Recently game studio Red Thread ran a competition to include fan-made music in revered adventure revival Dreamfall Chapters. Or at least, they tried to.
The competition's announcement was met with a growing chorus of outrage, and a large number of people criticized Red Thread for exploiting unpaid labor. Shortly after it began, the competition was shut down. Now we're left with a question: should fans ever do work for free?
Over the past couple years, game creators and their communities have embraced their communities to an unprecedented degree—sometimes to the point that fans end up involved in the creation process. More often than not, it's something small: a little artwork, a light dab of writing, or even just an idea.
For example, The Banner Saga let certain backers design in-game banners, Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn (far more dubiously) allowed a person to pay $6,500 to be their concept artist, and multiplayer FPS Natural Selection 2 now has an entire volunteer dev team made up of fans. Meanwhile games like SOE's Landmark and Epic's new Unreal Tournament are leaning heavily on fans to make content to fill out their slightly skin-and-bones frameworks.
And most recently, it happened with Red Thread's Dreamfall Chapters competition. The premise was simple: submit a short piece of music, and it could end up "within the game world; e.g. radio speakers, bars and clubs, street performers and musicians." Exciting! Sure, people weren't getting paid, but having your stuff in a major game is damned cool. Some fans dug it. Others, though? Not so much.
So, Red Thread publicly pulled down the red curtain on its competition. In retrospect, Red Thread head Ragnar Tørnquist is not happy with the situation, but he understands why it happened: there's been a more general tension building over fan labor and free labor in the video game world (and outside of it) for quite some time.
"I didn't think the competition was gonna be controversial," he said in a phone conversation. "It just didn't occur to me. It was absurd."
"I'll take credit for phrasing some of it poorly," he said, "but I think we also opened a can of worms that's been wriggling in the industry for a while now. We hosted this competition at the worst possible time, with the whole thing about certain groups feeling like they're being exploited—that some companies are definitely finding ways to utilize free labor, that people feel like they're not being appreciated. There's a lot of pressure to lower your prices and to work cheaper and work more. It just seemed like a lot of people jumped on us. I guess we were an easy target? I don't know."
Tørnquist insists that his intentions were completely innocuous, but intentions are only one aspect of an increasingly wonky equation. We live in a world where people are sometimes manipulated into plying valuable skills for free—especially in fields where they're grateful to get any work at all. I mean, we're talking video games here. Making them? That's a dream-come-true for a lot of people.. And some people will do anything for that dream, even if it means making big sacrifices. Other people, meanwhile, are willing to prey on that passion—flying the seemingly noble flag of "exposure" or "experience" in exchange for free labor.
Some people think that's simply not acceptable, no matter what the situation.
"I think [paying fans who do work for you] is an important thing, since it's hard enough for freelancers to get paid—any method of commercial projects getting work for free seems to undermine us even further," said Super Meat Boy and Crypt of the Necrodancer composer Danny Baranowsky, who publicly opposed the Dreamfall music competition on Twitter. "I get that some people want to just do music as a hobby and aren't concerned with compensation, and Red Thread has every right to hold a contest like that. But we also have a right to not be okay with it."
The wider implications of all this, however, are complicated. Getting fans directly involved in game creation is—rare exceptions aside—a new practice, and there's no standardized way to do it. Instead, many creators—especially in the realm of indie games and crowdfunding, where budgets are modest and communities are passion balloons seconds from bursting—are trying everything to see what sticks.
For Natural Selection 2 creator Unknown Worlds, whose game wouldn't have ever gotten made without the help of fans, that means an entire post-release development team made of unpaid supporters.
"We have our Natural Selection 2 community dev team," said Unknown Worlds' Hugh Jeremy. "They're unpaid, and they're doing significant work on Natural Selection 2 and releasing significant updates on Steam for the game.
"In terms of compensation, it's a really complicated question," he said. "One could look at what Unknown Worlds is doing and say, 'You guys are exploiting the labor of a group of motivated individuals to make your product better.' That's definitely not how we see it. Earlier this year we decided our resources would be devoted to our next project. Natural Selection 2's updates would either stop, or if someone else wanted to do them, they could. So they are."
"Our position with [community developers] is, if you're not getting value out of this, don't do it."
So then, where does the value for community members come from, and is that—in itself—enough? Or is claiming that fans are deriving satisfaction from the sheer merit of their work simply a dodge? Increasingly, it depends on how you do it. One crucial tenet appears to be that fans take on the work voluntarily.
"Our position with them is, if you're not getting value out of this, don't do it," said UW's Jeremy. "If you're not enjoying it, or you don't want to do it, or you feel like you're not appreciated, then there's no harm in walking away. While they may not be compensated in value in money terms, they're clearing deriving value in other ways."
And if nobody's getting anything out of it? Then Jeremy said UW would just pull the plug on the whole enterprise. For now, though, NS2's community development team has a lot of creative freedom. According to Jeremy, anything else-would constitute "sucking value out of [the volunteers]" rather than giving them something of value by way of their hard work.
I checked with Natural Selection 2's's community dev team to see how things are on their end. They told me that this isn't an easy gig; the international team's combined efforts amount to a 24 hour work day. Some chip in a few hours a week, others practically treat it like a full-time job. It sounds like the learning experience has been valuable, though.
