Little Big Mess

Sean Sands | 14 Nov 2008 09:30
Op-Ed - RSS 2.0

Media Molecule has a hit on its hands, and all the problems and headaches that go along with it. Having assembled a minor to medium phenomenon on the PlayStation 3 with the release of Little Big Planet, a game burdened already with high expectations, the developers now appear to be sweating in the spotlight, conflicted between concerns about intellectual property litigation and satisfying the unpredictable whims of a consumer base with a game that must rely in large part on community participation.

Amid the conflicts, over-reactions and mandates that are even now still roiling between creators, consumers and corporations, we have a perfect example of an issue sure to continue troubling the gaming industry for the foreseeable future. Where is the balance between fair use and infringement? Who is responsible for illegal actions, the offender, the provider of a medium or both? How can game developers serve the desires of creative individuals while simultaneously being the de facto protectors of every intellectual property on the planet? Is client-supplied content ultimately doomed in the current litigious climate?

There is a balance to be made somewhere between protecting intellectual properties from for-profit exploitation and getting into a litigious frenzy where even paper manufacturers are sued because someone used their product in plagiarism. The current legislative needle between those two extremes seems stuck in a hopelessly constant state of flux, and it is understandable that technology companies find exposure to litigation in a post-Hot-Coffee world anathema. In that sense, the bravery of Media Molecule to even create such thorough world creation tools is laudable.

Their handling since launch is much less laudable.

Normally, it is at this point that I'd be inclined to forgive the heavy-handed nature of the company's user content moderations, which have been largely and loudly criticized over the past week. I am well aware of my tendency to at best sympathize with the practicalities of doing business in a litigious society and at worst be a blatant corporate apologist. After all, I'm still mostly comfortable with the necessity of DRM on the market where it makes reasonable accommodations, but even coming from that mindset I'm uncomfortable with how Media Molecule has handled its decisions to eliminate user generated content.

What I don't know is whether this is a mandate from the developer, or if there are influences from outside the company up to and including publisher Sony. I find it difficult to square the company that would create such free-form tools with the mindset it has apparently displayed since release, but the real trouble here is not entirely in action but in the significant lack of communication.

I suspect that the community outreach blackout has to do with a lack of a cohesive message, which probably means that the people outraged by the unilateral actions in forums around the web have at least a few significant voices echoing their sentiments within the machine. I have little doubt that people who would be so committed to creating a user-dependent game will be resistant to the kinds of heavy handed deletions we have seen stirring up controversy. After all, much of the needlessly moderated levels seem like precisely the kinds of content they had encouraged all along.

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