Ninety Percent

I’ve often heard it said when describing games like LittleBigPlanet and Spore that user-created content makes a poor foundation on which to build a game. There’s a certain element of truth to this, which can be explained by an old adage in the entertainment industry called Sturgeon’s Law, which postulates that 90% of everything is crap. It’s a simple, authoritarian rule, which applies to everything from books to video games to particularly high-minded cereal boxes.To see Sturgeon’s Law at work, you merely have to look outside of the realm of professional editors. Take the mystical realm of fanfiction, for example, where gaping plot holes and Mary Sue figures roam free and majestic across the grassy plains of the internet. Fanfiction, as a general rule, tends to have a worse reputation for quality than works produced by the mainstream entertainment industry. This isn’t because every fanfic writer is some sort of subhuman manifestation of poor characterization and improper grammar, merely that it’s easier to write a bad story than a good one. Thus, more poor stories are produced than quality ones, in a ratio that Sturgeon’s Law tells us is somewhere around 9 to 1. Coupled with this is the fact that fanfiction typically doesn’t have any sort of editor, making for some truly heroic levels of badness. For example:

Compare fanfiction’s situation with that of the mainstream entertainment industry. While we all like to harp on about the flaws we find in the latest iteration of our pet-peeve video game franchise or in the latest Michael Bay movie, we do expect certain minimum standards from them. We expect that the latest Call of Duty game will contain guns that shoot and actually make things die. We expect a scene in a Michael Bay movie to stop filming if the cameraman has toppled over drunk. We expect — however much of a boring, clichéd instance of Sturgeon’s 90% it may be — that a piece of entertainment will at least be structurally sound. We don’t expect this without reason, either. The sheer amount of hands that a new film, television show, cereal box, or video game will be passed through before it reaches release tends to ensure that the positive and negative influences of all the creative minds involved will average out to a certain minimum level of mediocrity. Mainstream games in particular are rarely as incompetent as a particularly awful example of fanfiction can be; the worst that your typical AAA game can aspire to be is merely boring.

User-generated content, however, has none of the advantages that a mainstream game has. With the exception of some very ambitious mods, user-generated content is the product of an individual working alone at his computer or console. There’s nothing standing between the creator and the audience, no minimum of quality that must be met for release. Any editing is entirely optional, and user reviews have no impact on the availability of the content. In short, there’s nobody to take a good hard look at it and say, Don’t be an idiot. This puts it in a position comparable to fanfiction, from the viewpoint of quality. As good as 10% of the material can get, there’s simply no limit to how bad the other 90% can and will be. Case in point:

This is what makes the concept of games that rely on user-created content such as Spore or LittleBigPlanet seem so odd on the surface. After all, even if the presence of a creature or level editor included by the developers themselves negates the possibility of the mechanical failures that hamper some unauthorized mods, the content is still usually made by a single person who will have no idea how much of a dolt they might be.

With Spore, the main problem is generally a lack of creativity. Many of the people who upload their content are perfectly happy to make a species of beige cubes with googly eyes and call it a day. Even more people are happy to simply copy something out of popular culture: try and guess how many Star Destroyers you can find in the spaceship subsection. The developers included that as one of the basic bodies, though, so you can’t really fault them for not seeing it coming. And, of course, there’s an oddly large number of people who like to make everything they create look like a giant penis, though these creations typically get deleted, to the relief of most and the consternation of others.

In the case of LittleBigPlanet, where the user created content focuses mainly on level design, you face some of the same problems as in Spore, such as the legions of people who upload a recreation of the first level of Super Mario Bros. Additionally, you have things like levels that are way too difficult, levels that consist of a single platform to walk across without any hazards, the fact that most designers just choose the song at the top of the list for background music, etc.

The point here is that there are a lot of ways that someone making user-created content can screw up. This is the reason why user-created content serves as such a good demonstration of Sturgeon’s Law. So does this mean we shouldn’t include tools for creating it in the game itself? Of course not. There’s a second clause to the law, which states, …but the other 10% is worth dying for. For every nine people who upload a clone of the Daleks onto the Spore servers, there’s one who uses the creator to come up with a civilization that’s somewhat quirky. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be allowed to create a Dalek clone if you want to, just be aware that I look down upon your lack of creativity and intend to run you over with a monster truck. For every nine people who make a horribly unbalanced level in LittleBigPlanet, there’s one person who takes the time to ensure that he makes something well-paced and fun.

It’s fairly safe to say that the 10% minority are the reason developers sometimes promote user-generated content, and not just in games built for it like LBP and Spore. Take, for example, Bethesda Softworks, current holder of the Elder Scrolls and Fallout licenses. They, of all people, must be aware of the fact that, of the first five unofficial mods released for one of their games, three of them will be nude patches and the other two will cause the game to crash. Not only do they support their modding community despite this, they’ve gone so far as to publicly release the tools used by the developers themselves for use by modders.Why? Take a look at these two pictures.


The one on the left is from The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind, released in 2002. The one on the right? The exact same game, with a few mods to give it a facelift. That’s the sort of difference a well armed modding community can make, and that’s the sort of difference that LBP tries to replicate with level design and Spore tries to replicate with creature design. It’s not as if Morrowind’s community was exempt from Sturgeon’s Law- a quick glance around one of the modding websites should dispel that notion fairly quickly. The difference is that the community takes the 90% in stride while promoting the 10%.

So the next time you see somebody complaining about how LittleBigPlanet can never be a good game because most of its content is produced by the proletariat, just turn on the game, skip through the first nine new levels you see, and prepare to be blown away by the tenth.


  1. David

    I personally can’t stand LittleBigPlanet. The platforming is middling at best (and I’m an FPS/RPG guy, not a SMB addict!) but even with the help of the ‘MediaMolecule picks’ list, pretty much everything I played was dreck.

    I didn’t even care for the MediaMolecule-designed levels, yet somehow got suckered into buying the second game nonetheless.

  2. Fauz

    Nice article. I am playing LBP right now (downloaded it as the welcome back program) and am having a blast. THE most fun platformer i have played yet. Havent used the user interface but will probably have a go. Good to know what to look forward to in the user levels.