Is sharing really caring in the world of video games?
In the last month or so, the game Persona 5 has caused quite a controversy. Upon release, Atlus posted a list of rules about sharing content from the PlayStation4 RPG in order to prevent spoilers. The game is divided into days, and Atlus issued a warning in bold print:
“If you decide to stream past 7/7 (I HIGHLY RECOMMEND NOT DOING THIS, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED), you do so at the risk of being issued a content ID claim or worse, a channel strike/account suspension.”
The company not only warned users to focus on gameplay and not story but also disabled the PS4’s sharing features.
Recently, though, they apologized for the “threatening” post. They also extended the in-game playthrough date to 11/19, much longer than the original 7/7.
So what can we all learn from this situation?
Legality of Game Streaming
Gaming on YouTube, Twitch, and other video sites seems to soar each year. Almost every modern gamer has either turned to YouTube for help with a difficult fight or puzzle, or perhaps they just stumbled across an amazing no-damage Boss fight or trick. But amidst these videos are full runthroughs, the whole 30, 50, 100 hour game available for free. No doubt this is what Atlus really wanted to prevent rather than people accidentally stumbling across the ending.
The basis for U.S. copyright laws were written in the late 1700s, long before moving pictures or voiced images. While laws have been updated over the years, they generally can’t keep up with modern technology. There have never been set “you can use 10% of a book freely” or “30 seconds max”-type rules, so the defining fair use is impossibly hard. Someone including a few seconds of a song probably would be considered fair use, but that doesn’t prevent the original creator(s) from suing you, especially if you’re including the soundbite as a part of a for-profit enterprise. To give you an idea, take a look at this or one of the many other Fair Use Checklists available to help gauge whether your project would be covered under the Fair Use Doctrine.
Nintendo used to be very strict on Let’s Play videos, and it was only a couple of years ago that they started allowing game playthrough videos (for part of the profits, of course). On the other hand, Sony’s share button on the PS4 controller was seen as “game-changing“. While it is fairly common for this button to be disabled in certain scenes (like the ending sequences), many people on the Web claimed they were cancelling or returning their orders for Persona 5 due to Atlus’ policy.
Copyright vs Creativity
While many viewers will say gameplay videos are important to them, both site administrators and judges/juries could potentially rule against the person who is uploading images. Copyright laws are never clear cut, making cases difficult. While putting up episodes of an anime or scans of a manga would be easy to file DMCA claims on, video games in general are interactive. The players are including some of their own creativity in the game. They may be providing commentary on the story or showcasing a unique strategy.
But are these playthroughs also preventing sales? A lot of people commented they never would have purchased a game if it hadn’t been for videos people uploaded. Are these people the majority or the minority? While part of the fun of RPGs and action games is the crazy combos you can pull off and the tension of trying to squeak by a victory, but what about games like visual novels? Many games are essentially movies; for some gamers, they probably would have rather the game been a movie. I know I play games primarily for the story, and it is very tempting to just skip the hours of item farming and go straight for the cut scenes. (Sometimes I really wish I did that with the original Odin Sphere…)
In the Case of Persona 5…
Persona 5 is an RPG, not a visual novel. I can certainly understand Atlus’ — and the industry in general — reluctance to have their entire game available to view for free. But Atlus certainly handled the situation badly.
As a lot of businesses have learned, you can’t beat the Internet. The more you pressure them, the more likely they are to resist. Atlus apologized for their tone, and they should be careful with the future. “Please do not upload full playthroughs; limit your game sharing to exploring and fights please!” is a very different message from “DON’T GO PASS THIS POINT OR WE’LL COME AFTER YOU!!”
The share function being disabled is also a disappointment. Yes, it can be annoying to have the “disabled” and “enabled” messages as I am playing a game, but a developer completely shutting down a popular feature is ridiculous. The high-profile streamers have capture cards, but an average person can take a picture with their cell phone at any time. It will just be of lower quality and won’t attract as much attention — which can be good or bad.
At the same time, however, fans need to realize story-heavy games like Persona 5 are at a high risk of having “moochers” — people who just tune in and will never buy the game now that they have seen the whole game. While some articles argue that it should be up to the community to self-police, companies should feel free to put reasonable limits. Developers like Atlus will never be able to stop the ending sequences from being posted online, but they can prevent sections from being plastered at all corners of the Internet. Fans, meanwhile, should respect those boundaries.