Tomb Fortress: Ethics When Lara Croft Meets TF2

Nice shooting, Tex!

Valve’s Team Fortress 2 team are running a competition whereby the entire Tomb Raider franchise is fair game for TF2 Workshop content creation. Their official blog post on the matter goes straight for “the heavy in short shorts” at their first example of the contest’s potential*. But why on earth would you want to help Valve and Square promote a game for free? Let’s take a look at the rules.

As per the official TF2 post:

“Rather than working with the developers to have them produce some promotional content for the upcoming Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris that we hope you’ll like, we’re involving all of you guys directly — you who submit content to the Workshop and who vote on it.”

The winning entries will then be given away as pre-order incentives for Lara Croft And The Temple of Osiris on Steam.

These types of competition can be ethically questionable as the benefit tends to skew heavily in favour of the company rather than the entrant. They don’t have to pay a marketing team, an agency or a designer, they raise awareness of their product through the entrant’s quest for votes and they might well get some brilliant (and profitable) content out of it. The benefits for the creator tend towards a nebulous promise of exposure and perhaps some typical prize fare – a framed copy of your design or an edition of the product the competition was promoting – that kind of thing.

I’ve had a poke about in the rules for this one and the rewards are as follows:

You get the majority of Square’s back catalogue via Steam as well as a copy of Lara Croft And The Temple Of Osiris. The items may also be given away or sold to TF2 players. If sales are involved the entrant gets the same 25% revenue share arrangement as they would if creating regular TF2 workshop content.

The part about revenue share is positive, and the list of games you’ll get from Square’s back catalogue is substantial. The implicit idea of exposure to a wide audience is a more complex one when it comes to Steam.

The platform does have the power to reach a lot of people and interest in the Tomb Raider franchise is high. 2013’s Tomb Raider apparently had 1 million players within the first couple of days (although we don’t know how many were Steam pre-orders). It’s also impossible to know whether the experience and potential attention you could get as a result will be useful or lead to new opportunities. It might – Gabe Newell noted that some Steam Workshop creators make over $500,000 per year – but it might very well not.

The point I’m making is that, no matter the framing, these types of contest invite an active and creative community to do design work free-of-charge for a company who will then use it as an incentive to get people to buy their product. Whether the potential benefits outlined above make entering worthwhile for you personally is the question, but you should consider that when this work is given as a commission to a designer it is paid for.

*They add “Please don’t do this” but it’s probably some reverse psychology on their part.

37 Comments

  1. Vandelay says:

    As the 25% of the sales are standard for these workshop items that isn’t really a prize. And I expect most people already have a large portion of Square Enix’s backlog, so that isn’t much of a reward.

    As those entering are doing some of the marketing for these guys as part of a competition the sales share should really be much better than the standard, perhaps even 100%.

    • TechnicalBen says:

      I don’t see a problem here.

      They are offering (as far as I can see) real returns for the work. Yes, we could argue over the level or remuneration, but it’s there and seems level with what is available.

      In fact, it’s amazing that they are. Not sure if that’s because things have been so negative in the past, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

      Besides, if things do reach post scarcity (look at mobile phones with cameras, who pays for portraits photographers as much now? Or who hires secretaries to write? Some things pass by with technology) there is going to be more user/crowd sourced material and it will be nice if a payment scheme is also there.

      • Vandelay says:

        Oh, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this is an incredibly evil thing to do; I just think it is a crap competition prize.

        Someone mentioned a Red Thread Game competition below, regarding submitting music to be included in Dreamfall Chapters. I don’t think that is really comparable, as the infrastructure for creating items for TF2 and receiving a percentage of the sales of that item is already there. The infrastructure for having your music included in Dreamfall Chapters around the world isn’t.

        Which is why I think a better prize would be a higher than normal percentage share of the sales of your item. As it is, the only real prize is some of Square Enix’s past games.

  2. kwyjibo says:

    The workshop is cool, but this competition isn’t all that interesting, it’s mostly business as usual.

    I’d like to see more games embrace the workshop and actually allow artists to sell their creations. Most of the workshops are just for free mods.

