Games That Turn Players Into Creators

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, November 2, 2008

There's an odd new feature tucked into the latest version of Guitar Hero, designed to appeal to those fans who feel the creative spark.

The video game franchise has become a runaway hit in recent years by letting players fake-riff along to some of their favorite rock songs on a guitar-shaped game controller. The latest release, Guitar Hero World Tour, seems a bit like more of the same thing -- until you fire up the new game's "studio" mode and start to compose your own music.

No, seriously. Mash the buttons on the neck of that guitar controller and strum away to play some chords. Then grab some drumsticks and bang on the game's drum kit to lay down a rhythm track. If you like what you come up with, you can click a button and "publish" the song online so that any other player with a Web-connected game console can download and play your song, just as they would play any other song in the game. If other players like your creation, they can vote for it and you can get the satisfaction of watching your song climb the online charts at the game's online service, called "GH Tunes."

It's not just Guitar Hero. Creativity features like this are hitting the video game world in a big way this year. In a trend that's something of a nod to MySpace, Facebook and YouTube, many of the hottest new titles appearing this holiday season include software tools that allow users to express themselves and share their work with an online audience.

In the recently released computer game Spore, players explore a virtual universe populated with space-traveling alien creatures that were all created by other players. Next month, Microsoft is planning to introduce a "community games" channel for its Xbox console, on which hobbyists will be able to distribute their own homemade titles.

Mark Healey, creative director at the British game studio Media Molecule, says that games are poised for a do-it-yourself revolution. If so, his studio's new title for the PlayStation 3, LittleBigPlanet, might be one catalyst. Billed as a game about making games, the new game disc comes with a built-in adventure story. Its chapters mostly exist as a mechanism to teach players how to use the title's software tools so that they can share their own creative visions with the world. Most of the entertainment that players will get from the game, the studio anticipates, will come as they log on and check out adventures others have made.

"Hopefully, LittleBigPlanet will unearth some amazing game designers that would never have gotten the chance to show their talents," Healey said. "That's the most exciting part to me." In a beta test for the game, early players of LittleBigPlanet uploaded thousands of their own levels and, apparently, there's some talent out there. "We've already had people making better content than we are, as a company," he said.

Nintendo is also exploring the area of user creativity, with a new title called Wii Music. Waggle the system's controllers, and your onscreen character, along with that character's virtual backup band, makes music based around your movements. After they've composed a track, people can then send their creations through the device's Web connection to their Wii-owning friends.

"In my mind, there's a question of whether we should even call this a 'game' " said Nintendo producer Shigeru Miyamoto. The Japanese video game designer, famous for many of the company's enduring hit creations such as Mario and Donkey Kong, said he has tried for years to learn how to play American bluegrass music on the banjo. He never really got anywhere, so he did what a game designer does: He created a title based on the topic that was occupying his mind.

Miyamoto said that this type of game was one of the central ideas years ago when the Wii console was still on the drawing board. The company wanted a device that appealed to everybody, so it tried to think beyond the bounds of what is usually considered to be a video game. Not everybody likes video games, but everybody likes music, right?

As for the new Guitar Hero, even with those music creation tools, most people are going to pick it up because they want to play songs that other people wrote. During a recent visit to Washington, one of Guitar Hero's creators said he doesn't anticipate most players will invest much time trying to create their own music.

"But most people who go on YouTube never upload their own videos," said Charles Huang, co-founder of Red Octane. "It's the same concept." Even if 1 percent of the people who play the latest version of the game upload songs, that's still quite a lot. The franchise has sold some 23 million units or so.

I've been watching the GH Tunes charts this week and can confirm that people are out there creating and uploading stuff that sounds a lot like music. I can't say that I've spotted any prodigies climbing the charts yet, but the game has only been out for a week.

It's entirely possible that this online venue will, soon enough, attract some folks with actual talent; after all, if user-creation sites like YouTube have taught us nothing else, it's that there are plenty of people with a lot of spare time on their hands.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company