Watching Over Copyrights and Brands, Part II

You can protect a brand in a lot of ways. You can wave the law around like a sword, or hide behind it like a shield. Or you can not worry about using the law to your advantage and just make a product that others can’t top. One of the most fun things about law school was learning about all of the ways around the law – not breaking or circumventing it, but bridging over the gaps and cracks. Gaps and cracks happen most when the law hasn’t kept up with culture or technology, which is where I think the law is most exciting and interesting.

One of the most genius aspects of the overwhelming media hype-package of Overwatch is the way it manages concerns for copyright and trademark infringement. Blizzard achieved a level of branding and promotion that reduces their concerns for infringement. Overwatch is inimitable. That doesn’t make it invulnerable, but it might be the next best thing.

I. “Junk” from “Rats” Can’t Hurt the Bastion of the Marketplace

Even before I ever visited New York City, I knew that people sold cheap, counterfeit Rolexes on the streets. Having this explained to me as a child is also how I heard about Rolex, incidentally – and learned that it was different from Rolo. I always thought it was interesting that everyone knew about this black market for counterfeit goods, but no one seemed extremely worried. I think one reason for the lack of concern is that Rolex knows they won’t go out of business because of cheap knock-offs.

The best games, from the biggest studios­, have less to worry about when their IP is infringed or “heavily borrowed.” Dominating the games market is less about legal force than it is about marketing and loyalty. For one thing, Activision can’t claim copyright over the concept of a military-shooter and force other studios to not make games that compete with Call of Duty. So Activision makes Call of Duty a brand, because brands command loyalty. A given Call of Duty game may be worse in every respect to a competitor’s game, but fans will still choose the inferior product because of its franchise. (This is one of two reasons anyone rooted for the Cubs from 1945- 2015.) Blizzard created something powerful: a genuinely superior product that commands tremendous brand loyalty.

II. Just Palette-Swap For A New Game! Sounds Pharah- don’t you McRee?

Of course, just because no one can succeed in really ripping off Overwatch doesn’t mean people won’t try. League of Legends had this experience, also. Generally, game knockoffs like these are about as much of a concern as e-mails from dispossessed millionaire Nigerian princes. It’s a reprehensible practice that creates clutter and will accidentally trick some people, but they aren’t going to displace the original.

Companies can compete with Overwatch, but they can’t replace it. The entire experience is too complete and interconnected. No parasitic effort can trick a gamer into thinking they have the real deal, no one can deliver a superior version of the same experience, and no one pull more brand loyalty in online gaming.

III. Leaving your Trace[r] Mei Show that You’ve been a [Road]Hog, and You’ll Get No Mercy

Although Blizzard won’t feel the financial impact of the feeble efforts of clones, there are things that can still undermine the game. For example, a company could make an add-on that allows players to cheat at the game. Of course, a company called Bossland did exactly that. Rather than simply ban the players who use this add-on (per violations of EULA and ToS agreements), Blizzard has gone after the makers of the program – who are super proud of what they do.

I am a little bit surprised that they cite copyright infringement in their claim. This is interesting because it seems well outside the scope of traditional copyright law, but copyright law has been slowly evolving in the last decade. I think the technical details of how Bossland’s program interacts with Blizzard’s game could be essential to determining if applying copyright law is appropriate. After the recent ruling in Google v. Oracle, courts are more likely to find infringement just from making two programs talk. (The fair use defense that saved Google is not going to help Bossland.) In this case, it seems extremely likely that Bossland had to access and take (or manipulate) some of Blizzard’s code, which may be enough for infringement. But the ways that 3rd parties can interact with programs is still an interesting question for copyright law to resolve.

Regardless of the copyright claim, I think the other claims made by Blizzard are plenty strong enough to win, so I don’t think a court will end up going into detail about it.

Watching Over Media and Brands, Part I

More than any game I’ve ever seen, Overwatch is a multi-media, total brand experience. The trailers for the game could compete with Pixar shorts in every respect. The game is supplemented with comics, toys, and a professional eSports scene. It sets new industry standards in showmanship, advertising, and storyline. This is a lot more than just a video game. This is the new model for integrating a concept across every medium and platform to reach every possible audience in every way. This isn’t just the new benchmark in video games. This is the blueprint for every successful future entertainment product. Blizzard understands “today’s media landscape” as more than a business-boardroom buzzword. Other industries also have successful examples of dominating multiple platforms, though none quite on this scale.

