Sleeping with the elephant

sleeping elephant

The galaxy changed when you weren't looking.

Formerly a largely peaceful and orderly place, inhabited by craftspeople, entertainers and wise Jedi, the galaxy – that is to say, the world of Star Wars Galaxies, the massively multiplayer online game (MMO) based on the movie franchise – is now a world of ruthless bounty hunters and blaster-happy fighter pilots. Where success could once be achieved by a number of paths, it now consists of, in the words of the game's senior director Nancy MacIntye, “instant gratification: kill, get treasure, repeat.”

We mentioned Star Wars Galaxies in an earlier column, looking at the Busby Berkeley-style production numbers that had been staged by its players. In 2005, however, the game was changed in several fundamental ways. Among these changes, which were made in hopes of attracting a broader player base, was the elimination of many of the game's character types – such as the entertainers who had staged those production numbers – as well making the gameplay focus more heavily on combat. Many of the game's players cried foul. What right did LucasArts and Sony have to change the game they had spent so much time and effort on? Whose world was it, anyway?

While the issue is most prominent in cases like this, where users are working with a previously created property like Star Wars, it runs through all examples of Web 2.0. The essential definition of 2.0, after all, is that users create some or all of the content. What follows from that is the question of just who that content belongs to. It also brings to light a broader idea of “owning”: none of the players of Star Wars Galaxies would have suggested that they held copyright to anything they had created there, but still they had a definite sense that the world they had collaborated on was theirs – and felt betrayed when they learned the game's creators did not share that belief.

What may have brought Star Wars Galaxies to that flashpoint was that in its early days – including the development period, before the game was actually playable – the design team took an entirely opposite tack. Henry Jenkins, in From Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, describes the two approaches media owners can take to user-created content as prohibitionist and collaborationist: prohibitionist companies seek to retain total control of their properties, whereas collaborationists try to harness the users' desire to get involved. Of course, nothing prevents a media owner from using both strategies at different times – a band might take a prohibitionist stance on file-sharing, for instance, while releasing some tracks to be used in remixes.

In the case of Star Wars Galaxies, the collaborationist approach used early on came about because its initial lead developer, Raph Koster, had his roots in the world of multi-user dungeons, the non-commercial forebears of today's massively multiplayer online games (MMOs). Recognizing the tremendous investment Star Wars fans had in the material, he created an online forum where the fans could be kept up to date on development of the game and give suggestions and feedback. This attitude carried on into the game itself: nearly everything that existed within the game – including the weapons, clothing and other equipment the characters used – was created by the players themselves. Koster recognized that fans did not so much want to play Star Wars as to live it, and the world he created for them was one in which every niche – from craftsperson to entertainer to politician to Jedi – was available.

Commercially, though, Star Wars Galaxies was not the smash its creators were hoping for. Although it won a respectable number of subscribers, it lagged well behind industry leaders like World of Warcraft – an embarrassing position for a game built around what is, after all, the crown jewel of media properties. When subscriptions failed to rise, the decision was made to target a different group of users, those too young to have seen Star Wars in the theatre (or even on VHS). It was assumed that these players would prefer Star Wars Galaxies if it had simpler, more combat-heavy gameplay – if it were, essentially, World of Warcraft with light sabres and Jedi knights. The backlash was powerful and immediate, with many of the original users saying they felt betrayed by the changes in the game. The comments made by Nancy MacIntyre to The New York Times on the issue made it clear that the old users' opinions no longer mattered: the day of Koster's collaborationist approach was over. No longer would Star Wars Galaxies be a game where you decided what “winning” was: Sony and Lucasarts would tell you how to play.

The tension between the collaborationist and prohibitionist approaches is found again in one of the fan-made films discussed in an earlier column, the aptly titled Fanboys. Again taking the Star Wars universe as its jumping-off point, this film imagined a group of diehard fans taking a road-trip to Star Wars creator George Lucas' ranch in 1998 to see the then-unreleased prequel The Phantom Menace. The subject matter was problematic: while no Star Wars characters appear in the film, recognizable (and trademarked) images do, as characters appear wearing costumes from the original movies. In the case of Fanboys, though, the conflict was not with the property owner; Lucas decided on a collaborationist approach, giving the filmmakers access to a number of locations as props and, more importantly, allowing the use of his intellectual property. It was the film's backers, the Weinstein Company, who offended the fans' sense of ownership. In the original script, and the first cut of the movie, the fans are motivated to see The Phantom Menace because their friend, who has cancer, may not live to see its official release; in the final cut, however, all references to cancer have been removed. Just as with Star Wars Galaxies, fans who had followed the creation of the film from script to screen, who considered it in some ways “their” movie, reacted with outrage – organizing a boycott of Weinstein Company films and expressing their anger through Web sites such as Stop Darth Weinstein. While the eventual fate of Fanboys remains to be seen – no release date has been announced – it's likely that both Lucas and the Weinstein Company may be wary of taking the collaborationist approach in the future.

The future of Web 2.0 seems likely to be one of tension between property owners (movie studios, authors, television networks) and user-creators. Beyond issues of perceived ownership and loyalty come questions of legal ownership: how much user-created content can a property owner allow before their ownership comes into question? Here, again, the prohibitionist and collaborationist approaches appear. Paramount, which owns the Star Trek franchise, was a vigorous defender of its sole copyright in the early years of the Web, sending cease-and-desist letters to fan sites, but more recently it has chosen to take the opposite tack. World Enough and Time, the Star Trek fan movie, was explicitly authorized by Paramount as an amateur production. By making the permission formal, Paramount guaranteed that the use of its property won't undercut its ownership. As the number of user-created works grow, with many, if not most, involving using copyrighted materials in some way, will property owners be able to keep up? Moreover, not all user-creators produce material that the property owner will approve of. As we saw in examining Star Wars Galaxies, fans may hold very different views on the nature and values of a property – and they may feel they own it, on a moral level, every bit as much as the legal owners (some, indeed, insist the fans are the “real” owners – easier to justify, perhaps, in the case of a property like Star Trek, which is owned by the corporation that bought the company that financed the original series, than in the case of a creator-owned property such as Star Wars.) The rise of the transmedia business model – in which the same property is used simultaneously in a variety of media, so that there might at any given time be a Star Wars movie, comic book, computer game, and so on – makes the prohibitionist approach difficult, since the transmedia approach relies on a high degree of consumer loyalty and involvement.

Ownership, in both the legal and moral sense, is fundamentally what Web 2.0 is about. From collaboratively reviewing books and hotels to building a community news platform to telling stories about beloved movie characters, user-created content has led to a shift in our traditional views of the relationship between producers and consumers. It may be too early to say what that relationship will eventually look like, or to know how many users are really interested in producing content, but it seems certain that many of our assumptions about media are destined to change.

Questions for Class Discussion

  • Why were players of Star Wars Galaxies upset about the changes in the game?
  • Many fans feel like they “own” the properties they watch and play. Why do you think they feel this way? Should fans have any rights of “ownership”? Why or why not?
  • Do you have examples of friends or peers who create collaborative media based on copyrighted property? If so, did they seek permission? Do you think that they should? Why or why not?
  • Which do you think will be more effective in dealing with user-created media – the collaborationist or the prohibitionist approach? Why?
  • Do you think that user-created content will change the relationship between media producers and consumers? If so, how will it change? If not, why not?