Ongoing Uru Review: On Fan-Created Ages

(This is an edited version of a forum post that I made on July 31, 2006. That post spawned a great deal of discussion, which I will not attempt to summarize here. See the whole thread on

One of the ongoing debates in Uru Live is fan-made Ages. Will fans -- that is, ordinary players -- be able to design Ages for other players to explore? Will Cyan ban, permit, or encourage this? Will there be support for it in the official Uru Live game?

Cyan has said that they want it to happen. They have also said that they plan to release Age-editing tools (probably versions of the tools they use; almost certainly not easy-to-use tools). I don't know when that is going to happen (and Cyan probably doesn't know either), but that's not what this post is about.

Any MMO game is a social experiment, and it works or fails for both social and mechanical reasons. Or rather: for social-mechanical reasons, because game mechanics define the social space. (Just as game mechanics define the space of action -- the interactivity -- in a single-player game.) So, I want to talk about what mechanics will allow fan-created Ages to work.

(What do I mean by "work"? There's no point to arguing about what should happen, if you don't have a clear goal. In this post, I am presuming this goal: to make Uru Live attract more players, and make those players happier. That's what fan-created Ages must do. That's presumably Cyan's goal, and -- insofar as I'm going to be a player -- I want it too.)

Will fan-made Ages help Uru Live? Will they hurt? (In terms of our goal.)

The positive side is pretty obvious. Cyan can only produce so many Ages per year; Cyan plus fans can produce more Ages per year. Exploration of new worlds may not be the only draw of Uru Live, but it is a major draw. So the more worlds exist, the happier players will be. That's the goal.

The negative side? I can imagine a game model in which poorly-made Ages detract from the Uru Live experience. I can also imagine a game model in which they don't -- any more than a poorly-made web page detracts from the quality of all the good web pages out there. How that pans out depends largely on how Cyan presents the experience.

So the bulk of this post will be my notions of what must happen and must not happen, in order for fan-made Ages to be a net positive.

(I have no connection to Cyan. But I'm going to be phrasing these ideas in the form "Cyan must do this; Cyan must not do that." Don't get the idea that I'm being arrogant! (In fact I am arrogant, but that's not the point. :) There are problems that could make fan-created Ages, or indeed Uru Live, unplayable. If the game is unplayable, Uru will not make players happy. See goal above. That's all I'm saying.)

CYAN MUST make it impossible for Ages to corrupt your character, or the central database. That's fundamental. There will always be programming mistakes. Cyan will make programming mistakes -- anyone who played Prologue remembers that! So it's certain that fans will too.

If one Age goes off-kilter, or even crashes your client, that's one thing. Players will tolerate that. But if a new Age corrupts existing ones, that breaks the game. If one player's actions corrupt other people's play, that breaks the game. If an Age error corrupts core game mechanics (losing a Nexus link, uncompletable marker mission), that breaks the game.

These kinds of problems were endemic in Prologue and in Untìl Uru. I am hoping (hard!) that Cyan has solved them. For fan-made Ages to work, the solution must cover those Ages. Cyan cannot allow anything into Uru Live that might necessitate a general player-database wipe.

(Is this achievable? I have no idea. It's a technical problem, and Cyan will or won't solve it.)

CYAN SHOULD keep a clear separation between Cyan Uru Ages and fan-made Ages. I think that's necessary simply from business principles. Some Uru players are not interested in fan-made content. They're paying their Gametap fee for Cyan's work. They don't want a substitute product.

Other people (e.g., me) are interested in fan-made work. But we don't want to attribute fan mistakes to Cyan -- or, for that matter, Cyan's mistakes to fans. If I link into an Age and instantly fall through the floor, I'd better know who to blame. Or praise! Attribution is a basic requirement of creative work. That's how you give feedback, that's how you know whose work to seek out or avoid next time.

So if you link from an official Cyan Age to a fan Age, that should be very clear. Maybe there will be a separate repository for fan linking books. Maybe there will be a separate Nexus terminal. Maybe you'll log into a different Uru server -- that would be an out-of-game distinction as opposed to an in-game distinction; I could live with either model.

CYAN MUST NOT try to review or debug all fan-made Ages. (Much less upgrade them to company standards, as I've seen suggested!) Seriously: they can't possibly have time for that. If Cyan isn't crunching out their own Ages 110% of the week, Uru Live is in big trouble.

I could imagine some Cyan person having the job of logging into every Age once, just so that the company has an eye on things. But serious bug-finding can't be on their menu. That's a multi-person, multi-week effort -- look at their descriptions of their development pipeline.

(Does this mean fan-made Ages will never be QA'd? Certainly not. I will say more on testing later.)

CYAN SHOULD NOT worry about about keeping fan Ages in line with Uru and Myst backstory.

Many of the arguments in the Uru forums have run along the line: "The D'ni did something this way, so Uru Live should do it that way too." I have never found this convincing. Cyan, like any creators, have the sacred right to change their minds. (They've done it before, right? With the Trap-Books.) They should do whatever they have to do to make Uru Live a fun experience. Consistency is a tool to make the game work -- not an imperial master.

So only a few D'ni learned Age-Writing, and it took decades of work? Great. Cyan can say that something new has been discovered. Or that Yeesha faxed everybody the Dummy's Guide to Age Creation. Or Cyan can say nothing, and let fan-created Ages exist outside the world-story of Uru. The explanation exists to support the gameplay.

