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As any terrible legal story starts, this one starts not much longer than a week ago.
It's the third day of the Game Developers Conference, almost two weeks ago when I'm posting this. A bunch of independent developers are sitting in a local restaurant having a meal, and one of them is mentioning a contract that they’re unsure about. The contract is for something called GAME_JAM. I had been told about the idea: a Polaris-run reality show about game jams, an exciting venture for everybody involved. Not only will it help demystify development a bit more, it will expose the massive audiences of Polaris to an important part of gamedev culture. It's an exciting idea, and like Amnesia Fortnight or Super Game Jam, GAME_JAM has tremendous potential to do good for our scene.
GAME_JAM is being organized by a group of well-liked people in and around the independent game development community – curators, friends and business partners – and the premise is great. Involved in GAME_JAM as participants are my friends Zoë Quinn (Depression Quest), Robin Arnott (Antichamber, Soundself), Davey Wreden (The Stanley Parable) and my partner, Adriel Wallick (Game A Week, Rock Band Blitz), so I offer to read the contract for them.
I am not a lawyer. Never claimed to be, never wanted to be either. I am a game developer that has assisted independent developers with hundreds of contracts and negotiations, and I try to advise developers that are less versed in legalese.
Like everything in the indie scene, some people know more about certain subjects than others and we try and share and broadcast that knowledge as much as we can. A lot of the more business-savvy developers help out with reading contracts. I just happened to know everybody involved in this story, so they came to me. As you read more legalese, and deal with more companies of varying sizes, you start to recognize certain patterns, phrases and tones in contracts.
In the restaurant, five minutes of my life are spent in disbelief: the contract is awful. The most striking points in the contract include:
It’s baffling to read that the full budget for GAME_JAM was apparently over $400,000 considering the fact that there is a clause in the contract that asks developers to risk having to pay for their own flights if they’re close to a location they’re required to visit.
The full benefits for the developers in exchange for signing this do not exceed $300 each (threehundred dollars, that is not a typo), lodging and return flights. The participants weren’t in GAME_JAM for the money or fame, they were in it because they genuinely believed they could show the world this little part of game development culture in an honest and diverse way, and they were willing to try that even if that meant they had to drink Mountain Dew.
The majority of the other clauses were simply deal-breakers: a lot of the developers can’t afford travel under 200 miles, the marketing of most of these indies depends in some part on YouTube and the participants were mostly up and coming developers with a reputation to think about. Allowing GAME_JAM to misrepresent their actions and words could have terrible results for their future carreers.
There was a certain tone in the contract that tells you that whoever agreed to send this contract to the developers is completely oblivious to game jams and lacks any respect towards the participant. It also tells you that the organisers did not expect GAME_JAM to yield enough ‘drama’, and that they felt the need to be able to inject drama into it.
Within minutes, I made the note on my phone at the top of this post, and it encapsulated the entire contract in a few lines. I read it to the potential participant to explain how bad things were. They were shocked and we immediately reached out to fellow participants, one of whom contacted a producer on the show to start negotiating. My advice was to not sign the contract or any other legal document GAME_JAM would send.
While the developers had been approached by friends and good people to participate in the jam, that chain of people had been completely circumvented by the legal team sending the damning contract. The contents of the contract and the restrictive terms were a surprise to pretty much anybody along the chain of command that the participants could reach.
Something was terribly wrong.
I normally tell indie developers to negotiate every contract, even if it’s absolutely terrible. This is the first time I told anybody to tear it up and walk away. The contract was terrible, the event was days out, apparently the event was being organized by fragmented parts of a production nobody really had a full grasp on. Renegotiating anything on this scale tends to take weeks. We had days.
I got in touch with someone I know in the organization and tried to get a grasp of what was happening. I just wanted to be near my friends in case something bad happened, so I applied as a last-minute narrator or ‘industry expert’. I hoped they could fly me out to Los Angeles, skipping manning our LUFTRAUSERS booth at Rezzed in Birmingham, UK to make sure everybody would be OK. Maybe there’d be something I could do to help out, but for now, we needed to make sure nobody signed the contract.
We shifted strategy. With the event happening in only a few days, I recommended the participants to not sign the contract instead and make a request to renegotiate the contract to get rid of the most brazen points. Without the contract signed, they could still participate in the jam, and then they would be able to negotiate the terms, decide which affordances to allow GAME_JAM and select or limit the content of the footage GAME_JAM could use.
In the best case, everything would be fine, they’d be able to negotiate the deal afterwards and use a productions' worth of footage as leverage. In the worst case, they’d still be able to walk away and openly discuss the jam.
After spending a few days winding down from the Game Developers Conference in Los Angeles together, I flew out for Eurogamer Rezzed and Adriel remained in Culver City for the jam. We’d be in touch in case anything bad happened, and she promised not to sign anything under any situation, even if a renegotiated contract was better. We were departing from a bad situation, and anything could look like an improvement. We didn’t need improvements: we needed a good contract.
The participants sent a request for renegotiations and the ‘team leaders’ spent the majority of the next day renegotiating a new contract. They received it a day before the event would kick off.
What I was worried for happened: even though the contract was much better – it revoked the misrepresentation clause and specified the exclusivity much more in the developers favor – it was still quite terrible.
I recommended once more not to sign until all terms were acceptable, and I couldn’t emphasize that enough. The potential circumstance of being on-set, with large production crews and your fellow developers waiting for you to being the only one not to sign was always-present, but that doesn’t matter in legal cases: if you put your name on the dots, that’s your responsibility, and you deal with the consequences.
As the first line of Zoë’s completely unrelated article imply, she did cave under that pressure and the slightly better terms. These are not simple emotional forces to deal with, and knowing there’s a huge production team literally depending on you signing is paralyzing. The other developers I advised stood ground, and refused to sign regardless of the potential negative effects on the series.
Either way, GAME_JAM didn’t go well. Between making a total farce out of game jams, it was misogynistic, misinformed and disrespectful. There are a few times when I’d rather have my gut feeling be dead wrong about something, but this was one of them. I received three tweets from the participants containing the hashtag #ramiwasright.
But I can’t be more proud of Robin, Davey, Zoë, Adriel and the other developers for walking away from GAME_JAM. The most expensive game jam in the history of mankind fell apart within a day, and the reason people were able to walk away relatively unscathed was because they had strong principles, they stuck together, and those that didn't sign were able to do that walked away without risk of legal repercussion from the contract.
Contracts are serious business, and they can be both good and bad. I like to think of them as a way to keep people from arguing over dumb things. Here are some general pointers for contracts:
GAME_JAM is over, and it’s an important lesson to all of us. Developers tend to be friends and we want to see each other succeed. We want new people to join the medium, we want to educate and share knowledge. The reality is that outside of our scene, that’s not always the case. I’m so glad everybody got out OK. Huge shoutout to the developers involved and to Jared Rosen, who broke the story on IndieStatik risking his own job. My apologies to those involved in the (great) original concept, who saw the production slowly corrupted by external forces.
Contracts are useful, but they can be extremely dangerous. Handle them with care, and if you’re not completely sure what you’re signing, get help.
For now, I can recommend Super Game Jam as a good insight into the reality of game development and game jams. Don't forget, the original idea of GAME_JAM was great.
Let’s go and demystify game development.