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.
As one example, the Watch Dogs: Legion production page on HitRecord lists a need for a “Dark Electronic Heist Song.” “The themes of this song are going to be centered around ‘Infiltration,’ ‘Teamwork,’ ‘Suspense,’ ‘High Stakes,’ ‘Thievery,’ so keep these in mind when contributing!” reads part of the song’s project overview. Hundreds of people have already started posting their initial demos.
“The core innovation in Watch Dogs: Legion is that you can recruit and play as anyone, and bring them into your resistance, and they can become the heroes of your game,” the game’s creative director, Cling Hocking, said in a YouTube video discussing the partnership. “When we first started thinking about that as sort of the theme, that’s when we had this idea that maybe we should work with fans, and the community, and other players in order to add value, and reflect that theme in the musical landscape of our world. That’s why we went to HitRecord.”
Ubisoft first tried this model with the science-fiction game Beyond Good and Evil 2, which is still in development. It has been criticized as a way to replace salaried or contracted work with “spec” work in which creatives volunteer their time and labor without knowing for sure whether they’ll be paid.
“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.
Some creators on HitRecord don’t necessarily see it that way, though. “On this platform, we can improve and add our own ideas to some creations, such as in the studio. It was for me, a really casual project,” Alexis Le Borgne, an artist living in France who contributed to Beyond Good and Evil 2 through HitRecord, told Kotaku in DM. For his contributions to the Shiva and Ganesha art in the game, he was paid $993.91.
Denisse Takes, a musician who helped create one of the game’s songs titled “Unite Us,” didn’t necessarily disagree with criticisms of the business model but said it was the right thing for her. “I’m not dismissing what someone else believes or feels. Right on, protect others,” Takes told Kotaku in an email. “But when discussing this subject I think some people forget that we have personal autonomy as artists. What fulfills me might not fulfill someone else.”
She said that unlike many other HitRecord users, she was contacted first by Ubisoft community representatives via her YouTube channel where she had been covering the game’s development. The company then worked with her to develop the initial demo for the song, which was eventually taken to community in June 2018 for other people to iterate on. For her work on “Unite Us,” Denisse was ultimately paid $566.28.
“I can’t speak to what the future holds. But I can tell you is that it’s helped me. It’s fulfilled my life—personally,” she said. “I got into this fully knowing what I’d be paid. I didn’t participate because of the money. I got into this because I could do it at my leisure. I could back out of it at any point in time. I could have contributed just one word if I wanted to.”
We asked Ubisoft for their reaction to the ongoing debate, and they directed us to the following statement published on Twitter:
“The Watch Dogs: Legion Audio team worldwide is already working with professional artists and composers on more than 140 licensed songs, and an original score in the game. The additional contributions—no matter how large or small—from anyone within the HitRecord community are completely voluntary, and are meant to give them a chance to have their own creative expressions include in the game.”