Our Games, Our Rules: Microsoft Changes Policies

Microsoft made big news this week, not because of a new product or game, but due to the announcement of their new, more robust set of guidelines in regards to what can and cannot be done with their products, primarily in regards to video content on the internet. The move doesn’t come as much of a surprise, as the exponential increase in gaming content and the corresponding growth of the medium’s influence on sales and marketing has made Let’s Play and related trends impossible to ignore, but some of the language used to explain these new guidelines is being met with skepticism, and even alarm, by the gaming community.

“We know that people like you — gamers, fans, individuals, and enthusiasts — love our games,” state the new rules, “and sometimes want to use things like gameplay footage, screenshots, music, and other elements of our games (‘Game Content’) to make things like machinima, videos, and other cool things (your ‘Item(s)’). We’d like to make that easier to do for fans of our games. So long as you can respect these rules, you can use our Game Content to make your Items.”

Most of these rules are reasonable, and typical. Content cannot be reverse-engineered from game-code, limiting creators to the resources naturally available in the games, and are not allowed to sell their content, or use said creations to enter contests or sweepstakes. Making a living from said content is still a potentially viable option, as ad revenue through YouTube or Twitch are exempt from the monetary restriction.

Additionally, though, Microsoft has also put into place restrictions on the nature of the content that will or will not be allowed, outlining many forms of “offensive” content that will not be tolerated. This includes anything that the company finds to be racist, abusive, violent, or descriminatory, but also includes any additional “otherwise objectionable” content that isn’t explicitly banned. This is where creators are getting a little nervous.

The reason for such broad, open language is clear: Microsoft knows they can’t predict any and all possiblly offensive forms of content could be created using their products, and they need the legal flexibility to deal with new, unforeseen issues should they arise. Still, the versatility of that phrase, “otherwise objectionable,” also means that Microsoft could bring the hammer down on pretty much anything they see as contrary to their business goals, even if an outside observer wouldn’t necessarily be able to classify said work as “offensive” or the like.

Creators and gamers are wary of big AAA companies and the kind of absolute control they’d prefer to exercise over their products. With branded content and sponsored reviews becoming a trend, consumers tend to expect underhandedness from publishers and developers. The fact that these rules have been so broadly defined, thus, is seen by a many as a step in the wrong direction, an opportunity to flex their outrageous financial and legal muscle that is too tempting for the big-wigs to ignore. This is where a lot of the discomfort comes from.

The thing is, Microsoft knows all of this. If they didn’t, there wouldn’t be an entirely different set of more open, less restrictive rules for their most recent acquisition, Minecraft. Microsoft knows that the value of Minecraft and its developer, Mojaang, is in its incredible online communities, built around things like private servers and video-content producers. They never would have made the whopping $2.5 billion purchase otherwise. Any threat to that community, to the flexibility and open nature of the game itself and what can be done with it, could cripple this enormous property they clearly see as a huge part of their business going into the future.

And yet, they know, they can get away with more. Maybe not with Minecraft, that ship has sailed, but for their myriad other properties, those that haven’t had the benefit of a self-generating community building up around it and transforming it into a cultural phenomenon, they can lock down harder, take full advantage of their rights. Anyone who thought that Minecraft coming under the Microsoft banner was going to lead to a drastic culture change within the latter is going to be sorely mistaken.

Being receptive to the creative power of the internet can have an explosive effect on a game’s bottom line. When it comes to Minecraft, it’s the sole purpose for its transformation from strange, unique indie hit to massive, integral component of pop culture. That’s why such a big company went out and bought it. But, that doesn’t mean the way that game is treated, legally, is here to stay. Microsoft has their Minecraft. They seem to have little interest in developing another one.

Originally published at blog.gamewisp.com Jan 14, 2015.

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