This article represents some thoughts on how copy-left and permissive licences create value. It uses the story of Bioware and it’s use of the D&D™ and Forgotten Realms™ games & mythos as an example. There are two recent news items that make this current: that the community repository for Neverwinter Nights has just shut, and that Wizards of the Coast have just released Dungeons & Dragons V5 rules as a free to use .pdf, a small but significant step to a freemium business model. The story shows how an initially traditional author-publisher business model, leveraged a pre-made community, grew it and latterly enabled it. The point of this story is the way in which community and value grew, becoming significant author contributors and the way in which Bioware responded and learnt although some might say not as quickly or as generously as they might.

Another motivation is that I included a version of this story in a professional presentation on intellectual property law, open source and collaboration and it didn’t fit for reasons of time.  I used this story to explore the alternatives to All Rights Reserved, and looked at how they did and didn’t use licence engineering to build community and leverage their fans and customers to create market value. Arguably, it became one of the first games as a platform even if accidentally.

Bioware & AD&D, a case study in permissive licences

Bioware is a Canadian based video/computer games engineering/authoring company. It produced a series of games based on the “Dungeons & Dragons” rules; the Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale and Neverwinter Nights game series, released between 1998 & 2009. These games are all based on the AD&D rule set which Bioware licensed from Wizards of the Coast. This ensured that a large number of people understand the fictional milieu, the nature of the story where an avatar travels with dis-similar companions to collectively fulfil the quest or story line, and the rules and thus systems of magic and physics. The original game, published as an expensive series of books, often known these days as PnP for pencil and paper meant that the story was jointly developed by the dungeon master and the players; stories weren’t enclosed as they have to be for video games and the dungeon master just made stuff up if the players took the story to unexpected places. The fantasy world setting, the Forgotten Realms was also licensed, once more creating the ability to co-opt a ready made fan base and to accelerate the adoption by some fans and customers. There should be little question that it also shortened the development time and costs.

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Communities have Value

Some recent economic theories are exploring the economic value of social networks. The value of networks and/or members of the network varies depending upon the primary activity of the network. Music fans for instance seem to be treated as cash cows and are seen by many artists and music publishers as nothing more than walking wallets. Professional and fan reviews, word of mouth and reputation are all important marketing assets, and possibly most importantly, for computer video games the sharing of the community size and vibrancy through online/collaborative gaming creates value to the publisher and customer. Eric Raymond in “Homesteading the Noosphere” posits a reputation based driver for the development of free software. The Cluetrain Manifesto makes the point that customers can use the internet to dis-intermediate the marketing & legal departments of their suppliers and even sales; enabling a conversation between creators be they engineers, professionals or artists and their customers.  This is both of value to the customers, and to the companies, as it reduces the cost of marketing and support. These insights are reinforced by the classic start-up exit points of idea, code and community, with a working site and then an active community being of highest value. To add to this serious software developers were developing collaboration techniques and tools. Theories such as “clever people work elsewhere” were driving global talent searches and inter-company collaborations. Ann Barron (2013) in ‘Free Software Production as Critical Social Practice’ reviews much of the 21st century literature as she charts the drivers leading to author communities and their use of ‘free’ licenses. The internet was enabling alternative business models to the traditional author/publisher, and these models enabled or required active community.

In the creative industries there is no doubt that their customers and fans create effective demand both through purchase of goods, and merchandise which adds marketing value via the buzz, even by facebook clicks. Bioware’s video games are creative industry artefacts, although the video games industry have on the whole taken a different view to how to offer value and enforce their intellectual property rights. The “right to use” becomes an option price guaranteeing a pepper corn rental. We have seen the game evolve as a platform, enabling multi-player games & more recently in-game commerce and even then external exchange based commerce.

Monetisation Strategies

The release period of the D&D Games from Bioware covered the evolution of these strategies. These games were typically large compared with bandwidth, which was at the time slower than disk access times. Baldur’s Gate was distributed on five CD’s and the uncompressed file system over two gigabytes. (This would have taken many hours to download.) It had to be distributed by removable optical media, probably CD in the earlier releases and DVD later.

In the late ’90s, the classic monetisation strategy was to release a game, charge about £40, drop the price after six months, release a kicker for about £20 after 12 or 18 months and then combine them in a single release. Bioware pursued this strategy, much to my chagrin as I had to scour London for my copy of the Baldur’s Gate kicker, Tales of the Sword Coast since they cleared the shelves in order to make room (in customer wallets) for the combined pack release. They then repeated this for BG2, release, kicker and combination. (BG2 allowed one to import one’s character from BG1. One of the fascinations of D&D is the husbanding of one’s characters through multiple adventures and and importantly levels; it was a clever and important part of the offer.)

Reverse Engineering and Extensibility

The game was published as binary format only, the portraiture was in a public albeit proprietary format. The game as published was both buggy and it was later discovered incomplete, although Baldur’s Gate II was much worse. The game publishers also created an extensibility framework which they used to create the game but also published small parts of it, most obviously there is an overrides folder. After the release of BG2 a community formed around projects using forum software and borrowing from the techniques established by the open source movement. This initially started as an act of player collaboration, the publication of hints and tips, and achievements. Walkthroughs were also published and curated by the community. With the publication of BG2, which had a new execution engine and a superior internal architecture, prompted by the high number of bugs and missing content the community really took off. The first achievement was the publication of a community authored omnibus patch hosted at Baldurdash.

