Link of the Moment – Johanna Blakely: Lessons from fashion’s free culture

Behold an interesting presentation from Johanna Blakely on how the extremely limited degree of copyright protection in the fashion industry may be helping it prosper, and how it could do the same for other industries. If you’re like me and only generally buy new clothing because the old stuff doesn’t fit and/or fell apart, you may be wondering what a video about the fashion industry is doing here. Watch and be enlightened.

Now, I’m not saying we should ditch the entirety of copyright and IP law for video games. It should still be illegal to take someone else’s stuff without their permission whether you nick it off a shelf or take a hit off a torrent. What I am interested in is the idea of how more sharing of ideas in game development could diversify and grow the industry.

Take for example the recent Exploding Rabbit creation Super Mario Bros. Crossover, a snazzy flash game in which you can play through the old NES classic with the option to replace Mario with other NES heroes like Link, Samus Aran, Mega Man, and soon Ryu Hayabusa, faithfully copied from their home games with many of their abilities intact. The title screen is probably the only piece of the project not clipped from someone else’s work, but at the same time these old parts are combined in new ways to create an essentially new(ish) product. Under the current laws it would cost a bundle in lisencing fees to wrangle all these characters from different developers into one game, and there’s a good chance the parties involved wouldn’t sign on for it. Rather unfortunate, because play that game for a few seconds and you’ll agree if they put it out on Wii Ware/XBLA/PSN you’d buy it in a heartbeat.

Sometimes these fan-made projects catch the eye of the copyright holders, and the results vary. Consider indie PC fighting game MUGEN, a basic platform allowing one to insert virtually any character imaginable in the form of a 2d sprite-based tourney fighter. Character lists are often populated with folks from various anime and manga, but most prominently with characters from other fighting games. Data is copied directly from the games to make them fight just as they did in their home game appearances, allowing one to assemble their own Marvel vs Capcom vs SNK vs Tatsunoko vs Nintendo vs Mortal Kombat vs Care Bears dream team roster. This could understandably rattle the IP holders and there’s approximately no chance at all of this ever being in a store, but as a non-profit fan project Capcom and SNK have actually both given MUGEN the thumbs-up, considering it akin to fan-art of their characters. The base MUGEN game is essentially just a few menus and a framework; the rest of this is added in by the player.

Others aren’t quite so thrilled to see other folks playing with their creations. Fans of the classic King’s Quest set about creating their own continuation of the series entitled The Silver Lining. Back in ’05 Sierra (the copyright holders at the time) sent a cease and decist order, though the team managed to accquire a non-commercial lisence to keep making the game as a fan project. Unfortunately the project was dealt another blow earlier this year when the IP changed hands to Activision, who had no interest in letting TSL continue. A similar fate befell Chrono Resurrection back in ’04, a complete remastering of the legendary Chrono Trigger with updated 3d graphics and improved audio quality.

Granted it’s a bit more understandable that Square-Enix took this one out considering they were angling to do their own Chrono Trigger re-release in the near future, but I find that just a bit short-sighted. Some developers would see a project like this and see potential recruits. Valve, for example, recruits heavily from the mod community. Counter-Strike began as a fan-made mod for Half-Life’s basic multiplayer mode. Portal began as a puzzle game called Narbacular Drop created for a college class. Left 4 Dead began as a mod for Counter-Strike with a small team battling a horde of knife-wielding bots and someone asking the question one should ask of every game; would this be better with zombies?

There is of course good reason as to why companies want to hold onto their copyrights and patents: money. There’s quite a lot of money to be made in sticking your flag in something and charging everyone else admission to use it. Did you know the reason you so frequently sit staring at a loading screen with nothing to do is because of a patent? Somebody patented the concept of playing a mini-game during a video game’s loading screens, so if you make a game and want to let the player doodle around with a momentary amusement inbetween levels you have to pay that guy a lisence fee. With the ever-rising costs of bloom lighting and giblet physics nobody wants to drop even more change to such a small part of the game, so we have to sit and wait and stare at a little spinning icon instead.

For this reason people have tried to patent everything from tire swings to the concept of throwing a stick to play fetch with a dog. Most of these get shot down because you’re not allowed to patent concepts that are too basic, so as to prevent situations suggested in the video where someone patents the shoe and nobody but that one company can make shoes. Few such limits exist in video games however because it’s hard to justify a game mechanic as a ‘necessity’. What if someone had patented the concept of platformers, or the idea of power-ups?

One might say this has already happened to sports games. After a few years of being soundly thrashed on the football field by 2k Games, Electronic Arts metaphorically declared they were taking their ball and going home by signing an exclusive lisence to be the only game developer allowed to use official NFL teams/players/etc. Legally it’s not recognized as a monopoly because other developers are still allowed to make football games, but that’s rather like claiming exclusive rights to burger patties and saying the other fast food places can still get by on chicken and salads.

In the long run a lack of competition is harmful both to the unopposed champion and to the field as a whole. The NBA Live series, for example, had a steady decline in quality until 2k Games came in and made them work for it. Today both NBA Live and NBA 2k are strong series, each superior in some areas and lesser in others. Madden on the other hand, now without any meaningful competition (gold star for effort on the part of Blitz and All-Star 2k8 but both sold poorly), and though there’s minor sprinklings of innovation the series is steadily stagnating. Its long-running bugs and flaws are becoming more and more obvious and annoying to even die-hard fans as the problems continue to go unsolved.

So to bring it back around, how could the game industry benefit from more sharing of ideas? The hordes of grizzled space marines exploring worlds consisting entirely of brown gray and brownish gray say there may be a bit too much direct copying, but there can and has been success in using old parts to make something new. In addition to the examples above, I recently impulse-bought a strange little title called Snoopy Flying Ace, an update of an old PS2 game of similar design (and the subject of an upcoming 5×5 review). It’s basically Crimson Skies but in WW1 with Snoopy and the gang. Shadow of the Colossus took the tradition of having a gigantic final boss and made a game with nothing but sixteen giant boss fights. Metal Gear invented the stealth genre by taking a fairly generic top-down military shooter and encouraging the player to sneak around the enemies. I’m also fairly excited about the upcoming ModNation Racers, which appears to be the result of smashing Mario Kart into Little Big Planet in an LHC.

I can think of a few other crazy mash-ups I’d like to see. It’d be a hoot to see the Lego guys do a GTA game, or maybe do a proper RTS (here’s hoping for the Lego MMOG). Maybe enlist the creators of Brikwars. I’d like to see the guys who did Robot Alchemic Drive team up with the Super Robot Taisen guys for an XBLA game with online multiplayer. I’d love it if somebody took Liberty City and filled it with zombies. Truthfully I could make an entire article listing games I’d like to see redone with zombies. Maybe I will. Or perhaps to paraphrase the Game Overthinker, take any game and ask ‘Would this be better with a monkey?’ (Quote and image nicked from a more interesting blog.)

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