The Great EULA Debate
While attending the 2008 Indie MMO Developer's Conference in Minneapolis, Community Manager Laura Genender sat in on a round table discussion about the ever-popular End User License Agreement (EULA).
Every time I log into my MMO I’m faced with a wall of legal text, scrolling down for 5 long pages of information overload. Covering every topic from third-party software to account ownership rights to password protection, this EULA is your standard all-encompassing agreement between MMO provider and MMO players – but despite the fact that we click “I agree” buttons daily, how often do MMO players actually read through these endless License Agreements? And is it really worth it, considering the standard umbrella statements which leave the end user with little recourse?
This weekend at the Indie MMO Game Designer Conference, Erin Hoffman brought this discussion to the roundtable. Hoffman – a writer and game designer from philomathgames.com – is one of the leading forces behind Settlers of the New Virtual Worlds, an essay collection concerning player rights in virtual space and online games. Working in conjunction with Erik Bethke’s BetterEULA project (www.bettereula.com), Hoffman hopes to make the EULA more substantial and helpful to both developers and players.
The roundtable started with a definition of basic terms: what do you find in your average EULA? Cutting through the legal jargon, your EULA contains basic concepts such as “We can ban you if you don’t listen to rules.” “We own your characters, accounts, and character possessions – you are just borrowing them.” “You can cancel your subscription at any time, but no refunds after bans/cancellations.”
From the above, we started our conversations on the concept of player ownership, and several attendees – including our moderator, Hoffman – felt that EULA statements about character and account ownership are downright offensive and contradictory.
If players don’t own their own characters and accounts, why do the backs of our boxes say “progress your character through 70 levels of immersive gameplay”? This problematic situation is magnified in the 2005 court case Bragg vs. Linden Lab, where Linden’s EULA was contradicted by their advertisements for a world “built, created, and owned by you. Game companies promote an atmosphere where players believe they have personal ownership over their character and experiences.
For game companies, though, there’s a similar catch 22 of negative effects: they want to allow players a personalized and unique existence, and have no sinister plans of seizing our characters for their own evil purposes…but at the same time, these legalities are needed to cover their company backsides against property loss suits in the event of “acts of god” (i.e. destroyed databases) or necessary bans. Theoretically, if players owned the characters, companies would still have a right to ban – but they’d also have an obligation to compensate.
For Hoffman, this might just be the answer. Hoffman is working on the development team of GoPetz, and they fully intend to compensate banned players. To make the GoPetz EULA more binding in court and substantial to the GoPetz player, users will be paid in-game to sign the EULA. Hell, GoPetz is even giving players a say in development priorities: the developers will release lists of features they intend to work on, and players can vote to prioritize these features by spending “points” (i.e. it might cost 5 points to prioritize a new armor graphic, but 50 for a new zone).
While this supports the player, I’m unsure as to how successful some of the above features would be in your average MMO; for example, if NCSoft had to compensate every gold farmer they banned from Lineage 2 for the gold and items lost, they’d be in bad shape right now! And what if a player dupes a valuable item – would they be owed compensation for their 30,000 diamond necklaces? I love the idea of giving players input on content, though, and so do several other game development companies – ATITD has let players vote on “laws” for years, and EVE is reinstating the Council of Stellar Management to advise designers.