Level 73: Voice-Powered

Hint: Don't say "Hey, Google"

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📜 This Week’s Notable Product

In lieu of this notable news, we’re highlighting a cool product we came across: Anything.world. Voice is the medium. Virtual worlds are the playground. 

From Playbyte to Manticore, game engine tools that simplify the game development process are all the rage, and Anything World is no exception in pushing the boundaries. Platforms like Anything World and Roblox demonstrate how people are increasingly interested in game experiences and ease of creation that can be scaled out to a wide audience vs. necessarily graphics and story (still important components).

It doesn’t stop at games. The originator of the Metaverse himself, Neal Stephenson, chatted with The Economist about the Metaverse, building virtual worlds in filmmaking and architecture. No longer are game engines limited to game development; rather, there are so many other use cases that can leverage the physics and 3D simulation of game engines. Game engines are eating other industries.

So, what exactly is Anything World?

Anything World is a no-code-if-you-don’t-want-to-code developer tool for Unity that helps you create limitless experiences.

From their launch video on Product Hunt, they’ve summarized a few key points:

  • They’ve compiled over 500,000 (and counting!) free 3D animations from around the internet

  • You can use code to create your virtual worlds. Or not! They give you templates and an interface to put together assets and environments

  • Your voice can be a way to interact with assets and develop your environments i.e “I want a campsite with three squids fighting Godzilla”

Let’s take a minute to let that sink in… this is natural language processing to a point where voice commands can literally create games and give actions to characters. Obviously there’s more magic involved like their “secret machine learning sauce” that gives dynamism to their assets, but the gist is that simple logic can be executed on more complex game mechanics. For us, what’s so exciting is that they’re leveraging [forgotten] assets that already exist on the internet and giving them new life/opportunity. Why go through all the effort of making your own, right?

Anything World is made on Unity, a game engine that’s typically inaccessible to someone unfamiliar with programming. Their plugin lets anyone make a game on the Unity platform and then, by virtue of Unity’s cross-platform tech stack, export to any device. We can’t wait for them to integrate with other engines like Unreal or Roblox Studio, there will be so many interesting partnerships Expect to see platforms like Fortnite Creator mode and Minecraft Creative mode leverage voice for their creators. 


  1. Founders, Gordon Midwood and Sebastian Hofer

  2. More Demos Link

  3. The Future of Game Engines & Infrastructure Link

  4. Anything.world Link

💡 Industry Content

A Serious Problem at Twitch: Late last week an article was released highlighting serious issues with workplace sexism, racism, and harassment at Twitch. The article included testimony from previous employees, including ex-VP Justin Wong, highlighting a number of historical issues that have taken place at industry events and in the workplace. For a company that already has opaque standards of content moderation, to see a continued lack of awareness on what is basically gaming’s most well-documented problem is incredibly distributing. There are very few companies that have the influence or platform like that of Twitch, and they (and parent company Amazon) have an obligation to employees to enforce standards that are at least able to do the bare minimum when it comes to making people feel included and comfortable at work. Link

Time to Get Educated: Niko Partners, a gaming market intelligence firm and employer of Twitter-superstar gaming analyst Daniel Ahmad, released a handful of reports on some of Asia’s biggest publicly traded gaming companies, including the likes of NetEase and Tencent. All the reports are free to download, and serve as an excellent primer for anyone looking to dive deep into the future prospects of what massive gaming companies could be doing in the next few years. Link

A Crack in the Crucible: Less than 12 hours after we sent out last week’s optimistic take on Amazon’s gaming future, the company pulled the plug on their most recent title Crucible. While this will certainly stoke the flames of the Amazon + Gaming detractors, this still isn’t the end of the company’s foray into games. Protocol’s Seth Schiesel explores his continued optimism on Amazon Gaming, what happens next, and why Microsoft might be executing on Amazon’s games strategy right under their noses. Link

A New Personal Best: One of the coolest corners of gaming is speedrunning, where players set parameters and attempt to complete a game as quickly as possible. The perennial home speedrunning leaderboards, Speedrun.com, was acquired earlier this week by Elo Entertainment, a data analytics company. We love that real-business recognition is coming to one of the most fan-driven pockets of gaming. Link

Get a Job in Games: Earlier this week, popular start-up accelerator YCombinator announced a Gaming Tech Talk + Job Expo. This application only event will pair people interested in engineering, design, marketing and operations jobs with some of YC’s fastest growing gaming companies. Link

🎮 Fun & Games

Small Size, Big Quality: Last weekend over 220 games were submitted as part of the js13Kgames competition. The whole idea of the hackathon is to build a fully functioning video game, in Javascript, for under 13 Kilobytes. To put it in perspective, the last Call of Duty update was 63 GB, or 63,000,000 KB. The Top 10 is filled with interesting puzzles, platformers and more. Link

Feel Good In Your Skin: One of the coolest parts of the Fortnite community is the subsection of people who spend their free-time designing “concepts” for in-game skins. The game has been around long enough at this point to develop recurring events & characters, and independent creators are taking notice. This profile highlights the work of 22-year old Denni, who has designed custom concept skins that span from pop star Ariana Grande to streaming-giant Pokimane. Link

😎 Other Cool Reads

VR Films + AI: Not quite a movie and not quite a video game either, Agence falls in a liminal space that casts AI as characters in a film, an interesting application of reinforcement learning to a largely passive viewing experience. How do you interact/view/play with something that’s fundamentally different every time? How can the audience interact with the environment such that the viewing experience is augmented? And what implications might that have? Link

 “A lot of interactive films have decision moments, when you can branch the narrative, but I wanted to create something that let you transform the story at any point.”

