Blizzard says no to World of Starcraft mod


2nd UPDATE: Looks like there is a happy compromise – Ryan has been contacted by Blizzard and it seems he can continue work on the mod provided he changes the name.  Good stuff.

A gamer who created a ‘World of Starcraft’ mod for Starcraft 2 has been frowned on by Blizzard.  Unsurprisingly.

Modder “Ryan” used Starcraft 2’s Galaxy Editor, which enables modders to create anything from custom maps to total converstion mods for Starcraft 2 (quick digression: my favourite is Footmen Frenzy), to create a prototype Starcraft type MMO.  Rather unwisely, he went on to call it World of Starcraft.  And Blizzard didn’t like it, obviously.  Apparently it manifested this dislike by sending a takedown request to YouTube in respect of a World of Starcraft promo video. UPDATE: a helpful reader has noted that apparently the takedown request was due to Ryan allegedly violating Blizzard’s policy on videos, but as yet there has been no takedown/cease and desist request made against Ryan himself.  So, the rest of this post proceeds on the hypothetical basis that Blizzard does try to take World of Starcraft down, because that’s when things would get more interesting.

So, I thought I’d take the opportunity to think a bit about Blizzard’s likely thought process when this came up on their radar:
  • I couldn’t find the EULA which governs use of the Galaxy Editor [if anyone can find it, let me know please!], but broadly it will involve Blizzard giving modders a limited licence to use Starcraft 2 IP, e.g. in-game characters and probably the name ‘Starcraft’, in order to create mods for Starcraft 2 using the Galaxy Editor.
  • Broadly, the main constraints on that kind of licence are: (1) that the mod is not made for profit; and (2) Blizzard has no other objections to it.
  • Clearly, it’s the second exception which is interesting here: does Blizzard have the right to complain if a modder takes a whole bunch of Starcraft 2 IP and turns it into a fusion of World of Warcraft and Starcraft 2, in circumstances where Blizzard gave the modder rights over that IP in the first place?
  • This will boil down mainly to what the EULA says.  Unfortunately I can’t see the EULA, so I can’t answer that question definitely – yet.
  • Anyway, leaving the legal specifics aside, it does seem to me that Blizzard is on slightly tricky ground here.  Regardless of exactly what a EULA says, if you give the modder community the ability and the blessing to go make fun stuff with your game, potentially you’re playing with fire if you then bring the hammer down because you don’t like what they’ve done, surely?  Especially when all the modder here has done is try to imitate that other wildly popular Blizzard game, WoW.
Still, the morale of the story is this: be clear with your fans what they can and cannot do with your game, especially if you release an editor.  The legal small print is important, but don’t rely on just small print alone.

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[Image credit: who the hell knows?  I’m going to go with Blizzard/’Ryan’/ to be safe]

Activision pwns King’s Quest fan sequel = important lessons for fan mods and sequels

In a nutshell: the King’s Quest games series was in games limbo, some fans tried to rescue it and make a fan sequel, they did it in the right way legally, but Activision has now decided to shut them down.  Shame.  Still, this is another example a simple but useful lesson for anyone wanting to make a fan-mod/sequel for a game: you have to seek the rights holder’s approval before you make the mod/sequel.  Read on for more… (sources: Joystiq and SPONG)

The background

Remember seminal adventure game series King’s Quest by Sierra?  It was awesome, but as with so many games in the Nineties, somehow it fell into games limbo.  Sierra went through various corporate shenanigans and by the early Noughties ended up being owned by Vivendi, which sat on the King’s Quest IP.

Then, along came Phoenix Online Studios, who wanted to make a King’s Quest fan sequel eventually called The Silver Lining.  They could have just started making the game themselves, as so many modders/fans do, but unless you first have the rights holder’s approval then making a fan sequel/mod means you open yourselves up to an IP infringement lawsuit (there may be IP defences available in your jurisdiction, e.g. fair use, but that wouldn’t necessarily cover you completely and, anyway, why take the risk?)  It seems that initially Phoenix did just that, working away at The Silver Lining and presumably hoping to get away with it.  But, in 2005, they received a cease and desist letter from Vivendi.  So, Phoenix then did the right thing legally by asking Vivendi’s consent for them to make The Silver Lining.  This led to an arrangement being reached with Vivendi that would allow the game to go ahead.  So far, so win.

