Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Dev-corner: Making unlicensed fan games -- why your time is better spent elsewhere

If you're reading this blog, you're probably like me in that you feel that current copyright law vastly overreaches in favor of the "content industry" and at the expense of culture as a whole. You may or may not also enjoy playing unlicensed fan-made games -- games that make use of IP from other games without the original owner's permission.

Today I'm going to talk about a little game company named Squaresoft(*). I liked Squaresoft -- a lot. I never cared for the company Squaresoft all that much one way or the other, but I loved their games (as you may have figured out from my previous blog entries). Chrono Trigger, in particular, is a game that frequently shows up in the ubiquitous "Top 10 video games of all time" lists and polls that gaming magazines like to do from time to time -- and it's also one of my personal favorites.

Among Chrono Trigger fans, the Chrono Trigger franchise is generally considered to have been treated very poorly by Squaresoft (now Square Enix). After a dissatisfying sequel, the only attention Chrono Trigger has received at all has been in the form of multiple re-releases, none of which have changed or added very much to the game.

Arguably, when a company can release the same thing over and over with minimal modification and keep selling it to people, it's become part of popular culture and the copyright ought to have expired, seeing as how the stated intent of copyright is to encourage innovation and progress as opposed to cultural stagnation. If you look at the original intent of copyright as stated in the U.S. Consitution (To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries), fan games actually look like a fairly good idea. If copyright is leading to cultural stagnation (remakes of remakes of remakes), maybe it's time to take culture into our own hands and follow the intent of copyright, rather than the letter of copyright, which exists in its present form entirely because of the lobbying efforts of the content industry [author's note: the intent of this blog entry is not to advocate violating copyright law -- there are other ways to fight bad laws. Please read to the end for the full context of this article before reaching any conclusions about what I'm writing here. Thanks!].

So yeah, I have nothing against fan games. Given that Chrono Trigger has received precisely zero attention from Square in recent years, I would have loved to have played Chrono Resurrection or Crimson Echoes, both of which looked very promising. If Square had purchased those games from the developers and sold them, I would have happily paid for them. Instead, Square hit them (and their fans, indirectly) with legal threats, shutting both projects down (a week before conclusion, in the latter case). By the letter of the law, this is entirely their right.

Now I don't know about anyone else, but this really cheezes me off. Square has taken something that I like and turned it into a cheap cash cow, and I'd really like to stick it to them, which is why I'm advocating against spending time making more fan games. Allow me to explain.

Fan games, like it or not, do these big fan-hating companies a favor by creating buzz about their games. Chrono Trigger is 12 years old now. I think maybe it's time that, instead of talking about it and spending our time adding to the Chrono Trigger mythos, we ought to relegate it to the black hole of dead copyrights. That's right, I think we ought to move on and stop doing Square a favor by spending time and effort promoting their games only to be slapped in the face for it. Instead, take that massive effort that you wanted to pour into a Chrono Trigger fan sequel (or whatever other game you want to make a fan sequel of) and use it instead to take the buzz away from big, fan-hating companies by either making something original or expanding on some content that's already available in the Creative Commons (like the many different Wesnoth campaigns).

Wouldn't it be nice to have some open franchises that people can expand on without fear of being sued? This is something that I think the Creative Commons needs more of, and there's nothing stopping us from doing it.

Bart K.

P.S. Feel like working on a game this weekend (3/25-3/28)? Join Team OGA and in the 48-hour Reddit Game Jam!


* Now Square Enix