Representation in Tony Hawk Pro Skater: 2020 has been a landmark year for representation in video games. Titles like The Last of Us: Part II and others have elevated the role that trans characters play in video games from background sidekick to major contributor. But given the broad appeal and wide reach that sports games have, the inclusion of trans skater Leo Baker in the recent Tony Hawk Remake might be the most important development of the year so far. Check out this piece from Gayming Mag highlighting how the inclusion the first-ever non-binary skater in a Tony Hawk game is pushing back on the very culture behind skate boarding and sports video games. Link

“Scaling a Game Studio: How to Win”: Joseph Kim hosts the all-star team of Travis Boatman (Improbable), Gigi Levy-Weiss (NFX), and Kristian Segerstrale (Super Evil Megacorp) in a conversation about leading a game studio to success. We watched and rewatched this one. Link

📊 By The Numbers

3 Steps to get up and running with Unity’s latest program called Game Growth. Unity is beginning to verticalize their model by incubating studios, providing them the marketing budget, live ops support, and mentorship to grow their free-to-play game. This will be a 50/50 revenue share model, a win-win scenario for both parties. 

100/100 is the Google Trends relevancy score for the term “sus” in late September. The phrase blew-up alongside indie social game Among Us, and is usually used to describe anyone who might be hiding as an imposter within the game. Seeing the expansion of popular culture terminology being driven by gaming is one of our favorite side effects of new genres/games. Link

720 Million is the number of gamers in China. China is soooo big. As a small aside, keep your eyes peeled for the upcoming party game, Party Animals.Link

😍 Our Current Favorites 

Fawzi (@fawzitani)

Max always gets on my case for not having downloaded the Smash Ultimate DLC, but I was huge into Minecraft a few years back and this week’s release of Steve to Super Smash Bros is actually tempting me into the DLC. My favorite content of the week is by far jam1garner’s mod to import your Minecraft Java skins into Smash Ultimate. Yet another example of how UGC and modding contributes to a better game experience, however small the addition might be. Link

On a related but unrelated Minecraft note, I’ve seriously enjoyed watching Dreams’ Manhunt videos on Youtube lately. They’re quite long but I was literally on the edge of my seat with Dreams as he speedruns the Ender Dragon. Link

Max (@MaxLowenthal)

Earlier this week Playstation released a first look at the UI behind the PS5. The new Playstation will almost certainly be my console of choice for the next generation, and tracking the software powering it over time leads to some interesting trends. One of Xbox’s biggest missteps in the last generation of consoles was creating too much UI clutter across the consoles' variety of use cases. Good UI should supplement the core use case, video games, and make the experience easier to understand and use. Sony’s choice to implement concepts like “Activities”, which will give players in-game access to tips and info about their gameplay, or the integration of the Playstation store into the OS (as compared to a separate app) is exactly the kind of development I want to see in the menus powering my $500 purchase. Link

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Level 72: The No Good, Very Bad Games

The potential for one of the world's biggest companies, a recent esports IPO, and how video games really "die"

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✏️ The Pause Button Exclusives

An Infringement Within an Infringement By Haley MacLean  Link

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📜 This Week’s Notable Article

Amazon’s Unlimited Gaming Potential

WIRED released a piece about Amazon's investments in gaming, and why almost none of them have worked out. Save for the acquisition of Twitch for $970M in 2014, nearly every gaming investment the company has made hasn’t yielded positive long-term results.

But the great thing about Amazon is that they’re Amazon. With a market cap of $1.6T, having a few multi-million dollar missteps doesn’t mean permanent failure. It’s why the company has continued to invest in gaming as a business for the last 12 years, and it's why the potential of Amazon’s gaming division is higher than almost any other company in the world. Let’s break down the underlying pillars of its gaming strategy:

The Back-End: When it comes to big and complex technical projects, efficiently scaling the cost per user is the name of the game, and it’s a game Amazon knows well. They already have a host of technical products via AWS that cost very little to leverage. Turning to the company’s choice of game technology, the CryEngine, we see Amazon’s cost-cutting strategy in full-effect once again. Companies like Unity and Epic Games charge a massive premium for someone of Amazon's size, and with the billion-dollar scale of both organizations, there’s almost no chance these costs go down over time. On the other hand, by infusing $70M into the previously-doomed CryEngine, Amazon has created a serviceable, low-cost base that they can spend the next 10+ years building off of. The economics and savings that come with owning/developing your own technology is something Amazon knows well, and is exactly why they’re technically primed to explode at a crazy pace…once they make a good game.

The Content: The #1 rule of games is that Content is King. This is no doubt the area where Amazon is weakest among its gaming stack, but don’t count them out just yet. Having an unlimited wealth of resources means that Amazon can afford to release flops like Breakaway and Crucible without risking the entire operation. At the worst, the company can dip into its funds to leverage existing IP (like Lord of The Rings) to release a game that has a low-risk high-support fanbase. While Amazon Game Studios will never be a true industry-titan without releasing its own high-quality original content, you have to think that there’s enough money to give them plenty of chances to try again. Or they can just keep acquiring their studios.

