Authorship isn't real

Authorship isn't real

19/06/2022
indiedev, psychology

Information wants to be free, culture follows evolutionary flows — viral memetics — and accreditation, provenance, patents, copyright are all burdens that strangle the free flow of the work and ruin its memetic fitness.

Recognize memetic culture cedes no authorship, no credit; art is produced in a lucid state playing handmaiden to collective unconsciousness — and accelerated by the web — Art comes from beyond the self, comes from the network, or God. Claiming it is hubris. Plagiarism is thus praxis, freeing work from hindrance.

Unpacking Post-Authorship (2022)

In 202X, indiedev X releases his game. It’s a smash hit. In a matter of weeks it has 100k reviews and millions of copies sold on Steam. X also did the unthinkable: he made his game open.

The code was MIT licensed and made to be modded from day one, and more importantly, the IP was also open. This meant anyone could use the game’s assets, characters, story, etc, to make derivative products and build upon X’s work without having to pay him back any royalties.

Very quickly lots of highly enterprising people decide to take advantage of this fact to make merch using the game’s IP. Shirts, hoodies, plushies, pins, stickers, action figures, mugs, cups, hats, you name it. There are no royalties to be paid and the game is extremely popular, so why wouldn’t they do it?

It’s now 6 months later, the game has 300k reviews but the hype around it has died down somewhat. However, a new game is released. It was first a very popular mod that has now been made into a full standalone game, using the original game’s assets, characters, a lot of the code since the gameplay is similar and it was a mod, and so on.

This new game is also a hit, eventually reaching 100k reviews on Steam and also millions of copies sold. Since the IP is open, this game’s dev doesn’t have to pay anything back to X, the original creator, who is more than happy with this setup because now his game is enjoying renewed popularity.

For the next 5 years this process repeats itself multiple times. The IP dies down in popularity, but sooner or later a new good project using it comes out. A new game, a music album using the original’s melodies, a kickstarted board game, a book set in the IP’s universe, another game, an indie movie, a shitty cheaply made anime, more games…

None of these projects pay anything back to X, but he doesn’t really care, because his game now has 1 million reviews on Steam and tens of millions of copies sold. More importantly, it has now become something of extremely high cultural significance and memetic fitness, enabling hundreds of other creators to build upon it and also make it from doing so, but also making X extremely rich, popular and respected. 😎

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The story above seems improbable, but it will definitely happen at some point. The numbers seem to check out to me. Look, for instance, at Among Us:

It’s currently sitting at 550k reviews, and had ~150k in its first 2 months of popularity. The hype around it has since then died down, but imagine if it had a permissive IP license from the start instead of this abomination.

If such virality can happen to Among Us, which is as indie as an indie game can get, it can happen again for another game that happens to have an open IP. And there’s also another precedent that shows the open IP model works well: Touhou.

Touhou’s IP is more permissive than most, even though it still has quite a few restrictions. The main problem is that it’s old, which has two drawbacks:

  1. Current indiedevs didn’t witness it from zero so they aren’t inspired by it to emulate it
  2. Something like Steam didn’t exist, so it wasn’t boosted by algos

Some would argue that it not being boosted by algos makes it more real and grassroots, but I disagree with that somewhat strongly. Either way, both Among Us and Touhou represent different parts of the process described in the story above.

If a game comes out that manages to capture both of these elements well then I think the 1 million Steam reviews (which would be the first indie game on the platform to reach such a number) described isn’t that far-fetched.

More importantly, indiedevs watching this play out would be inspired by it, and would start releasing their games openly as well, since the upside is infinite and the downside is limited. Logically, this is what every indiedev should be doing already.

