Microsoft Forced Removal of Online Level Sharing in ‘N+’ — ‘We Were Devastated,’ Says Co-Creator

“N+,” the game that produced Multiplayer’s first Enemy of the Week, was always intended to let players upload custom levels for anyone to download, but Microsoft nixed the feature at the last second.

The decision was so last second, in fact, the version of “N+” available on Partnernet, a test version of Xbox Live that publishers and select media can access, actually includes this feature. We wondered why a small studio like Metanet Software would bother investing in such an ambitious feature if they had any suspicions it wouldn’t make the cut.

They told us that up until a few months ago, they had every belief it would. We asked Microsoft to explain the late change, and they released this statement over email:

“We do not discuss our contracts with partners. Game development is a complex business; however, we work closely with developers and publishing partners on solutions for any development issues. Microsoft is committed to bringing the best games to Xbox 360.”

The games developers, however, were willing to provide some details. “We were devastated to learn we couldn’t include that functionality,” said Metanet co-founder (and, thus, co-creator of the original “N”) Mare Sheppard to us over e-mail. “It’s a huge disappointment, and we had to settle for at least some level-sharing while we wait. We hoped fans could deal with creating and sharing levels only with friends until we get to re-enable the full level sharing functionality, someday.”

Custom levels are currently shared by joining a multiplayer session and downloading from the host. There’s nothing preventing users from creating an offensive level design (i.e. obligatory genital references, swastikas, etc.), but the current restrictions effectively limits distribution to private games. This presents enormous obstacles for gamers serious about developing new content for “N+,” as there’s almost no way to release it without relying on word-of-mouth.

Couldn’t Microsoft just hire a few moderators to police content? Read on to find out why Metanet discovered it’s a little more complicated than that.

At Microsoft’s developer-oriented Gamefest last August, I realized how much confusion user-generated content is causing at Microsoft. It almost stopped fellow XBL Arcade title “Band of Bugs” from having a level editor. Monitoring community content using “Forza Motorsport 2″’s car editing features has given Turn 10 headaches. And there’s a good chance “Unreal Tournament III” will arrive on Xbox 360 sans freely downloadable user-generated content, due to Microsoft’s reluctance to loosen the reigns.

On a technical level, Microsoft doesn’t have an easy way to remove individual bits of content. As Sheppard understands it, if a user produces content that’s deemed inappropriate, the only way to fully remove it from the community is by deleting (or temporarily banning, as is usually the case) the actual user. The “Forza Motorsport 2″ team admitted at Gamefest that they faced this issue all the time, but the benefits outweighed frustration.

“If you invest in your community, you community will invest in your game. If you give people the capacity to innovate, they will,” said Turn 10’s Brian Spanton.

At first, Microsoft requested that Metanet and collaborator Slick Entertainment try including restrictions in “N+”’s level editor that would automatically censor offensive content. “We’d been arguing back and forth on that,” she said. “It was requested that we try to restrict our level editor so it was impossible for users to write swear words or draw, say, penises. Fortunately, we were able to explain that it was impossible to do that without crippling the editor to the point of uselessness.”

Sticking to their guns, however, ultimately backfired. Late last fall, as Metanet approached the finish line with “N+,” Microsoft told Sheppard to remove the ability to freely upload custom levels into a communal space. It was the first time Sheppard became fully aware of Microsoft’s tepidness to user generated content, but she was told that Microsoft does have a team actively working on a toolset that would allow games — down the line, anyway — to incorporate more user generated content.

Sheppard hopes Metanet can eventually release a title update for “N+” that enables online sharing.

“I really hope that team [at Microsoft] figures everything out, soon — it’s such a blow to ’N+,’ and no doubt tons of other games,” said Sheppard. Her team has been told the tools should be finished sometime late this year, but nothing’s set in stone.

Microsoft has also said Community Games, their XNA-powered attempt to create a YouTube for games, is slated for later this year.

Readers, do you want to create? After all, these hotly debated points of contention are all about one person: you.


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