Will fan-made games ever get the credit they deserve?

Most gamers are content with playing as their favourite characters whenever an official game is released, but for others that isn’t enough. A small band of gamers are taking it upon themselves to create new adventures for beloved characters. But will fan-made games ever be welcomed into official canon?

Imagine if you’d spent years lovingly crafting a piece of work; if you’d nurtured it, cajoled it, even caressed it, all in a bid to get it to the point where you were finally ready to let the world see your creation. Now imagine if you’d spent years, getting that piece of work ready, while all the time you knew that what you’d been working on could be taken away from you at any time.

Welcome to the world of fan-made games, where gamers, not content with merely playing as their favourite characters, create the kinds of games that they and other fans want to exist.

It’s no surprise that as video games have grown in popularity, so have the number of video-game fans who want to make games that elicit the same feeling of excitement in others that they experienced themselves. That desire can either push people to try and create original content from the get-go, or, in the same way as the Rolling Stones got started by covering the likes of Chuck Berry and Little Richard, it can inspire people to imitate their heroes’ creations.

Right now, there are two ways that fan-made games and their makers are considered. They can be thought of as paying homage to their inspirations, made by fans who want to celebrate games that they enjoy. Let’s call that the Sega approach. Alternatively, makers of fan-made games can be treated like interlopers who ruthlessly infringe upon copyright and intellectual property. Let’s call this the Nintendo standpoint.

Image courtesy of Twitch

In 2016, one game distributor, Game Jolt, reported that it was forced to remove 500 fan-made games having received a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) takedown request from Nintendo. But are video-game companies who take this approach missing the point? Instead of clinging on to copyrights and supporting IP protectionism, wouldn’t they be better served supporting gamers who want to popularise the games and characters that fans the world over enjoy, and – if the work is good enough – even consider bringing it under the official video game company’s umbrella?

The Pokemon problem

Given Nintendo’s hardline approach to fan-made games, it’s unfortunate that some of the most popular fan-created titles have infringed upon its various copyrights. In 2016 two Pokemon fan-made games were killed by Nintendo; first of all, Pokemon Uranium, which was nine years in the making, got issued with a cease-and-desist letter, and then, four days before Christmas, the ROM hack Pokemon Prism was also pulled by Nintendo.

The strange thing about Nintendo’s decision to pull the plug on Pokemon Prism is that despite all the aggression and fist shaking Nintendo aims towards fan-made games, it doesn’t have a history of blocking ROM hacks, which essentially take existing, paid-for game engines and assets, and remix them by adding a patch.

Pokemon Prism’s creator, Adam “Koolboyman” Vierra, insists his game would have launched as a free patch with no links to original Pokemon ROMs, and to make it clear he intended to make no money from the project he was going to insert a page that encouraged players to support official games and merchandise.

“I thought I understood Nintendo’s unwritten rules regarding fan games. I wasn’t making money and I made it clear when you start the game that this is a fan project,” said Vierra during a Reddit AMA. “ROM Hacks were never taken down by Nintendo, and the only ROM hack I knew of that was taken down was Crimson Skies, but that was from Squaresoft, not Nintendo.”

In truth, Prism was probably a victim of its own success. The game was eventually leaked by “a group of people interested in seeing ROM hacks succeed,” and although, for obvious reasons download figures don’t exist, we do know that the game was shared widely, and fans have been keen to share how the game works on their Nintendo 3DS.

“I understand that based on the circumstances Nintendo had to take action and I have no hard feelings against them anymore,” said Vierra. “They felt threatened by Prism’s massive hype and popularity and they had to do something to protect their trademark.”

How to make a fan-made game

If you too want to be involved in the masochistic world of fan-made gaming, then here’s some advice for you. First of all, and we can’t stress this enough, keep your project small. Part of the reason Pokemon Prism was detected was because sites like Kotaku (previously part of Gawker Media) wrote about it, while its trailer gained millions of views and its arrival was liked thousands of times on Facebook.

The best thing you can do is try to build a small, modest and loyal community, something like Prism had in 2015

“The best thing you can do is try to build a small, modest and loyal community, something like Prism had in 2015. It’s easy to get into the mindset ‘the more [people] that know about my fan game the better’, but as Prism and other fan games proved that comes with consequences,” said Vierra. “Don’t make big trailers or big pieces of promotional material.”

In reality, though, if you decide to make a fan-made game and it turns out to be good, then there’s not a lot you can do to contain the hype. Your best option is to maintain some detachment, so if the day ever comes when Nintendo burst through the door brandishing a cease-and-desist letter (it doesn’t really happen like that) then at least you’ll be able to get over your loss.

“The harsh reality is sometimes you don’t have control over the popularity and hype over your own game and it can come when you least expect it,” explains Vierra. “The better your fan game is, the more likely people are going to get excited about it and spread the word to everywhere. What you can do is at least try to contain it.

“I’m not trying to scare people,” said Vierra, “but you should at the very least mentally prepare yourself for the worst so that in case it does happen, you’ll be more mentally stable to handle the situation. I got too comfortable during the last days of Prism and when it happened I was an emotional wreck. While the worst is behind me and I’m finally comfortable … I’m still recovering. I don’t want anyone to go through that.”

