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blogs by Gio

Tagged: fanwork

🎮 Notes on the VRC Creator Economy

  • Posted in gaming

My friend Floober brought some recent changes VRChat is making in chat, and I thought I’d jot down my thoughts.

The problem with the VRC economy is the same problem as with most “platform economies”: everyone is buying lots in a company town.

The Store🔗

This was the precipitating announcement: VRChat releasing a beta for an in-game real-money store.

Paid Subscriptions: Now in Open Beta! — VRChat Over the last few years, we’ve talked about introducing something we’ve called the “Creator Economy,” and we’re finally ready to reveal what the first step of that effort is going to look like: Paid Subscriptions!

As it stands now, creators within VRChat have to jump through a series of complicated, frustrating hoops if they want to make money from their creations. For creators, this means having to set up a veritable Rube Goldberg machine, often requiring multiple external platforms and a lot of jank. For supporters, it means having to sign up for those same platforms… and then hope that the creator you’re trying to support set everything up correctly.

(The problem, of course, is that “frustrating jank” was designed by VRChat, and their “solution” is rentiering.)

Currently, the only thing to purchase is nebulous “subscriptions” that would map to different world or avatar features depending on the content. But more importantly, this creates a virtual in-game currency, and opens the door to future transaction opportunities. I’m especially thinking of something like an avatar store.

I quit playing VRChat two years ago, when they started to crack down on client-side modifications (which are good) by force-installing malware (which is bad) on players’ computers. Since then I’ve actually had a draft sitting somewhere about software architecture in general, and how you to evaluate whether it’s safe or a trap. And, how just by looking at the way VRChat is designed, you can tell it’s a trap they’re trying to spring on people.

The Store of Tomorrow🔗

Currently, the VRC Creator Economy is just a currency store and a developer api. Prior to this, there was no way for mapmakers to “charge users” for individual features; code is sandboxed, and you only know what VRC tells you, so you can’t just check against Patreon from within the game1.

But the real jackpot for VRC is an avatar store. Currently, the real VRC economy works by creators creating avatars, maps, and other assets in the (mostly-)interchangeable Unity format, and then selling those to people. Most commonly this is seen in selling avatars, avatar templates, or custom commissioned avatars. Users buy these assets peer-to-peer.

This is the crucial point: individuals cannot get any content in the game without going through VRC. When you play VRChat, all content is streamed from VRChat’s servers anonymously by the proprietary client. There are no URLs, no files, no addressable content of any kind. (In fact, in the edge cases where avatars are discretely stored in files, in the cache, users get angry because of theft!) VRChat isn’t a layer over an open protocol, it’s its own closed system. Even with platforms like Twitter, at least there are files somewhere. But VRChat attacks the entire concept of files, structurally. The user knows nothing and trusts the server, end of story.

⚖ How Nintendo Misuses Copyright

When I’m looking for an example of copyright abuse, I find myself returning to Nintendo a lot on this blog. Nintendo is a combination hardware/software/media franchise company, so they fit a lot of niches. They’re a particularly useful when talking about IP because the “big N” is both very familiar to people and also egregiously bad offenders, especially given their “friendly” reputation.

Nintendo has constructed a reputation for itself as a “good” games company that still makes genuinely fun games with “heart”. Yet it’s also infamously aggressive in executing “takedowns”: asserting property ownership of creative works other people own and which Nintendo did not make.

You’d think a company like Nintendo — an art creation studio in the business of making and selling creative works — would be proponents of real, strong, immutable creative rights. That, as creators, they’d want the sturdiest copyright system possible, not one compromised (or that could be compromised) to serve the interests of any one particular party. This should be especially true for Nintendo even compared to other studios, given Nintendo’s own fight-for-its-life against Universal, its youth, and its relatively small position1 in the market compared to its entertainment competitors Disney, Sony, and Microsoft.

But no, Nintendo takes the opposite position. When it comes to copyright, they pretty much exclusively try to compromise it in the hopes that a broken, askew system will end up unfairly favoring them. And so they attack the principles of copyright, viciously, again and again, convinced that the more broken the system is, the more they stand to profit.