The Distribution: Unsurprisingly, the company known for efficiency and delivery has actually excelled at leveraging its potential when it comes to content distribution. As you think about the company’s investment into IP, Twitch feels more and more like an untapped gold mine just waiting for the right Amazon-made game to come along. As we’ve previously written, Twitch offers Amazon a cyclical platform that can simultaneously tap into the needs of creators, consumers, and developers. The area to keep an eye on here is the company’s recently rebranded Prime Gaming bundle. Imagine a world where an Amazon-created AAA title exists — suddenly Prime members can have early/exclusive access to in-game content, cosmetics, and modes. The Prime members become an untapped vein of superfans with which Amazon can test and develop its next projects. The Twitch + Prime Bundle combo unlocks a level of reach that almost no other gaming company has access to.

Amazon has certainly dropped the ball on games multiple times over the last 12 years, but their mistakes aren’t as dealbreakers like WIRED makes them out to be. The company has nearly limitless access to business’s two most precious resources, money and time, and they don’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. We’re optimistic that when the company eventually does figure out how to make good content, its cost-effective back-end and Twitch-led distribution will propel it to be one of gaming’s biggest superpowers. The only question is, how long will we have to wait until that happens? Maybe until Luna?

💡 Industry Content

First Mover Advantage: Remember Drodo Studio’s Auto Chess? Probably not. Despite being the title that pioneered the Auto Chess format, the buzz around the original Auto Chess has largely been lost thanks to Riot Games’ entry into the genre via Teamfight Tactics. We haven’t thought about Drodo Studio for almost a year now and this read was a fun reminder that distribution and scale are just as important as a unique idea when it comes to competitive strategy. Link

Q3 Trends in Gaming: Gaming analytics company StreamHatchet released its Q3 2020 industry trends report. If you’re interested in the numbers behind streaming, it’s worth the look. TLDR (and unsurprisingly) is that streaming and viewing hours both rose significantly. Link

Two Friends & Founders: In the first episode of his new podcast The Quest, Twitch co-founder Justin Kan invited his friend (and fellow co-founder) Michael Seibel to sit down and discuss the history of their success. The 90+ minute interview is filled with tons of wisdom, fun stories, and lessons to be learned about the history of Twitch and Silicon Valley. Link

The Esports IPO: London-based Guild Esports completed their public listing on the London stock exchange. The organization was valued at £41.2M, an insanely high price for an organization that is relatively unknown on the global stage. The problem with esports org IPOs is that value creation is still a huge question mark. What is the true standalone value of a company that can only succeed with a massive dependence on external forces like a game, esports league, or developer? The org’s part-time owner, soccer star David Beckham, is certainly helpful in driving up the valuation, but we’re approaching this news with a healthy dose of skepticism. Link

🎮 Fun & Games

Breath of the Waifu: Genshin Impact is reportedly set to gross $100M by the end of its first month, making it the most successful Chinese international launch to date, and one of the most successful game launches ever. But how is the game being called “Breath of the Waifu” different from 2017’s Breath of the Wild? Why are people enjoying it so much? And how has it avoided the scrutiny of microtransactions other companies haven’t escaped? Link

PS5 Breakdown: Sony shared a video of Hardware VP Yasuhiro Ootori disassembling the newest Playstation 5, piece by piece. The system’s use of liquid cooling, a first in the consumer-console space, caught our attention. Link

The Death of a Video Game: When does a multi-player game “die”? When it has 10,000 active players? 1,000 players? The answer isn’t so straightforward. In this video essay, gaming YouTuber Raycevick breaks down why some games can die within a year, while others continue to live on with a small, dedicated fan base years after their release.  Link

😎 Other Cool Reads

The Future of Linear Video Games: No studio encapsulates the AAA narrative-driven gaming experience more than Naughty Dog, creators of the insanely popular Uncharted and The Last of Us series. The studio seems to understand how to develop characters and create connections between the player and the characters they play as. In this video breaks down how and why this formula has worked well in the past for Naughty Dog titles, and why it’ll need to change if the studio wants to continue to remain the at the top of the single-player market. Link

Parenting + Video Games: In this piece by the New York Times, one mother explores the internal struggle between allowing her child to spend more time playing video games and the drawbacks of more screentime. Link 

The Virtual Economy: A must-read by L’Aterlier that explores literally every aspect of the virtual economy. Link

📊 By The Numbers

$13.49: The share price of GameStop following Thursday’s announcement of a partnership with Microsoft. We’ve written in the past about the gaming retailer’s history of mistakes; hopefully, this is the first of many decisions to get them back on track Link

10: The number of open roles at esports powerhouse 100 Thieves. We’re bullish on the future of this media/apparel/gaming company, and have written many times about how their unique approach to media is going to position them well in the long run. Link

😍 Our Current Favorites 

Fawzi (@fawzitani)

This past week I spent a lot of time looking through the archives of Roblox’s Developer Conference and getting up to speed with their operation priorities as they plan their IPO. I think we often celebrate their milestones as a company from a consumer perspective (e.g on track to pay out $250 million to developers in 2020), but we forget about the amazing tech powering the platforms. Two of my favorite initiatives they’re working on are machine learning algorithms for instantaneous language translation — a game that is truly “global” — and spatial audio, simulating real-life volume for conversations happening on their platform. There’s still a long ways to go for these technologies to hit adoption, but I love thinking about Roblox as a tech-first games company. Link

Max (@MaxLowenthal)

Back when I played competitive Super Smash Bros. Melee I would walk all over SF Bay Area to find people worth playing against. One place I frequented was Oakland’s Museum of Art & Digital Entertainment (AKA The MADE), which houses years of gaming history and technology. The MADE closed its doors back in March due to COVID-19, and relies on ticket sales for about 80% of its annual expenses. Now the museum is in danger of shutting down for good. If you’re able I’d ask you to throw a few dollars to the wonderful people of the MADE via PayPal, or at least check out/share this awesome documentary highlighting the history of one of my favorite gaming-related places. Documentary About The MADE | Link to Donate