Today’s musicians can’t get away with merely releasing music. They need to tweet and vlog, and most crucially, they need to do live performances. Katy Perry recently set the record as the most followed person on Twitter, even though publishing 140-character quips was never in the job description of a musician or a pop star. Similarly, writers can’t just write books anymore- they need to write about their writing, and then talk about writing about their writing with other writers who want to talk about talking about writing. John Green aspired to be a writer when he took a job doing data entry at a publishing company. At the time, he didn’t hope to become a transmediaplatformleader-we-don’t-have-a-word-for-this-thing. However, his understanding and use of YouTube and Twitter allowed him to promote his young adult fiction beyond what a traditional book publisher would imagine. His new media fed his career in the old media, and vice-versa. (And compared to Twitter and YouTube, video games are old media.*)

Movies won’t succeed just by creating more epic battle scenes in 3D to justify the expense of going to the theater. They need to change the experience in more fundamental ways- they probably need a smooth integration of social media, but they also need some interaction the viewers can’t get outside the theater. They need to learn what Prince knew: you can’t get the live-show experience sitting alone in your home. One way movies could adapt to the 21st century is to turn an evening at the movies into a kind of social event, akin to a concert, sports game, or convention. Another way is to make it an even more technologically-driven experience, with augmented reality or virtual reality – a kind of entertainment-themed, futuristic, individualized experience like a museum or library. That is a lot more expensive, though, and all of the theaters near me just spent a lot of money upgrading their seats.

The media channels of the 21st century aren’t just more avenues for information – they are layers of information interacting with the other layers. Television programs and movies also have to adapt to the way consumers use the newest technology. Adaptation looks like spreading out- growing to cover a larger area – but it’s also about moving to new places entirely. Entertainment has to infiltrate and flow through multiple channels. It also still relies heavily on sponsorship in many cases, which means advertising also has to be integrated across these media.**

There are other ways of adapting, such as just adding alcohol to a bookstore.  Don’t rule anything out, I guess. Especially if you don’t think anyone under 21 even knows about your store or your product, anyway.

 

 

*Not that video games are mainstream yet. My Facebook newsfeed recently informed me that Torbjorn was set to be “‘nerfed’ for consoles in future update.” The word “nerfed” was in quotations, which tells me that mainstream journalists don’t know what it means and don’t think it’s a word. (Or they’re very conscious about not genericizing Hasbro’s trademark, even though that trademark is, strictly speaking, in all-caps.)

**The alternative to advertising is some form of upfront pay-to-play, which is what Overwatch did.

 

 

How You Play The Game Doesn’t Matter If You’re Losing the Sport.

This year started with the gaming news that Blizzard bought MLG. With Overwatch in beta, Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm enjoying steady, casual game play, and Warcraft capping off its gaming legacy with a transition to a different medium, Blizzard is in an interesting place to double-down on its efforts to dominate the eSports market.

I’m skeptical of the prospect of Blizzard creating the “ESPN of eSports,” of course. The NFL doesn’t own ESPN. If they did, who would get prime air time when football and baseball season overlap? Blizzard is incentivized to promote their own products over the products of their competitors. I don’t think there’s anything wrong or shameful about that, but it should be pretty obvious that there is a glaring conflict of interest in Blizzard prioritizing between tournaments for Overwatch and DOTA2 (owned by Valve).

 

Games: Sports :: Art: Entertainment. (Remember the SAT? Wait, they removed the analogy section?)

I’ve written a little about the distinction between art and entertainment before. While they can overlap, they really have different goals: art wants to explore or express something about the world, while entertainment wants to sell something (usually itself, sometimes also a sponsor). Games want to be played; sports want to be won.

Games* are meant to be fun in themselves, and they are played well whenever they are enjoyed by the player. Features such as scores and objectives can orient the player within the game, and provide context and direction, but a game need not rely on these features to achieve delight. Playing a game is, at its core, an aesthetic experience**, and how well you are playing can be judged largely by the extent to which you are aesthetically engaged.

Sports might be fun to play, but their raison d’être is “play to win.” The joy of sports is derived from victory, not from the mere act of competing in them. Features like scores and objectives are core to the experience, and their absence would be disorienting and entirely destroy the endeavour. The activity itself doesn’t need to be enjoyable, and there are right and wrong ways to play. A good sport might also function as a good game, but it must function as good entertainment in order to be successful. A stronger delineation between games and sports would allow developers to understand and focus on the proper goals and objectives.

