Between crowdsourcing and the explosion of indie video game developers, many of which are far more permissive in IP realms and far better at actually connecting with their fans, we are perhaps entering a golden age for fan involvement in the video games they love. And it’s not just the indie developers getting into this game either; the AAA publishers are, too. One example of this came up last year, when Ubisoft worked with HitRECord to allow fans of the Beyond Good and Evil franchise to submit potential in-game music creations. On HitRECord, other fans would be able to vote and even remix those works. At the end of it all, any music Ubisoft used for Beyond Good and Evil 2 would be paid for out of a pool of money the company had set aside. Cool, right?
Not for some in the gaming industry itself. Many who work in the industry decried Ubisoft’s program as denying those who make music professionally income for the creation of the game music. Others called Ubisoft’s potential payment to fans for their creations “on-spec” solicitations, in which companies only pay for work that actually makes it into the game, a practice that is seen as generally unethical in the industry. Except neither of those criticisms were accurate. Ubisoft specifically carved out a few places for fans to put music into the game, not the entire game. And the “on-spec” accusation would only make sense if these fans were in the gaming music industry, which they weren’t. Instead, Ubisoft was actually just trying to connect with its own fans and create a cool program in which those fans could contribute artistically to the game they love, and even make a little money doing so.
Fortunately, Ubisoft has apparently not let the criticism keep it from continuing with these experiments, as the company has put out the call for the same sort of program for its next Watchdogs game.
Last week, actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt announced on Twitter that his music production company, HitRecord, would once again partner with Ubisoft, this time to help the publisher create 10 songs for its upcoming open world hacker game, Watch Dogs: Legion. This immediately re-ignited an old debate about the ethics of soliciting work for big budget games from fans.
“10 original songs. Collaboratively made for #WatchDogsLegion. By YOU. Come play w/ us,” Gordon-Levitt tweeted on July 11. According to the FAQ on Ubisoft’s website, the publisher will be paying $ 20,000 for the original music which will be played during the game, like, as one example offered, while you’re driving around the game’s version of London. At $ 2,000 per song, the proceeds will end up being paid out through HitRecord to whichever of the platform’s users helped create the music.
Once again, you have to really, really work hard to find something unethical in any of that. And, yet, all of the same criticisms are arising. On the one hand, sure, it’s mildly understandable that creatives don’t like being routed around by gaming companies. On the other hand, it’s hard to come off as more anti-fan than complaining about a $ 20k payout for 10 fan-made songs within a professional game. And yet again, here come the complaints about this being some flavor of on-spec work.
“This sucks,” tweeted Mike Bithell, developer of Thomas Was Alone and the upcoming John Wick Hex game, under the “nospec” hashtag. “Pay people for their labour. Stop exploiting fans and hobbyists, while devaluing the work of those with the gall to actually expect consistent payment for work done. Do better Ubi, we’re counting on you.”
“I am still not a fan of what read[s] as ‘spec work under a proprietary open non-exclusive license’ model, & prefer the ‘pay someone to browse SoundCloud to find cool music for which you then talk to the creator & pay them too,’” tweeted Vambleer’s Rami Ismail.
And yet the fans appear to love this, having contributed to the previous game enough that Ubisoft wanted to do it all over again. Here’s the thing: if professional video game music composers are confident in their work, they really shouldn’t see this as some kind of a huge threat. And I say that as someone that loves video game music. A game company trying to get fans involved in certain parts of the game creation isn’t some great evil. It’s CwF+RtB, which is something we like around these parts.
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