Beyond Good And Evil 2's Plan To Crowdsource Art From Fans Prompts Backlash

Ubisoft is asking fans to contribute art and music to its upcoming game Beyond Good and Evil 2, with the promise of monetary compensation if their work is chosen. Fans are already diving in with gusto, but critics quickly pointed out the issues with asking people to do work for only the possibility of payment.

The long-awaited sequel to a 2003 Ubisoft game that was critically loved but flopped at retail, Beyond Good and Evil 2 will take place in an open universe full of strange creatures and cultures.

During its E3 press conference, Ubisoft said that fans will be able to help populate that universe with their own music and artwork through a partnership with a company called HitRECord, with that company's founder, actor-turned-entrepreneur Joseph Gordon-Levitt, appearing on stage.

The HitRECord-powered Space Monkey Program allows fans to submit ideas and works into a series of musical and visual categories such as "devotional music", "anti-hybrid propaganda" and "anti-establishment art". Other fans can then comment on and remix those works, which will ultimately be evaluated by HitRECord and - if they fit the game well enough - sent along to Ubisoft. Everybody who's contributed at all to an accepted work will be paid.

Fan works submitted to HitRECord's contributions page

Almost immediately after Ubisoft's conference, critics and developers started asking questions: Why not just pay full-time, salaried developers to do this work? What happens if fans' work doesn't get accepted? Do they not get paid? Did they do it all for nothing?

Scott Benson, the co-creator of the indie game Night in the Woods and a vocal advocate for workers' rights, pointed out that HitRECord's business model seems to rely on what's known as "spec work", short for "speculation". This is a common but nonetheless ethically muddy practice in creative and design fields. When you do work "on spec", you're producing something that a buyer might decide to pick up and then pay you for.

This bugs Benson. "Lots of times it's pitched as 'BE A PART OF SOMETHING SPECIAL' or 'HAVE YOU EVER WANTED TO SEE YOUR ART ON THE SIDE OF A SUBMARINE' or if it's a shitty agency, it's just 'fuck you prove to us you're worth it and maybe we'll contract you,'" he wrote on Twitter.

HitRECord says that it has a budget so far of $US50,000 ($66,033) that, sometime next year, will be split between creators whose work is accepted for various projects such as Hindu-inspired sacred murals and space pirate radio songs. HitRecord touts itself as a collaborative environment, so that will factor into how money is divvied up.

"At HR, people build on each other's ideas, and our website (and community) keeps track of how projects evolve - and how ideas influence one another," HitRECord executive producer Jared Geller said in an email, noting that the company has paid out a total of nearly $US3 million ($4 million) since it was founded in 2004.

"So any contribution that is included in any of the songs or visuals (guitar parts, vocal stems, etc) delivered to the Beyond Good and Evil 2 dev team will get credited and paid. If your contribution isn't used, you don't get paid."

It might sound like a raw deal for people whose work doesn't get used, but HitRECord founder Joseph Gordon-Levitt argues that more structured commissions and other alternative models would sap HitRECord of its collaborative spirit.

"Scepticism is good," said Gordon-Levitt in an email. "But I would encourage sceptics to come see for themselves how our collaborative process really works. I dare say it's pretty unique.

"One key difference is that we're NOT soliciting submissions for COMPLETE works. People build off of each other, often in unexpected ways, layering remix on top of remix. And EVERYONE whose work is included in the final deliverable, whether a big piece or a marginal idea, gets paid and credited."

Initially, HitRECord decides how money is allocated between individual creators. The company then posts that information as a "Profit Proposal", which community members can dispute if they feel like someone - themselves included - should make more or less. This discussion phase lasts two weeks, after which HitRECord "might" adjust payouts.

Ultimately, though, it's still the company's call to make. That leads to a power dynamic that heavily favours the companies. There are other possible complications as well, said a representative of NoSpec, an organisation that advocates against the practice of spec work.

Fan works submitted to HitRECord's contributions page

"When people who participate in spec work know that the chance of payment is slim-to-none, it invites the fastest possible turnaround, and we've found that spec websites (those that sell design contest listings) are rife with plagiarism," wrote the rep in an email.