    • Rizlar says:

      Yeah, after the ‘heavy in short shorts’ comment I started to wonder what else you would actually do. What’s iconic about Tomb Raider other than Lara Croft herself? Shorts and pony tails all round, then?

      • BooleanBob says:

        A capture point map filled with numerous instakill deathtraps to memorise

        Indestructable butlers

  3. Wulfram says:

    Any artwork of quality is something that would be paid for if it was given as commission, no? Yet people enjoy making fan art and mods and so on for free.

  4. wengart says:

    The 25% of sales, while standard, makes the whole enterprise worthwhile if you do win.

    Since it will be a pre-order bonus a ton of people will get the items and the items will also retain a fair amount of value. Which should result in a fair bit of money for the creators.

  5. DanMan says:

    Why should we reward them when they don’t even want to bring the next big TR to PC?

  6. Text_Fish says:

    To be honest it seems like you’re clutching for an argument here Philippa. No artists are being forced to work under threat of death or starvation here. It’s an invite to their community to take part in something that interests them — this is assuming that most of the entrants will have some prior interest in TF2, TR and content creation obviously — and potentially receive a nice little reward and potentially more importantly; recognition as a quality content creator.

    I guess if you really want to stretch this tenuous tendon of a concern, you could maybe argue that some poor Valve or Eidos artist has been cheated of a day’s honest work, but I doubt it’s going to keep them awake at night. The other possible argument is the age old “thin end of the wedge” angle, but honestly these developers are at the mercy of the people you’re suggesting they might exploit so that doesn’t concern me much either.

    Personally, I’d like to see more of this sort of thing. It’s a fun way to engage the community and encourage amateur content creators to hone their skills.

    • SuddenSight says:

      I was going to post exactly this argument. While I agree that artists should be paid for their work, it isn’t like Valve or Square has reneged on a contract. If you don’t think it is worth the artist’s time, don’t do it. And if Valve/Square can get more value out of the fans for free, I’m not sure the artists were worth their value in the first place. (Not meant as a dig against the multitude of competent artists, simply pointing out that you shouldn’t be afraid of people imitating you for free)

      Besides, how is this any different from similar deals, like this one?

    • Rikard Peterson says:

      I agree with you, but the line isn’t always easy to draw.

      Red Thread games were about to do a competition where people could send them music, and the winners would end up as in-game music in Dreamfall Chapters. I would have made something and entered, but they canceled it at the last minute because people in the industry were interpreting it as a shady way to get free music and getting upset.

      On the other side, it’s not unusual for artists to be undervalued and for people to try and take advantage of them. All musicians have probably at some point been asked to play for free at one time or another, so it’s understandable if they’re extra sensitive about the subject. Why shouldn’t I get paid for doing my job?

      • Eightball says:

        >Why shouldn’t I get paid for doing my job?

        Is your boss asking you to submit music to Red Thread Games without being paid?

        • Rikard Peterson says:

          You’re missing my point. I personally loved the idea of the RTG contest and would have participated. I just brought it up as an example of how it’s sometimes a bit complicated. It’s not about someone’s boss asking for work. It’s about how artistic work is valued. There is a problem there. (Though IMHO neither the RTG contest or this one are problems.)

    • joshg says:

      Talk to professional artists. They may not be “losing sleep”, but there is a trend of this sort of thing being abused, and it does devalue their work.

      If this inspires you to make something cool, great, go for it. But if you’re an amateur who’s hoping to actually work in the industry, don’t focus your time on contests where you may or may not get noticed for your effort. Make awesome stuff that you can fully own, build up a portfolio, network with people, make games, sell them, get paid. Assume your time and skill is worth more than a gamble.

      • TechnicalBen says:

        It seems everything is about supply and demand. What if everyone became an artist overnight? If everyone became a car mechanic? Certain jobs would go. But I don’t see it as anything new, people learn new skills all the time and it’s either competition with others, or a drive to find that “niche”.

