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Co-Creating Computer Games

The post-lunch sessions of this conference constitute a mini-conference on computer games and the law. It is opened by Greg Lane of the Brisbane-based games developer Auran, responsible for titles such as Dark Reign and Trainz. The computer games industry is significantly large - twice the size of the movie industry, and growing twice as fast. In its multimedia inputs it's also a classic example for creative industries production, which involves massively interdisciplinary inputs into its IP 'asset creation', as Greg puts it. Interestingly, too, games are increasingly involving user co-production or co-creation. This is the case with Trainz, a train simulator which enables its users to produce rolling stock models, physical environments, and action scenarios to be used in the game - and interestingly more content was produced by users for Trainz (which sold some 3-400,000 copies) than for the only competitor project by Microsoft, which sold ten times as much, due to Microsoft's reluctance to engage fully with its users.

Greg sees some radical changes ahead in content development - as user-contributed assets become increasingly intelligent, they also require more and more complexity in their development (e.g. a windmill in Trainz which reads the current wind situation and adjusts its direction and speed accordingly), and so users are now beginning to team up to develop such content rather than work on their own. User contributions are now so important that a company like Auran probably could not survive without its users' input (Greg cites another example from outside the company: the game Warcraft now has some 300,000 user-contributed assets associated with it) - and this also raises moral obligations for the company to recognise (and perhaps reward) its users' contributions appropriately.

Next up is my colleague Sal Humphreys from QUT's Creative Industries faculty, speaking on the legal aspects of computer games as they begin to involve an increasing number of third-party (sometimes even considered 'fourth-party') content creators. She begins by noting that games themselves are highly interactive environments, of course - they differ structurally from most other media forms, and this then also has various legal implications. Games also are an already commercialised environment, and may therefore be a useful arena in which to explore the application of creative commons approaches to third-party content which are something of a compromise between full commercialisation and full waiver of any proprietary rights.

It is also important to recognise that games exist in a number of stationary and mobile platforms and for solitary or multiple players; Sal will focus especially on PC games here. She notes that within games there is often a requirement for users to become involved in the content production cycle: the content only emerges if users contribute to it (by solving puzzles or otherwise embedding their own creativity into the game). Interactivity in games, therefore, involves an active 'audience', which means that audiences change and become productive - this is a kind of shared or collaborative authorship (especially also in multiuser games) which already challenges received copyright paradigms. The relationships between industry developers, publishers, and players are reconfigured, from a linear production cycle (author -> text -> publisher -> audience) to a much more complex beast.

Player-created content includes skins, objects, artificial intelligence agents (bots), customised user interfaces, or even entirely new games which build on existing game engines. Some 90% of content in The Sims is created by players, for example. How publishers react to this creative effort is different between different games publishers - some provide the tools, some provide even the exchange mechanisms, some enter into direct commercial arrangements with specific player-creators.

What is often seen here is the emergence of secondary economies, where players may create markets for in-game items, selling game objects for real money - however, the question of what IP issues apply here is problematic (according to some interpretations, in-game objects may be owned by the game creator rather than the player, for example, however much the player has contributed to the development of such objects). Who, for example, owns a player's avatar within a multiplayer online environment - the player or the game publisher/provider?