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Level 71: The NeverEnding Video Game

The future of persistent "multiplayer" gaming, a new Smash Bros character, the ad engine behind Roblox, and a little eShop experiment

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✏️ The Pause Button Exclusives

An Infringement Within an Infringement: When Epic Games decides to stream movies like Inception within Fortnite, who is libel if it ends up on Twitch? What about the upcoming concert series within Roblox? In this week’s Pause Button exclusive, Haley MacLean joins us to explore the legal imbalance behind copyright and live streaming. As gaming platforms continue to invest in multimedia experiences, learn about the risk that creators on Twitch are incurring every time they go live. Link

Want to write a story for The Pause Button and get your ideas out to thousands of readers a week? Shoot us a note and let’s talk!

📜 This Week’s Notable Article

Persistence & Gaming: An Analysis

Earlier this week, we came across an article titled  “Persistence & Gaming” written by Michael Dempsey, a general partner at venture firm Compound. It’s a dense read, but considering the upcoming Roblox IPO and gaming’s continuous move to social-first experiences, Dempsey brings to light some important concepts around gaming’s broader direction toward “persistence” and why it matters:

What does “Persistence” In Gaming Even Mean?

The familiar metaphor is that the modern MMO [massive multiplayer] is a theme park. Players encounter each other in the concourses and queuing for the rides, but fundamentally experience every roller coaster alone, one at a time. And the ride always resets for the next rider.Thinking spatially: persistent worlds by Improbable (the company developing SpatialOS, a technology for persistent multiplayer worlds)

Aren’t Games Already Persistent? 

Yes and no. Due to technical limitations, games like Fortnite create “instances” of “persistence” such that thousands of players can interact in thousands of 100-person lobbies. This isn’t persistence to its truest definition because it fragments the player experience from all the other concurrent players; put another way, the 100 person lobby isn’t interacting with everyone playing Fortnite at the moment, just those in the game. Persistence might involve having everyone in the same lobby at the same time, editing, loading and interacting with the same assets.

Why Don’t We Just Make Persistent Games Today? 

Server capacity, latency and game engines are all contributing factors. Today, games like Fortnite load game assets near the player in anticipation that a player performs a certain activity, creating a sense of fluidity (i.e. loading the distant environment as the player moves in a certain direction). Imagine this at a scale of 1000s of players and you can picture the server getting realllllly laggy. Capping a maximum amount of players in a lobby minimizes this issue, but at the cost of a truly “open” game.

Why Does This Even Matter? 

Because the next generation of games looks nothing like the games we know today! There is a fundamental transition occurring in gaming from “content creation” to “system creation”; that is to say, studios with a persistence-first mindset are increasingly shifting their focus from developing specific quests/items/stories and instead focusing on enabling creators to build their own content with the game. Roblox half fits this mold through its technology that enables creators to build their own worlds within a platform. Yet, these worlds are still fragmented.

So, how do we get to persistence? The short (but long) answer is that we need to innovate on the infrastructure; tools like cloud gaming, machine learning, and server computing power are some ways to do this. Further, optimizing proprietary game engines could be another albeit slower way to achieve the same result. But that’s a discussion for another time. Link

💡 Industry Content

Discord’s Big Break: According to The Verge, Discord hit a lifetime high for downloads every day since September 5th. Almost all of this historic growth can be attributed to the exploding popularity of smash hit Among Us, which requires voice chat to be played effectively. With no proprietary tech, Discord is the default option for its ability to mute. And yet, despite Discord’s focus on moving from gaming-first to community-first, their core user base is still primarily gamers, and it’s unsurprising that growth for the platform hinges on gaming-related content. How will they continue to grow beyond gaming? Link

Google’s Epic Response: In stark contrast to the Epic vs. Apple lawsuit, Google reiterated its stance as an open platform, giving developers the freedom to release 3rd party app stores within the Google Play ecosystem. Google will still keep the 30% fee, but they’re giving non-complying store payments a year to comply. This will have lasting implications of precedent as the lawsuit continues. Link

Roblox, The Next Big Ad Platform: Roblox’s in-game Ad Manager is fueled and operated entirely on the platform's currency, “Robux”. As we explore the idea of platform-created value via cases like Epic vs. Apple, we realized that making Robux more versatile will be key to drive further incremental value to the company. For example, does Robux — if purchased on the PC — necessarily avoid the 30% Apple platform tax if the ad is placed on mobile? Since this is also platform-specific, Apple’s opt-in IDFA policy for ad-tracking might also not apply. What’s so interesting to think about is Roblox’s closed ad ecosystem versus, say, mobile games, which require tracking for their advertisements. As mentioned in the article, however, they still have a long way to go on perfecting their system. Link

🎮 Fun & Games

Smashing News: Yesterday morning Nintendo announced that they’ll be adding Steve, the main character of Minecraft, to the most recent version of Super Smash Bros. Steve also broke twitter. Link

Crunch Time: The pressure of releasing a major AAA title like Cyberpunk 2077 is massive. But even with all the hype in the world, no project is worth overworking employees. At least that’s what developer CD Projekt Red said before they went back on their word. This Bloomberg expose takes us behind the scenes of Cyberpunk’s development. Link