    • Kaeoschassis says:

      Nobody’s forcing anybody, no.
      But the fact is, artists, especially those looking for a break (the very ones likely to enter an event like this one) tend to be hugely undervalued. It’s not even remotely uncommon for them to get asked to do things for free, or even outright told to, and the reaction they get if they raise any argument ranges from mild surprise to outright rage. If you want to flat-out tell me that’s not the case, consider yourself extremely lucky – ignorance is bliss. If you want to argue that such a general sense of entitlement is okay, be my guest, I’ll just go far away from you. If it’s -not- okay, then ask yourself what kind of message it sends when big names like Valve or Square decide to host an event like this where the prize, such as it is, is both underwhelming, and not even immediately apparent.
      Do either company feel that newbie artists shouldn’t be appreciated or expect to be rewarded for their work? Not necessarily! We can’t say that. But that’s an opinion that’s very widespread and doesn’t need to be encouraged further, and I think the writer’s concerns are absolutely valid.

      • TechnicalBen says:

        I agree that it’s wrong to take advantage of them. I suppose the difference here is, it’s not a “make a poem” type competition. Making a mod/graphical item is not something everyone can do. It’s not an easy thing, though everyone can “try” and also have fun being involved, it’s a real skill to make a quality item.

        So this level of competition almost requires skilled workers. I’ve heard of companies “stealing” an interviewees port folio so they can copy work out from it later for print. Which is awful. I hope this competition does not come close to that!

        • montorsi says:

          Yes, it’s an awfully thin line between taking someone’s IP without permission and using it, and hosting an open competition for fans of your games.

          Am I mashing my sarcasm button hard enough here?

      • Rizlar says:

        Hear hear!

        On top of that most freelance professions don’t have a proper professional body or union to stick up for them, leaving them even more open for exploitation. That said, this competition doesn’t seem too offensive, but it is indeed a sticky subject and this may well be sending out bad vibes and helping normalise actual exploitation. Definitely worth discussing.

    • ssh83 says:

      It’s actually a very similar argument as the anti-piracy argument. Is a contest winner equivalent to a paid commission lost? Maybe winning a contest would help designer get noticed and help them find their next gig?

  7. RARARA says:

    I panicked the moment I read ‘ethics’ in the headline.

    This is what Gamergate has done.

    • Jeroen D Stout says:

      An article about ethics in game development? Way to give in to Gamergate’s demands, RPS!

    • ssh83 says:

      Yeah… i hope we will one day look back at Gamergate and realize that this is gaming community’s equivalent of witch hunt or D&D devil worshiping hysteria.

  8. El Goose says:

    That reminds me, I never finished Tomb Raider 3, I should do that sometime so I can move on to 4 and 5. However I am in a somewhat adolescent slump at the moment where I don’t really feel like playing any games ever, despite annoyingly still buying them, so maybe I never will.

  9. mattevansc3 says:

    I’m not savvy with the T&Cs but who becomes the owner of the winning content? The article states that the content may be given away or sold and its only when its sold does the competition winner get their 25%. That seems to imply that the ownership passes to either Valve (owners of TF2) or Square Enix (owners of Tomb Raider) and the winner just gets a backend commission.

    Surely that means its better to get an honourable mention instead of winning the competition as you still get the exposure but also get to retain the ownership of your work and dictate the sale price of it? Or is it in the T&Cs that simply submitting the work passes on the ownership of said item?

    • AXAXAXAS MLO II: MLO HARDER says:

      It’s difficult to retain ownership when you’re creating an item for a game owned by a corporation, based on intellectual property retained by another corporation. Not defending ValvE, just saying that if you think this is bad it isn’t special case bad.

  10. WebFusion says:

    When it comes to TF2, valve lost their way “ethically” quite some time ago.

    They are depending almost entirely on the community for any new content creation for the game, but they turned their backs on that same community when they started directing all quickplay traffic to their own servers by default.

    This to fix a problem they CAUSED by creating quickplay in the first place.

    As it stands, Valve’s current policy is:

    1. Rely on the “community” to create all new maps.

    2. Refuse to allow those maps to see the light of day by directing all new players to stock Valve servers ONLY.

    3. Sit back while good communities that were built around TF2 whither and die due to their indifference and broken promises.

