Saturday, August 17, 2013

Making Mods: The pros and cons of fan created content

The recently announced Kickstarter for the Starcraft Universe mod has drawn a lot of attention. At the time of writing, with over twenty days to go, the Kickstarter has raised nearly half of its $80,000 goal and appears incredibly likely to be successfully funded. What is especially interesting, is that the project has been sanctioned by Blizzard (although they will give no direct support). In this post, I discuss some of the likely reasons for allowing this project to proceed instead of slapping it with a cease and desist order.


Some Background

For those out of the loop, Startcraft Universe is a Starcraft mod that basically transforms the game engine into an MMORPG. If all goes according to plan, it will be fully voiced and feature a non-canon story that tells an alternate version of events of the Starcraft lore. The ambitious mod plans to add numerous classes and feature a full-fledged raiding system. Best yet, the entire project will be available to play for free using the Startcraft Starter Edition from Blizzard. For full details, I recommend checking out the Kickstarter page (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/747939120/starcraft-universe).

How fan-content can be detrimental

I think most gamers who had heard about the project before it hit Kickstarter were sceptical that it would even make it that far. Similar(ish) projects, such as the fan made Final Fantasy 7 movie, are usually shut down through cease and desist orders once they garner enough attention. While often the reaction from the community is that shutting down these projects only serves to alienate the fan base, I think that publishers mostly make this move with good reason. Chiefly, publishers ought to protect their brand from being financially exploited without receiving a royalty. No doubt, many unsanctioned projects are strictly a labour of love and are never intended to bring in revenue. That said, if a project goes unchecked, it may ultimately evolve into requiring revenue to continue, thus putting publishers in the awkward position where a derivative work is making money without them seeing a penny. Publishers invest huge amounts of money to develop a brand on the assumption that they will be able to recoup that money down the line. The point here is that developing something takes time and money and it is unfair that someone else should reap the rewards for that investment.

The counterpoint to the above is that a fan project may be totally willing to give some (or even all) money made back to the publisher in order to keep working on their project. To this, I contend that sometimes a project will be detrimental to future plans for a franchise. Square, who has been fiercely protective of Final Fantasy, may indeed have plans to eventually release another Final Fantasy 7 movie. If this is the case, they don’t want to, and shouldn’t have to, compete with fan material to promote their own brand. Further on this point, it is entirely plausible that Square has engaged in market research and determined a release schedule to maximize the impact of its brands. In this case, fan made content could be seen as detrimental to the long-term profitability of the brand. While a cease and desist order decision made under this reasoning may be inscrutable to the public, I think it is nonetheless valid. The take home point here is that sound reasoning to stop a fan-project isn’t always transparent.

A few other points in favour of publishers here surround the issue of brand integrity and logistics. For brand integrity, it is plain to see that not all fan-made content will project the brand positively. Add the word ‘porno’ next to ‘Final Fantasy 7’ and suddenly that fan-made movie goes from 'lovingly-crafted' to “lovingly”-crafted. I suspect the likely detriment to a brand from such fan works is intuitive and it is totally understandable why a publisher would not want to allow such work to continue. Finally, in order to avoid such perversions, it is simply easier for a publisher to issue a cease and desist rather than fully investigate each potential fan project to see if it fits with the brand image. It is not the publisher’s responsibility to comb every derivative work and personally give its blessing to each project. It is awesome when a publisher does this but the public needs to realize that such attention costs a lot more than issuing a form letter cease and desist.

How fan content can be beneficial

With the above points said, I think it would behove publishers to consider some of the positives of allowing fan projects to go ahead even if it may mean that someone else is making some money from their brand. In the case of Starcraft Universe, the 80k they hope to raise is not a paltry sum (even to Blizzard), but I think the benefits of letting this project go ahead will offset this in the end. First and foremost, by allowing fan projects, a publisher is able to generate good will. Blizzard, whose reputation has been slightly shaken since the release of Diablo 3, intimately understands that goodwill can drive sales down the line and vice versa. By sanctioning Starcraft Universe, Blizzard is making a statement that the fan community is important enough to them that even a slight loss in potential revenue is acceptable to keep the community engaged. The expected return here is that a strong fan community will continue to purchase Blizzard products in the future. I suspect that Blizzard will also recoup any potential lost royalties in new Starcraft sales alone. Sure the mod is available for free, but it may pique players to want to purchase the original game in full to explore the story Blizzard has woven. Here, the logic is that a high quality fan project will positively raise awareness of the brand and garner increased sales.

Another reason to allow fan content to flourish is that it may provide inspiration for official works. Starcraft Universe essentially allows Blizzard to gauge appeal for a Starcraft MMO and Blizzard is accessing invaluable market research for free. If the mod meets lukewarm appeal, Blizzard may save millions by knowing not to develop a Starcraft MMO. Beyond this, Blizzard can mine the mod for content ideas, picking the best story ideas and retooling the ones that are almost there. Again, Blizzard is also getting free market research on what ideas/stories are popular and which aren’t. Finally, fan made content is an excellent way to scout for talent. The publisher is able to see how a candidate works using their brand and can cherry pick the best creators to fuel their development for future titles. In this case, I would venture that it is a win-win; the publisher gets top talent and the creator gets to work for a company they obviously have a passion for.

Summary

 In the end, I think that the sanctioning of fan-content is not as black and white as it is often made out to be. A publisher can potentially gain or lose depending on numerous factors. While I feel that, in general, the default position should be to allow fan content as it fuels a robust gaming community, I do not think that it should be innately seen as draconian when a publisher issues a cease and desist order.