A spec-work model isn't the only way that Ubisoft could get fans involved in Beyond Good and Evil 2's creation, wrote the NoSpec rep. It might be better for all involved, they said, to have fans submit pre-existing portfolios of work, at which point Ubisoft could then choose a selection of artists to come up with original ideas for Beyond Good and Evil 2, collaborate with others, and get paid.

For Ubisoft's part, a rep said that it's going with HitRECord and its collaborative, open process because it feels it will benefit the sort of multicultural universe it is hoping to create in Beyond Good and Evil 2.

"These assets... are the ones that will address our desire to enrich the multicultural feel and diversity of our game, and more specifically one of our major cities, Ganesha," a Ubisoft rep said in an email. They also noted that this is about getting the community involved, not finding a way to "replace our numerous artists and musicians, who are amongst the best in our industry".

But if Ubisoft wants many people from many different backgrounds to stir ingredients into Beyond Good and Evil 2's cultural melting pot, why not hand-pick additional artists from around the world and pay them a proper wage?

On top of that - since Ubisoft won't have a direct relationship with the artists, instead simply taking possession of the finished work as a package from HitRECord, what's to guarantee that Ubisoft will respect the cultures creators represent in their works, or that it won't accidentally use those works in a way that's insensitive or appropriative?

The current plan is for HitRecord to deliver these assets to Ubisoft as a handful of completed pieces - not for these creators to consult on the project or explain the context of what they created. To Ubisoft and HitRECord's credit, they do have cultural guides posted in each subsection of their collaborative Beyond Good and Evil 2 site, but this is still a minefield.

Night in the Woods' Benson told Kotaku that while he thinks that Beyond Good and Evil 2's developers' intentions are good, ultimately the bottom line of all of this is going to be Ubisoft's bottom line.

"I'm sure there are folks there who are excited about the idea of fans filling out the world they're building!" he wrote in a DM.

"You don't have to think everyone making BG&E are, like, evil people or that they even see that the issue is. But at the end of the day, this is about money. It costs orders of magnitude less to do this. And that's why it's happening. In an industry where labour conditions are already so fraught and precarious, this is a sign of where things might go."


Comments

    Not a lot of funding to work with. Seems like a bit of a shit deal.

    Whilst I understand the very real concerns with spec work models, it's also virtually impossible to accurately capture what they're going for by handpicking artists in advance. Sure, you can deliberately hire a wide spread of artists, but it's still not quite the same as opening the floodgates for content and picking out choice bits. Assuming that I give them the benefit of the doubt (regarding it not being about money), it's not a black-and-white issue.

    The concerns still ring true, though. Plagiarism is a big and obvious problem, and compensation for collaborative works is still worrying even if they have the best intentions for it.

    Last edited 14/06/18 11:12 am

    Ha! Please! Welcome to the state of the graphics arts industry as it stands. People in 3rd world countries selling their designs for a pitance. Clients offering their contracts to the person who will bend over backwards for them 10 times to get 5 dollars. Artists who have to consistently provide essentially-finished proof of concept before landing a job, only to have the expectation that they will make unlimited adjustments inperputuity in order to keep the client happy.

      Pretty much this. What Ubi is doing is at least transparent and they are unlikely to rip you off.

      Ah cool it happens all the time so don't even try to kick up a stink about it!

        I didn't say that. My point is simply that this is a broader issue that it's important to be aware of. Please, by all means, kick up a stink.

    It'd also be interesting to know how much Ubisoft is paying Hitrecord to manage this project. We know Hitrecord is going to pay out US$50k to artists, but what is their overhead on top of that?

    I wouldn't expect Hitrecord to be doing this for nothing, but knowing what the split between artists and Hitrecord is would help in determining how exploitative this whole thing is.

    First thought from heading alone: Is this the spec work argument, again?
    Reading article: Yes. Yes it is.

    Fuck's sake. You would've thought they'd have learned from when Wasteland tried this.

    In a world where creative output is de-valued immeasurably by just how many people are willing to do it for free at a competitive level of quality, it shouldn't be any surprise that professionals trying to make a living off a de-valued skill are sensitive.

    Yes, it's a wonderful idea to involve the community in contributing towards something that feels more organic and less uniform, to involve more than just professionals for a wider variety of art styles, and it's a wonderful idea to let people feel like they've had a personal stake in their contribution... but the reality of the circumstances is that you can't.
    It does not - CAN NOT EVER - pass the cycnism test. There is no implementation that will get past that.

