Look! It Moves! by Adi Tantimedh: Eve Online And The Crowdsourcing Of A Science Fiction Epic

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So I ran off to my local Chinatown DVD shop to buy the new Wong Kar-Wai movie THE GRANDMASTER with a plan to watch and then write about it, but something else caught my attention this weekend. Wong Kar-Wai will have to wait.

EVE ONLINE, the decade-old spaceship MMO subscription game held their Eve Fanfest in Reykevik this weekend and announced that they’re going to take players’ stories and turn them into a comic published by Dark Horse and a TV series to be directed by Baltasar Kormákur (director of this summer’s movie adaptation of Steven Grant’s crime graphic novel 2 GUNS).

In EVE ONLINE, players choose their faction, get their ships, make money, form corporations (their version of guilds), raid other corporations, blow up their ships and steal their money and assets. It’s robber baron capitalism in space with the brakes off, outright gangsterism. The game has hardcore subscribers who have kept it dynamic and vibrant, players who are highly educated, intelligent and dedicated to deep, ruthless, paranoid strategies the game demands to maintain an edge over rival corporations. Jim Rossignol at Rock Paper Shotgun has devoted long stories to how players have worked together to create their own campaigns and battles against other players. Players indulged in deep acts of espionage in-game (and sometimes in real life) in their battles for corporate galactic supremacy, far more convoluted, unpredictable and insane than anything a screenwriter could ever come up with, engaging in a litany of double-dealing, defections, skullduggery and betrayals that would make John le Carré’s head explode. One of its most legendary, loved and notorious players made the headlines this year when he turned out to be a US State Department official who was killed in Benghazi, and was online talking to his fellow players when he died.

The possibility of stories is what’s beautiful about EVE ONLINE. It’s just not for me. When I played the demo, I couldn’t even get my ship out of dry dock before quitting in boredom. I’m perfectly happy being a spectator on the sidelines, a voyeur. Which would make me the perfect target audience for an EVE ONLINE TV series.

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Crowdsourcing has been a growing trend since the late 1990s when the internet and social media began to take off. CCP has set up a website where players of EVE ONLINE can post stories of their unique experiences, and they’re asked for players to vote for the best ones to be made into the comics and TV shows. This sounds like the next step in transmedia strategies for popular games franchises.

At first glance, it all sounds great: active participation of the fan community, their unique stories from the game are stranger and more twisty and unpredictable, more suspenseful than the pre-packaged, dull, generic plotlines screenwriters will come up with, SyFy’s DEFIANCE being a prime example of the latter.

Then my brain shouted, “Wait a minute!” and slammed on the brakes.

The players who post their individual stories on the website are letting their stories be made into TV shows that stand to make the company millions of dollars in profit, but it doesn’t look like they, the players, are going to be paid. This throws up a whole bunch of intellectual property issues for me, issues I deal with everyday in my day-job, issues I often advise fledgling writers to stay on top of, that the players of EVE ONLNE might be ignorant of. If they’re deliberately ignoring them, then they might be making a costly mistake.

The players whose stories are selected for the TV show will be rewarded with 10 years’ worth of free gameplay. For the hell of it, I did the math: the game demands a monthly subscription of $15, which means it costs $180 a year to play. At 10 years, that adds up to $1,800. That doesn’t even pay for a professional scriptwriter to write an hour-long script for television. The Writers Guild of America minimums stipulate that a writer should be paid at least $14,000 for an hour-long story for television, and then about $23,399 to write the script of an hour-long program. Scriptwriter salaries in the UK, Canada and Europe also have the equivalent baseline rates. You can bet that the writers who get hired to adapt and hone the players’ stories into TV scripts for an EVE ONLINE TV series will be paid in that ballpark, a lot more than a mere $1,800. Finding out the WGA minimum rates is just an internet search away.

I want to shout to those players that their own individual stories are worth more than the $1,800 of free gameplay they’ll be awarded, that they own the unique stories they got from playing the games, the friendships and betrayals and defeats and triumphs they earned in the game are their copyright the moment they decided to write them down. I question the fairness of a company crowdsourcing their customers’ stories for profit like this. The company may own the intellectual property of the game itself, the lore and mythology and background story of the game, not to mention the codes and software programs used to write and create the game, but the individual player owns the story of the unique experience he had playing the game with his friends and online rivals. Just as the game’s intellectual property is precious to the company that made it, the player’s unique story is equally precious as intellectual property that belongs to the player, not the company. Should players really want to give away the intellectual property rights of their own story to a company without proper recompense?

I was talking to someone earlier who also voiced concern about this setting some kind of precedent, but he said that since the players indulged in gangsterism in the game – hell, that’s the point of the game – they should be used to that. I’m not sure I agree. The players are role-playing at gangsterism in the game. That’s consensual. To play a game like EVE ONLINE, to experience the full extent of the relationships and the intrigue to be had from collaborating with players against other players feels like another job, except the players are paying to do the work instead of getting paid to create stories. Are the players really okay with letting the hundreds of hours they paid to put into the game to be used by the company to make profit out of? It feels ironic to me that players are paying to live out a virtual fantasy of libertarian capitalist outlaws when they’re basically working hard and then giving away their labour to the games company to make money out of while the best they get is to not have to pay to work in the game anymore. Am I the only one to think this is topsy-turvy?

Thorny issues abound. I look forward to seeing how this develops. I’ll even read the comic and watch the TV show.

Warping away at lookitmoves@gmail.com

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Look! It Moves! © Adisakdi Tantimedh