In Defense Of Ubisoft: Crowdsourcing Game Content Creation Is Actually Fun And Non-Exploitive
from the cwf+rtb dept
Crowdsourcing has obviously now been a thing for some time. Along internet timelines, in fact, crowdsourcing is now something close to a mature business practice and it’s used for all manner of things, from the payment for goods created, to serving as a form of market research for new products and services, all the way up to and including getting fans involved in the creation and shaping of an end product. The video game industry was naturally an early adopter of this business model, given how well-suited the industry is to technological innovation. Here too we have seen a range of crowdsourcing efforts, from funding game creation through platforms like Kickstarter to empowering supporters to shape the development of the game.
In that last example, it was Double Fine and Tim Schafer getting gamers involved in what would otherwise be the job of the creative team behind their game. The personalities here may matter greatly, because Ubisoft has recently unveiled an attempt to further get their fans involved in the game-creation process, yet many people are up in arms over it. Let’s start with what Ubisoft is attempting with its anticipated next installment in the Beyond Good & Evil franchise.
The long-awaited sequel to a 2003 Ubisoft game that was critically loved but flopped at retail, Beyond Good and Evil 2 will take place in an open universe full of strange creatures and cultures. During its E3 press conference, Ubisoft said that fans will be able to help populate that universe with their own music and artwork through a partnership with a company called HitRECord, with that company’s founder, actor-turned-entrepreneur Joseph Gordon-Levitt, appearing on stage.
The HitRECord-powered Space Monkey Program allows fans to submit ideas and works into a series of musical and visual categories like “devotional music,” “anti-hybrid propaganda,” and “anti-establishment art.” Other fans can then comment on and remix those works, which will ultimately be evaluated by HitRECord and—if they fit the game well enough—sent along to Ubisoft. Everybody who’s contributed at all to an accepted work will be paid.
If you’re anything like me, your reaction to this was purely positive. Fans of Ubisoft titles and Beyond Good & Evil get to contribute to the game in a way they will recognize and be paid some amount of money for? How cool is that? Collaboration with fans on the creation of art is squarely in the realm of our CwF+RtB formula. To add some compensation to that makes this all the better. And, in my opinion, if this were anyone but Ubisoft doing this kind of thing, nobody would be pushing back on it at all. But because of Ubisoft’s sketchy reputation, many are viewing this through purely cynical glasses and seeing nothing other than a company trying to avoid paying the full rate for the creation of its game.
Almost immediately after Ubisoft’s conference, critics and developers started asking questions: Why not just pay full-time, salaried developers to do this work? What happens if fans’ work doesn’t get accepted? Do they not get paid? Did they do it all for nothing?
Scott Benson, the co-creator of the indie game Night in the Woods and a vocal advocate for workers’ rights, pointed out that HitRECord’s business model seems to rely on what’s known as “spec work,” short for “speculation.” This is a common but nonetheless ethically muddy practice in creative and design fields. When you do work “on spec,” you’re producing something that a buyer might decide to pick up and then pay you for.
Great, except this isn’t being done in the “creative industry” at all, but rather directly with fans of the game franchise. Were Ubisoft trying to strong-arm artists for content it would otherwise pay for up front, then, yeah, this would suck. That’s not what it’s doing at all, though. Instead, the company is going directly to fans and asking them, rather than coercing them, to get involved in the project in a way those fans will find meaningful. Does this have the happy coincidence of being somewhat less costly? Sure. There’s no denying that. But so what? If fans of a game are able to compete with the art created by the creative industry and want to do that type of thing under this platform, where exactly is the ethical dilemma? Were Benson to have his way, fans should be denied this opportunity because… why? Because someone else might not get paid? Where is the sense in that?
There’s also something to be said for HitRECord’s meta-crowdsourcing experiment here and how interesting it will be to see if it can be pulled off.
“At HR, people build on each other’s ideas, and our website (and community) keeps track of how projects evolve—and how ideas influence one another,” HitRECord executive producer Jared Geller said in an email, noting that the company has paid out a total of nearly $3 million since it was founded in 2010. “So any contribution that is included in any of the songs or visuals (guitar parts, vocal stems, etc) delivered to the Beyond Good and Evil 2 dev team will get credited and paid. If your contribution isn’t used, you don’t get paid.”
So it’s not just milking a fanbase for cheap labor, but allowing that fanbase to them play off of one another and build a community product, which will then be injected into the game and for which they will be paid. I mean, come on, if everyone could take their labor union hats off for just a second, they’d have to admit how cool an experiment this is. And, while HitRECord will have the ultimate decision-making authority on how compensation is divvied up between creators, it even takes feedback from multiple creators into account when making those decisions.
The one area where there might be real concern is copyright infringement.
There are other possible complications, as well, said a representative of NoSpec, an organization that advocates against the practice of spec work.
“When people who participate in spec work know that the chance of payment is slim-to-none, it invites the fastest possible turnaround, and we’ve found that spec websites (those that sell design contest listings) are rife with plagiarism,” wrote the rep in an email.
There is truth to this and Ubisoft and HitRECord have better have their shit in order if they don’t want to turn this into some hellscape of accusations about plagiarism and copyright infringement. But if they can pull this off, the end result is going to be the injection of the voice of the fan directly into its game, which is about all we could hope for coming from a content producer.
I’ll end this with a thought experiment. Imagine for a moment if I had written this same post, except I did a find/replace for “Ubisoft” and replaced it with “Sole game creator.” Does anyone really think the same level of outrage would exist? If not, then this isn’t a moral question at all, but a monetary one. And if that’s the case, it should go without saying that Ubisoft’s reputation shouldn’t prevent it from being able to try something good and cool with its fans.