Joseph Gordon-Levitt has defended a plan to crowdsource art and music for Ubisoft‘s highly anticipated game Beyond Good and Evil 2. Earlier this week at E3, Gordon-Levitt pitched the idea as a way for fans to contribute to the game, working through his production company HitRecord. But critics contended that Ubisoft was pitting freelance artists against each other in a competition. In a Medium post, Gordon-Levitt says he still doesn’t see the project this way and that it will be going forward mostly as planned.
The Beyond Good and Evil 2 crowdsourcing project is similar to other HitRecord projects. The company produces media based on submissions from hundreds of thousands of artists, who are paid if their work is accepted. In this case, people can submit songs, murals, and other art to flesh out Beyond Good and Evil 2’s world. Ubisoft and HitRecord will split a total of $ 50,000 across artists whose work they like, and that work may end up in the finished game.
But this means that artists will be working with no guarantee of a payout, which critics say amounts to unfair spec (or speculative) work. “Clients who expect to be presented with finished products without paying for them and pit designers against one another for that work are exploitative,” tweeted comics author and publisher C. Spike Trotman. “Don’t roll up to E3 with your own press conference block, a Tom Clancy license, and a Miyamoto cameo, then ask freelancers for freebies.”
Gordon-Levitt says this project is “substantially different” from spec work. “We’re not a marketplace for freelance gigs; we’re a collaborative community,” he writes of HitRecord. And he says that Ubisoft isn’t using this system to hire fewer artists. “HitRecord‘s contribution to Beyond Good & Evil 2 has not resulted in a single job lost,” he writes.
The blog post gives a few examples of ways it’s avoiding specific spec work offenses. Ubisoft isn’t asking for an exclusive license on any of the art, and HitRecord wants people to contribute “bits and pieces” to collaborative art, instead of submitting polished, finished work. However, it doesn’t change the fact that some people will be working without pay. Gordon-Levitt says a system that paid all participants would just encourage freeloaders to submit filler work, but critics of spec work say that the whole “contest” structure devalues the work of artists.
HitRecord is making one semi-concrete change based on feedback: it’s going to formalize a system where “stand-out community members” are guaranteed payment for leading projects.
Gordon-Levitt writes that the concern about spec work was “sorta painful to hear,” and he chalks some controversy up to confusion about how HitRecord works — whether it pays artists at all, for instance. (As explained above, it does.) “HitRecord often doesn’t map one-to-one onto traditional creative industries. But today’s creative industries don’t always inspire creativity,” he writes. “I think our collaborative process has evolved into a new and fair way for anybody to find and nourish their creative selves,”
But partnering with a AAA game company puts HitRecord’s work in a very different context. Game studios notoriously exploit employees’ creative passion by using it to justify long hours and stressful work environments, to the point where studios brag about putting developers through grueling crunch cycles. Many developers in this industry are looking for more traditional structure in their jobs, not less. It’s great for fan artists to participate in a game’s creation, but in this case, fan art is still work.