OBJ + The Doc: NFL-star Odell Beckham Jr. announced his first gaming livestream on YouTube. OBJ collaborated with popular content creator Dr. Disrespect to play Call of Duty for a few hours to medium amounts of success. Folks like Beckham will always draw in 100K+ viewers thanks to name recognition alone, but it still feels like mainstream celebrities have work to do when it comes to being a legitimately entertaining streamer. Another thought: do these celebrities take away from other streamers who built their careers over a number of years? Link

Bye Bye Farmville: Nearly 11 years after it’s original release, Farmville, Zynga’s major hit on Facebook, is shutting down. Given the soon to be obsolescence of Flash (and its replacement by tech like HTML) it makes sense why Facebook would pull the plug, but it’s still sad to see a mid-2010s cultural icon close its gates forever. Link

😎 Other Cool Reads

One of Gaming’s Earliest Black Pioneers: Earlier this week Max had the chance to hear from Ed Smith, one of gaming’s earliest black pioneers and a key player behind the jump to cartridge-based gaming in the 1970s. So much focus is placed on the next generation of consoles we often forget to celebrate gaming’s rich history. In an industry that has a long way to go when it comes to diversity, Ed and his story is a shining example of the kind of person it takes to innovate an entire form of media. Link

The Inner Workings of the Nintendo eShop: Mike Rose of No More Robots did a revealing experiment with the Nintendo eShop on price arbitrage tactics. Ultimately, and perhaps to the detriment of the studio, steep discounts are a boon to featured content, but still drive more revenue. Perhaps the eShop needs to alter their algorithms further to favor the developer? Link

Racism, Bigotry, and Video Games: Metafy co-founder Josh Fabian outlines one of many run-ins he’s had with the bigoted corners of the gaming community in recent months. Private Discord servers filled with racist content and unmoderated hate speech are slowly becoming more and more common in games, as groups turn to platforms that shield them from the consequences of their actions and words. How can each of us take a more active role in mitigating these trends, and ensuring that every space in gaming is safe for everyone? Link

📊 By The Numbers

$100,000,000: The amount studio miHoYo budgeted out for its latest title, Breath Of The Wild-inspired Genshin Impact. For reference, blockbusters like Final Fantasy VII had a $140M budget. Link

3,500,000: The concurrent player count logged on Among Us last Friday. No wonder our game kept crashing. Link

😍 Our Current Favorites 

Fawzi (@fawzitani)

“Lo-Fi Player is a virtual room in your browser that lets you play with the BEAT! Try tinkering around with the objects in the room to change the music in real-time. For example, the view outside the window relates to the background sound in the track, and you can change both the visual and the music by clicking on the window.” Such a vibe. Link

Max (@MaxLowenthal)

I’ve been spending some time recently giving talks to various gaming groups, like esports team Evil Geniuses, about the power of networking and career development. It strikes me as odd just how hard it is for avid fans to break into a career in gaming. There’s always an associated risk of mixing your passion and your career, but part of me thinks that the most passionate people always make the best employees! If you’re interested in having me swing by to talking gaming + career development + networking, or are building a solution to this problem, shoot me a note. Link

An Infringement Inside an Infringement, How Fortnite Is Exposing Copyright Double Standards

Guest Author Haley MacLean explores the double standards of DMCA & Legal Takedowns, and how Fortnite is using its popularity to unfairly tip the scales in its own favor

This article was originally written for The Pause Button — a weekly gaming newsletter curating the best content in the games industry.

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Epic Sets The Stage

Epic Games has been a huge pioneer in finding new ways for video games to showcase various types of digital media within the game itself. In June, Epic held a series of Christopher Nolan ‘movie nights’ where players could join a Fortnite lobby and travel to a certain area of the in-game map to watch films like Inception, The Prestige, or Batman Begins in their entirety. An outdoor movie area with an in-game screen played the films during set times, and even offered the option for subtitles. 

Epic has also been offering live in-game music sets by popular artists through the game’s ‘Party Royale’ line-up including artists like Dillon Francis, Steve Aoki, and deadmau5. In April 2020 the game hosted a fully animated and choreographed concert featuring rapper Travis Scott, with EDM artist Marshmello doing a similar in-game concert the year before. In August, Epic continued to host new content within Fortnite including a four-hour programming block livestreaming ‘unconventional sports’ from ESPN 8: The Ocho.

As companies like Epic Games host highly enforced copyrighted material (concerts, movies, broadcasts) within their video games, it reveals new and unique problems when it comes to mixing marketing tools and the confusing world of copyright/legal concerns that many live streamers face. Statutorily speaking, almost every single video game livestream that makes its way onto Twitch is actually already infringing copyright. The job security of live streamers is in a state of total legal limbo, and no recent amendments to the US Copyright Act(Title 17 of the United States Code) or Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) have addressed copyright enforcement issues that are occurring within this ever-expanding digital space.

A Unique Symbiotic Relationship

For those unfamiliar with the workings of copyright law, video game developers/publishers unequivocally own the copyright to their video games. Rights that apply to video games under the US Copyright Act include the right of reproduction, distribution rights, display rights, and public performance rights under §106. The first two of those rights largely relate to the sale or control of copies of video games, while the latter two are more closely related to the processes of content distribution, wherein an owner of copyright may determine how they wish to see their work is shown or ‘performed’ in public.

