A Brief Introduction to the Games and Modding Tools Studied by the Leveling Up Team

July 10, 2012

PROJECTS: Leveling Up

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“[T]here is something huge about that [moment] in education where the most powerful person is the student, where they just suddenly realize that, ‘even if I don’t get this fancy course, nobody is going to stop me being [what I desire to be].’”
— Kareem Ettouney, Media Molecule, Art Director

“Many of us [game designers at Blizzard], you know, grew up on Dungeons and Dragons, which was an open source game, so it was a game that encouraged the player to become part of the creative process. That’s just something we couldn’t let go of…That this is the way it should be — I don’t engage with your game just by playing, I also get to make it, right?  I get to also change some of the rules, right?”
— Dustin Browder, Blizzard, Game Director of StarCraft II

These two quotes are just a few of the highlights for me from the past year. As an education researcher and designer, I’ve been tempted to clap, cheer, jump out of my seat, or otherwise express my joy in moments like these.  These excerpts are from interviews with the game design teams for LittleBigPlanet2, StarCraft II, and Portal2 that the Levelling Up team conducted as part of our Connected Learning Environment research. In our investigations we aim to foreground the design principles of these games, both from the perspectives of the designers, and from the perspectives of the player communities in which those principles are realized. But why these games? These specific games are candidates for exploring the design principles of connected learning because each game was designed to support game modding–the use of a commercially available game and its tools to create new levels and games–a production-centered activity which may foster learning as interest-powered, openly-networked sites for peer-supported learning around a shared purpose or interest. A shared purpose or interest might be the creation of levels, (fan) art and fiction, or even the creation of entirely new games, though those are by no means the only reasons for participation. In fact, these games offer compelling invitations to players to participate in world-wide communities of players and game-modders as artists, strategists and engineers, and physicists1, representing another kind of shared purpose of these spaces: one that sits above and around the games themselves2. So we have to ask:

  • How do these modding communities take up the modding tools provided by the designers?
  • What do these communities create on their own?
  • How do they build socio-technical infrastructures to support their activity?
  • What can the design of these environments and communities suggest about the design of learning environments in the future?

Ok, that is a lot to digest. This post won’t even scratch the surface of most of that. The rest of this post is just going to introduce an example of what modding produces, then go about introducing each of the games we will discuss over the next few months with a little teaser about some of what we found interesting.

But for starters, consider this video of a player-produced StarCraft II mod as an initial foray into the ideas of interest-powered production, in an openly-networked environment that we’re going to discuss:

This mod uses the StarCraft II (SC2) engine as its base for an entirely new game, known as a complete-conversion mod, in contrast to a new level or map that operates with the same rules as the commercially published game. Specifically, while the art is taken from the same library as the commercial game, the creators have made significant changes. They’ve constructed a different narrative–this is a Zombie Survival game, not an interspecies space war–and changed the player role from that of a battlefield strategist to a single Marine–which is a very different set of game mechanics–while still using the same commercial platform. This mod is shared via the Battle.net game service, a network for SC2 gamers and games, that allows players around the world and across generations to play together, share their work, and engage socially. Networks such as Battle.net, and SC2 fansites such as TeamLiquid.net, are part of the open networking that not only allows, but encourages, interaction between experts and novices, leading to exchange of knowledge and skills. Learning to participate and contribute to these networks and modding communities requires enormous investments of time and energy in order to develop the skills and expertise required. This is voluntary and self-directed learning as compared to formal compulsory education, and is part of our interest in modding communities, and the tools and structures that support them. With that as background, let’s dig into each of the games briefly.

LittleBigPlanet2 by Media Molecule

In 2008 Media Molecule released LittleBigPlanet (LBP), one of the first console games to include the tools the developers used for making the game. The slogan for the game is: “Play. Create. Share.” This three-part idea was key to this game’s design. Not content to publish content for paying customers to play through, the game was designed specifically to engage the player in creating and extending the game with their own content as part of the gameplay, weaving the invitation to participate as a creator directly into the play. Released exclusively for the Sony Playstation 3, the game takes advantage of the free Playstation Network to include a social network directly in the game, ensuring that everyone can share their work. The ability to share one’s created works was central to the experience Media Molecule wanted to engender: creativity is enhanced and expanded by creating, sharing, and working with feedback. Without the ability to share and participate in the social network, players would have been limited to local social networks such as friends and family that might not share the same interest in the game.

The sequel,  LittleBigPlanet2 (LBP2), released in January 2011 continued the vision of LBP, unofficially adding a new feature to the design: “Discover.” Along with numerous enhancements to the creation system, LBP2’s design reflects what Media Molecule had learned since LBP:

“[A]ctually, the most important thing in any sort of connected user-generated world is discovery.  So for YouTube, it’s not about going to the front page of YouTube and seeing the top 10 videos.  It’s about discovering from your friends in the playground, from your educators, whoever links in to YouTube…[T]his idea of discovery is the key thing for me. You can’t just put something out there. You’re going to have to find ways to discover it and guide people towards it.”
— Alex Evans, Media Molecule, Technical Director

In future posts we will discuss a more detailed design principle ecology underlying Media Molecule’s work on LBP1&2. The importance of discoverability as a design principle in user-generated content-oriented communities is just one piece of what we learned.

