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Here come the grassroots creators

Metaplace We're always looking for the next big thing in video games. Halo 3 arrives tomorrow, and it will be big. More amazing footage from Metal Gear 4 was shown at the Tokyo Game Show this week, and it will be big. Those who have seen Super Mario Galaxy say it will further redefine the platform genre, and it will be big.

Taking nothing away from these titles, they will provide gamers with more of the same. This "same" will undoubtedly be an enhanced "same" with amazing new gameplay features and cool extras to please loyal fans. But they will all continue within their familiar existing frameworks, and why shouldn't they? They're terrific games that each do what they do extraordinarily well.

So where do we look for the next big thing? It's becoming increasingly evident that the creative edge in video games is closer to us than we realize. The next big thing is us.

In his book Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins highlights the rise of what he calls "grassroots creativity," by observing:

"When Amazon introduced DVDs of George Lucas in Love (1999), perhaps the best known of the [homemade] Star Wars parodies, it outsold the DVD of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace in its opening week.

The emergence of grassroots creativity in video games is by no means a recent phenomenon. Player-created mods, machinima, fanzines, fan-art, fan-fiction--all have provided creative outlets for players to contribute original content for games they love. Developers like Valve, id, and Bethesda go out of their way to support gamers with extensive tools and documentation, and gamers have responded, often with total conversions containing entirely original assets. If you've seen Lara Croft nude, you have a modder to thank for that.Spore

Games like Will Wright's forthcoming (someday) Spore and Media Molecule's LittleBigPlanet take grassroots creativity a step further by integrating user-created content into the core gameplay experience. According to their developers, these games will give players unprecedented dynamic control over the creation and manipulation of characters and environments. You can be artistic, whimsical, silly, or sadistic and spend hours creating a character or environment that reflects those design approaches.

The key innovation here is that you can share those creations with other players via the internet, and those other players can integrate your work into their own, and vice versa. This makes you, in a very real sense, part of a collaborative community of artists. Video games have never been here before. This is new. This matters.

Littlebigplanetscreen814_screenAnother recent announcement may represent an even bigger advance. Last week  designer/poet/entrepreneur Raph Koster finally unveiled his long-awaited secret project: Metaplace. According to the official website:

Our motto is: build anything, play everything, from anywhere. Until now, virtual worlds have all worked like the closed online services from before the internet took off. They had custom clients talking to custom servers, and users couldn't do much of anything to change their experience. We're out to change all of that.

Metaplace is a next-generation virtual worlds platform designed to work the way the Web does. Instead of giant custom clients and huge downloads, Metaplace lets you play the same game on any platform that reads our open client standard. We supply a suite of tools so you can make worlds, and we host servers for you so that anyone can connect and play. And the client could be anywhere on the Web.

You can watch Koster demoing the project here:

Veterans of the vaporware wars will warn us that we must be careful not to get too excited about pre-release hype. We've seen very little of Spore, LitttleBigPlanet, or Metaplace, and it seems clear that the long development process for each owes to an unusually high degree of programming complexity. Fair enough. But the promise of these games is immense. They represent the first true manifestation of grassroots creativity in video games. If even one of them fulfills its promise, we will witness a turning point in the history of video games.