I was just having to describe user-created content in social-oriented virtual worlds to someone. I tell you what, the money to be made there is just ludicrous. However, it's not the players that are making money, it's the companies who are sponsoring user-created content that are making out like bandits.
For those non-virtual world lingo speaking folks, let's define user-created content really quick because it's pretty common sense: users create their own content for virtual worlds, be it clothing, vehicles, or houses. Basically it's users who are able to re-texture (also known as paint or color) a three-dimensional model or create new three-dimensional assets (structures, vehicles, etc.).
There is a problem with user-created content, it's rarely ever quality work. Someone who teaches themselves Photoshop is a commendable act, however, as my old raid leader Jason used to say, "You can't make chicken salad out of chicken shit." Meaning, that even if you know a graphic editor down to its last detail, it does not mean that you are an artist. Hence, you find a lot of would-be texture artists saying that they can create a texture, but in actuality in most cases it's texture theft. For the majority, online world user-created content is usually taken from somewhere else. Underwear and lingerie is stolen from photos on the Victoria's Secret website, denim is stolen from Levi's, Lucky Jeans, and simple online catalogs for stores like Wal-Mart and JCPenny along with stealing textures for shirts, shoes and every clothing and furniture piece you can think of, and oh boy does it show.
The textures from these so-called "artists" usually turn out god-awful and not worth the money users spend on it. Put bluntly, you couldn't get me to pay for what some of those people call "fashion." It's little more than stolen textures stretched and made to fit a three-dimensional mesh, and it doesn't take a single bit of skill to "create" something like that. You can tell it's pitiful quality from a mile off and it makes me shudder uncontrollably. It offends the very nature of my education and knowledge of the genre. Texture stealing user-created content "artists" are the bane of my existence. Then there are the self-taught ones who believe with every fiber in their being that they are creating quality textures when the truth is that it is hideously ugly and no more than wastebasket fodder, refuse, birdcage liner or just plain trash. Every single one of those so-called "artists" has taken an avatar that was, in a rare few cases, pretty good, and turned it into a train wreck faster than you can say "What the..."
Yeah, and it's sad going into online worlds and seeing that kind of thing happening. Don't get me wrong, there are the very rare few that are absolutely wonderful and talented artists in the user-created content programs around the Internet, but I stress they are very few and far between. Here's the problem though, online world users buy that stuff up like mad. Even if it is of poor quality, stolen or just plain ugly, they buy it up because it's "new" to their world of choice. Here's where it gets sick:
As an example, and it is not the exception, but the rule, let's talk about my experience with the There.com's User-Created Content Program. Now try to wrap your mind around this one:
There.com made their assets available for texturing via two proprietary software programs, Stylemaker and Previewer. In Stylemaker, you could create your own clothing textures based on their available templates, in Previewer you got to create your own home furnishings/treatments. For those who taught themselves 3ds Max or the free software Gmax, they could even create their own three-dimensional models.
Ok, so what do you have? Aspiring texture artists and modelers making things. Hey, great! I'm all up for a hobby! Hooray, an artistic outlet!
Here's where it gets sinister.
We have amateur texture artists and modelers making things for There.com, BUT, here's the catch, to submit the item, for it to even begin to be considered by the company to be let into the world, you had to pay between $4 and $20 for each and every item you wish to submit, known as a "submission fee". So, now those same amateur texture artists and modelers have not only put in their time to make something (essentially free labor), now they're paying the company to look at their work and approve it. If you're like me, you're sitting there going, "Wait, wait, wait, the artists and modelers just worked for free, now they're PAYING the company to accept their work?" If that doesn't make you slam on the brakes really hard, I don't know what will.
It gets worse.
