You might be aware of the name of Don Daglow, a legendary game designer and producer, known among PC gamers mostly for the first graphical MMORPG Neverwinter Nights launched in 1991 (not to confuse with the modern series of the same title). At that, Mr. Daglow is reported to be one of the participants of the first ever Game Developers Conference, called that time ‘Computer Game Developers Conference’ which was held as long ago as 1988 at the spot in San Jose, California belonging to other old-school game designer Chris Crawford. It was really exciting to see that now, after more than 25 years, Mr. Daglow’s session was among the opening ones at the Game Developers Conference Europe 2014 convened in Cologne, Germany from 11 to 13 August 2014.
Ten Questions of Mr. Daglow
It is not a surprise that this session, called ‘Ten Questions: Am I Ready to Go Indie?’ was allocated to an opening spot. It was one of the few which were interesting for any kind of attendee – from game designers as they are to those not directly related to the industry as me. I guess that each attendee of Mr. Daglow’s session would agree that the delivery of the lecture itself was a kind of lesson – the quality of presentation skills could not be higher: gestures, intonation, movements and, of course, structuring of the presentation entertained the attendees while helping to convey the material in a precise manner.
The session concentrated on ten questions which, according to Mr. Daglow, each who considers going indie (but actually this should be read as ‘starting to pursue the profession of choice’) should ask him/herself. To name just a few: ‘You win the lottery, clear your to-do list and take a 3-month vacation. How would you spend your days when you got back?’, ‘How much money do I need to bring in FOR SURE each month to be OK, and how long can I sustain living that way?’, ‘What’s the project from your career where teammates and the game’s players gave you the most praise for your work?’, ‘How would you feel if GameSpot, IGN, Kotaku and Gamezebo and 17,126 website comments all said your game sucks?’ One of the ‘bonus’ questions also called the attendees to figure out what was for them the most influential game of their youth, which was much harder to answer than it could seem at first.
After the presentation I asked Mr. Daglow on his opinion on when an indie developer should start paying attention to legal matters. He answered with a joke that when you get a contract for review, since it is a serious document, you should call your sister and ask her to fall in love with an attorney in the nearest 48 hours to get a free legal advice. After that he continued with more serious comment stating that such kind of services is one of the most expensive, so at first an indie developer (the one who does not have a sister) should learn much by him/herself, but still it is advisable to find eventually one of the few people who specialize in legal support of the game industry.
Naked Nazi Zombie
Other session which I really enjoyed (in part due to the fact that its content required regulatory knowledge) was provocatively called ‘The Naked Nazi Zombie: Age Rating in Germany and the World’ and presented by Paul Dalg and Ruben Schwebe, both representing USK – Unterhaltungssoftware Selbstkontrolle, German Age Rating System. Obviously, the naked nazi zombie is one of the poorest beings in the world (virtual world, it is) as this being is widely unaccepted in most jurisdictions for one or, more often, for all of the indicated attributes. This presentation, opened with an image of South Park’s Kenny (who appeared to have just cut off a hand of a naked guy while wearing ladies attire, swastika arm band and doing the nazi greeting), provided a concise overview of age rating regulations throughout the world.
To highlight just a few approaches and their peculiarities, the U.S. Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) age rating policy focuses on erotic content above all other. Violent nazi Kenny would be okay unless the naked guy would explicitly appear. Practical example: well-known GTA IV Hot Coffee Mod which introduced erotic content. Unlike ESRB, Pan European Game Information (PEGI) additionally focuses on drug, violent, hate speech and gambling content. Practical example: Manhunt 2. The rating supported by Japan’s Computer Entertainment Rating Organization (CERO) focuses more on what does the game convey and adds cultural and historic references to violence. Practical example: Fallout 3 (due to references to ‘Fat Man’ atomic bomb). The German USK, already referred to in the beginning of this section, has one of the widest Western lists of criteria and is one of the very few rating boards where experts are actually required to play the game. All of these boards are non-governmental, and strictly speaking the ratings are not mandatory, but the retailers will not accept non-rated games.
Unlike the aforementioned non-governmental ratings, there are a few countries with governmental rating boards. The latter tend to include the possibility of ban a game by refusing a classification with the effect of illegality to import, sell and/or even own. Australia and New Zealand are well-known in this respect and also add ‘lack of decency or morality’ to the criteria. Russia was also present in this list, but an obvious remark is that although it has a general law on age ratings, there is neither rules nor practice yet of applying the law to computer games. All of the attendees really enjoyed reference to an age category which exists in Iran: “25+ and married”. So if you are 25+ and married, you can legally see some erotic content.
Other part of the presentation was dedicated to the Internet youth protection in Germany which has different rules than for retail. It is definitely an issue to consider for anyone going to German market as the fines for online misbehavior are up to Euro 500,000.