Copy the Collyers

Sports games are ephemeral with new versions being released each year. But some fans have a favourite version, a favourite team and a favourite player that they don’t want to let go of, so predictably some have taken to editing games in order to keep them alive. Anyone who knows the history of Championship Manager and Football Manager will have heard the story of Champ Manager 01/02, which has been updated since its release to reflect the changes in football teams’ personnel while maintaining the spirit of the original.

To some this may be awkward, but the creators of the Championship Manager series are flattered that people are still playing a game that is over a decade out of date. “It’s fair enough, I think the games have become more complex over the years, so I can understand why people have said the main version is too complicated for me now, but I’m really happy with this version. It’s great that people are still playing the game that we made that long ago then that’s a cool thing. It might not bring the money in, but…” says Championship Manager’s co-creator, Oliver Collyer.

The situation that Champ Manager has allowed, where fan-made games and the real thing can coexist, has enabled fans to celebrate games that they love and share them with new audiences. Perhaps this is something Nintendo could embrace in the future, and we could see a fan-made Pokemon, a fan-made Metroid or a fan-made Zelda. But don’t hold your breath.

“Who knows, maybe in a couple of years Nintendo will change how it handles this kind of stuff,” said Vierra. “I’m not saying it’s going to happen, but it’s a possibility. If they do and if they’re interested in partnering with people who made fan projects, they know how to reach me and I wouldn’t hesitate to partner with them.”

Nintendo did not respond to Factor’s request for comment.

Advances in genetic technologies mean that it could soon be possible to de-extinct our closest relative. But even if we can, does that mean we should? We investigate

45,000 years ago our species was not alone on this planet. Alongside us, Homo sapiens, was a second member of our genus, Homo neanderthalensis, with its own tools, society and cultural practices.

At one time it is thought that there were around 70,000 Neanderthals living on Earth, mainly in what we now know as Europe and southwest and central Asia. How much our species interacted with this sapient cousin is not fully known, but there was certainly some interbreeding: while Neanderthals are long deceased, their DNA lives on in many Europeans and Asians.

But now, with the advances of genetic technologies, Neanderthals could return. Recent advances of gene editing tools such as CRISPR, as well as the sequencing of DNA taken from the bone of a female Neanderthal who is thought to have walked the Earth some 50,000-100,000 years ago, mean that what was once pure science fiction could soon become a reality.

Legendary geneticist George Church, the Robert Winthrop Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School who is currently spearheading the project to de-extinct the woolly mammoth, has said that he thinks the de-extinction of Neanderthals will occur in his lifetime.

“The reason I would consider it a possibility is that a bunch of technologies are developing faster than ever before,” he told Spiegel Online in 2013. “In particular, reading and writing DNA is now about a million times faster than seven or eight years ago. Another technology that the de-extinction of a Neanderthal would require is human cloning.

“We can clone all kinds of mammals, so it’s very likely that we could clone a human. Why shouldn’t we be able to do so?”

Bringing Neanderthals back from the dead

When we consider de-extincting Neanderthals, it is important to note that we would not be bringing back a precise, perfect copy of the Neanderthals that lived on Earth up until their extinction some 40,000 years ago.

As Douglas McCauley, assistant professor in the University of California Santa Barbara’s Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology, explains, the question of whether we can bring Neanderthals back from extinction “depends upon how much of a purist you are about the definition of Neanderthal”.

I expect we will be more interested in engineering bigger brains than bigger brow ridges

In the simplest terms, any scientists who set out to de-extinct Neanderthals will do so by cobbling together modern human and extinct Neanderthal DNA.

“The technique that many de-extinction scientists are now using to bring back extinct species is to sequence the genome of the dead species – line it up next to the genome of the nearest living relative – then use CRISPR gene editing techniques to modify elements of the genome of the living relative to approximate elements of the genome of the dead species,” explains McCauley.

This is the approach being taken by the Harvard team currently attempting to de-extinct the woolly mammoth.

“Here they are using the genome of the extinct woolly mammoth and the genome of a living Asian elephant. The goal, however, isn’t to bring back a perfect replica of the woolly mammoth. A success would be to genetically engineer a hairy, cold-tolerant Asian elephant.

“This would also remain the same strategy for any group attempting to bring back a Neanderthal. Again, this would be more like engineering increased Neanderthal-ness into the human genome – not like cranking out a carbon copy of a Neanderthal.”

This approach should be technically possible for Neanderthals in the near future. But, as McCauley explains, that doesn’t mean it will actually happen.

“Technically engineering more Neanderthal into the human genome will indeed be possible very soon,” he says. “Practically, I don’t really see this happening. People will most certainly use CRISPR and next-generation gene editing techniques to edit the human genome – but I think this is much more likely to be tuning humans up, rather than tuning down.

“I expect we will be more interested in engineering bigger brains than bigger brow ridges.”

Criteria for de-extinction

De-extinction is, in general, a topic that is set to be the subject of ever-greater discussion in the coming years, as hypothetical concepts become scientific reality.

