Preserving Content and Community

In the past year, I have participated in a number of discussions across the various outlets of the SC4 community–SC4 Devotion, Simtropolis, and /r/simcity4–about the current state of the custom content distribution.  In any game modding community, there are two things that are required for that community to survive and perpetuate–ready access to available content, and the continued creation of new content.  Both of these requirements become more difficult to meet as communities age–SimCity 4 is now 14 years out from its release date.  If we want it to survive another 14 years in some semblance of the form we’ve come to know and love today, it is going to take some effort, and some hard decisions that will require a bit of a different mindset to make.

Many of the recent discussions on the subject have been prompted by various pieces of content going missing in some fashion, the most prominent example being Gobias’ popular terrain mods.  Beyond this, we have also lost a number of individual creator sites in recent times, and things that were “soft-released” as forum attachments or via storage services.  There’s also the “Accidental Mass Deletion of 2011”, when changes in Simtropolis’ file reporting system led to a number of files being purged from the STEX.  The NAM, of all things, was purged from the STEX not once, but twice during this period, and we still don’t know the full extent of what was lost during that incident.

Beyond this, there’s also the regular complaints that the process of acquiring content and assembling it into a properly working Plugins folder is an arduous, arcane exercise, marked by clicking through installers and checking dependencies.  While the existing order of things may have been serviceable back in the mid-00s, particularly for those who were slowly and cumulatively adding the latest buildings and mods as they were released, a decade has now passed.  The way mod acquisition operates in other game communities has really cast the current arrangement we have in the SC4 world in a particularly harsh and unforgiving light.

When re-uploading or repackaging the work of another creator, the typical modus operandi that has been employed in the SC4 community up to this point has been to try to contact the creator to obtain permission.  A lack of response was universally treated the same as a refusal.  While this policy is a very nice courtesy that has helped keep our community exceptionally civil throughout most of its history, it is getting to be increasingly hard to follow from a practical standpoint.

SimCity 4 is 14 years old.  While there are a few of us who have stuck around for an exceptionally long time, there’s been a lot of turnover over the years.  Beyond that, as is the case with many internet communities, there’s a considerable degree of built-in anonymity.  The only way for most to attempt contact is via private message on the main sites.  That’s very unlikely to lead to any response at all if the member in question hasn’t logged on since 2009, or pops in once every two years to see if the lights are still on for them.  Even if you are a site administrator and can see the email address they had on file, there’s a decent chance that address may no longer exist, or is a spare or throwaway account used only for registering on internet forums.

While I do believe that still attempting to establish contact and follow due process is the right thing to do, I believe the automatic assumption of refusal in every case of non-response will ultimately lead to the community’s demise.  US Navy Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, who made our modern computing world possible, once said that “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to get permission.”  While I would not advocate suddenly turning the distribution paradigm into a total free-for-all–which would be counterproductive–I do believe that we should, at this point in time, take Hopper’s advice under more serious consideration.  It is fairly clear to me there has to be a middle ground, that remains respectful of creator’s rights and the original spirit of the rules, without allowing the rigid adherence to those same rules to lead to the community’s extinction.

This, of course, begs the question–what is that next step?  I am hoping to initiate a dialogue with many key stakeholders and interested parties over the coming months, bringing forward some proposals to streamline and secure our custom content ecosystem in a cooperative manner.  I have outlined a few of these possibilities in my recent posts on the forums and Reddit, which include repackaging dependencies to better take advantage of new technology (improved internet speeds and LEX software upgrades), to establishing a new procedure for handling orphan files (codifying a reasonable waiting period), and dealing with files with modding issues.

I hope to make some progress on these efforts in the near term, and plan to keep readers here at SimTarkus and other outlets abreast of the latest developments. Stay tuned.

In the meanwhile, I welcome feedback and suggestions on how best to proceed here in the comments.

-Tarkus

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