Ubisoft have defended their decision to source some of Watch Dogs: Legion‘s soundtrack through spec work, saying it’s “completely voluntary” for fans to create music hoping Ubi might pick it and pay them for their work. Ubi announced this “opportunity” last week, saying they will put ten fan-made tracks into the game. I suppose it is voluntary, as much as any other work is voluntary. My main objection isn’t even that Ubisoft are seeking spec work for their big-budget game, it’s that they’re using spec work as marketing to build brand engagement. They’re encouraging exploitative labour practices with a goal not much different to a competition offering Watch Dogs t-shirts as prizes for drawing cool hackers.
As with Ubisoft’s spec work request for Beyond Good & Evil 2 art and music, this is running through HitRecord, a site directed by actor and musician Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The makers of each selected song will share $2000 (£1590) between themselves, which could be many people considering how much HitRecord encourages collaboration and remixes.
That’s speculative work, no matter how much Ubisoft and HitRecord try to present it as an exciting “opportunity” to “participate together in the creation of the musical landscape”. Spec work sucks. Spec work pits already-squeezed artists against each other, putting time and effort into work they may never get paid for. Even if Ubi do pick them for this, the pay is bad. But as with BG&E2, Ubisoft swear blind people are misunderstanding.
“The Watch Dogs: Legion Audio team worldwide is already working with professional artists and composers on more than 140 licensed songs, and an original score in the game,” Ubisoft said last night in a statement on Twitter.
“The additional contributions–no matter how large or small–from anyone within the HitRecord community are completely voluntary, and are meant to give them a chance to have their own creative expressions included in the game.”
Saying you’re actually already working properly with other musicians is a bold opening gambit. What’s worse is Ubisoft are using spec work for funsies. They’re already paying people to create music and to license existent songs, as they proudly say. They’ve chosen to practice, normalise, and encourage spec work for a marketing exercise.
Ubisoft are doing this to build brand identification, to make fans feel more invested in the game, and to make fans think Ubisoft truly respect them and want to collaborate. That’s all. Oh Ubisoft will be pleased if good music gets into the game through HitRecord, and I’m sure folks will make some real bangers, but that’s secondary.
The core function is a grim modern twist on Stan Lee giving No-Prizes for pedantry, 2000 AD readers sending letters seeking Tharg’s validation and an LRD, or winning a badge from the Dennis the Menace Fan Club for a particularly good drawing of Gnasher.
I’d respect this more if Ubisoft didn’t offer any money, if they didn’t use HitRecord to pay pittances ($2000 is tiny considering the marketing budget will run into tens of millions), and if they just ran a competition rewarding winners with ugly branded t-shirts and caps. Instead, they chose to dress it up as an exciting opportunity to be exploited labour. But hey, it is voluntary.