This week, Ubisoft announced that for Beyond Good and Evil 2, they'd be partnering with HitRecord to create art & music assets as part of a fan collaboration project to "build the universe" of their Nietzsche-named sequel.
Later, after journalists and developers alike raised concerns about the prospect of this being unpaid work, they confirmed a $50,000 pool that would be available for people whose work is used in the game, sparking a week-long conversation about the nature of fan labor, spec work, and if Ubisoft was depressing the value of creative work with this initiative.
Actor and HitRecord founder Joseph Gordon-Levitt did do post a follow-up blog that indicated he and his cohorts were listening to developer feedback and hoping to create a clear, transparent process around Beyond Good & Evil 2, but we at Gamasutra still wanted to suss out why this topic resonated with developers and readers over the course of the week.
So during our E3 wrap-up chat (which you can watch in its entirety here), we revisited Ubisoft's announcement and Gordon-Levitt's follow-up comments to examine our own feelings about this kind of collaborative work, whether or not it qualifies as spec work, and what it means for the game industry at large.
Emma Kidwell, contributing editor (@EmmaKidwell): Well, I think people should get paid, always. And I know he mentioned in his blog post that it's unrealistic to pay everybody who wants to contribute. Which is fair. But also I think that if you're using, "hey fans of Beyond Good & Evil 2 should work on this," I think it's almost a little manipulative, even though I honestly believe Joseph Gordon-Levitt has good intentions with it but doesn't understand the kind of grunt contract and freelance work a lot of developers go through.
So I think the intentions are good, but not really understanding "how do I know if my work's going to be put in the game," "how are the funds going to be split," and I think over the past few days they've clarified that on certain points, but based on what I've researched, I don't think there's a clear vetting process.
It's clearly not a contest...but it's more like a bunch of collaborators building on top of each other's work, and that muddles up how you're going to get credit, how everyone's going to get paid, because they put aside $50,000, and then that's it. And I know that if your work is used more, you get paid more, and there's no guarantee anyone gets paid. It just kind of depends on who decides what is worthy. And I don't know that I like that very much!
But I do think they had good intentions, and it's not a good way to execute asking for assets, when I think a big company should be able to pay for what they're asking for.
Alissa McAloon, contributing editor (@Gliitchy): Re: the contest thing, it's hard to be on stage and say "it's not a contest, we're just going to pay people...everyone contributes work, and the stuff that gets used gets paid." That kind of just reads like you're competing against other artists to see who gets a chunk of that pie, because everyone's only getting the $50k that HitRecord put up, which is being split among every creator that contributes based on how much work they put into it.
So it's---it's muddy. I feel like it would have been better received if Ubisoft put in additional money on top of that, or if there were more for that. I don't know.
One of the other criticism I've seen is that people are like "oh you could be paying someone at Ubisoft, you could be hiring composers to do this," because they're looking for art to add into the game for posters, but they also want songs to play on in-game radios, announcements on in-game radios...there's a lot of voice acting, music, writing, art, graphic design, all these different different contributions which are like, these are actual professionals who, if they have the skills to do this for this fan project, it's likely they have the skills to do it professionally.
So having them contribute as a fan rather than a professional is demeaning in a way to the work that they do? I would say?
Alex Wawro, managing editor (@awawro): I think this whole thing is so interesting. I agree with you both ,and I think with most people, that it could have been handled better, the rollout. I think Ubisoft kind of hung HitRecord out to dry by not getting on top of this more quickly, and maybe taking off the gate on how much money they're going to pay out or being more clear about that.
But it does seem like something done in relative good faith, or at least I could believe it was, and I think it's so interesting that if you think about---if you look at Kickstarter, that's a platform where people give money to developers. They give time, in money form, for people to make a video game. And in return, they get a copy of the game, or rewards.
Would this be different, if instead of giving them money for their contributions, they gave them a copy of the game? Or is that just a different way of looking at crowdfunding? Like I think it's so---
Bryant Francis, contributing editor (@RBryant2012): That was some galaxy brain shit right there.
Wawro: I think Ubisoft should be doing what Gordon-Levitt is doing. I think it's a good look to be listening to people, I think it's good to be having a conversation about labor, and about what it means to do spec work versus actual, meaningful, remunerative work, but I don't think it's pure evil. I think it's an interesting way of talking about this, I wish Ubisoft had been more upfront and more open to talking about it.