The 2017 case of Epic Games, Inc v Mendes considered whether online gameplay constitutes a public performance. Epic was taking action against streamers who were creating ‘cheats’ that gave them unfair advantages over other players in Fortnite multiplayer lobbies. Videos with these cheats were shared on YouTube by the defendants, which in turn allowed Epic Games to bring forward a claim of copyright infringement under 17 U.S.C. §106(4) for public performance saying the defendants were “…displaying Fortnite publicly without Epic’s permission”.

Although this case was voluntarily dismissed before a decision was made, its circuitous route to resolution unearths questions about how this content might effect non-cheating creators. The ‘cheaters’ were streaming and posting videos of their actions in Fortnite, and the only difference between Epic becoming litigious with them as compared to anyone else is the fact that Epic simply didn’t like the content they were creating.

This herein lies the issue that video game livestreaming faces at the hands of the US Copyright Act and DMCA as they currently stand. Since almost every single person is infringing copyright when they stream a game in some regard, it is totally up to the discretion of the developer to decide if and when they want to bring forward a claim for infringement even if it’s for a potentially arbitrary reason. 

Having reproductions or public performances of works available online would undeniably be bad for business for the TV, film, and music industries. However, the video game industry has fostered a unique symbiotic relationship between copyright holders and infringers. Both parties have something to gain from the infringement, with game developers receiving free advertising from streamers, and streamers using copyright protected media to them to garner income and popularity online through streaming platforms like Twitch and YouTube.

The problem with this relationship though is the power rests in the hands of the game creators, but the risk is solely on the streamers. This inherent inequity is problematic, particularly when it’s the cornerstone of what’s expected to be a $70B industry by 2021. We haven’t many cases on the subject play out yet, but one could imagine potentially discriminatory situations emerging where developers could weaponize their copyright interests against certain groups of people based on their race, sexual orientation, etc. while allowing other groups of people to stream their game uninterrupted.

An Imbalanced Power Dynamic

The DMCA follows a notice-and-takedown procedure where online platforms (i.e. Twitch) are required to remove potentially infringing materials following a valid request from the copyright holder. This method is undeniably more in favor of the game developers, who hold the rights to the content, as opposed to the streamers themselves. On top of that, there are legal rules in place to ensure that intermediaries like Twitch are never held responsible for infringement that occurs on their platforms by their users.

This creates a self-governing negative space in the law that survives solely on discretion. As long as game developer’s best interests are maintained with free advertising, streamers are allowed to exist within this legal vacuum. However, every content creator will continue to have this (technically legal) threat of a DMCA takedown looming over their heads. Since most developers either explicitly state or imply through inaction that an act infringement of copyright which will not be acted upon, this essentially means that game developers can pick and chose their own sets of rights, and self-govern their content without assuming any of the risk.

A Copyright Infringement Within a Copyright Infringement

As established, the current state of video game livestreaming is already ambiguous at best. So when companies like Epic begin adding a new layer of historically enforced copyrighted works (like movies and music) within the games themselves, the legal negative space of the livestreaming industry becomes even more opaque. One could think of it as two layers of copyright infringement: the first, where the copyright owners permits infringement (gameplay streaming), and the second where you the content inside the game (like a film) will almost certainly receive a DMCA takedown.

Think of the plot behind Inception (as seen in Fortnite), instead of dreams it’s copyright infringement. Both live streaming a game and showing a movie are infringements, but the only way to enforce the violation of the film’s copyright is to infringe on the game itself, which developers don’t seem to want to enforce. That’s like Leonardo Dicaprio’s character only getting in trouble for the damage he caused in the inner-most dream, and not all subconscious he took along the way to get there.

To make matter worse, the suggestions from Epic on how streamers can avoid copyright strikes during Fortnite in-game events can differ from straightforward to vague. For the ESPN 8; The Ocho broadcast, Epic advises to simply, “[r]efer to your channel’s platform policies for tips on how to avoid copyright strikes.” Whereas for the Christopher Nolan films. Epic stated to completely avoid livestreaming any aspect of the event altogether saying, “just like any theatre - there's no broadcasting or recording these films during the show…any streams or videos of these films will be subject to anti-piracy and DMCA regulations”. This just shows how delicate that symbiotic relationship is between streamers and copyright owners. As soon as more heavily enforced media (a film) is being publicly displayed within Fortnite, the game is comparable to a theatre and will be treated as such according to the DMCA. But when it’s just gameplay, which is also theoretically protected under the DMCA, all the rules disappear so game developers can continue to indulge in free advertising.

The showing of full movies in Fortnite is an easy example to present this double-standard, because even someone who is not familiar with copyright law could understand that just because a film is within a video game, does not mean any person is now allowed to stream that film in its entirety. In this example, a streamer could just avoid the event and continue to steam gameplay footage most likely without issue. However, what happens in situations where highly enforced copyrighted material is more intertwined with gameplay? What is a live streamer supposed to do in a situation where they want to create content, but can’t avoid one of these precarious legal situations.

For Example, let’s look at game series like Fallout or Grand Theft Auto, which both feature a ton of copyrighted music. Some of this music is presented to the player in a way that the streamer could easily avoid. However, some copyrighted music plays directly within cutscenes or gameplay set-pieces, and a streamer would have to pre-emptively plan for such occurrences or risk losing their stream to a DMCA takedown. Even more tricky is instances like in Fallout 4 where you can turn off radio mode, but in-game locations will still have music playing out of in-game radios around the world. One can see how it can become very tricky to avoid infringement of traditionally enforced works within this space of general non-enforcement. To lower the risk, some streamers have developed mods that automatically turn off radio music or made tools for their streams that allow them to cut out of scene with copyrighted music or play other music overtop of it before Twitch can detect infringement. 

