Design IP in Videogames and Virtual Worlds

Is it OK for videogame mod makers to use your designs in their game without your permission and potentially profit from your design effort?

  • Let them, I couldn’t care less.
  • Who cares, I don’t have time to worry about that stuff.
  • Sure, I think it’s cool if they use my designs and make some money off of them.
  • No, let them design their own stuff.
  • No way, I want any profit from the design effort I put into the project.
  • Hell no! It’s completely disrespectful in addition to being illegal.
  • If I find someone doing it, they’ll hear from my lawyers.

0 voters

There’s been a lot of press about game modifications lately like the “Hot Coffee” mod for Grand Theft Auto, so hopefully everyone knows what a “mod” is. For those that don’t, a mod can be as simple as changing the gravity in a game world or as complex as completely recreating all the content with which a player interacts (typically called a Total Conversion).

Some mods add new player models or weapons or game world products. Some big mods might be based on a movie like “Aliens” (but those are usually stopped by companies that own the intellectual property). Even so, you can find characters from “The Simpsons” to"The Matrix" as individually downloadable add-ons for games.

What some of you might not know is that there are people making money with this stuff. And with the new XBox360 and Playstation3 consoles, virtual commerce is expected to take off because both Microsoft and Sony are building commerce capabilities into their consoles - an online marketplace for virtual items. In Asia, there are already companies that do nothing but make these add-ons and sell them to gamers and they do brisk business apparently.

With that information, I’m curious to hear your answers to the poll.

In “Snow Crash”, a person goggled into the Metaverse through a public terminal would appear as a low-resolution, generic black and white avatar, either male or female, without facial features capable of expressing emotion. Custom and high-end avatars used facial gestures and other cool effects to distiguish themselves from the crowd. Once you bring any kind of sex appeal into the game, or the ability to appear more special/macho/appealing then people will pay to acquire those attributes, and with that comes with the cache that comes with spending real cash.

On the other hand I can see some individuals putting out mods and upgrades for free, simply to get them out there or to enact some social engineering on a large scale…the t-shirt movement comes to mind, with low-low-cost custom t-shirts printed by an unknown wannabee artist, worn by friends, and immediately noticed and exclusive on the street.

already happening. some skinners make a living doing nothing but making avatar skins.

On the other hand I can see some individuals putting out mods and upgrades for free, simply to get them out there or to enact some social engineering on a large scale…the t-shirt movement comes to mind, with low-low-cost custom t-shirts printed by an unknown wannabee artist, worn by friends, and immediately noticed and exclusive on the street.

mod community has taken a hit since games have upgraded. was easier to make mods for Quake and Half-Life than the newer more complex games. meshes for normalmaps require real-world product, RP-level detail. that has scared off a lot of modders. they dont have the 3D or the design skills. those remaining are mostly either professionals or those looking to get into the business. that side appears to have grown. but the small communities i’ve been in have largely dried up.

except only to those who need the very best and latest of all things.

So I’ve heard - isn’t the LAN gaming scene in Korea massive, with national championships and people playing 24/7 immersion? Not sure whether to be fascinated or frightened - same thing I guess…

the online game industry in S. Korea is reportedly huge. and people have killed each other over virtual stuff.

Right now, I’m corporate at a lighting company. Personally, I don’t see how this effects me. If someone cares to use some of our lights in a game mod, we could sue them. We do have design patents on everything. But … we never sell computer models of our lights, we only sell the lights.

In fact…someone placing our lights in a video game may enhance exposure and drive new sales. If anyone wants to use our lights in a game mod, please email me and I’ll be happy to send some technical drawings along to make sure they are moded correctly (after my boss approves of course).

Mr. Sven: what industry were you imagining would be adversely effected by this trend? Auto? Culture?

Lighting is probably one industry that could benefit significantly from the leveraged placement of their product in online environments. It’s counter intuitive to me, but virtual residents aren’t creating the kinds of virtual worlds you see in movies like “Johnny Mnemonic” or “Lawnmower Man”. Even though real world restrictions don’t apply, you’ll still see self-imposed restrictions including the use of everyday objects - to the extent that even virtual beachfront “property” has greater value (in real money) than “inland” space. It’s an odd thing to see from a designer’s perspective and for me has been an informative look into consumer behavior.

Currently the automotive companies are the most involved in these activities. They’re especially careful about how their product is represented (no running over wheelchair-bound people, afor example). Additionally, many of these companies are now starting to use online games to gather information on consumers - the kind of information a Nielsen rating can’t provide: whether the consumers eyes are on an ad, how many times, for how long, where they live geographically, what operating system they run, their IP address, etc. This is all fodder for marketing departments.

The problems for companies is that modders and virtual world business people use designs, trademarks, copyrighted catalog pages, and all the rest to create their own virtual product. And they’re increasingly making significant amounts of money on these virtual wares. It’s not uncommon to hear of sales reaching $8000/month for some people. The amount of money being spent is staggering to me. In one small online world, the business transactions for the past month between a small number of people were something like $1.2M (or about $42/person). That’s between players; not the service itself. And for many profiting, their take is made possible by the real world associations that consumers are carrying with them into online environments.

The problem is at what point do companies and designers determine it’s in their interests to maintain control over their intellectual property? or even if they should bother? If an online entrepreneur sells Cleveland Halo branded golf clubs and markets them as a weapon to bludgeon nuns, is that not a concern for Cleveland Golf? Is that an association they want? If an online clothing designer (and they make the best real world money - vanity is alive and well on the internet) visits the Core portfolio page and uses designs and the images themselves to skin their virtual model but labels it as their own work, is there not an issue with this practice if they make money?

