Intellectual Rights in Game Design

I’ve had a fascinating couple of days now, discussing the financial precepts of creating games with Jarkko Vuori. Our expectations and assumptions about the topic are rather different, so we’re having some trouble agreeing on how a reasonable and efficient game studio should distribute matters of responsibility, profit and ownership of intellectual property rights. Our differences are so marked that they’re really forcing me to question my own assumptions, worked out in long years of involvement in indie roleplaying game design. As Jarkko comes from a background of commercial software engineering, it’s no wonder that our ideas differ quite a bit in this regard.

My background for these issues comes, unsurprisingly, from the Forge, where I’ve read and participated for several years. The inspiration, methods and goals for Arkenstone Publishing, my small roleplaying publishing venture, have all been initialized and given form by that connection, so it goes without saying that my understanding of game design and it’s financial profile have been influenced to great degree, too.

The basic Forge credo for a game designer (not an official policy of the site, perhaps, but a shared understanding between long-term participants) is that satisfying life as a designer is inextricably entwined with creator financial rights and artistic freedom. This idea is often expressed obliquely, with many variations and differing viewpoints, but the basic ethos stays the same: a game designer should have the choice to enjoy the same risks and benefits any other artist does, with an opportunity to control the economic decisions for his own work. This is not so much a matter of all kinds of horror stories circulated about the abusive practices of game producers (although there are plenty of those, too); rather, I view it as a parallel development to independent artistic work in any other field: the separation of art studios from production companies in financial terms has for a long time been the de facto state of business in all senior forms of art, while the struggles of indie comics publishers, musicians and now, game designers, have been there for anyone to see during the last couple of decades. It seems that the same process has to be followed in all fields separately, but the end-results seem to be the same in all cases: the most natural working relationship of the artist and his publisher is one of two independent economic actors free to seek market relationships with whoever may serve their interests best. Artists are, by nature, entrepreneurs, staking their livelihood and career on their own talent.

Well, that’s one way of interpreting the message of the Forge, anyway. The thing here is that I’ve never been that rabid about this particular facet of the indie gaming movement; I can get all zany about innovation and artistic ambition, but I’ve always thought that whether these things are best achieved in salaried relationships or full-blown self-publishing, that would have to be resolved on a case-by-case basis. Especially far be it from me to claim that somebody else “should” work independently, when I myself would be quite willing to take employment as a game designer or writer, if the terms were right.

This context is what makes our discussion with Jarkko Vuori so interesting, when we finally got around to discussing contractual matters. To make it clear how different the cultural atmospheres of our experiences are, let me explain Jarkko’s view conscisely, the way he gave it to me:

Jarkko Vuori on creating an indie game studio

Building a trustworthy team of professionals is fraught with personal frictions and all kinds of personnel risks. You have to keep everybody happy and motivated, but also keep the team focused on the goals of the endeavour. We are willing to share both ownership and profits fairly and equally between participants in theory, but the practical difficulties are night insurmountable: legal complexity, determining how to distribute the pie, keeping everybody content with their share and all that stuff are not only difficult, but also quite unnecessary for an indie project that has no revenues nor liabilities. There will be time enough to determine rewards and such when the project actually starts making money.

Considering the above, the best method of structuring a game studio is to focus ownership of the project in all respects on one project leader, who may then ensure that everybody is treated fairly and the project won’t fail because of disagreements between participants. When all rights to produced materials are held secure by a trustworthy and fair leader, the project will not be endangered by a suddenly leaving team member, for example. Likewise there won’t be any nasty arguments about shares or project direction in the future.

As an indie project cannot immediately compensate the participants in any significant manner, it’s very important for the team to be motivated to work hard because they want to be a part of something great, because they want the work experience, and because they know that if the project becomes a success, they will be hired to continue in the business. Immediate demands for contractual rights are slightly crass in this idealized environment; being willing to work in an indie game development company should mean a willingness to set aside such matters for now, when they’re not really important or pertinent just yet.