Moving Forward

Some streamers might try and argue that their streams could be considered fair use under §107 of the US Copyright Act, wherein copyright infringement is permitted if for a limited and “transformative” purpose, such as to criticize, comment upon, or parody a protected work. However, there is a lack of legal precedent to affirm this claim and it’s often forgotten that fair use is a defense to copyright infringement. Meaning that by nature, fair use as a defense would be evaluated on a case by case basis. A main reason why the courts have not thoroughly determined if a livestream could fall under fair use as per the Copyright Act is precisely because streamers would have to assume financial responsibility to take the issue to court. Often when cases with similar facts commence with the preliminary stages of litigation, they are settled before the issue can even see a court room for financial reasons.

Copyright law within the United States, needs to be updated to reflect this extremely unique digital space and the myriad of copyright issues it has developed. The lack of enforcement within this space is allowing game developers to sit on their rights and only enforce them for their own personal (and potentially arbitrary) reasons. It’s unfair that streamers have to navigate such a precarious space where enforced works are becoming more and more intertwined with permittable gameplay. To make the law clearer in this space would even mean companies like Epic could try even more creative ways to deliver digital media within their video games without fear that they would be opening the legal floodgates for their users.

A better balance needs to be established between copyright holders and video game live streamers not just for clarity, but to maintain a relatively new billion-dollar industry. Copyright holders could continue to utilize free advertising, but with better protections in place for streamers who are already assuming all of the risk. Streamers would finally be able to focus solely on creating content without keeping track of all the growing Inception-esque ‘infringement within an infringement’ issues, and never have to check the spinning top to see if they are lost inside an infringement case or free from DMCA reality.

Haley MacLean (@haleyfax) is a third-year law student with a huge passion for intellectual property and technology law. Prior to law school, she worked as a journalist in the video game industry for five years and continues to cover games while in school for several publications. Upon graduation, she plans to work with game developers, digital media content creators, and other tech-based companies in managing their legal needs. You can find her on Twitter @haleyfax

Level 70: Microsoft's Big Buy

Lots about game studio consolidations and bundles, big tech prevails

Welcome to The Pause Button — a weekly gaming newsletter curating the best content in the games industry.

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📜 This Week’s Notable News

Microsoft Spends Big

In one of gaming’s biggest shake-ups this year, Microsoft purchased ZeniMax Media for $7.5B. The acquisition brought all of ZeniMax’s IP under Microsoft’s ownership, which includes Fallout, Skyrim, Starfield, Doom, PREY, Wolfenstein, Quake and many more classic titles. Multi-billion dollar acquisitions are not everyday occurrences in gaming, particularly ones that brings this many historic franchises under one roof. There are a couple key questions to unpack here:

  • Why Did This Happen + Why Does It Matter?

  • What Happens Now? 

  • What Does This Mean for Games?

#1: Why Did This Happen + Why Does It Matter?

In last week’s issue, we touched on the polar strategies of Xbox and Playstation as we move into the next generation. Xbox’s goal is to build a successful bundle, and every good bundle has what’s referred to as a Leaders & Fillers. Leaders are the core products that get people to purchase the bundle, and fillers are medium value extras that people find are “nice to have”. Until this acquisition, Xbox Game Pass had very few “Leader” products, and without a compelling reason to buy GamePass, people are going to jump ship to Sony/Playstation. In what has essentially become a war for content across the two consoles, this purchase allows Microsoft to simultaneously lock-down major titles for first-release, keeping away from Sony some of the most successful games in the process. 

#2 What Happens Now?

In the short term? Nothing will happen. The deal isn’t reported to close until early 2021, and even then all of ZeniMax’s current obligations, including two PS5 exclusive titles, will need to be fulfilled. However, when all is said and done, we could be looking at a vastly different landscape for our next Fallout or Elder Scrolls title. Both franchises are so successful that it would be foolish to make them Xbox-exclusives from a revenue-standpoint, but it’s feasible that we start to see first-releases and exclusive content on Xbox alone. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has already gone on the record stating that this could easily be the first of many investments in the gaming space. Yet, it’s still feels unlikely that Microsoft will lock ZeniMax content behind the Xbox-platform.

Interesting to note here is that this historic purchase will likely drive up the value of the other larger competitors remaining that could still be acquired. As the supply of successful AAA studios diminishes, purchase value goes up. AAA studios have also been on a famously slow decline: essentially, the $60 price tag is no longer enough to cover the development costs of large scale games, it’s no longer economically feasible. For ZeniMax, Microsoft’s unlimited coffers offers a respite to the stresses of having to put out perennial hits.

#3 What Does This Mean For Games?

Earlier this week over pizza, Fawzi noted how he believes this is just the most recent step in a continuous cycle of centralization that's happening in games. Unique and thoughtful creators are building fantastic, historic companies only to be gobbled up by massive offers from major platform creators. As fans, it's not the worst thing in the world because the value delivered from MSFT/Playstation is certainly greater as a result of these purchases. But when you take a step back and consider video games as an art-form, innovation has primarily been driven by independent studios like Bethesda or id Software. Is this consolidation with all console games eventually coming under platform ownership/influence really the best thing to push the medium forward? Developers are increasingly losing their bargaining power with larger platforms as subscription services become a consumer’s default purchasing vector.