Kris Graft, editor-in-chief (@KrisGraft): I saw him show up [at Ubisoft's private event], and I was like "oh my god, I need to ask him if he's supposed to be Robin at the end of The Dark Knight Rises." He's got a great smile! Certainly can't be evil.
So, no, but I think one of the key things that Alissa hit on is that, I think they made this, and they announced it, like, thinking so much that this would be a fan-contributed thing. They thought this would be a good opportunity for the fans, and that's cool, but they didn't think that, what about professionals? Or people with skills that are professional people that are putting time into this stuff?
Maybe they look at it as 'whipping up a quick bassline' like Ed in his basement is laying down a track or two then uploading it to HitRecord. I think that the whole thing is meant to be just for hobbyists, and that wasn't in the messaging enough, and even if it was in the messaging, I don't know how you say that.
Francis: "Professionals need not apply" is such a weird thing.
Graft: So yeah, it completely turns out to be 99 percent spec work. That's the only way you can really describe it. Making something without getting paid but you might get paid. That's the definition of it. Yeah, I don't know. It's just a flawed model and I don't know how you explain your way out of it. Sorry JGL!
Francis: I'm going to jump in...I was trying to mull about this all week because like JGL, I was trying to listen to everyone talking. What I would like to point out is that from Ubisoft's end, I was trying to put myself in Ubisoft's point of view, they are thinking about this I'm sure from a marketing standpoint.
What they have is a new game, based on a franchise that has a fanbase, but not for the kind of game they're making. They made a 3rd-person platformer in the 2000s, it became a cult hit, it turned out people were passionate about it, now they're making a nearly No Man's Sky-level space game with exploration, and ships that go into other ships. That's big, that's expensive, and I'm sure they're trying to make sure to advocate to it to other people when they move into the bigger PR stages.
I think a lot of developers for a while have been trying to figure out how to integrate their communities more with their games. You go to BlizzCon and you see fan art contests, the work's as good as professional. Blizzard's own employees will cosplay, like they had a Widowmaker cosplay out there the day Overwatch was announced, so like, what happens when your own employees are fans of your own games, or other people's games, and they're doing that kind of thing...it can't be overstated that, every developer out there, if they could take fan art and legally work it into their game as fast as possible,
I'm sure they would, because that's a good way to reward your audience, the people who are buying your game, playing your game, telling you how much they love your game, and hopefully if they do it more, it helps you stay in business.
From Ubisoft's standpoint, I don't---Alex you were implying earlier in the stream they might need to reach out to fill up this universe with assets, but I only don't agree with that in that I don't think Ubisoft would have gone up there and said "this project is TOO BIG, we're teaming up with HitRecord to fill up our game..." they 100% could on their own!
Wawro: I want to back that up, I did imply that and I didn't mean---I don't think anyone at Ubisoft is relying on HitRecord as a meaningful part of their production pipeline. A couple of years down the line, once more companies have more opportunity to work with partners like this, that could be a real concern. But this just seems like a genuine marketing effort.
Francis: My 100 percent concern walking away---I think the spec labor concerns are real, I think I agree with Alex in that JGL has done his best to at least not be silent about it. They didn't even mention the pay onstage first thing and he jumped on Twitter and was like "100%, we screwed that up, here's the pay details."
But it doesn't take much of a bad faith read, or a bad faith actor to look at what they're doing, and if they get away with it, to say "hey, sweet, now we can take fan labor and get it into our game," because not other companies have as many employees as Ubisoft.
Ubisoft relies on---we talked to Nouredine Abboud about this a while back---relies on the fact that they can onboard a lot of developers from one of their studios really quickly to help out with a game project. So that means we can only look it from their perspective as a marketing challenge, that they are now going "oh god this isn't what we expected, is this gonna be worth it, we're going to have to deal with this PR mess through the rest of production," but, other game developers are looking at it and going "if THEY can get away with it, can we?" And I have a lot of faith in game developers, but it's not a giant leap in a kind of scary way.
McAloon: I just wanted to mention that, the second this was announced, my chaos of a Twitter feed became people saying "these people are gonna get paid right?" It was all people asking about compensation and going "free work is not okay." Developers, press, and people who aren't in the industry at all, people who know the value of creative work. No matter what comes of this, if Ubisoft makes a statement or not, it's good that people are having this conversation and that that was the first reaction is uplifting in a way.
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