Ubisoft’s Crowdsourcing Scheme Asks for Hard Work, Promises Little Pay

At Ubisoft’s press conference on June 11th, 2018, amidst the segment devoted to the long-awaited Beyond Good & Evil  sequel, the company has described some details of what it’s calling “the Space Monkey program.” (An interesting choice of tongue-in-cheek name, considering the fatality rate for primates used in early spaceflight testing.) Ubi will be collaborating with HitRecord, a “community-sourced production company” headed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Here’s how Gordon-Levitt summarized the concept behind the collaboration:

hitRECord […] is a place where people from all over the world work together on short films, or music, or art […] It’s not just gonna be a thing like a contest where people submit songs and then we pick one or two of them and we put them in the game. We’re gonna be really making the songs together. And the same goes for the visual assets […] Whether you’re a writer, a musician, an illustrator, if you’re a pro-level artist, or if you’re just someone who really cares about Beyond Good and Evil […] there’s gonna be ways for you to contribute.

The above excerpt was transcribed from the Youtube video of the Ubisoft conference, which you can watch in full here:

HitRecord is, effectively, a crowdsourcing website. Beautiful platitudes about the community and working together aside, crowdsourcing services function as a way to force workers and creators into competition with each other, both driving down wages and dodging minimum wage laws, and just as importantly, eroding solidarity and promoting a spirit of individualism. Furthermore, the low-paid and unreliable nature of crowdsourced work means that very frequently, the only contributors able to stick with a project are those whose financial situation is already comfortable and who can afford to treat it like a hobby, which has the effect of shutting the contributions and art of working class people out of an, allegedly, more democratic than ever culture industry.

Although it’s plain that I consider the practice unethical, it’s important not to be swayed by the idea that this is Ubisoft’s unique failing. In the capitalist economic system, companies exist to maximize profits while minimizing costs to the maximum extent that the laws of both the courts and physics will allow. The special ingenuity of new online technologies such as crowdsourcing consists in making it possible to cut costs by driving wages down to an unprecedented degree, and to institute inbuilt safeguards against workplace solidarity and unionization, which are more difficult to root out in more traditional workplaces. The nature of the Ubi-HitRecord collaboration also means that the costs of producing all the art assets that do not make the cut are externalized to the workers themselves.

The Terms of Service on the HitRecord website state that, by posting a “RECord” (their legalese for “basically any kind of content”) to the website, the creator grants the company a non-exclusive, transferable, perpetual license, and that even if you delete your content and your account, the company has a right to continue using anything that you may have posted prior to the deletion. In effect, while you still own the content, HitRecord and by extension Ubisoft are within their full legal rights to do anything they want with it. The terms also very explicitly state that

the Company is not a signatory to any union, guild or other collective bargaining agreement (including, without limitation, SAG/AFTRA, DGA and WGA) and therefore is not required to pay – and will not pay – any minimum fees, residuals, reuse fees, pension, health and welfare benefits or other benefits or payments for any Use of any RECords or Final Products pursuant to the Company Terms.

The specificity of this formulation makes it clear that the company has considered the implications of the labour environment the website creates, and has chosen to make union organizing for its contributors difficult; I mention this to preempt any notion of this difficulty being an unintended and unfortunate oversight.

Understandably, the announcement caused an immediate outcry on social media, working conditions in the games industry being an issue that has recently been drawing a good amount of attention. Gordon-Levitt has tweeted to clarify that HitRecord does, in fact, pay and intend to pay contributors to the project. In the light of all the other problems with this form of work, it is difficult to find reassuring the mere concession that, at least, it’s not going to be completely for free. Information available on the HitRecord website indicates that the total budget for the crowdsourced elements of the BG&E2 project is fifty thousand dollars, which – considering how beloved the first game is and its enduring cultural weight, and the fantastic sums Ubi makes on similar flagship titles such as the Assassin’s Creed series – seems legitimately insulting to anyone who might choose to contribute their labour to this game’s success.

In theory the creators whose art gets picked for the game could, and should, refuse to sign off on it until Ubisoft pays absolutely everyone a fair wage; in practice, in the individualized and atomized conditions engendered by a crowdsourcing service, it’s difficult to expect everyone to maintain such a high ethical standard and jeopardize their own income and career advancement for the benefit of total online strangers, which is precisely why platforms such as these are such a gigantic asset to bosses and corporations. In the interest of artists everywhere being able to support themselves, it is important we voice our opposition to the expansion of crowdsourcing and other practices that render work increasingly precarious.

If you’re interested in learning in more detail about the damage that this type of employment (“speculative work”) does to the working conditions in the industry, you can check out nospec.com for a good summary.

It’s too bad, too. I was really excited for the space pig game.

Huge thanks to Ashley and Lilly for their help with this one.