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We need to stop talking about unauthorised, fan-made video games

An open letter to our colleagues in the video game press: Please think very carefully before you publish an article about that fan-made game. You might just be signing its death warrant.

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An open letter to our colleagues in the video game press: Please think very carefully before you publish an article about that fan-made game. You might just be signing its death warrant.

In the media, we all have roughly the same goal: to get as many eyeballs onto our content as possible. That means writing interesting, engaging content that people want to read and share. More views on articles mean more advertising revenue, and more revenue means more budget to commission more articles

It’s the circle of life. Sort of. Given the shape of online advertising revenues, it’s more of a wonky rhombus.

In order to do that, most reputable outlets will consider news against the following checklist:

  1. Is it verifiable and true?
  2. Is it interesting or useful to readers?
  3. Is it in the general interest that we publish it?

That’s literally in our style guide, in the guidance on writing news. I’d wager that other publications have similar rules. Words to that effect are in the handbooks of most journalistic bodies and unions.

(And as for less-reputable outlets, you’re all familiar with clickbait, outrage takes, and fake news. It’s a serious problem in all aspects of media, not just in video games, but it still sucks.)

But even in reputable circles, sometimes the lines around the third point above can be a little blurry (often in the service of the second point).

Take fan-created games as a for-instance.

Just last week, it was widely reported in the gaming press that a fan-made remake of P.T., the playable teaser for Hideo Kojima’s Silent Hills (since cancelled by Konami) is available to download. It’s unsurprising that the game is being remade by fans. Its cancellation has granted it something of a mythical status, and this isn’t the first time someone has attempted to remake it.

In summer 2018, another promising fan-created remake of P.T. was shut down by Konami’s lawyers, after attention was drawn to it in the press. That story didn’t have an entirely unhappy ending – its creator was given an internship at Konami – but another game was lost to the world.

More examples? Again, in summer 2018, Nintendo shut down a tool that players had been using to make their own Pokémon games for almost 11 years (and a bunch of other Pokémon fan games have been closed by Nintendo, too). They also closed down a 2D Zelda Maker in 2017. Konami shut down a fan-created Metal Gear Solid remake in 2016.

Perhaps one of the most disappointing publisher interventions was Zelda: Breath of the NES, nixed by Nintendo’s lawyers in 2017. Breath of the NES was a fan-created game, based on the classic 2D Zelda game that Nintendo actually built to prototype the physical and chemical reactions at the core of Breath of the Wild. In an already very cool game, its creation was one of the cooler aspects of the game’s genesis, and to play a version of that – even an unofficial, fan-made version – was brilliant.

The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild - GDC 17

These are just the examples I can think of off the top of my head, but there are countless more out there. What do these games have in common?

Firstly, they’re based on properties owned by notoriously protective publishers, Nintendo and Konami. Not every game from every publisher is off limits – Valve is generally pretty happy for fans to and get creative with their properties, for example, while Bethesda games are big amongst modders – but Nintendo and Konami are two you don’t mess with. In terms of copyright protection, they’re the Disney of the video game world.

And secondly, the other thing they have in common, is that they all got some attention in the press shortly before getting shut down.

Most of these games exist on fan forums and obscure subreddits for weeks, months, or years, with no interest from the lawyers and no cease-and-desist letters in the mailbox. The developers have a fun project to work on in their spare time, the fans who stumble across it get a unique and interesting experience that isn’t widely available, and everybody generally has a nice time.

Then the game generates enough traction on Reddit or social media that the press begins to notice. With the best of intentions, we shine a spotlight on these creations. Maybe it’s the desire to offer kudos to the developers, or perhaps it’s just that we think the project is really cool and interesting, and therefore worth talking about. It might be a combination of these two things, combined with the ever-present pressure to get more eyeballs onto our websites.

Point is, these games typically don’t get shut down until a bigger press player draws attention to them; it’s only then that the lawyers get involved. The sad thing is, we’re often aware of the jeopardy we’re putting these projects in; some more overtly than others, it seems.

We recently heard about a remake of a popular 80s platformer, formative for the elder member of team Thumbsticks, via Twitter. What wasn’t clear, however, was whether this project was officially sanctioned by the publisher or not. The work product looked professional enough, but without an official website – just a Discord and a collection of Tweets – it just didn’t look legit.

So we asked the developers, and they provided us with this verbatim answer (of sorts) from their frequently asked questions:

Q: Do you have the license of <GAME NAME REDACTED> or you’re going to have a legal problem?
A: <PUBLISHER NAME REDACTED> knows our project and has not spoken about it at the moment. There is no legal problem at the moment.

Q: Is this game a “fangame” or is it official?
A: This project was born as a fangame, time will decide if it becomes official or not.

That’s not exactly conclusive, is it? That sounds more like “we think we’re probably OK, for now, because nobody’s lawyers have sent us any letters… yet.”

This presented us with a choice: Do we give this extremely promising fan-made game some coverage, because it frankly deserves it, even though we know it might get closed down as a result?

In the end, and after much discussion internally, we decided against running the piece. It’s a fantastic-looking game and an interesting story – that we’re almost certain nobody else in the press has covered yet – but we couldn’t, in good conscience, write the story. Because if we do that, and other major sites pick it up too, we’re effectively signing that project’s death warrant. And on balance we’d rather let the project carry on quietly and without fanfare, than blink it out of existence under the boot of zealous lawyers for a bunch of extra views.

So please, fellow games journalists, I implore you: before you write about that cool new fan-created project, take a moment to think if it will be in the best interests of the project, or if you’re likely to get it shut down for the sake of a few extra clicks.

Especially if it’s Konami or Nintendo. If it’s Bethesda or Valve, you’re probably good.

[Ed: And please also note, we only provided links to games that have already been shuttered by the lawyers. We didn’t link to the two projects that – at the time of writing – are still live.]

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Tom is an itinerant freelance technology writer who found a home as an Editor with Thumbsticks. Powered by coffee, RPGs, and local co-op.

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