    This is why we can't have nice things. There are all sorts of wonderful ideas and sentiments that die in the ass because they could only ever work in a nice world... not in this one.

      Yeah exactly, and when it comes to making money you can't rely on companies to be ethical. Sure this idea may start as an interesting way to engage with the community but down the line, when it has to be more profits each year, it's to be expected that it will become a cheap way to get great work. Shit always floats to the top.

      I think there's two issues that bug me about this case: (1) this is work that would otherwise be done by an artist paid for their time, and (2) it's not clear what the scope of the work is, so an artist doesn't know e.g. what the potential profit is for producing a single billboard or single music track.

      There's definitely times when unpaid or underpaid work can make sense, but it is usually cases where the worker gets something other than money in return (e.g. an apprentice or intern will gain skills in exchange for some of their labour). But in this case, it doesn't seem much better than asking for work in exchange "for exposure".

    Agree with all the points raised in the article but it's obviously just the way the industry is heading.

    I mean as consumers these days we quite literally pay to be alpha and beta testers on games. How ridiculous is that?

    Companies will always work in anyway they can to improve their bottom line so if this is a practice they can slowly integrate to be the norm over time then that's what they will do.

    $50k is absolutely nothing. I'm expecting this to be a wall of trash submissions with Ubisoft having to outlay considerably more on the downlow to professional (and aspiring) artists.

    I thought the idea was more like fan art submissions, not professional artists struggling to find work.

      That is exactly what the idea was, but the professional artists struggling to find work are the ones complaining that doing this is another thing preventing them from finding work.

        Ah, yeah I can see that. I guess as long as it is limited it will work but definitely a slippery slope.

      These sorts of things don't just target hobby artists though. It's just yet another example of an exploitative business practice.

      Coke, Mercedes and Heineken have done it recently - all mega corps with more than enough funds to pay their creative resources properly. Ubisoft turned over like USD$2.7b last year, I'm sure they can afford to pay people properly.

      Someone mentioned on Twitter that if they really cared about the 'community' then they could ask for folio submissions and then commission the artist from there.

      I haven't read the fine print on this particular case, but I am assuming anything you upload becomes the property of hitrecord as well.

        Yeah, at least from Hitrecord's description of it there doesn't seem to be any scope to refuse to accept their offer.

        You can't exactly build an entire game this way, you still need artists and designers on the payroll, if there was a job going at a studio you can submit your portfolio hope you get the job.

        If it was limited to things like destiny's banners or set pieces like a random poster on the wall then fans can get there little piece of themselves in the games.

        These sorts of things don't just target hobby artists though. It's just yet another example of an exploitative business practice.

        The thing that's so frustrating about this entire issue I just don't see a way for the company to actually target the hobby artist community for this sort of thing, in the spirit in which it's ostensibly intended without professional artists making it all about themselves anyway.

        The concept of a thousand individual pieces of graffiti or posters from a thousand different hobby artists and BG&E fans is as romantic as it is naive/impossible, and the ownership issue is a legal consideration affecting what the publisher can do with the game without having to check back with those thousands of individual asset-owners. But what else can they do to achieve the same effect? If they followed that Twitter suggestion you referred to, to get a thousand pieces of art from a thousand fans, they'd need to review God knows how many folios... From hobby artists and fans who may not/probably won't even have a folio? And suddenly we're back in professional artist territory.

        The fact that they can afford to 'pay professionals properly' is basically evidence AGAINST the exploitation argument. They can... AND DO pay people properly. Have you seen the level of detail that went into unique art assets in The Division? It was awe-inspiring. Especially the consultation they did with street art collectives so that the (properly-paid) professional environment artists in the studio could make it authentic. My Steam profile is stuffed with all the detail screenshots I took of that environment detail.

        But how do they achieve this other aim, of broader community, non-contracted submissions? How do they collect and use what is essentially fan-art? How do they achieve what you accuse them of not doing - targetting the hobby artist/fan community for 'a bit of fun'? Get their fan-art in the actual game outside of mods?

          How do they achieve what you accuse them of not doing - targetting the hobby artist/fan community for 'a bit of fun'? Get their fan-art in the actual game outside of mods?

