Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Marvel's LittleBigPlanet - Product Placement or Player Generated Content?

I haven't really had much time to absorb let alone relay any of the barrage of information coming out of this year's Comic-Con, but I came across this little gem yesterday and just had to write up a post about it. Sony and Marvel have entered into a cross-promotional partnership that will see official Marvel costumes (available for purchase and download) introduced into Media Molecule's LittleBigPlanet. As The Escapist's Andy Chalk writes:
"While we don't know what exactly to expect from this new relationship, it does open some intriguing possibilities for future crossovers. Will the release of new Marvel films result in official LittleBigPlanet crossovers? Could characters created specifically for LittleBigPlanet eventually find their way into a Marvel comic? (It's happened before, you know.) Perhaps a bit more ominously, is it possible that Sony will begin to clamp down on user-created levels that tie in, unofficially, with the Marvel Universe?"

While others have furthermore speculated that the costumes might come with special powers, Chalk's mention of the IP implications is what piqued my interest (that and the possibility of playing as and designing levels for Rogue, Mystique or She-Hulk). Historically, Marvel has not adopted the most open approach to having its characters and IP re-appropriated by gamers. The biggest example of this remains the The Marvel v. NCSoft/Cryptic Studios case back in 2005, wherein Marvel filed a lawsuit against the game developer in regards to City of Heroes, on the basis that the game made it possible for players to infringe on Marvel's IP. Yikes! Follow the slippery slope down that fuzzy line of logic, and you end up with lawsuits launched against Microsoft Word (or paint supply companies for that matter) on the basis that their software makes it possible for people to plagiarize. Anyway, the Marvel v. NCSoft case got its fair share of press back in 2005, for instance over at Terra Nova. And some excellent points about creativity and freedom of expression were made within the motions to dismiss that were filed at the time, such as:
"Kids with wandering imaginations have long decorated school notebooks with pictures of fantastic and supernatural beings of their own design. The ingenuity of individuals, as expressed through the creation of characters incorporating timeless themes of mythology, patriotism, 'good,' and 'evil,' has been a source of entertainment in the form of role-playing games for ages. In the face of technology that enables individuals to engage in such activities in a virtual, on-line context, Marvel Enterprises, Inc. and Marvel Characters, Inc. (collectively, 'Marvel') have taken the unprecedented step of attempting to appropriate for themselves the world of fantasy-based characters..."

The case was ultimately settled out of court, an outcome that caused quite a bit of debate in and of itself...did it mean that City of Heroes was in the right, or did it mean a further delay in the establishment of "fair use" within a gaming/UGC context? You can read some of that coverage here, here and here. For instance, as Greg Lastowka (assistant professor at Rutgers School of Law and Terra Nova author) noted at the time (as quoted on ZDNet):
"...[T]he terms of the settlement apparently allow the NCSoft character creation engine to stand, which is a victory for the players. [...] However, Marvel's claims of player infringement have not been formally rejected by the court, which means analogous claims might be pursued by Marvel, or a like-minded company, in the future."

The settlement was made all the more ambiguous by a subsequent announcement that Cryptic Studios (the makers of City of Heroes) and Marvel (and Mictosoft!) were teaming up to develop an MMO based on the Marvel Universe. As Alice would say, "Curiouser and curiouser!" For those of you interested in the outcome of it all, I'm not too sure what happened, except that last week Joystiq reported that the Diablo creator David Brevik had been hired on as lead in the Marvel MMO's development.

Flash forward a couple of years to yesterday's announcement, and Marvel's tune certainly appears to have changed. Or has it? As Chalk points out, the partnership and introduction of branded ($$) costumes is likely to come with some strings attached. Would Marvel allow "counterfeit" costumes to continue to compete (especially as free downloads) in the same LittleBig Market? Probably not. And seeing as their solution the last time they found an IP loophole was to become business partners with the loophole provider, it does seem pretty likely that this is not merely a promotional opportunity for the media giant, but a preemptive strike as well.