Further Reading

  • Why Microsoft Bought Bethesda - The Verge Link

  • A Breakdown of Microsoft’s Big Buy - Geekwire Link

  • The Value of Software Bundles in 2020 - Ben Thompson Link

  • Bethesda Announcement Link

💡 Industry Content

A Very Large Series A: Playco, a mobile gaming start-up built by one of Zynga’s co-founders, raised $100M at a $1B valuation. As game development studios become increasingly consolidated under larger tech companies, Playco presents a particularly interesting thesis, which is to bypass all app stores with “instant games”. Put another way, Playco games lets you access any game on any device with just a link through a variety of platforms: FB, Snap, iMessage, etc. Link

Where Are The Consoles In China?: Xbox’s and Sony’s pre-order console launch is conspicuously absent in China, the biggest gaming market in the world. Nevertheless, why miss out on this starkly open market opportunity? Our guess is it’s probably a mix of content/media regulations + COVID-related production concerns in a predominantly mobile market. Check out this interesting look into how these next-gen consoles — despite never having an official launch — find their way into China via various loopholes like Taobao. Link

Game Pass Takeover: Overshadowed by the news of the ZeniMax acquisition this week, Microsoft also announced that its Game Pass service reached 15M subscribers, up from the 10M number announced earlier in 2020. A 50% in-year increase is big, and a new console will certainly balloon that number. That said, we really wish we could get some deeper data into the behaviors behind GamePass: How many games do people play/download on average? How long is the average person subscribed? Vanity metrics like the 15M number sound nice, but they don't tell us a lot about how customers use the product/what value the service gives. Link

What Dreams Are Made Of: Blizzard Co-Founder Mike Morhaime launched a new gaming company, Dreamhaven (along with two new gaming studios), which will be funded by Morhaime and his wife, Amy. Companies like Respawn Entertainment — makers of Apex and Titanfall — have shown that making good games predicates largely on having the right people with the right experience, so early signs look positive for Dreamhaven, consisting largely of old-school Blizzard vets. Link

🎮 Fun & Games

The Wagadu Chronicles: The Wagadu Chronicles is an Afro-futurist MMO with none of the combat mechanisms of World of Warcraft. Instead, it explores “roleplaying” in a pre-colonial Africa, drawing influences from a variety of ethnic groups and cultures. Get this: the team also created a 300 page lore book ahead of the game! Lots of incredible resources to dig into from this team. Kickstarter | The Verge | Riot Games Underrepresented Founders Program | Lore

“The Wagadu Chronicles is not simply just about Black representation. Its diversity is reflected in Twin Drums the studio, where the majority of its core team of nine are Black, female, and queer. You can see this early on in the game’s character creation tool. Even at this early stage where the only playable lineage are the horned Swala people (inspired by the Maasai), there’s nonetheless a nonbinary option.”

Luna: Amazon announced its cloud gaming platform, Luna, early on Thursday. The platform plans to partner with Ubisoft, and will most likely integrate into Twitch the same way Stadia flows with Youtube. More on this in next week’s issue! Link

The Legality of Buildings: 2018’s Spiderman was one of the best games of the year. Thanks in part to the game’s nearly 1:1 recreation of NYC, players got the chance to be fully immersed in the world of everyone’s favorite webslinger. But take a closer look, and New York regulars might notice something important is missing. In this blog post, explore the legality behind what it takes to get classic American Landmarks into a game like Spiderman, and why one noteworthy addition didn’t make the cut. Link

😎 Other Cool Reads

Supergiant’s Hades: Both of us have been playing a lot of Hades this past week, and aside from a general appreciation for the story and design, there are a few exceptional choices that makes the game all the more enjoyable. Notable is that “Hades’ pantheon of Greek gods is diverse. Athena is a dark-skinned Black woman. Dionysus is south Asian. Hermes is east Asian. Eurydice, my favorite, is a Black woman crowned with a beautiful afro made from the branches and canopy of a tree.” Link

Japan Indie Scene: Asobu (meaning “to play”) is a new development studio in Japan that aims to flourish the country’s indie scene. They give developers the resources, community, and time to build their games. Promo Video | Recent Showcase

Pathologic and Stardew Valley: In this thoughtful side by side breakdown, Maris Crane explores the similarities between two seemingly different games: Pathologic and Stardew Valley. Crane’s juxtaposition of player experience, game design, and art direction is a refreshing exploration of two famous titles. Link

📊 By The Numbers

130: The number of games made by studio Mediatonic before making viral game Fall Guys. They’ve had a few hits here and there but this is a humbling number that shows how hard it is to make a good game. Link

$15.00: The lowest price of the new Apple subscription bundle, which includes the company’s widely marketed Apple Arcade service. Bundles can be useful, will an afterthought like Apple Arcade really going to flourish under this model?  Link

😍 Our Current Favorites 

Fawzi (@fawzitani)

A good friend of The Pause Button, Jake Perlman-Garr, officially launched his product this week: Kanga.gg. The Kanga team is doing some really cool things around fan loyalty and fan interactions. Personally, I don’t know of any other platform that lets you engage and follow your favorite creators on a variety of platforms, from Instagram to Twitch to TikTok. If you have a chance, check them out! Link

Max (@MaxLowenthal)

It boggles my mind how sports games continue to be some of the largest revenue generators in gaming despite their stagnant game design. We get annual copies of FIFA & Madden that regularly produce tens of millions of dollars, but do very little to differentiate from their predecessors. Earlier this week we got an email from the DRL, The Drone Racing League, telling us a bit more about their recently released sports game. It was honestly refreshing to get a look at a sports/competitive game that isn’t just a carbon copy year after year. Link

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