Why aren’t they doing it? Well, I asked around and some common concerns are listed below:

  1. Someone will make fun of my code
  2. I will miss out on 1 billion dollars since I won’t be able to sell the IP like Notch did
  3. I won’t like it if someone makes money off my work, especially if they make more than me
  4. My work will mostly be used tastelessly in ways I disapprove of (i.e. NFTs)
  5. China

And these are all very valid points in their own way. It’s entirely possible for a chinese boy to take your code, release it unchanged in some exclusively chinese store, make millions of dollars off it, and on top of that send their user’s bug reports to you, creating additional work in a language you don’t speak.

Roughly this happened with One Hour One Life’s Jason Rohrer, who released his game openly but had to deal with people re-releasing it in ways he didn’t approve of, leading to quotes such as the one below:

And this is all very sad. But in my opinion, none of these problems are real.

Let’s look at this rationally. If the game isn’t popular, the chances anyone will steal it are low. For instance, my game was MIT licensed from day 1 and so far no one has tried to steal it. It’s currently sitting at about 150k copies sold, so it’s not a big game, but it’s not a small one either. Either I am extremely lucky or the appetite for indie game theft is just a lot smaller than people assume it is.

And if the game is popular: why would you care? If you released the game on Steam and on the Switch, which are the two biggest markets for indie games, and your game is so popular that it has like 100k reviews on Steam, do you really care about some guy in China releasing it on a local store? You’re already a multimillionaire, so realistically you shouldn’t care.

But I understand that some people are not moved only by money. Jason Rohrer, for instance, seems to be highly moved by his name, his legacy, his status. #4 seems to be moved by his principles, he feels a sense of ownership over his game and doesn’t want it used tastelessly. Other devs, those making character/story based games, for instance, might simply not want to see their characters or their world warped in a way that doesn’t go along with the spirit of the original creation.

These are also all valid points. But I disagree with all of them. And the reason I disagree with them is why I named this post “authorship isn’t real”.

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X’s story can be read as one of the fantasies of a megalomaniacally status hungry and egocentric indiedev. We all have some of that in us, some more than others…

But isn’t it interesting how a realistic path for such an indiedev towards one of the highest ego boosts possible, one of the highest status claims there can be, one of the greatest achievements one can achieve - which is your little indie game becoming a cultural hit of such epic proportions that there are even shitty cheaply made anime about it - isn’t it interesting how that path requires complete and utter egolessness?

Consider what X has to be OK with to go along with his open game’s popularity: he has to be OK with people making money off his work, potentially even more than him (I hear that once merch gets going it really makes a lot of money); he has to be OK with chinese boys stealing his work and releasing his unchanged game on chinese stores, making millions without him seeing a single dime; he has to be OK with disgusting and deranged cryptobros making 🤮 NFTs 🤮 off his game; he has to be OK with his world and his characters being metaphorically raped, as people make works that really go against the spirit of the original creation; he has to be OK with not being credited properly and with people confusing his work for other people’s and other people’s work for his…

Not only does he have to be OK with all this, he has to actively encourage it, and not only encourage it, but also very likely participate in it himself.

Because this is my made up story I can now reveal a fact about it which I omitted when I first told it. Remember the mod that became a successful game 6 months after release? You really think some random would be able to make a really good game based on another only 6 months after its release?

That was obviously X himself, who decided to use a new dev identity to really drive the point home that you could, in fact, make a game using his IP, have it be successful, and not have to ask for his permission or pay him anything. In fact, X went on to make many games for his IP using different dev identities, because why not?

X fundamentally understands that while he has a claim as the original creator, the work is everyone’s now, but still the work’s success is his own success. Yet the more he removes his original identity and its desires from it, the more memetically fit it will be, and the more memetically fit it is, the more it spreads.

There’s a saying, “to get what you most desire you must first let it go” or something like that? Well, to get to the highest status possible as an indiedev, you first have to become completely egoless. And there’s a poetic beauty to this. It’s too perfect. You know, the universe is attuned to these kinds of things, so this is how it must happen. For it to happen any other way would be some kind of corruption of the cosmic order.