 

2016: The Year of the Mouse?

With the year starting with some esports hype, and steady growth in esports for the last 5 years, will this year be the year of esports? No. It will be a year of esports, but not the year of esports. There are still the same barriers for eSports that Extra Credits noted almost 4 years ago, and an ESPN of eSports won’t solve those problems. Indeed, a true ESPN of eSports (with even half of that level of cultural penetration) can only be possible after overcoming most of those barriers. The photo at the start of The Guardian’s article is pretty telling: the photo itself clearly captures a massive logo that reads “ALL-STARS,” and the caption calls it the World Championship finals in Paris (not to mention that the Paris finals were held theatre-in-the-round style, which the photograph clearly does not depict). It’s a simple, harmless error, but I think it reveals two things about the mainstream relationship with esports at the start of 2016: 1) no one knows about it (to catch simple things obvious to anyone “in the know”), 2) no one cares about it (enough to do simple fact-checking). Esports will grow this year, but I’m not sure how much or in what ways.

EDIT:

After thinking a little more about it, I need to add something: Blizzard has some incentive to promote any eSport, because eSports is still relatively new. The NFL doesn’t get as much value from promoting other sports because most people know about traditional sports, which have over a century of history. Perhaps Blizzard could promote competitor’s games on the theory that “a rising tide lifts all ships.”

*Philosophers of Language have talked about the difficulty in defining a “game.” Wittgenstein also outlined a theory of language that treats language as a game, in which words are pieces within the game, and their meanings are the moves a piece can perform.

** Kant’s philosophy of aesthetics centers on the concept of “play” between the mental faculties of reason and imagination.

“Oh, Reputation, Reputation!” or “Caveat Emptor”? Gearbox, Blizzard, and GenY’s Revival of Old-Timey Quality.

The latest kerfuffle in the gaming world is over game studio Gearbox’s recent release of “Aliens: Colonial Marines.” The claim (apparently upheld by journalists for Escapist, Kokatu, and IGN) is that the game is terrible. The debate that goes further is whether Gearbox was deceptive in its advertising, demos, and promotions of the game in an effort to get people to pay for the game before it hit shelves (and customers found out that the game was perhaps not as amazing as expected).

Blizzard took a decade to release Starcraft2, and fans were ultimately accepting because of its fine quality. Duke Nukem Forever took forever to be released, and society was both disgusted and apathetic. When Blizzard released Diablo3 after a decade of waiting, fans were outraged because the quality of the experience (from Error 37 to RMAH delays to gameplay curve) just wasn’t up to expectations.

Brands are important to many industries, but I think that IP-based industries feel a special dependence on their reputation. Because the expression is protected by the copyright (and the idea is not), consumers go to their favored bran because they expect a quality of the expression. You can get a very similar game or story from almost any major studio, but people come to trust (or distrust) studios for their quality of interface, graphics, and overall gameplay experience. When a studio fails to meet expectations, there are always plenty of other places to turn to for an FPS or RPG or RTS.

When large, successful studios release poor quality products and then fail to apologize sufficiently, it can create the impression that the studio no longer cares about its fans as much as it cares about its money. Somehow, corporations sometimes think they have to weigh the interests of their “investors” against those of their customers, forgetting that customers are the ultimate investor in any business venture.

The videogame industry might have the lowest tolerance for deceptive advertising or failure to meet basic expectations. The consumer base is often prone to research and has a very communicative community. The nature of an IP based-business demands a lot out of the expression of the idea. Todd Howard likes to note that “execution” of an idea is more important than the idea itself; having a great idea doesn’t matter as much if you don’t pull it off as well as a less awesome idea done really well. Because no game studio can copyright the idea of a first-person shooter or stealth-based game, the ability of a studio to execute its ideas might be the single core criterion by which a videogame can be judged and compared to its rivals.

I don’t think “Aliens” would be in such hot water if the advertising had been less ambitious. I don’t think any of the games I mentioned would have faced such negative receptions if the expectations had not so far outstripped the reality, and if the industry wasn’t able to offer so many alternatives (Torchlight2 is shockingly similar to Diablo3… except for all of the errors and problems).

 

UPDATE 4/3:  http://www.escapistmagazine.com/news/view/123059-Sega-Admits-to-Inaccurate-Aliens-Colonial-Marines-Trailer