Legal Boundaries for Creativity
It was a pleasure to see fellow computer game lawyers – Konstantin Ewald and Felix Hilgert from international law firm Osborne Clarke – delivering quality and relevant content at Game Developers Conference Europe 2014. Their session ‘The Law and Game Design – Balancing Fun or Killjoy?’ touched the topic which, to my experience, many of the game developers try to avoid at all costs until it finds them itself (where it is usually too late): what legal limitations on computer game projects are set forth by public authorities, with particular attention to Germany and the European Union. In fact, such limitations can be even viewed as a kind of scaffolding where the design of the game must be fit in to avoid controversies with authorities (and players who start to learn their consumer rights).
Mr. Ewald and Mr. Hilgert focused on game content as the central category and indicated three kinds of legal concern. The first one is consumer protection which is connected to the issues of ‘user monetization in the freemium age’, as the authors put it, and the regulation of advertising. E.g. the Federal Court of Germany found the phrase ‘Pimp your character’ used in a Runes of Magic ad being inappropriate. The second one is data protection which could be apparently translated as privacy in the context of EU legislation on personal data protection. There is a thin line where a random number attributed to an abstract user may become a personal data which requires strict compliance. The final legal concern highlighted by Osborne Clarke lawyers was the issues of youth protection. In addition to naked nazi zombies already introduced to the conference discourse by the USK representatives the day before, an issue of addictive behavior was stressed.
To great extent it is these issues which form the core issues of computer game industry legal practice (besides obvious questions of intellectual property rights) in every country of the world, with certain exceptions and reservations – I could add that in Russia, for instance, there are some cases where courts rejected claims of free-to-play users stating that no consumer rights emerge when a user is a client of a free service (which is actually not a settled matter under the Russian legislation).
It had been no surprise that the session was followed by more than half an hour discussion of the questions raised by game developers who attended it. Many of the questions revolved around the fact that if the German market is targeted specifically, the terms and conditions must comply not only with the general EU legislation, but also with the specific German rules. Therefore, the lecturers concluded that a simple translation of any kind of international terms and conditions will not work, and at least a minimum of adaptation is highly advisable. Otherwise, part of the terms will lose its effect for Germany and default rules of the local civil law will work instead.
Useful Tips for Future Events
Spending part of the week networking in Cologne during Game Developers Conference Europe 2014 and, of course, Gamescom which is one of the major world fairs of computer and video games conducted since 2009, taught me several things which may be useful for anyone who would like to visit these events for the first time, mainly for the purpose of business networking (although any computer and video game fan will find a lot of joy there).
- If you have not been to the games week in Cologne before, plan to visit at least one day in Gamescom right after Game Developers Conference Europe. Without prior experience I expected to have more business networking during the GDC Europe, but it turned out that the first (business) days of Gamescom are not less fruitful for establishing contacts, if not more. This time the third day of the GDC Europe had only sessions specifically oriented for those who are directly involved in the industry, and it overlapped with the business day of Gamescom. It was wise of me to change the plans, visit Gamescom and make contacts with a lot of interesting and relevant people.
- Whatever you plan to visit – GDC Europe, Gamescom or both – you will get most of the networking results if you get in touch with the people who are relevant to your activity much in advance and schedule the meeting. There is a tremendous amount of people and companies presented throughout the events and if you do not prepare your conversations in advance you will face the risk of not reaching your potential contacts. I made a research and a preliminary e-mail contacts with people who share my interests a few weeks before the events, and I checked only the GDC Europe list. If I considered Gamescom contacts as well and did this at least a month before, I would get more results, although I have no grounds to complain now either.
- It is great to have a kind of personal website or any other similar resource (e.g. an about.me page) which could easily show to your potential contacts the overview of your relevant background and your contact details. Furthermore, it turned out that although an ordinary business card which you might have at your company may be great, it would be even better if it is supplemented by an additional personal card specifically crafted for the event, of course if it does not contradict your corporate policy. I wish I would have an additional personal card with the link to this website, and most likely I will design one for the next round of networking events.
- If your area of expertise is by its nature more local than international (this may be the case of local publishers, localization services and of course lawyers), it is better to think in advance what contacts are you looking for and how you would present your area of expertise to your potential contacts. For example, in my case, even the German platform would work better for contacts with fellow Russian game developers, publishers and service providers, unless my potential non-Russian contact plans to have dealings with the Russian market. Those who have expertise in issues which are international by nature, such as pure game design or coding, definitely would have less necessity for thoughtful planning of networking in this respect.
- Irrespective of what is said above, it is useful to remember that you may not only get networking for yourself, but facilitate networking among your existing and potential contacts. For instance, a foreign publisher who does not work at your local market may be potentially interested in getting new titles to publish, while your local game developer may be interested in reaching the market of that publisher. You will also meet a lot of service providers at GDC Europe 2014 / Gamescom who are looking for the clients themselves, and in such a case it may happen that your local contacts would be happy to reach them, while you may serve as an intermediary if you are sure on the point of interest and reliability of both parties.
In total, I got a strong impression that Game Developers Conference Europe / Gamescom are the events which you should not miss if you somehow relate to computer game industry and unless some specific circumstance prevent you for doing so. Let’s meet there next time!