictatorship in this "battle." Upon completion of a level, you must submit your creation to LBP's developers for approval. If your level is impossible or full of phallic imagery, then it's a no-go. If the level makes it through those rigorous tests, then other gamers can play and rate it.
Ironically enough, in spite of its less friendly veneer, XNA is similar to a democracy. (Please, no social commentary.) In a totally uncharacteristic move, Microsoft isn't even involving themselves in the XNA certification process. Instead, XNA users rate games based upon criteria like playability and lack of glitches, and if a game passes, it goes up on Xbox Live.
Possibilities: As mentioned earlier, these rating systems, which pervade the online portion of both services, create the potential for YouTube-style communities. LBP's developers have even gone so far as to call their game a social network of sorts. With LBP, instead of writing a Facebook note about how terrible your life is, you can bear the depths of your soul through devious arrays of spike traps and off-screen enemies. Too bad "Crawling in My Skin" isn't a soundtrack option.
XNA makes no claims of this sort, but its rating system will still help gamers to sift through the crap, so to speak. And make no mistake; there will be crap, as Microsoft plans to use XNA to double the number of games on Xbox Live Arcade by the end of the year. Thankfully, there are sure to be plenty of diamonds in the rough, and statistically speaking, odds are that at least one game will blow our minds. To prove it, you need look only as far as indie-game showcases, which have given rise to titles like Everyday Shooter and, in a roundabout way, Portal.
Obviously, we won't be guiding a sack-boy through GLaDOS's next set of maniacal puzzles, but that doesn't mean LBP is painfully limited. On the contrary, creative gamers will find ways to escape LBP's platforming bounds altogether. Gamers turned Halo 3 into a replica of the Olympic games; just imagine what they can do with a system like LBP.
And these are only the two most noticeable examples of player-created content in gaming. Before long, this growing section of the industry will explode. As with a spectacular fireworks show, we'll be forced to take notice.
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