Taken to the next level, when virtual products are commonly mass-produced (and it’s possible now), what happens when someone appropriates designs and creates virtual products which are then converted into real products? This isn’t the future, it’s here now. I posted the poll to gauge how designers are responding to this.

I think modding helping put companies like iD where they are today. Without the open source side of the Doom/Quake games they would not of done so well or lasted so long or spawn this whole genre of modding and machinima.

I see a few issues here, first proprety owners, like Aliens, Simpsons, NameYerTVShowHere, these people have massive gains to be made from kids slaving away in their basements to make total conversions of their properties. All it does is continue to boost awareness of these properties, especially ones that are effectivily off the air and now only on dvd or what not. While I could see them take the offensive “dont step on our copyright” route, what they need to see is the free marketing to become of it.

Modders of course can’t sell these TC’s legally though, however they can hone their skills and possibilty make a case to have such TC’s made in which case they could be gobbled up by a software firm to do said TC and build off their initial code development.

Then we have modelers who crank out amazing 3d models for show, and a said modder rips it off and incorprates it in an game. Thats more of a “dont make your code/design” so easily available to these modders sorta thing. Even still many designers, design for the sheer love of designing, so a kind of consent or creative commons should be in play and respected.

Then of course you have the massive world of virtual commerce. Workers in china strapped to pcs rather than sewing machines and farming for gold in online role playing games. Then passing that information/items to a third party and then those people sell it on ebay or some other service. EQ spawned this commerce and it will only continue to flourish, especially now that games like World of Warcraft just made a huge debute in China. And in fact i’m probably overlooking anything and everything out of Korea. Still I dont think you can get rid of this or let it bother you. If i was Sony or Blizzard I would be happily amused that such a industry would be taking off, of course i’d make sublte changes to the gaming enviroment to stop it, or take down the ebayers but other than that, it just continues your franchise and since when did you think you could control enities like China and what not. Its free for all land over there.

I haven’t really dabbled into Second Life, but that game more so than others are out probably supports a level of branding tie in from large manufacturers. Would it take off? Its just like ad placement in movies, sure it will.

Copyright owners will always have final say over real trackable concrete commerce, I say that cause of the obvious chinese rip off of branded goods is a bit hard to stop, but in the states, ya I don’t think I could start selling World of Warcraft coffee mugs and not expect a call from Blizzard, thats just common sense I think.

Now what about vice versa? I’m a game developing company and I rip off Apple’s UI to make screen interface better, or all my 3d trucks look strangely hummer like, or my virtual host is dead ringer for billy joel and even sounds like him. I think thats more dangerous as the game manufacturer to gamble with, i’m just asking to be sued then and risk the potential loss of my startup as a result.

Virtual Products will be a huge growth driver for (Industrial?) Design in the future.

On a somewhat related note, Yahoo bought “widget-maker” Konfabulator today.

“Currently, the widgets encourage outsiders to develop and share new applications, and the Yahoo spokesperson said the company will continue to foster that collaborative environment. Developers and enthusiasts who want to submit new widgets can find out how to do so on the new”

Disappointing number of votes so far so I thought I’d give some examples.

This is a virtual replica of a Nissan automobile (click on image for a larger picture):

It sells for the equivalent of US$8.00 and quite likely brings in several hundred dollars a month in revenue. Not much, but it’s only one vehicle. There are more. However it not only violates the company trademark, it also uses copyrighted imagery very much in the same way that this one uses what appear to be Toyota catalogue images:

You can also find products. Apple is a particularly popular choice and comes in not only a variety of models, but in a variety of colors:

Quite a lot of what they’re doing, besides using the brand and model names, is ripping the images available online or in brochures. And these virtual products are becoming increasingly lucrative.

Whatever your position, please take a moment to answer the poll. Thanks.

I’d like to know more about the context of the car interior and IPod images. Are these models sold for video games? Sold for catalogs?

I understand the monetary value of the Nissan model, and it is sad that someone can make money ripping it off.* Beyond gaming, though, I’m confused about the value of these images/models.

  • I’m disappointed in the use of the logo and name of Nissan, not the car. The car isn’t a perfect 350Z. A similar thing happens in toy cars. There are many non-official replica toy cars that look like a familiar car, but will be distorted or changed to avoid violating design patents. Also, remember the famous Porkas in GTA? I don’t find anything wrong with using a similar looking object in a new context.

At the moment there are two emerging pipelines:

  1. content made external to videogames and imported into the game
  • a) created by the game developers themselves ( BW article )
  • b) created by game modders (e.g. Bioware’s “Neverwinter Nights”)
  • c) potentially outsourced to third parties
  1. content made internal to the game using the provided 3D tools
  • a) current virtual worlds such as “There” and “Second Life”
  • b) emerging open-source platforms such as “Croquet”

The “value” of these virtual products is no different than the value of anything intangible to which we assign a value: going to a concert, going to an amusement park, watching a baseball game at the stadium. None of those things is tangible, and as I believe already mentioned, people in Asia have been killed over virtual property. Value in most things is often what we assign to it and not necessarily the function it provides. That’s why companies protect their brands; after all a trademark is not real - it’s a measure of reputation, which is an intangible.

On the toy front and violations of design patents, this case might be of interest to the toy people here: . The level of distortion and change will apparently have to be sufficient to get past some recent rulings that enforce design patents more rigorously.

And btw, in case you missed this entry on Wired Senior Editor Chris Anderson’s blog: The Long Tail: A rocket launcher of our own . That wasn’t even taken from a real 3D file.

Well, I was hoping designers would be taking an interest in this kind of thing but I guess this isn’t the time or maybe even the place to ask. Thank you to those who bothered to answer.