StarCraft II by Blizzard Entertainment, Inc.

Starcraft II (SC2) was released in 2010, more than 10 years after StarCraft (1998) was first published. The game itself is a real-time strategy (RTS) game, where the players control armies as they try to best their opponents. RTS games, as opposed to a turn-based game like chess, allow players to make their moves concurrently. Additionally, they tend to depend on the notion of an economy, or resource pool, that limits the production of strategic and tactical resources. In the decade since its release StarCraft became an enormous Electronic Sport (eSport), similar to other sports with professional teams, competitive leagues, and large cash prizes for the competitors. Identified by some of the players and game designers we’ve interviewed in this study as the “chess of the 21st century,” SC2 has several features that make it incredibly challenging, allow for a near continuous development of skill, and keep it interesting for everyone from casual players to eSport athletes.

While participation in the player community is one form of learning that has given rise to large communities of players, and online mentors such as Sean Plott (aka Day[9]), we are also interested in this game because it supports a rich modding community.

Blizzard has provided modding tools for their games since 1994. In fact, Blizzard looks for modding experience as part of their hiring process, and encourages submission of prior work when applying for jobs. In the early days of modding, Blizzard’s modding community had to create their own sites for showcasing and distributing their work, which in turn meant smaller audiences for all but the most popular and compelling work. However, with the release of SC2 Blizzard began to offer the Battle.net service to centrally support the distribution and showcasing of community mods. This is a significant shift because, by centrally supporting the distribution of community work and ideas, the visibility and access to modding work is increased. This in turn invites more participation in, and feedback to the community. This is critical especially in a community where there are far fewer mods produced than in LBP2, but is again a benefit of the design principle of discoverability.

Portal2 by Valve, Inc.

This was a late addition to the study, and is not currently part of the ethnographic work with players we’ve done with the other games. However, Portal2 is an interesting case because educators took up Portal (2008) and Portal2 (2011) as interactive environments in which to explore physics, even without the presence of modding tools. In fact, the Portal(1&2) games are an example of the academically oriented principle of connected learning environments. As a First-Person Shooter (FPS) style game this might seem odd or even problematic in a school setting, but the only shooting the player can do is with a portal gun–a device that “shoots” portals at a surface. A portal gun can create two portals that connect to each other, create a non-linear connection in space. Think of this as a fantasy where a door can be placed on nearly any flat surface, the twist being that the two sides of the door need not be physically close. The result is a puzzle game that provides challenging spatial reasoning. For example, the player confronts physics ideas such as ballistic trajectory as they fly through the air, or approach terminal velocity by connecting the ceiling and floor with portals. These same ideas have led to several fan produced short films such as this one. However, the reason that Portal2 is an interesting case for us to examine is that on May 8th, 2012 they released a simple level editor, the Portal2 PuzzleMaker (P2PM), intended to support educational uses of the game. This means that we are able to observe the growth and design of the community from the beginning.

We interviewed the designers before release, and gained some insight into why they felt that tools like the P2PM are important:

“In any kind of medium you have this interesting cultural dynamic where people will see what’s out there, kind of consume, and then if given an opportunity and agency they’ll kind of re-interpret it with their own experiences, and create something new and share it…[we want] to allow people to express themselves, to participate in that cultural process…”
— Yasser Malaika, Valve, Level Designer

This idea floored me. Gameplay and design as a way to participate in a cultural process and develop better understanding of what we are consuming! It speaks to some of the non-obvious ways that games can be used for learning, but also to the extension of participation in modding spaces to general life.

A final note: Valve released the Steam Workshop in the fall of 2011, a social network for sharing game mods on the Steam game platform. In the workshop players can subscribe to one-another’s levels, allowing them to track the development of each other’s projects. At the Games4Change ‘12 conference, Yasser and Leslie Redd–Valve’s Education Director–discussed the P2PM, but it was the comment at 19:50 that got me: “[Sharing and subscribing in the Workshop] is a really interesting dynamic…because it really makes the next levels of Portal about listening and empathy…” We will dive deeper into the design of these tools, how they relate to the design principle of discoverability, and what else we can learn in the next few posts.

This is just a beginning…

This post is meant to orient you to the game and modding investigations we will be reporting on over several posts from the Leveling Up project. I only touched on one design principle, Discovery, but the future posts will dive deeply into the complete designs, not just of the tools and games, but also the communities that use them.


1 These roles emerged from our analysis these games, and will be reported on in detail in a future post
2 This is related to the idea of the Metagame which will also be discussed in the future as a frame for understanding these communities.


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