    Valve – like so many companies before them – have been subverted by their own success into both forgetting all the people that helped get them there, and thinking they no longer need them.

    So much for “games as a service”. Today’s policy is more like “games as service, as long as we can squeeze every last dollar out of them, and screw the community.”

    • grom.5 says:

      Last time I checked, it seemed it was still a free-to-play, updated since 7 years with fresh new things. I couldn’t say the same for pretty much any other games, or at least, not at this rate.

      I agree that the hat economy and everything went too far (that’s one of the reasons I stopped since a long time), however, it is still a nice service for… at least 52 000 person right now. I take this “subverted success” any day.

    • El_Emmental says:

      Wait, Quickplay is unfair because it doesn’t direct people, who wouldn’t play TF2 if it was only using a server browser*, onto custom servers that Valve has no control over at all? Really?

      * That looks like a spreadsheet made of numbers and numbers – with hundreds of servers using glitches to misreport players-count and bots-count so it’s a real gamble when joining a server, requiring 5+ attempts to find an actual server with actual players.

      If Quickplay was directing the players who can’t or wouldn’t use a server browser onto custom servers:

      1) These players would end up on modified servers. That means custom skins (= possibly inappropriate/illegal/violating copyrights), 3rd party plugins (giving abilities, often only to backers paying real-life money for these goods – Minecraft showed an awful lot of people show no remorse in tricking young kids into emptying their parents’ credit card), admins abusing their rights (= possibility because of a player gender, ethnic origins or skill level).

      2) Modified servers with unstable/unbalanced/low-quality/inappropriate custom maps in their map cycle (even if the rest of the game is vanilla). It can seriously damage the TF2 experience of these players and fire back at Valve, especially since you’ve got a lot young players on TF2 (nb: if minors want to see porn, they will do it by themselves when they develop an interest for the thing – forcing minors to see porn is terribly immoral).

      3) Commercial servers adding ads everywhere (titles, ‘floating’ textures plugin, audio announcements, etc), making the experience terribly awful.

      4) Redirecting abuses: report 10 000 instances of vanilla servers to the server browser, only actually provide 30 servers (that can be modified to hell, selling powerups), steal most Quickplay requests – ultimately turning it into an arm race between server providers. It happens already with the actual server browser (scan for a game, see 20 servers with the exact same playercount and map – trying to connect there redirect you to another server), if you add the huge flow of Quickplay users it’s gonna be massive.

      The only way to allow private servers to be integrated into the pool of Quickplay is to completely remove the rights and control the admins have on their servers: no admin rights, no custom content, no plugins, no modified item stats or availability, no redirecting, no premium slot. At this point, it’s pretty pointless to pay for the server, unless the official Valve servers are too terrible to play the game (as far as I know, this is not the case).

      You can’t have your cake (keeping it) and eat it (consuming it) at the same time, if you decide to have your own server with your own TF2 online environment, you can no longer host people who 100% trust Valve to provide them with a standardized official TF2 experience.

      You can’t ask seriously ask Valve and the Quickplay players to take ALL the risks custom servers imply regarding the online game’s experience, simply because you can’t fill your private servers. Quickplay players don’t want to spend hours every week filtering out the massive amount of crap on custom servers, while Valve can’t and shouldn’t monitor and police private servers (server admins would cry their freedom of speech and privacy is violated).

  11. Frank says:

    “But why on earth would you want to help Valve and Square promote a game for free?”

    Okay, let’s suppose you don’t want to and neither does anyone else. Then it’s the companies’ problem — no one will participate. Move along, right? I mean, how is this a story?

    Open-entry contests, particularly those thrown by marketing departments, are always a net loss for the vast majority of contestants. That’s sort of the nature of the game. Sure, maybe in this case it’s not even much of a victory for the victor, but I still don’t see how that’s a story. Oh, are you advocating nixing such competitions? That’s kind of authoritarian, eh. Next thing you’ll be saying that we can’t have patents because people compete (through R&D) to get the prize, but only one succeeds.

