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Developer Perspectives: Why I'm Freaking Out Over SOPA/PIPA

Column By Sanya Weathers on January 20, 2012

Part of what makes discussing SOPA/PIPA such a challenge is that there are lots of different reasons people care. (No, SOPA/PIPA is not a delicious Mexican dessert. If you seriously don't know what SOPA/PIPA is, even after the internet strike and resulting GIFs on Jan 18, this link was recommended to me as being fairly free of bias. You might approach the issue from the perspective of a citizen, a business person, a gamer, or as an artist.

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On Wednesday, I said on Twitter: "Forums are too dangerous for indie games/individuals to operate if SOPA/PIPA passes." I said that from the perspective of a developer, and a couple people rightly called me out on that. I might as well use a column called "Developer Perspectives" to explain.

The most important thing for any multiplayer game is a community. Without people coming together to support the concept (and to reinforce the validity of the concept to one another), all I'd have is another swell idea. Ideas are cheap. Any decent comment thread can produce fifty ideas in a half an hour.

It's not just getting the feel I want. Sometimes it's really about need. The smaller the company making the game, the more they need the community. Idea refinement, balancing, beta testing, feedback - these things are community driven in a product that's short of budget and staff.

I'll go a little farther and say a PVP MMO is doomed without community engagement even if everything about the game is solidly designed and implemented. Without critical mass, competition, and a certain amount of smack talk, PVP is not fun. You can build those things in the game, but unless you can implant the game in people's brains, people do have to log off. An external community builds the proper spirit, and reinforces it.

Finally, if I don't have an advertising budget, if I don't have Best Buy or Gamestop running promos for me, and if I've got no existing brand or franchise to leverage, I'm entirely dependent on whatever community finds my ideas interesting enough to follow. I just don't have the reach, but my community does. If I can impress twenty guild leaders, I'll have a thousand potential customers willing to give me a chance. If each member of my community brings a friend to the table, my customer base doubles.

So, I have to have a community. If I want a real community as opposed to a teeming mass of fanboys and yes-men, my internet presence can't be a one way street. I need to be open to collaboration, to discussion, to user sharing. You call it a message board. So do I. When I'm talking to people with more money than community experience, though, I call it user generated content.

And that's where I run into trouble under the proposed law.

The person alleging copyright infringement does not have to provide links to the challenged content on my forum.  The accuser does not have to give a file location or even a name. For that matter, the challenged content doesn't even have to be on my forum. If one of my community members links to a site with pirated content, I'd be on the hook. The terms and definitions are absolutely not clear in terms of who is responsible for the link to the "bad" site, but language in other sections imply it's the host... that would be me, in this context.

After the report is made, under the best and most generous interpretation of the proposed law, I would have two weeks to prove that I'd removed the copyright violation, or the link to it. Or I'd have to prove it never existed in the first place.

Two problems with that. Okay, more than two, but here are the main issues.

ONE - A healthy community for a game in beta testing has thousands of posts, pictures, and links. An indie or a private individual does not and cannot click every link. The moderation costs would be prohibitive. A major corporation can patrol at that level... but shouldn't. A healthy community isn't micromanaged that way. Social pressure and a robust reporting mechanism are better tools for growth. So even if I could afford it, I wouldn't, but in order to locate the challenged content (remember, the accuser doesn't need to provide a link), I would have to.

TWO - Exactly how would I go about proving the content was never there?

The proposed system puts all of the burden of proof on the accused, not the accuser, which is something of a... reversal, shall we say, of established norms.

In other words, all it takes is one person upset that my company nerfed his laser rifle, and I could be spending days trying to "prove" that I'm innocent. If I try and fight it, I've just introduced legal fees to my company's already bare bones budget. That's money and time that I don't have as an independent developer.

As written, SOPA/PIPA leaves me no choice but to remove user generated content from my domains, and patrol my social media channels like a school nurse wielding a lice comb, or the hemorrhage of time and money will kill my game. But without a vibrant community, my game's dead anyway.

Sanya Weathers / I''ve been complaining about video games for ten years. Ten years, people. In internet years, I''m not just old, I''m DEAD.

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Developer Perspectives
Community Manager for Dominus, Sanya Weathers offers her unique thoughts on all things MMO from the developer's side of the equation.
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