The event macro, environment variables and character/non-character and monster definition languages and even the physical location definitions were all reverse engineered. Some of this was would seem to be helped by staff from Bioware. The configuration files, .2DA files were also reverse engineered as was the dialogue file format since most dialogue was text based. A package manager was also built. Having built the tools the community set to, enhancing or replacing the story. They then took to applying these techniques to the original Baldur’s Gate by porting BG1 to the BG2 games engine. All this engineering while almost certainly in clear breach of the right to use licence enhanced at least the earnings life time of these games. (One could argue that it delayed the movement from and purchase of Neverwinter Nights which was Bioware’s successor to the Baldur’s Gate series although it had had a different engine with better visualisation technology.)

And then came Neverwinter Nights.

Lessons learned

This again used the D&D rules and Forgotten Realms setting. It had a new engine, used the AD&D v3.5 rules but was released with a toolkit and a copyleft license, albeit restricting the right to monetise. The community would not need to reverse engineer the product to enhance it. With this act, Bioware outsourced the story writing to its fans, but their work had to be free to each other. Each new story increases the value of the right to use license. The inclusion of a Dungeon Master portal was another reason why the community grew. With the initial publication model the computer software replaced the dungeon master and the players became passive participants searching for their route through the game. The DM Client was a tool to ameliorate this weakness and reinforce the ability of customers and fans to become the story tellers in these new worlds and as an alternative, they could write their own stories.

Playable fan fiction grew the value of the game to its users, and gross revenue to the publishers.

Another interesting event, proving the value of community was that in 2014, the commercial publisher of the most popular repo for the fan fiction artefacts was shit canned. The community began to rebuild it. The [partially] open licence created a degree of resilience; this is an important phenomena given that the community’s collective memory was severely damaged by the hack on Bioware’s forums; this latter material was never recovered, although some of it was replicated in fan forums.

Eblen Mogden once said that the licence is the constitution of the community, and these stories show how.

In addition, they show how a permissive licence allowed an author/publisher to allow fans to create content and thus demand, extending the revenue earning capability of the software products in question.

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Footnotes

The presentation was written in 2013, I decided this part of the presentation was best presented in article form, as on the first run through, it was a diversion from what I wanted to say. The need to refresh the presentation  and the events described in paragraph two made me look at this over the summer of 2014. It then lay dormant for 4 years; I revisited it in 2018, pushed by the copyright directive debate in the European Parliament.

An interesting aspect of the agreement to license the rules is that the principles of copyright mean that one cannot copyright algorithms which is why food recipes and mathematics can’t be patented or copyright. The D&D rules are clearly algorithms. The way this is interpreted in courts and jurisdictions around the world varies. The rules are published as a text, and so are an expression and in most peoples eyes would be considered details. The act of expression and the level of detail are, it would seem important acts that earn copyright protection in the UK at least. Feng Tian , here … at researchgate.net, states the US tests for patents are their novelty, their being artefacts of invention and having a real world application; ideas and thus algorithms cannot be patented because they have no application. The need for an application could be seen as synonymous with the level of detail required in the UK. Whatever, the principle is that algorithms and rules cannot be protected by intellectual property law, but the lawyers and regulators find a way.

A further interesting aspect of the story is that fans can only modify the PC version of the game; the consoles did not have a patching capability and the software licensing strategies for the consoles were more restrictive; basically reverse engineering console technology was prohibited.

There’s loads of trademarks referred to in this article, they belong to their owners.

Eric Raymond in the Cathedral & the Bazaar on the power of the crowd,

Linux is subversive. Who would have thought even five years ago (1991) that a world-class operating system could coalesce as if by magic out of part-time hacking by several thousand developers scattered all over the planet, connected only by the tenuous strands of the Internet?

The WoTC freemium model is the reverse of Bioware’s. The player’s handbook is free, so players do not have to pay to play, it’s the Dungeon Master i.e. the story writer who pays.

Bioware avoided placing DRM on the software installations. But for access, e.g. access to their forums and persistent worlds, they branded the software copy and prohibited access to pirate software. Pirates were excluded from collaborating with people and from much of the fan created content.

They also produced a user interface they called the “DM Client”.  D&D is not really appropriate for a passive broadcast medium, as noted above, its an act of collaboration where one player guides the others thorough a story that they all tell to each other. This is another reason why the community grew, with the initial publication model the computer software replaced the dungeon master and the players became passive participants searching for their route through the game. The DM Client was a tool to ameliorate this weakness and reinforce the ability of customers and fans to become the story tellers in this new meta world

The picture from beneath the cobbles was made by me. I was playing a user authored games/module on a licensed copy of NWN. It illustrates an article on licenses, copyright and business. I created the view and the screenshot. I assert it belongs to me. The video is again of a game I played so I reckon it’s mine, and it’s been on You Tube for years.

 

Not so open, a Bioware take on open source
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