Activision, it say NO!

But, fast forward to the present day (ish) and we remember of course that Vivendi had a $18bn merger with Activision, meaning it no longer called the shots in the Sierra titles.  Activision later said that it wasn’t particularly interested in the Sierra legacy titles it had acquired, including King’s Quest.

It seems that Phoenix tried to negotiate with Activision for the future of Silver Lining, but it didn’t work out.  As Phoenix announced today:

“After talks and negotiations in the last few months between ourselves and Activision, they have reached the decision that they are not interested in granting a non-commercial license to The Silver Lining, and have asked that we cease production and take down all related materials on our website.”

This suggests that the non-commercial licence that Vivendi had granted to Phoenix terminated on the Vivendi/Activision merger (this may have been an express term of the licence, or possibly was a side-effect of a corporate reorgnisation following the merger).  Either way, Activision considered itself no longer bound by the licence and decided, as it is entitled to do as the King’s Quest rights holder, not to renew the licence.  This of course means that Phoenix cannot continue to make The Silver Lining without the risk of an Activision lawsuit.  So, hence Phoenix Online decision that:

“Sadly, after eight years of dedicated work and even more dedicated fans, The Silver Lining project is closing down.

What the future holds for us, as individuals or a team, we cannot say. We have an amazing development team, however, filled with talented and hard-working individuals, and we hope the teamwork and rapport we’ve developed won’t go to waste. We hope that when we do know what the future holds for us, our fans will be there to enjoy what we can give them still.

Again, thank you all so much for everything. This has been a long and crazy road, full of more twists than we could’ve anticipated, but more triumphs and wonderful memories than we could’ve ever hoped for. And for that, to all of you and to everyone on our team, we will always be grateful.”

We can only guess why Activision refused to grant a licence to Phoenix.  The most likely reasons imo are:

  • Activision and Phoenix just couldn’t agree the terms of the licence
  • Activision may have been looking for a royalty, which Phoenix couldn’t/didn’t want to pay
  • Activision has its own plans for King’s Quest
  • Activision didn’t want to open the floodgates for all the other legacy titles it is sitting on
  • Activision just didn’t like The Silver Lining or Phoenix Online enough
  • Activision wants no further King’s Quest titles

These kinds of factors are always going to come up in situations where any dev/publisher holds the rights and a third party wants to use them, even if it’s for the non-commercial purpose of making a fan-sequel/mod just for the love of the game.  Think about it from the right’s holder perspective: even if you’re not doing anything with the title, why would you give control of it to someone else over whom you have limited control and probably don’t expect to get any money?  It’s a shame, and no doubt the King’s Quest fans and gamers generally are disheartened at Activision’s decision, but when games, law and business collide, you don’t always get the result you might have hoped for.

Still, that doesn’t mean that every attempt to make a fan-mod or sequel will go the same way…

Lessons for fans who want to make a fan-mod or sequel of a game:

  • Copying, decompiling, modding or in any way interfering with a game, or using game characters/names/concepts/images/sound/video etc without authorisation, opens you up to the risk of a lawsuit from the rights holder.  Don’t assume that you will be covered by a ‘fair use’ defence – that depends entirely on the law of your jurisdiction as well as what you actually do with the game (e.g. are you making a sequel for commercial or non-commercial purposes? Are you passing off aspects of the game as your own, rather than the rights holder’s?)
  • If you are in any doubt as to the legality of what you are proposing to do, have a chat with a friendly lawyer.  We don’t bite and some of us even like games…
  • Even if you don’t seek legal advice, the safe course is to seek the rights holder’s consent before you do anything – that’s the surest way to stave off a lawsuit.  The rights holder will be able to tell you whether or not it is happy for you to go ahead and, if so, on what terms. 
  • At that point, it’s down to you to get the best deal you can.  Again, if in doubt, have a chat.  Friendly developers or games business folk all may be able to give you a few pointers.  And, again, if in legal doubt, ask a lawyer.
  • But, if you don’t get the approval from the rights holder, for goodness’ sake don’t go ahead and make the game anyway.  You’ll just be back at square one and begging Mr Lawsuit to steamroller you.
  • That’s a positive note to end this post on, isn’t it?

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