“It is on the precipice of moving from a crazy idea we once mused about over coffee, to a real possibility we can actually make happen in the lab. From science fiction to real science,” summarises McCauley.

However, with such abilities come significant moral questions. De-extinction could be a vital tool for conservation, but it could also be used to produce creatures that are more reminiscent of science fiction horror stories than of scientific value.

As a result, efforts are already being made to build a moral framework within which de-extinction scientists can work. As part of this, McCauley authored a paper along with several colleagues that recommended using three specific criteria for the selection of candidates for the de-extinction process.

“I am a conservation biologist and an ecologist. The three criteria we issued were created from that vantage point: what species would we bring back if we genuinely wanted de-extinction to combat the ecological crisis being created by the ongoing human-driven mass extinction?” he explains.

“We suggested recovering species that: 1) performed ecological jobs that were highly unique and were not replicated by other surviving species; 2) recent extinctions for which the technological and ecological barriers for recovery and restoration were lower; and 3) species that we could meaningfully recover to historic levels of abundance.”

If following this approach, scientists would therefore favour species to de-extinct that could not only fulfil a role in the ecosystem that another species had not taken over, but were likely made extinct fairly recently and would survive and flourish in the current environment. And under these criteria, Neanderthals would be a poor choice.

“Neanderthals most importantly fail the first test,” explains McCauley. “Their ecology is very similar to another species that survived and thrived – our own.

“To put it bluntly, from a conversation biologists point of view: the last thing our planet needs right now is more hungry Hominids.”

Neanderthal revival: the moral issue

This is not to say, as some have suggested, that Neanderthals would pose any particular threat to modern humans.

“Quite the opposite,” argues McCauley. “The greatest challenge would be keeping de-extincted Neanderthals alive and safe from us, not worrying about them taking over.”

As these newly engineered Neanderthals would not be true replicas of their past equivalents, they would be likely to suffer from genetic issues, as well as being potentially highly ill-suited to the human-occupied modern world.

There are likely to be a host of developmental issues associated with looking after imperfectly genetically re-engineered Neanderthals

“There are likely to be a host of developmental issues associated with looking after imperfectly genetically re-engineered Neanderthals (e.g. birth defects), they are likely to be quite susceptible to modern disease, and it is unclear what habitats they would slot back into,” he adds. “Our species has taken over all of the once prime habitat of Neanderthals.”

Then there is the matter of Neanderthals’ original demise; something that could easily play out again if we were to bring back a group of the species. It’s hard to see the scientific value of de-extincting a species that would be at high risk of quickly becoming extinct again.

“It is important to remember that we likely played an important role in the original extinction of Neanderthals,” explains McCauley. “We competed heavily with them for food and homes and we may have given them lethal diseases. Reviving Neanderthals might simply be an act of recreating history.”

Value in de-extinction

For McCauley, there is currently no circumstance under which bringing back Neanderthals would be a good idea. But that does not mean that de-extinction as a wider practice does not have value – in fact, it could offer significant benefits, provided we select the right species to focus on.

“There is a very long list of other species that I think would be smarter to bring back before we started in on Neanderthals,” he says.

“As an ecologist that looks out at a world with species being driven extinct in all directions around us, I am all ears for smart new conservation tools.

“The challenge here will be carefully selecting targets that meaningfully help the planet, not using this new-found power to create oddities for zoos or bio-bazaar.”

School will use facial analysis to identify students who are dozing off

In September the ESG business school in Paris will begin using artificial intelligence and facial analysis to determine whether students are paying attention in class. The school says the technology will be used to improve performance of students and professors.

Source: The Verge

Company offers free training for coal miners to become wind farmers

A Chinese wind-turbine maker wants American workers to retrain and become wind farmers. The training program was announced at an energy conference in Wyoming, where the American arm of Goldwind, a Chinese wind-turbine manufacturer is located.

Source: Quartz

Google AI defeats human Go champion

Google's DeepMind AI AlphaGo has defeated the world's number one Go player Ke Jie. AlphaGo secured the victory after winning the second game in a three-part match. DeepMind founder Demis Hassabis said Ke Jie "pushed AlphaGo right to the limit".

Source: BBC

Vegan burgers that taste like real meat to hit Safeway stores

Beyond Meat, which promises its plant-based burgers bleed and sizzle like real ground beef and is backed by investors like Bill Gates, will begin distributing its plant-based burgers in more than 280 Safeway stores in California, Hawaii and Nevada.

Source: Bloomberg

The brain starts to eat itself after chronic sleep deprivation

Brain cells that destroy and digest worn-out cells and debris go into overdrive in mice that are chronically sleep-deprived. The discovery could explain why a chronic lack of sleep puts people at risk of neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.

Source: New Scientist

"We can still act and it won’t be too late," says Obama

Former US President Barack Obama has written an op-ed piece in the Guardian giving his views on some of the greatest challenges facing the world – food and climate change – and what we can do about them. "We can still act and it won’t be too late," writes Obama.

Source: The Guardian