Coutch Podtatoes Episode 2: Players’ Rights

It’s out ūüôā

Couch Podtatoes is a new podcast by our beloved Izlain of Me vs Myself and I. I made my first podcast appearance with he and the lovely J3w3l of Healing the Masses and I think we had a pretty great discussion about players rights. The “Digital Frontier” segment of the show is hosted by me once per month (starts at 19:20) and this month’s topic: Player Rights.

There were some great ideas from everyone and most importantly, I think this episode leaves lots of room for listener feedback. So definitely leave your thoughts for us (here, the podcast, their blogs, email – doesn’t matter) and I’ll be sure to mention them on the next show.

Enjoy ūüôā

Landmark: Player Value in a Sony Market

landmarkUp until now, I’ve been going on information from the developer videos and word of mouth around the game community about Landmark. This week I decided I should take a closer look at Player Studio, the tool for players to create things for sale on the marketplace. This week, PS was implemented for testing.

On it’s face, I think it’s a great idea. It’s another opportunity for players to freely share their creativity and in some ways I think Everquest Next will be a much better looking place under the diverse stewardship of the player base. We’ll truly see things the developers could never have thought of. I’m excited about that. Plus, it’s another opportunity for many of us to make a little bit of cash during our time spent playing games. Of course, some of us will try to make a full career out of it and I salute¬†you for your hardcore ambition and dedicated craftsmanship. There’s some room for business models that could prove lucrative enough to sustain long-term. I don’t know about paying rents, but it could net you a tidy sum. And the entry fee is zero: Landmark is free to play.

playerstudipHowever, the terms of use are extremely exploitative. The internet has become something bigger and less benign than an information highway. It’s the gateway to a pool of free labor and developers are very interested in how they can offset their costs on the backs of players. The timing of a post about player rights was perfect this week it seems and I think this will become a bigger and bigger issue in the coming years. Players might think we’re getting the sweet end of the bargain (make some money while playing games sounds like a good deal), but in the long run, that’s just not the case. So what are these exploitative¬†terms I speak of?

  1. These Player Studio terms state that Sony owns the right to use your submission how they see fit without compensating you.
  2. SOE is entitled to a 60% cut of your profits from the marketplace. Sixty percent.
  3. The player has no rights – not even a right to privacy – with respect to the items they submit. Especially since the terms require you to waive every single one of your current consumer rights.
While you're mining ores, SOE will be mining your time and creativity to the tune of 60% of all that you make.

While you’re mining ores, SOE will be mining your time and creativity to the tune of 60% of all that you make.

There’s pretty much no circumstance in¬†which 60% is a fair fee for anyone’s labor. They’re¬†basically claiming they¬†own 60% of your time and energy if you spend it in their game. Now gamers are usually reasonable. We expect the developer to take a cut for the maintenance of fees that help make the system possible. Just to give some perspective, Blizzard’s Diablo 3 auction house charged only a 15% fee and a $1 transfer fee if you chose to use Paypal for collecting money instead of Bnet. The difference here is company ethos. While Blizzard can be horrible about their content, they’re¬†the industry gold standard for¬†taking care of customers.

There are precedents for companies taking out large chunks of player-developer earnings, but usually only half as much as SOE wants. The industry standard for app stores such as Apple, Android and Steam is 30% share of net profits Рstill huge, but within comprehension. The most comparable case of player labor going into the development of games (for a profit) is DOTA 2, where skilled game artists can create models and sell them on Steam Workshop at a 15% fee.

As if the fee wasn’t abominable enough, here’s a snippet that deserves some attention:

You grant to SOE an unlimited, worldwide, non-exclusive, transferable, sublicenseable (through multiple tiers), royalty-free, fully-paid up, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use, reproduce, distribute, display and perform (whether publicly or otherwise), adapt (including, without limitation, the rights to edit, modify, translate, and reformat), create derivative works of, transmit, make, have made, sell, offer to sell, import and otherwise use and exploit (and have others exercise such rights on behalf of SOE) your Submission …

Because players can craft things outside of the game in other programs (like Photoshop) and bring them into the game, SOE requires that you license unlimited use of your work to them. You are surrendering your right to earn any compensation from their use of your work. They don’t claim to own it, but they can basically reproduce it and sell it at will and you can’t do anything about it. This is an amazing double standard. While developers are constantly declaring their rights to issue limited licenses that players cannot use for profit, SOE would deny that same right to their players.¬†It’s like they believe they should make money from their work and no one else.

If players had any rights in the virtual space, developers would have to part with the idea that our avatars and the work of our avatars belongs to them. This particular case bothers me because once again I find myself interested in one of their games, but it’s like they do everything they can to put players on the fence or discourage them from wanting to support them. They’re really asking a lot of players, as if the paid beta for a free to play game wasn’t already a questionable idea. Having finally experienced the beta I can say they’re running it like a Kickstarter. Regular announcements, little interaction with player issues on the forums, and waves of new beta testers, a move that raised my suspicions when I realized how tempted new testers would be to buy a beta key (it comes with one of the game best tools for harvesting and building).