Ok, so let's just say that the amateur modeler and texture artists have created something that There.com thinks is "ok" to go into their world. The submissions process (that $4-$20 from before) supposedly pays for someone at There's offices to look over the model and/or texture to make sure it doesn't violate copyrights or trademarks, so basically the modelers and texture artists have paid the company to check their work for them, just to weed out the texture/trademark/copyright thieves. So still, the amateur modeler or texture artist is paying someone else to look over the work they did for free, essentially paying the company for a service that should be free given the amount of money paid on the back end when There.com takes a fee for every single asset that the amateur modeler or texture artist wants for themselves (outside of the ONE free copy that the modeler or texture artist gets back when their submission is approved). The amateur modeler or texture artist then has to pay once again for what they themselves have created with their blood, sweat, tears and countless hours behind modeling software or a graphic editor if they want another copy of the item they made with their own two hands by going into their user's developer page and paying a "wholesale cost" for the item. So, they paid to submit it, then they pay again if they want another copy of it in-world. So now they've paid twice and yeah, what they're paying for, they made themselves! So ok, where's the logic here? And why did countless users (mea culpa) keep doing it, paying out thousands upon thousands of dollars a year for their own work?
Are you wrapping your head around this yet? It is essentially this: People are laboring for free then paying companies to allow them to see their own artwork/models in a virtual world.
Here's the rub, it's not just in There.com, it's in Twinity, IMVU, Onverse and Second Life too! Whereas in Twinity and Second Life, you can just make something and upload it for free, there are tons of companies like Nike, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Gucci, Adidas and others having their trademarks violated on a daily basis, but still, it's users working for free to expand the worlds that they pay monthly fees to just to play!
Ok, so now you've got people taking their hobby time and making the online world of their choice even more money by selling those items to other players in which the online world company providing the service gets a surcharge for every item (made for free) sold in the auctions, shops and other sales avenues in the world! Sure, some users are making a small portion of their submission fees back, but rarely do you see them actually derive any sort of return on investment. What returns on investment these users make usually goes directly back into the system in the form of new submissions. Are you getting what a racket this is?
I get disgusted really fast when I think about all of the users out there who have not only spent their time to make something of quality, that they make the texture with their own two hands and imagination, eschewing the need to steal their textures from the Internet, and they are the ones who have had their hard work prostituted to line some CEO's pocketbook who could care less about the world, just the bottom line.
Those online worlds are taking the hard work of their user base and building their worlds on top of it. Essentially the online world companies are having players build their worlds for them, and those same companies are having their world built for free and shamelessly making a profit off of free labor. Think about it, if the world didn't have those users toiling behind their own software making things, what would new users see when they came into the world? Answer: Nothing. Just base structures that the company started out with.
The sad part is this: Rarely (and I do stress rarely) do we see social online worlds expand by the company who actually owns it. If we do see any sort of expansion, it is because a user stepped up, slapped down their cold, hard cash for virtual real estate then paid even more to build something on top of it. A good, solid majority of the time, those additional items that they build with come directly from other users, not the virtual world they pay their membership fees to in the first place. Where is the world content made by the company? Is it just the terraformed ground and the use of an avatar that the users are paying for? Is that all they are doing?
This is why I play WoW. I might pay out $140 a year in membership fees, but I will tell you without hesitation that every single piece of armor, every building, every piece of terrain is made by the company I pay bi-annually to provide me with a world. I know that whatever fees I pay go directly to qualified animators, texture artists, modelers, developers and professionals who make the world I choose to play rich, diverse, challenging and fun. I take my hat off on a daily basis to Chris Metzen, Alex Afrasiabi and the whole crew at Blizzard, yeah Cataclysm might be WoW's epic suck, but still, it's a quality product made by professional hands.
When I get content from Blizzard, I know it's good stuff, that's why I never play in worlds with user-created content anymore. I can't abide by seeing users getting used by the people who are supposed to be providing them with a quality service, instead, they leave users to create their own content which, let's be honest, it usually sucks, stolen from the Internet or just lacks good quality.
So for those of you who yearn for a social world that is good quality stuff, I suggest you wait for one that will provide you with content pushes filled with quality things that are worth the money you spend on them. If you feel the need to create, grab a copy of Photoshop Elements or GIMP and have a good time with it, but User-created content is not the answer, in that scenario the user always loses. Put another way, user-created content programs in virtual worlds are just like coming to Vegas to gamble: Casinos aren't built on winners.
So, for all of those user-created content junkies out there, you get the song of the day, Madonna's "Material Girl."