The Disagreement

Well, as I told above, I’m not particularly fanatic about ownership issues and such. Make me a good deal and I’ll even sign a NDA and come to work every day at the same time. Include a lunch benefit or something and I’ll even shave the beard. What decisions others in the same project make is not my business; for instance, in this case Jarkko told me that the programmers that are participating in the project have been pretty happy, almost insistent on a corporate structure along the aforedescribed lines. Good for them, I say.

However, I now find that even if I’m not dogmatic about it, I seem to be rather reluctant to make personal decisions that assign all rights to my work to somebody else with no solid immediate or future recompense, only a promise of future consideration in case the project succeeds. It’s simply not a good enough deal for me; I could imagine how the case could have been different five years ago, when I was less experienced as an artist and an enterpreneur, when working on a project like this would have been valuable experience, nice diversion and a potential career move. I’m not saying that I’m too big nowadays for something like this (I’m not); it’s just that I already have so many opportunities and interesting projects at hand right now, many of them led by myself, that an uncompromised suggestion to go work for somebody else in exhange for the opportunity to work with game design isn’t so attractive anymore. Nowadays I can do my own design work without support from others, and my work has value; even if I don’t care that much about fiscal compensations, it’s a matter of respect that I am considered a real partner in any project I participate in, not an unnamed drone working for vague promises of future consideration. Not just respect, but self-respect, really; I don’t know if there really are people out there who feel that their work, at any point in their career, is of so little worth that they should just be thankful for the opportunity to work. In any case, I’m not one of them, and perhaps never have been.

Practically speaking, of course, being all independent and democratic has its risks and challenges. How you distribute shares and voices in governing the shared project can be a daunting task. What do you do if there’s a social meltdown and one member of the team wants to leave, taking his work with him? Or what if one person works much more or on a higher level than the other one, who decides whether they should be compensated with greater say or share in the project? What if new people come into the project later? What if the project succeeds and brings in opportunities for spin-offs and sequels, who makes the decisions of brand management? Lots of difficulties that I don’t want to just ignore and claim they don’t matter: they do matter, and if Jarkko considers them too much to overcome, thinks that it’s impossible to organize a studio based on individualism and mutual respect, I can respect that as an administrative decision. I don’t need to subjugate myself to that leadership, but it might regardless prove to be the right decision that leads to success for everybody concerned.

Anyway, I think that I’ve outlined the discussion in enough detail to make it evident how problematic these things can be. We’ll be continuing the talks with Jarkko later, and hopefully we’ll find some common ground on the issue. It is entirely possible that we won’t though; I have great faith in mature people cooperating as independent and self-directed individuals, while Jarkko perhaps doesn’t so much. Considering that he’s the one who’s been doing management for years and I’m just a young punk, it’s not an opinion to be dismissed lightly. I’ll be thinking on this.

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5 Responses to “Intellectual Rights in Game Design”

  1. Suzie Says:

    This was one of the most interesting posts I’ve read in a while, and really highlights what a complex issue this is.

  2. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    Thanks, Suzie. I’ll be coming back to the topic when we get our discussions with Jarkko finished. I have some thoughts I have to sort out on the matter first, though. Hopefully discussing the practical topic with Jarkko helps me further clarify to myself where I stand in regards to this.

  3. Burgeri Says:

    I know what you’re going through. Without going into the specifics, I ended up handing the IP away on a vague promise of future involvement and possible compensation. The thought process for making the decision went somewhat like this:

    1. Will the world be a better place if the IP gets made into a product and gets out to the market? If yes, go to part 2. If no, don’t bother.

    2. Do you have the material and immaterial means to make it into a product and market it? If no, go to part 3. If yes, get on with it!

    3. Does the other guy have the means to do and market the thing? If yes, go to part 4. If no, forget it!

    4. Realize that if you do this, the product gets made, you’ll get at least something and in any case it’s a reference for your CV. If you don’t do it, it’ll never get done.

    That’s how I did it but it wasn’t easy.

  4. IP wants to be owned « Game Design is about Structure Says:

    […] reason for my departure is the one I mentioned in my last post on the topic: we simply come from too different worlds, and do not have the energy to bridge the […]

  5. Burgeri Says:

    I can’t understand why the core start-up team would not be given shares of ownership, as long as Jarkko retains 51% or more of the company.


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