    TechnicalBen makes the interesting point that only pros have the skills for this, so Valve know full-well that they aren’t exploiting run of the mill fans. That kind of sucks, as does the general trend toward demanding free content just to get your foot in the door as a creative person (mentioned by Kaeoschassis).

  12. gulag says:

    Couple of points:

    The companies involved are opening up their IPs for creative use, something that almost never happens, and should be welcomed with interest, if not approval. Sure, the use in question is also commercial/promotional, but most artistic effort has a commercial aspect.

    Apart from the 3 winners, other entrants items may be sold on the store, under standard terms. As I understand it, the Workshop items that are sold have to go through a vetting process before they are made available to buy, so this is another example of business as usual. If there wasn’t a competition aspect attached to this, there wouldn’t be any cause for concern, and I’m not convinced there is an issue to begin with.

    Lastly, the idea that design or art competitions take work away from professionals is nonsense. In fact the lie of it is neatly illustrated by the image at the top of this article. That merging of TF2 and TR didn’t happen by accident. The marketing guy called down to the design guy, both of whom are salaried, and told him they needed a promotional image for a competition for a game they are both working on. The design guy added it to his stack of things to do, and then they went for lunch, both secure in the knowledge that they would both have jobs when they returned.

    Why? Because it takes a great deal of promotion to even generate interest in any competition that requires more of the entrants than a token effort, and that promotional material is generated by marketing and design professionals. Not only that, but these competitions, or anything like them, strike me as the worst way ever of generating artwork or design to spec. Something tells me the design profession will survive this disruptive innovation without too much trouble.

    • El_Emmental says:

      This.

      A single TF2 skin (in an ocean of already existing custom content) is far from being a main piece of work securing an employment for a professional.

      The amount of stuff you need to create and provide as a professional is much bigger than that, from the character design meetings with all other devs/departments (game design, marketing, programming, art design), to the actual production of bazillion artworks and assets, with constant modifications (interpreting feedback and implementing changes) throughout the development process (same applies to the marketing campaigns).

      That TF2 skin could easily be done by the inhouse model artists during downtimes in the development schedule and doesn’t even need to meet a high quality threshold (with the never-ending board of approval process) since it’s just one of the pre-order bonuses for a 3rd party F2P game. Eidos could simply ask its inhouse model artists to get it done over 3-4 months without giving additional pay.

      Sure I would prefer if the prizes were better, but before jumping to conclusions, let’s take a realistic look at it: if there was a significant amount (or percentage of the sales) of money given to the winners, who would participate? The struggling freelance professional modelers, who terribly hate the competitions without solid rewards because they feel they’re being robbed of a job (because it would be making fans/newbies “work for free”).

      What if, let’s imagine such situation for a second, the PR department at Eidos is struggling to build a bridge with the community and get in touch with the fans (especially since the “death” of the franchise and its revival with the reboot), while they keep hearing how UGC (user-generated content) *is* the future.

      They simply came up with that: the small rewards make it uninteresting for seasoned model artist veterans (who may have nothing to do the TR fanbase), while making it a worthy challenge (without any risk attached to failure – you can’t get fired for doing a poor job) for amateur model artists (who used to start in modding a decade ago, and are now doing the same self-training with UGC on platforms like the Steam Workshop).

      I would be much more worried if the contest was about a character model or even a level for their next TR game, where you need highly talented professional to meet a certain level of quality (to sell it as a stable AAA product).

      Here’s it’s a TF2 model (= very little creative constraints, doesn’t require a lot of details)! Teenagers (whom I respect and admire for their dedication) with no formal training or experience are *currently* making TF2 custom models: while complex and challenging, it is accessible (tons of tools and tutorials and examples available). In my opinion, assimilating such work to a professional job is missing the point of UGC.

  13. Kinch says:

    Valve are very good at exploiting the community. At least Workshop authors get “something” because, for example, Steam translators get nothing. Maybe a badge for your profile if you slave yourself and translate a given number of words over a time period. I don’t like you, Valve.