The terms of use just add to the doubts some of us have about the game.¬†There’s still time for SOE to revisit these terms and bring them inline with fairness, so we’ll see how it develops. But this is a very alarming start.

Quest Log: Should Vloggers Pay Devs?

quest-logQuest Log is a feature in which I set out on adventure to learn how something works. This might be game mechanics, social issues, or technology. The goal is to gain a greater understanding of the topic and spread awareness.

Ever the controversy pot, Phil Fish has once again opened his mouth and revealed he’s a very moody and mean man! His remarks? Youtubers should pay game creators a portion of their ad revenue. Most of it.

As a gamer, as someone who doesn’t create¬†games, I disagree. If I buy a car and record myself driving it, I don’t owe the manufacturer money from ad revenue of my videos. His comments even call into question writing reviews. I use screenshots¬†all the time of my games when I write about them. If my blog were generating money, is he saying that for those specific reviews, I should pay the company money for the use of the screenshots?

At what point are my game experiences my own? I think this ties in with the question I posed the other day of player rights when it comes to games. At current, the industry is solidly using the traditional software model, where players simply license the use of the game. It’s like buying a subscription to Netflix, rather than buying the DVD. I don’t own Mad Men. I’m allowed to rent it’s use each month.

To be clear, let’s look at a single EULA for Square Enix (they aren’t all that unique or special, most game EULAs look exactly like this). The first thing it states (after the introduction) is that purchase of their game is simply the purchase of a license. The player owns nothing, not even their avatar, not even items they purchase in an item shop. We technically don’t even own the screenshots we take.

Square Enix grants to you the non-exclusive, non-transferable, limited right and license to install and use one (1) copy of the Game Software on one (1) computer hard drive at any given time solely for your personal use (the ‚ÄúLicense‚ÄĚ). All rights not specifically granted under this License are hereby reserved by Square Enix and, as applicable, by its licensors. The Game Software is licensed to you, not sold.

This quote speaks for itself.

In Fish’s view, gamers don’t even own the experiences they share with other gamers. If I decide to record myself playing a game, even after I bought it, even though the camera is mine and the controllers and the TV — of all companies to owe, I owe the game developer because the content of my show is considered to be theirs in Fish’s view. I think this approach isn’t just unreasonable, but irresponsible. If developers aren’t making games so that players can share their experiences with other players, then they ought not release them to the public. His reasoning ignores that developers enter into convenants with players foremost in the specific hopes that those players will help them sell their games. This doesn’t just count for streamers and vloggers. Anyone who purchases a game anywhere does so with the developer expectation that you will tell your friends about it and those friends will then buy it. Ignoring the unspoken bargain that developers strike with players is dishonesty at best about how game proliferation actually works.

I think this example goes to show that we do need a player’s rights document, because left to developers like Fish, players would not own the energy and time we spend playing games for audiences.¬†I own my labor, no? I can sell it to advertisers in turn for playing my game for other players. According to the EULA, I can install my game on my computer and play it even if friends are around, even if the neighborhood is looking at my screen. Besides that, consumer law allows me to do what I want, short of selling copies or infringing copyright, with what I purchase. Aside from legal implications, it’s just kinda mean spirited to feel like your players owe you money because their friends watched them play and another company paid you for it.

What do you think? Should you have to pay game developers when you make money from sharing your gaming sessions?

The Digital Frontier: Player Rights

14 years ago the highly regarded designer¬†Raph Koster penned an essay titled Declaration of the Rights of Avatars. In it, he laid out the rights that players should have in virtual worlds. MMORPGs. I’m not sure of the impact it’s had on the development of MMORPGs, but players seem to have a sense of their right to exist within virtual worlds anyway. On the digital frontier, it’s interesting that Koster had the foresight to understand the implications of avatars on our physical well-being.

I’ve summarized the declaration:

  1. Avatars are created free and equal in rights.
  2. Avatars should be treated as people, not pixels.
  3. Authority of the virtual space must proceed from the community; server admins shouldn’t see themselves as gods or tyrants.
  4. Liberty is the freedom to do things which¬†don’t injure someone else and should be defined in a code of conduct.
  5. The code of conduct should prohibit actions AND utterances harmful to the community.
  6. The code of conduct is the will of the community.
  7. Avatars cannot be unfairly punished and no one, not even administrators, are exempt from punishment.
  8. Punishments can’t be excessive.
  9. Avatars are innocent until proven guilty.
  10. Avatars have freedom of speech as long as the speech doesn’t violate the rights of others or the code of conduct.
  11. Avatars are responsible for their conduct and must be accountable for it.
  12. For the administration of the virtual space, some avatars must have special powers.
  13. Subscription fees are legit as long as they grant all avatars equal rights and no special privileges can be bought.
  14. Avatars have the right to know what administrators do to maintain the virtual space.
  15. A virtual community without a code of conduct is lawless.
  16. Avatars have a right to their digital data; it is their property.
  17. Avatars have a right to gather in great numbers, limited only by technical capacity.
  18. Avatars have a right to privacy and shouldn’t be deprived of it.
  19. This bill of rights shouldn’t be used to abuse avatars.

billofrightsThis frontier is critical. It’s here¬†that the fate of societies for the next 100 years is being decided. We’ll either choose to make them exactly like current societies, or we’ll wake up and see this as the opportunity to do better. ¬†Will the things which hold us back in the real world be recreated? Or will we see an opportunity to be free of them, not by ignoring, forgetting or pretending they don’t exist,¬†but by remembering that they do? These questions are the reason talking about¬†structural social issues are a huge deal¬†in the gaming world.

