Monday, May 5, 2008

Portal: The quest for community created content

I decided that I wanted to try to play some community created content for Portal. As I mentioned in a previous posting, the game doesn't make it too obvious that this is possible.

Armed with the knowledge that community created content does exist (I've read about it on the web) I set about trying to grab some and play them.

I started with the Portal main menu. "Bonus Maps" seemed to be the only logical place to check. When I opened this submenu there was, in fact, a little option button at the bottom left that allows the user to "Import Bonus Maps".

Clicking that button takes the user to a skinned version of the Windows Explorer. I was dumped into the ..\portal subdirectory and could deduce from the "file type: Bonus Map Zip Files (*.bmz)" that I needed to find .bmz files... somewhere.

I clicked on various subdirectories. No good. There didn't seem to be any files ready for me to try out.

So, I then fired up the Steam client to see what happened.

I tried the "Store" menu. No luck. Then the "Community" menu. Nothing.

I then looked at the "My Games" menu and tried right-clicking on Portal. Nothing immediately suggested "community content" so I tried "View Forum". It opened up a web page in my browser that had a bunch of discussion posts about Portal. I scanned some posts and found one that talked about how someone had ported the free flash game levels into actual Portal levels. This sounded cool, so I clicked on the link and was taken to another website where I downloaded a .rar file.

I then explored the .rar file (using winrar -- a separate application I needed to download) and read the readme.txt file. I was told to "simply" copy the files and folders to my ..\portal directory and overwrite existing files if prompted. Scary stuff, right?

Well, I got this far... so...

I hit the scary "yes" to delete files option, hoping it wouldn't bone down my original Portal game and proceeded to copy the files.

I opened the "Bonus Maps" sub menu again and this time noticed an option for Portal: The Flash Version. That part was pretty sweet.

Double click on the option and... bam. I'm in game.

For a PC-savvy gamer (who has experience downloading and installing mods) this wasn't all that difficult a task. It was a bit tedious and had lots of potential for human error. Moreover, I haven't even had a chance to evaluate the content yet -- nor do I have any sense of how good the content is (other than a couple of comments in the forum).

My background in social & community features at makes me want to call out a few features that might be helpful to more casual users:

  • Allow for some inside-out selection of community content (e.g., let me discover content via the Portal "Bonus Map" sub menu). If it's not possible to make a good inside-out experience, then optimize the Steam client to surface community content with ratings and reviews (as opposed to having me search forums, go to other websites, and go through a manual install process).
  • Incorporate ratings & reviews into game play sessions. There's no reason why you can't collect scads and scads of customer data in very frictionless ways. Install a mod? After you exit the mod have an intervening screen that asks for a rating (1 to 5 stars) and a few comments.
  • Involve the community in screening and preparing content into easily consumable pieces for less savvy gamers. There's no reason that a less-savvy gamer shouldn't be able to read ratings and reviews and then click on an "install" button that downloads, installs, and runs the content all in one click. No more diving through directories and scary "overwrite files" prompts.
Thoughts on the game to follow.
A couple of additional notes:
  • The forum thread on this map pack has a few comments re: difficulty of installing it.
  • I got about 10 minutes in and then was stuck and couldn't progress further. Seems like there are tons of cool potential ways to integrate community data into a solution. Imagine:
    • Tagging a certain part of a puzzle as tough. This would publish level data (and maybe a screenie or Youtube video) to the community. Experts could run either type a helpful hint or post their own video demonstrating how to complete that section. If there are any potentially relevant hints that have already been posted, they are surfaced to me as well.
    • Real time community help. Surface reliable community moderators who monitor a Steam support chat room. I hit the "I'm stuck" tag and they help me figure it out via chat or link to a video.
    • Real time in-game community help. Imagine that I could invite someone else to jump into the level to me and give me an in-game demonstration. Kind of like what happens with MMOs like World of Warcraft where wily veterans help newbs complete quests.
Unfortunately I'm left to either dig through forum posts or simply remove the mod (well, I'm not really sure how to do this...) and try another one.

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