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HitRecord, Beyond Good & Evil 2 and the #nospec backlash

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Why is the creative community upset with this Ubisoft partnership?

Beyond Good & Evil 2 character art Ubisoft Montpellier/Ubisoft

One of the more contentious conversations during E3 2018 focused on the partnership between Ubisoft and HitRecord for the upcoming Beyond Good & Evil 2.

Ubisoft is teaming up with HitRecord to use its creative collaboration platform, through which fans can create art assets and music that will be showcased in the game. It’s the use of fan-made assets, and the way creators will be paid for content Ubisoft ends up including in the game, that has concerned many professionals and amateurs in the art community.

The initial blowback came when it was noted that, during his time on stage at Ubisoft’s E3 2018 press briefing, HitRecord founder Joseph Gordon-Levitt never mentioned compensation for the artists creating the content. It was an omission he quickly addressed on Twitter after the Beyond Good & Evil 2 segment concluded, posting an assurance that work used in the game would earn money for the artists responsible.

But the amount of compensation being offered and the nature of how compensation works on HitRecord have become another source of frustration with the project. Gordon-Levitt tried to address some of those concerns in a lengthy blog post that he published Thursday on Medium:

When a project makes money, I firmly believe that the people who worked on it should get paid. However, we never present HITRECORD as a means for professional artists to earn their living.

That said, we don’t just pay scraps. Some people make hundreds, some people make thousands, a few people have made tens of thousands. Oftentimes a finished product will include a large number of tiny contributions, and those contributors can receive tiny paychecks. And we pride ourselves on being very upfront and transparent about all of this.

However, the partnership with Ubisoft isn’t the typical HitRecord project. A post on HitRecord’s support site explained the difference:

For this partnership with BGE2, HITRECORD is only working on certain elements and parts of the full game, so ‘profit’ as we’d usually define it doesn’t apply. Instead HITRECORD has set aside the community payment sum of $50,000 as an item in our budget. That amount will be spread across all the finished songs and visual assets that we deliver to Ubisoft Montpellier for inclusion in the game.

The thing is, $50,000 is a fairly small budget for a project of this scope, let alone one attached to a video game produced by a multibillion-dollar international multimedia publisher. It’s less than the median annual salary for a junior designer.

In fairness, Ubisoft and HitRecord aren’t looking to hire anyone, or hunt for completed works from individual artists. But that’s exactly the problem.

The problem with HitRecord and Ubisoft’s partnership

Some of the most vocal professionals in the space have come out against this initiative because it looks a lot like “spec work.” The divisive term is short for “speculative work,” the practice of an artist working on a project that may or may not result in payment. If you’ve ever seen a promotion where a company looks for fan-made art for a shirt or a poster, and the “prize” is maybe having your art become an official product, that’s close to what spec work is. A lot of people send in designs without knowing if they’re going to get paid, or if their work will ever be used.

In the professional space, clients will sometimes send a “request for proposal,” or RFP, asking for large portion of the work to be done just to be considered for payment on a project. A client could have the same RFP out to multiple potential agencies or individuals, who would then be competing against one another — and giving the client a whole lot of work and ideas that they aren’t paying for.

The absurdity of this practice is best summed up by a video from Canadian design agency Zulu Alpha Kilo:

Many agencies and individuals are fighting back against spec work, some using the #nospec hashtag. Projects where you’re required to do a big chunk of the work without knowing if you’ll ever get paid or be hired for the rest of the job can eat up someone’s time and talent, without giving them anything in return for it.

The good news is that artists keep the rights to their work if they participate in this project, although they have no control over how it will ultimately be used.

“Contributors retain rights to their work, whether it’s used or not,” Gordon-Levitt explained. “When you upload original content to HitRecord, you grant our company a non-exclusive license to monetize and therefor [sic] pay you for it. You’re always free to do whatever you want with it elsewhere.”

This is where it gets tricky.

Rights, payments and other pitfalls

Since HitRecord is based on collaboration, you only own the rights to your own work, and not the work that others do with the assets you submit. While you own the rights to the contribution, you technically do not own the rights to the entire piece, as any one asset created on HitRecord can have multiple collaborators. However, the finished work becomes a unique product that you’ve given HitRecord the right to sell.

“People who contribute to any production of ours that ends up making money get paid,” Gordon-Levitt said in an interview with Metro.

HitRecord is built on the creative “remixing” of ideas to produce a final product, often through the efforts of multiple collaborators building off each other’s contributions. Generally, HitRecord pockets half of a project’s profits, and distributes the other half to the contributing artists. The collaborative nature of the platform means you’re going to be splitting any payment a few ways.

HitRecord has only earmarked $50,000 for this entire project. It consists of nine different types of content the company is looking for, spanning submissions such as writing, graphic design, illustration and music.

As of this writing, the nine projects have generated a total of more than 3,700 submissions. That’s a whole lot of unpaid labor. And for the undefined number of participants who will get paid, $50,000 is an incredibly small pie to split among everyone who will be selected for the honor of having their work appear in Beyond Good & Evil 2. (HitRecord says it will expand the funding pool if the scope of the project grows.)

The conversation among creative professionals on the #nospec hashtag is still ongoing; many of their frustrations come from experiences they’ve had in the past. This seems like a way to get a lot of spec work from artists without actually hiring anyone.

Some fans are excited about the possibility of getting their art into a video game, and others are upset that huge corporations are finding ways to pay less money for the work of thousands of artists. Hopefully in the spirit of collaboration, Gordon-Levitt will continue to listen to criticism and remix how the project will pay its contributors.