          You can't and you don't.

          The hobby and fan art community is not a licensed contributor. They can't get involved in something like this without it being 'business' and all the trappings that come with it. Trying to build something that has so many peoples money and IP on the table can't be handled with some amorphous concept of goodwill.

          Mods and fan art are unsolicited works. Nobody asked for them so there's no opportunity to claim that somebody should have entered into a contract negotiating the value or legality of their work. The great works of fans is more of a consequential event than an actual collaboration with the original IP.

          I wouldn't expect this to be any more ethical than the owner of a building asking Banksy to paint one of the walls for a 'competitive fee' and then sell the building for millions claiming it was 'grafittied'.

    The idea isn't to make a living of this, it's for people that want to see their creation inside the world of a sweet game. Jesus people they're not trying to pay the bills with it.

      Right but there's plenty of people who are trying to pay their bills and were hoping they'd be able to approach companies just like Ubisoft with the assurance that they'll pay a reasonable amount for time and effort. Instead they'll find these clients turn around and say, "Can you just join this club of thousands of artists and all make something and if we like one of your works, maybe we'll pay one of you?"

    I don't see the problem here, they are asking for tidbits of the game not for entire level designs or massive orchestral scores. Coming into this you gotta know and accept this isn't about money its about exposure or even as something small as saying to your friends hey look that graffiti on the wall there is mine. Artist need to get over themselves you are an oversaturated industry and you have to face the consequences of that fact

      even as something small as saying to your friends hey look that graffiti on the wall there is mine.

      Yes. Graffiti you made for the owner of the building, on the promise of a low-ball payment, only if they don't paint over it, and then stand to make bank on selling later.

      Exposure is not money and in this example, not even as genuinely cool as some random wall they bombed.

        Can't be thinking that this is an actual job which will pay bills though, more of a case of a little something for a game you love and want to add something to.

          And also more fan art stuff, like something that people do in there spare time not for a living.

          Fan art is not solicited. Ubisoft would actually do better to not be paying anything in this situation. Their making a big-deal out of the fact you can get paid here paints a picture that they know what they're asking for has value. The discussion here then reflect the wider picture that the value is poorly attributed; they're making a job out of fan art and because it they know fan arts 'do it for free' they can get away with peanuts.

    Alright, this is going to be really mean but I'm going to call it right now. This game is going to become a trash fire.

    I really want to be proven wrong.

      I hope not - I don't think it's huge elements they're after, just assorted poster designs and stuff. Radio filler. All the actual game design and animation will be done by a paid, cohesive team. It's a pretty fun way to involve the community, but yeah, definitely problematic.

    Is this any different to what Valve has been doing with TF2 and DOTA2 for years now?

    That's not so much a "one company does this so why complain about another" as the fact that I'd never really thought about the fan made stuff that goes into those games as exploitative, but I guess it is.

      I guess that would depend on whether you see the Steam Workshop as an end in itself, or as a submission queue for chance of having your work selected for a loot box in one of those games.

      I haven't really played with either of those games enough to know how much players use non-monetised skins from the workshop.

    Anyone who contributed

    So if someone produces something great, and a long line of other people add miniscule tweaks, the poor bastard has to split whatever pittance Ubi throw their way?

    ... Y'know, if they don't just not pick anything and later coincidentally churn out stuff oddly similar to the submissions.

    There's a lot of room between having little to no paid experience as a 'creative' and being a pro. There's plenty of people who create stuff just for the sake of it. People run marathons for free! Actually, they pay to do it. I've got music that has been gathering dust for years that I'm considering submitting because I could easily just take them to the grave, and the idea of them being used for something sounds better.

    I like the idea of bringing a DIY grimy feel to world building. If you paint a wall for nothing on the street (that a cafe might 'pop-up' next to and exploit if it's good enough ;) ) then what's the difference if you paint a billboard on the street of a game for not much? You could pay John Williams a bunch to write some punk but it wouldn't do the job. I get the concern if this was going to be the only way to get work in the future but I don't think that's going to happen. Just like drum machines and DJ's didn't make drummers obsolete and MP3's didn't end music all together.

    I think it'll be a good opportunity for some, and not the best choice for others.

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