In addition, there's still that ongoing, unresolved issue of players' rights vs. IP holders' rights, which in LittleBigPlanet has unfolded in a strange back and forth, with some players' levels being deleted "without warning or explanation", while other "media-inspired" levels have continued on without hassle. For many of the players whose levels have been deleted (**not including what I can only assume must be another million removed for obscene or abusive content**), there seems to be a general feeling that copyright is the common denominator. As Kotaku's Owen Good writes:
"Traffic on the LittleBigWorkshop discussion board seems to back [this] up. "This just happened to tons of levels in what seems like a matter of minutes, including my own level 'Failure To Launch.' " Says one user. "By the trend I see from the levels I can no longer play from my recent levels on my planet, its all about copyright. Some levels I've seen now unplayable due to moderation: Pacman, Batman, and Scrubs related level."

If "Failure to Launch" was taken down because it shares a title with a romantic comedy from 2006, then this is truly out of hand. The thread is more than nine pages long now, including a claim that a level based on the PlayStation 3 was taken down. Destructoid rightly points out the absurdity of a console exclusive being unable to refer to that console."

Of course, a plethora of player-generated levels based on videogames, films and television properties remain in circulation, which begs the question of which properties/brands are "safe" to reference and why. The durability of certain media-inspired levels is probably in part the result of the vastness of LittleBigPlanet's user-generated levels catalogue (which recently reached the 1 million mark...more on that below), and in part the result of a growing realization among media producers that UGC might just be the most effective form of "web 2.0" marketing you can find (and it's free!). As Kotaku's Luke Plunkett describes, not all companies are upset by player-generated IP infringement. This sentiment is backed up by Media Molecule's co-founder Alex Evans, who in an interview with IGN describes three copyright issues that the game has faced from the outset:
"There were three issues; one was negative and two were positive. The negative one was how hard it was to get worldwide legal harmony, because different countries have different laws around copyright infringement. We knew that people would be creative, and that there would be references. It was hard getting the right balance on a worldwide angle. But then there's been these two mad positives; one was the high quality of the levels, including the infringing ones. The other point is the number of IP owners who came up to us and said please whitelist us – we'll never ever ask you to pull infringing stuff. I can't say who that is, but those two things really shocked me, I think it shocked [the IP holders], who were like, hang on, my IP's being represented and it's being represented really well. The IP holders have to have last say over the representation of their brand, and that's fair enough, so we've always got to have a method for people misusing a brand, but what's been really lovely is how well represented so many brands are."

A great example of the type of "synergy" that Evans is describing here can be seen in this recent Ghostbusters cross-over.

But when you look at all the creativity and care that's going into so many of the player-generated content, you have to wonder why all of these partnerships and product placements seem so necessary to the IP holders (as opposed to just letting the players have some fun). Will Marvel's "Spiderman" really be that much better than this homemade version? And what about the fun of re-creating your favourite heroes and characters? What will happen to players' freedom to create and recreate when their creations aren't just being monitored and regulated, but supplanted outright by branding initiatives?

It's funny, but also quite timely I think, that this issue should come up (again) now, especially with all the hope and hoopla around Sony's recent announcement that in the nine short months since the game's launch, LBP players have created and uploaded 1 million levels to the PlayStation Network. As David Radd of Industry Gamers writes:
Sony calculates that the number of levels is equal to roughly one level generated every 21 seconds since LittleBigPlanet launched. It would take any one of the 2.4 million unique players that have played LittleBigPlanet online nearly five years playing non-stop to experience every uploaded level.

There's obviously a lot of potential here for democratizing culture and cultural production. Despite the fact that most (80%) PlayStationHome users fall within the typical 18-to-35 year-old male gamer demographic, Sony sees significant promise of player diversification and a gradual bucking of established trends within that other, growing 20%. More diverse representation, more accessible tools, and growing interest in UGC all spell opportunity -- opportunity for a more diverse (obviously), more engaging, active and responsive cultural climate. If, that is, stifling copyright/IP regimes don't throttle the life out of it first.


gwappa said...

Hey, great blog today, and I LOVE the new look!

Sara M. Grimes said...

Thanks! On both accounts :)