And so when we look back at Jason Rohrer’s words we can now more clearly see how he’s wrong:

“I feel like a great deal of damage has already been done to my legacy and reputation as a designer, and an unfathomable amount of additional damage will be done in the future, if the current course with the mobile adaptation isn’t altered. I can imagine a situation in the future where One Hour One Life becomes widely known, but the vast majority of people in the world mistakenly believe that the mobile version is the original version, and that DualDecade alone authored it, or that I am part of Dual Decade, and that I approved the changes that they have made. If that comes to pass, that situation will haunt me for the rest of my life. We’re pretty close to that already, at least in China and Japan.”

Here he speaks of the damage to his legacy and reputation, but also of his greatest fear, which is his work being popular but him not being properly recognized as its creator. In comparison, does X care about some people not recognizing him as a creator? Not really. X seems to uniquely care about the work being spread at the cost of his status if need be.

The interesting thing about Jason’s situation is that he released his game openly. It’s all on github released to the public domain. Initially his no_copyright.txt file looked like this:

But once this event with DualDecade transpired and he realized what “absolutely no restrictions” entailed, it was changed to this:

And, you know, in a way this is worse than what most indiedevs are doing, which is releasing their games with none of the code nor IP open. In life often times there are 0 or 1 situations. These are situations where the right course of action is either acting with full commitment or not acting at all. No room for anything in between.

If you’re going to release your game openly, you have to be completely egoless and be OK with everything. Anything short of that is going to cause you unnecessary pain, because eventually someone will do something you won’t like, you’ll take psychic damage from that person’s actions which realistically you can’t do anything about since the game was fully open, and then you’ll try to assert your will and add conditions to how people can use it, which will decrease its spread.

And Jason is not the only indiedev who cares deeply about his legacy and reputation. Most do. For instance, Bennett Foddy who made Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy and who gave the GDC talk Put Your Name on Your Game, a Talk by Bennett Foddy, deeply believes that you should add your name to your game’s titles:

And the talk above has lots of good arguments on why you should do this, but ultimately it all resolves to the developer deeply caring about his legacy, reputation and status. He wants to be known, respected and recognized above all else. And there’s nothing wrong with that. We all want it, in one way or another.

But as I argued, one very realistic way of getting to the end goal of that path - a way which takes very little effort to do (other than of course making a very good and fun game) - is the opposite of putting your name on your game, it’s the opposite of caring about your legacy, reputation or status, it’s the opposite of being widely recognized and respected. It’s the way where you, the author of the work, don’t exist. It’s the way of pure egolessness.

And this is hard for people to do, so they don’t do it.

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Now, beyond deeply megalomaniacal desires of total cultural dominion, there are more altruistic reasons to release your games openly. I went over some of them in my previous post, but they can be summarized to “permissionless remixing”.

A culture of indiedevs openly releasing their games is a culture where good ideas, techniques, assets, etc are ruthlessly copied, bad ones are forgotten, and the quality of games increases as a result. This already happens to an extent.

For instance, PUBG was initially released with a lot of its assets being from Unreal’s asset store; Fortnite was initially a game about building that wasn’t going anywhere, so devs looked at PUBG’s success and decided to change it into a battle royale because it’s just a better idea; Counter Strike, TF2 and DoTA all started as mods; and even Bennett Foddy’s very own Getting Over It was made entirely from store assets. Bennett understands the benefits of remixing:

Perhaps he phrases it a bit more harshly than I would, but he kinda gets it. And the industry at large also understands that reuse, remixing and recycling is where most good things come from. They just don’t embrace it.

But eventually they will. Since if you are egoless, releasing your game openly is an action that has no downsides, takes no additional effort, and has potentially infinite upside. So doing it just makes perfect sense, and not doing it is irrational.

X’s story will happen, and when it does it will inspire indiedevs all across the world, and a world of completely permissionless remixing will manifest itself. And it will be good.

But while that doesn’t happen… why not try to be X yourself?