"Developing NS2 as part of this community team has allowed us to learn a ton about dealing with personalities, people, organizational logistics and how Game Development really is hard," the team said as a group via email. "As a fan from the sidelines it all seems so easy: why can't you just fix X or implement Y? But when you are the ones developing it, you see all the limitations and the framework needed, the feedback required and every other nuance necessary to effectively pull off your goals. It can be daunting, but it's also incredibly rewarding, especially when we are fans of what we are doing."
Many team members are aspiring game developers themselves, meaning that eventually they hope to move onto bigger and better things. The community dev team and Unknown Worlds try not to stand in their way:
"Our group is always changing, that's the nature of an all volunteer team," said the community dev team. "People will come and go for any number of reasons, though saying that our member turnover has been exceptionally low and we can disable access to systems if need be. Sometimes it will hurt more depending on the person, but ultimately we are strongest as a team."
Still though, Natural Selection 2's community development team repeatedly referred to their passion as the driving force throughout our correspondence, and—in the wrong hands—passion is easily manipulated. Again, I'll point to instances of developers charging people money to do work for them, the most egregious of which (that I've seen) being the Shaq Fu example. And yet someone somebody did, in fact, drop more than six thousand dollars to provide the game's developers with concept art. This stuff doesn't always benefit fans and aspiring professionals, even when they think it does.
Dreamfall's Tørnquist, however, doesn't think that's a good reason to write off every creator who tries to work creatively with their fans as cape-clad caricatures of pure evil. "People need to get paid," he said. "And I agree: you have to balance the line between making money and doing stuff because you think that unless you do it for free you're not gonna get anywhere. But there is a difference between who you're working for, what you're doing, and what you get out of it."
There are many factors to consider, in other words. As efforts like Natural Selection 2's community development team show, it can be done (at least, seemingly) in a way that benefits fans rather than manipulating them. Tørnquist worries, however, that recent backlash against the idea—most loudly and pitchfork-ly lobbed at his game's music competition—might force creators to pull back their borders and remove fans from the creative process.
"We were gonna do more competitions—writing and everything," Tørnquist said. "And we already ran one for fan art. But all of that is canceled now. We're too afraid of potential consequences. We're gonna do it ourselves. And if we decide to pay for it, we're gonna go to somebody we know and pay them to do the job like we do in other areas of the game."
Is paying fans the only answer? Is it—ideally speaking—the best way forward here? Due to both logistical and monetary concerns, Tørnquist isn't so sure.
"I don't think paying fans for contributions to the game is the answer," he said. "If we did it that way, we'd just use experienced freelancers instead. Once you get into paying people, then you get into the question of how much you should pay them. Is it based on number of hours? A symbolic sum? Because that's really different based on where fans are from. $100 isn't a lot in Norway, but it's a lot in other places. It's really hard to make that fair. I think once you start mixing money into it it becomes even more of a controversial issue."
When smaller studios are at the helm (and again, it's mainly smaller studios that even do these sorts of things), there's also the matter of making sure you have enough to reimburse your own employees. Tørnquist continued:
"Some people asked us to give away a percentage of the profits [from eventual sales]," Tørnquist said, "but we have a team that's been working on this game for 18 months, who are reliant on our game doing well. We have to take care of those people before we take care of people who contributed one piece of art or a short song. There's a difference."
Unknown Worlds, however, has actually tried paying fans—or at least, a fan. Natural Selection 2 player/modder 'Loki' created a level called Kodiak Station, and UW decided to run a little experiment: they'd sell it as official DLC, and Loki would get 50 percent of the profits. So, how'd it go? Not super great, unfortunately.
"It was successful for us in some ways but not in others," said Unkown Worlds' Hugh Jeremy. "There were a lot of costs for us in doing it. Setting up the DLC, organizing it, etc. We didn't earn a lot of revenue out of it. I mean, we made it public. It was about $12,000. For Unknown Worlds, it wasn't making sense to continue that specific type of project."
That does not mean, however, that Unknown Worlds has locked away its massive, Gorge-shaped piggy bank and thrown away the key. Fans might still be able to make money off their creations in the future. It just didn't work well in this particular instance.
"I don't think it reflects more broadly on whether it's valid to do revenue share with community members," said Jeremy. "I didn't think, 'Oh, we should never do revenue share with community members.' It was just that specific project, that specific test, didn't make business sense."
"I imagine that by creating different types of products that could be sold in different ways," he continued, "it could well be that it's appropriate and good for community members to receive money. I mean, we know that to some degree. Look at modding scenes. They just keep getting bigger and bigger. There's something here."
Baranowsky, meanwhile, considers that sort of thinking at least a step in the right direction. He explained that it's not the biggest deal ever to, say, petition fans for a simple idea—something that doesn't require professional-level skills—but anything beyond that should come with a handsome (or at least existent) sum of money.
Speaking on Dreamfall's music competition, Baranowsky said: "If they would have had any kind of reward I probably would have been much more OK with it. Even like $500 for a 3-minute track—which is really low for commissioned music, and particularly for a massive Kickstarter—would have demonstrated more respect for the worth of someone's time and effort."
Tørnquist was hoping to get 50 or so small songs from fans. That would've added up to $10,000—not exactly pocket change. There's no clear solution here, but if game creators are going to keep working with their fans, they need to carefully consider what exactly that sort of collaboration looks like, when and how the wall between fans and creators comes down, and who benefits when it does.