Introducing Nintendo🔗

Nintendo, even compared to its corporate contemporaries, has a distinctly hostile philosophy around art: if they can’t control something themselves, they tend to try to eliminate it entirely. What Nintendo uses creative rights to protect is not the copyright of their real creative works, it’s their control over everything they perceive to be their “share” of the gaming industry.

Let me start with a quick history, in case you’re not familiar with the foundation Nintendo is standing on.

Nintendo got its start in Japan making playing cards for the mob to commit crimes with. It only pivoted to “video games” after manufacturing playing cards for the Yakuza to use for illegal gambling dens. (I know it sounds ridiculous, but that’s literally what happened.)

Nintendo got its footing overseas by looking to see what video game was making the most money in America, seeing it was Space Invaders, and copying that verbatim with a clone game they called “Radar Scope”:

Then, when that was a commercial failure, they wrote “conversion kit” code to turn those cabinets into a Popeye game, failed to get the Popeye rights they needed, and released it anyway. They kept the gameplay and even the character archetypes the same, they just reskinned it with King Kong. They didn’t even name the protagonist after they swapped out the Popeye idea, so he was just called Jumpman.

Popeye/Donkey Kong comparison

But then Nintendo was almost itself the victim of an abuse of IP law. “Donkey Kong” derived from King Kong, and even though the character was in the public domain, Universal Studios still sued Nintendo over the use. Ultimately the judge agreed with the Nintendo team and threw out the lawsuit, in an example of a giant corporation trying to steamroll what was at the time a small business with over-aggressive and illegitimate IP enforcement.

This was such an impactful moment for Nintendo that they took the name of their lawyer in the Universal Studios case — Kirby — and used it for the mascot of one of their biggest franchises. It was a significant move that demonstrates Nintendo’s extreme gratefulness — or even idolization — of the man who defended them against abuse of IP law.

You would hope the lesson Nintendo learned here would be from the perspective of the underdog, seeing as they were almost the victim of the kinds of tactics they would later become famous for using themselves. But no, it seems they were impressed by the ruthlessness of the abusers instead, and so copied their playbook.

⚖ You've Never Seen Copyright

Hear me out: copyright is good.

When it comes to copyright, it can be very easy to lose the forest for the trees. That’s why I want to start this series with a bit of a reset, and establish a baseline understanding of copyright doctrine as a whole, and the context in which our modern experience of copyright sits.

The current state of copyright law is a quagmire, due not just to laws but also international treaty agreements and rulings from judges who don’t understand the topic and who even actively disagree with each other. That convolution is exactly why I don’t want to get lost in those twists and turns for this, and instead want to start with the base principles we’ve lost along the way.

You don’t need to understand the layers to see the problem. In fact, intellectual property is a system whose convolutions hide the obviousness of the problem. Complexity is good only when complexity is needed to ensure the correctness of the outcome. But here, far from being necessary to keep things working right, the complexity hides that the outcome is wrong.

But that outcome, our current regime that we know as copyright policy, is so wrong — not only objectively bad, but wrong even according to its own definition — that at this point it takes significant work just to get back to the idea that

This is my controversial stance, and the premise of my series: copyright (as properly defined) is a cohesive system, and, when executed properly, is actually good for everyone. And I’m not “one true Scotsman”ing this either; copyright isn’t just an arbitrary legal concept, it’s a system that arises naturally from a set of solid base principles.

The first step in my “understanding the forest for the trees” project is separating the big, nebulous, polluted idea of “copyright” out into the parts people can mostly agree on and the parts that are just evil and bad. Fortunately, the “good” and “bad” groups line up really well with “original intent” compared to “junk that was added later”. Generally speaking, it’s not useful to just make a distinction and act like doing so is the whole job done, unless you just care about smarmy pedantic internet points. But I’m not doing this to be pedantic, I’m making the distinction between the core idea and the junk that’s corrupted it because it turns out to be really important.

What we’re subjected to today in the name of copyright does not come from the real principles of copyright. Compared to the current state of US intellectual property law, the “real copyright” I’m talking about is like grass so utterly smothered by concrete that not only do no strands poke through, everyone involved has forgotten it was ever there.