People will want to write the untold history of D'ni. They'll also want to write different histories, and changed histories, and things that have nothing to do with history. In the general world of fan-fiction, "alternate universe" fiction is very common -- I'd say it's more popular than stories consistent with canon! I can see an argument for having everything accessible in-game be consistent, but it's not an overpowering argument.

CYAN SHOULD have some kind of disclaimer for fan-made content. (Or guidelines?)

There's always going to be some joker who makes an Age plastered with nekkid wimmin (or the goatse guy). Or just put them in a hidden corner, as an Easter egg. As I said, Cyan can't possibly have time to search every fan Age for that stuff. (Finding an Easter egg, or a puzzle solution, can require unbounded amounts of time.)

Cyan doesn't want to be sued, so they'll certainly put up a disclaimer like the ones on Livejournal or Youtube: "We are not responsible for user-submitted content. View at your own risk."

It's possible they'll go beyond this, and have guidelines for acceptable Age content. It's possible they'll have some kind of abuse/complaints mechanism, and a way to yank Ages. Or maybe not. I don't want to speculate here, because I'm not a lawyer or a Cyan employee. There are various ways they could run it.

Everything I've said so far are things that Cyan will or will not have to do. Which makes them pretty speculative, because I don't give Cyan orders. I'm not even claiming to give Cyan suggestions; I'm just listing concerns that, by my logic, Cyan will have to pay attention to.

But there are also concerns that we, the fans, must attend to.

WE MUST DO the work. If we don't make some Ages, this is all for nothing.

WE MUST SUPPORT the work. That means a whole lot of things.

- Writing tutorials and documentation about Age creation. (I doubt Cyan will have time to write much.)

- Create examples of various kinds of Ages.

- Find or create libraries of textures to use.

- Test each other's Ages, find bugs, give feedback. Encourage creators to fix the bugs.

- Run forums. Create web sites. Discuss fan-made Ages. Recommend good ones to the newcomers. Have contests. Collaborate. Argue. Criticize. Write reviews. Flame (in moderation). Start tiny projects and big projects and insanely ambitious projects. Have some of them collapse and some of them succeed. Start over.

People are already doing all these things -- they started long before I showed up with my rambling. I see the Agebuilder web site, Uru Obsession, many others. What I'm saying is, that stuff is crucial.


The Uru (and Myst 5) Ages that Cyan have created are, in my view, flawed successes. I've had a lot of the same complaints as other people: waiting puzzles, jumping puzzles, basket-kicking puzzles. However, I respect that Cyan was willing to stretch the boundaries of the Myst experience. They (and we) can learn from those experiments, and build the next Age better.

We, even more than Cyan, have the duty to experiment. They have a certain sort of standard to maintain. We can try any crazy idea we want! An Age where you're constantly falling? An Age which looks more like the Matrix than Myst? An Age where you can play real-time Pong? That's just random stabs.

I intend, when I get the time and tools to work on Age creation, to start with tiny little Ages. An experimental idea works better in a small setting -- that way, if the idea doesn't work out, you haven't wasted as much time.

And let me tack on one postscript:

I doubt fan-made Ages will be possible right away. Cyan says they're interested in fan-made Ages; they haven't said it'll happen any time soon. It does cost them a certain amount of work: distributing tools, verifying that the vault isn't crashable, writing disclaimers. They have to prioritize that work versus everything else Uru Live needs. Much as I like the idea of writing Ages, I can't insist that it's the most important thing for the goal. (Remember the goal?)

But I believe that fan-made Ages could, in the long run, be the biggest attraction of Uru Live. Uru Live could be the turning point of MMO games, from corporate creativity to community creativity. Does that make sense? On-line writing reached that turning point with Livejournal and blogging: anybody could write and draw an instant audience. Flash did that with animation; Youtube is doing it with video. Second Life is trying to do it with online virtual worlds, and maybe that's the way that will go. But maybe, after a couple of rounds of tool improvement, it will go Uru's way.

Call me nuts.

Okay, a second postscript.

Many of the arguments with my original post can be summarized: "If Cyan doesn't act as the ultimate arbiter, fan-made Ages will suck."

I will repeat what I said at the top of this thread: "CYAN MUST NOT try to review or debug all fan-made Ages.... they can't possibly have time for that." I mean that. Cyan will always have a choice between spending their time on Cyan's Ages or ours; and I want them to work on their own.

There will be joke Ages, crappy Ages, out-of-character Ages. That is good. We need that. Quality doesn't come from a committee of censors. It comes from a bunch of people trying things, and exchanging their work and trying to improve it.

Put it this way: what if, when Cyan set up the Uru Live web forum, they'd posted a policy saying "This is a moderated forum. Posts will only be accepted if they are correctly spelled and grammatically perfect. Speculations about D'ni history will be vetted against our official storyline, and returned for updating until they are correct. And NO JOKE POSTS! Especially about cones.[*]"

The resulting web site would have great spelling and great grammar. It would also have about three posts a month. It would not be a conversation.

And yes, Ages are the same as web forums. Creative work is always a conversation. Or it doesn't happen.

[* Orange traffic cones are a major part of the Uru Live experience. This is not as insane as it sounds, but I will leave the explanation for another post.]

Last updated January 5, 2007.

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