MMOs tend to have codes of conduct published, but you can tell they’re written by the legal team and guided less by ethics than by the need to protect one’s pocket book. ¬†But many games really do try to ban bad behavior because it ruins the experience for everyone. Blizzard has a rather broad, but shallow code which covers just about everything. Rift has taken the approach of grading violations by severity, which I find interesting.¬†Wildstar has their own code as well. All three are pretty similar, probably a cut and paste of each other, but with modifications. That’s how similar in wording and spirit they are.

Decker is already a reality. We are able to jack-in to computers, complete real transactions and log back out into meat space. Isn't this reason enough for a bill of rights for our avatars?

Decker is already a reality. We are able to jack-in to computers, complete real transactions and log back out into meat space. Isn’t this reason enough for a bill of rights for our avatars?

None of them really speak in terms of player rights in the virtual space. Which is interesting for companies who want to sell their players on their virtual worlds. What rights do players have in the virtual space? All any company has to say about that is in the EULA and ToS, which often runs counter to what Koster envisioned (for example, companies deny that players own their digital selves). Don’t you find it interesting MMO developers have nothing to say about player rights within the game?

What distinguishes something like a bill of rights from rote laws is that they tell people what they are permitted to do. They’re like a statement of liberty, almost celebrating rights. The above codes are strictly designed to tell players what NOT to do, and they leave no room for talking about what players can and ought to do in game, and importantly what developers can’t do to players. Imagine if you visited a restaurant and the menu, instead of telling you what’s available to order, told you instead what you could not order. It would be an awkward place to eat, wouldn’t it?¬†Maybe this explains the awkward interactions of players within MMOs, who these days require a tangible reason to interact (raids, dungeons, battlegrounds, etc). It’s as thought players can sense they’re not entirely welcome, like they’re guests in a strange world. How do guests act?

While Koster’s Declaration may have seemed absurd at the time, it was also kind of¬†inevitable when we think about it. Gamers talk everyday about how we treat one another in our games. One of the most important rights according to Koster is the second one:

The aim of virtual communities is the common good of its citizenry, from which arise the rights of avatars. Foremost among these rights is the right to be treated as people and not as disembodied, meaningless, soulless puppets. Inherent in this right are therefore the natural and inalienable rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.

We’re people behind the avatars. We should be treated as such by developers and fellow gamers alike. To see the next generation of gamers make the jump even further away from seeing their virtual selves as real shows that on the frontier, we’re not succeeding at advancing human rights. In fact, in the virtual space those rights are receding as players and developers see their behavior in games as insignificant and unreal.


The PvP debate rages on in MMOs between open world and battlegrounds. Yet battlegrounds are one of the best ways to honor player rights.

Will griefing and harassment still be seen as necessary evils in open worlds? Will the Tribunal of League of Legends evolve into a more complex and more successful tool for policing communities? Will representation finally be seen as important? That all depends on developers taking social issues within their games seriously. Few developers see their trade as a serious thing it seems. They sincerely believe “it’s just a game” and “game” means something completely unreal, inconsequential, non-life changing, pure shits and giggles. Yet they post a code of conduct for MMOs as if acknowledging the damage player behavior can do. So which is it?

MMO developers are slightly better than other genres in this case, but they also still tend to reduce players to mere pixels in their virtual worlds. Pointing out the lack of diversity¬†in a game or discrimination are seen as making a big deal out of something that’s fake. Even MMO developers, in the end, adopt the stance that in-game experiences are ultimately not real. They therefore think trollish behavior a nuisance at worse, instead of seeing it as a very serious problem for their players.¬†Emotions and experiences are never virtual.

And what about the rights of developers? Can’t they make whatever they want?¬†I think a better question is should developers make whatever they want without regard for it’s impacts on players. And to me the answer is clearly no. They can’t do whatever they want any more than the rest of us can. That doesn’t mean there’s no room for plenty of creativity and freedom.¬†I think that’s why many developers tend to err on the side of “its just a game” kind of thinking, because that line of reasoning is it’s own justification for doing whatever they want. It can always be written off as unreal and insignificant.

Still, I think the Declaration is only recently becoming more important. With VR well underway, we’re approaching the moment where our avatars will require digital rights in order to protect ourselves. If the digital frontier is to become anything relevant, it can’t be a place without consequence. On the contrary, it has to be a place of pure consequence.

Scree Tags: #playerrights #digitalfrontier #MMORPG