The situation is so bad that even though I think copyright should be a good thing, I think our current bastardization of it may be worse than nothing at all, to the point where we’d be better off with the problems real copyright is meant to solve than with all the new, worse problems it’s inflicted on us.

https://www.instagram.com/p/Bp92AGvlWl0/

But because what we’re enduring now is a corruption of another thing and not its own original evil, we’re not limited to measuring it by the harm it inflicts: we can also measure it by its deviation from what we know it should be.

So what’s the good version? This true, unadulterated form of creative rights?

📣 Trouble a-brewin' at Redbubble

  • Posted in fandom

Homestuck is once again lit up over fan merch. Homestuck and fan merch have a long and troubled history, but this latest incident is between artists, Redbubble, and Viz media. Here are my thoughts on that!

In late May 2021, artists who sold Homestuck merch on Redbubble got this email:

Dear [name],

Thank you for submitting your fan art for Homestuck and/or Hiveswap as part of Redbubble’s Fan Art Partner Program.

At this time, our partnership with the rights holder VIZ Media has come to an end. When a partnership expires, we are required to remove officially approved artworks from the marketplace. This means that your Homestuck and/or Hiveswap designs will be removed from Redbubble soon.

Here are a couple of things to keep in mind:

  • It is important to know that licensors do not allow previously approved designs once sold on Redbubble to be sold on any other platform, even after the program ends.
  • Because this removal is not in response to a complaint, your account will not be negatively impacted.

Partnerships come and go, but don’t worry. We’re looking forward to partnering with more awesome brands in the future.

Check out our Current Brand Partnerships list to see all the properties that are actively accepting submissions. For additional information, we recommend checking out the Fan Art Partner Program FAQ.

Thank you, Redbubble

This hit a lot of people, and hit them hard:

Rut-roh!

Unfortunately for Twitter and brevity this is actually the intersection of a couple different complicated issues, which I’ll try to summarize here.

Just gonna get this one out of the way right off the bat. Copyright law gives IP owners a tremendous amount of power over what’s done with their characters and designs, even extending far into derivative fanart. If you own Homestuck, you actually can take someone to court over selling merch of their fantroll, and probably win. That’s not a great starting point, but it’s the truth.

Eevee has a great write-up of why this is bad. I’d also point you to Tom Scott’s video about how copyright law isn’t designed for intermediate platforms like Redbubble, but suffice it to say, yeah, copyright law really sucks for fanartists, actually.

This is the most complex thing going on here, certainly, but it’s not new and interesting. What is new and interesting, though, is

Redbubble forcing predatory licensing on people🔗

Now, copyright law sucks for fanartists, but that doesn’t explain what happened here.

🎮 Stanley and the Death of Sourcemods

  • Posted in gaming

My first published, “successful” piece of game content was The Raphael Parable, a little exploration game about wandering through an impossible office. I say “game content” here because The Raphael Parable isn’t a game per se, but a map. A mod for the Steam release of The Stanley Parable that bootstraps the assets and mechanics to create a totally different game.

A new version of The Stanley Parable is releasing soon: The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe is slated to be a remake with improved graphics, new endings, and console support. When I first saw this, I thought it would be a fun opportunity to go back to The Raphael Parable and tighten up some of the work that didn’t age well (I slapped it together pretty quickly, in hindsight, and it shows in places) as a new mod for the new version of the game.

"I love my car, I just hate my engine" Unity logo mug “I love my car, I just hate my engine”

Unfortunately, I quickly realized this was a non-starter for one simple reason: Unity. Ultra Deluxe is made by crowscrowscrows in Unity, which unfortunately stops this iterative development in its tracks. Let me explain:

The Weird Genealogy of The Raphael Parable🔗

The Stanley Parable itself started as a mod. The original published version is a Half-Life 2 mod from 2011, of which the 2013 Steam release is an HD remix. The Source Engine, which Half-Life 2 is built on, makes it easy to author a set of new maps and release it as a “sourcemod”. Davey Wreden did exactly this to make The Stanley Parable; he took the basic 3D engine and a few generic office-themed assets and made a completely new experience.