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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5 Responses to Preserving Content and Community

  1. Haljackey says:

    Great read, and I have to say I agree with your points.

    Unlike other games, SC4 lacks a distribution site like Steam which can make downloading and tracking files more difficult. If things were more centralized / streamlined, I think things could be much more efficient and enjoyable for everyone.

    I’ve been one of the lucky ones who have been able to upload files to the STEX under a ‘good faith’ rationale. Obviously I still ask the creator(s) for permission to re-upload their work, but as you stated there are numerous reasons why they will never respond. Usually the STEX mods will transfer the uploader from myself to the person who created the file if they have a verified account on the site.

    This shouldn’t be special treatment. Everyone who would want to re-upload a file is going out of their way for the enjoyment of others.

    No one person can be responsible for these changes. If your proposed changes are carried out it has to be done en-masse by representatives from every nook and cranny of the community. Maybe one day we’ll get a consensus, but for now we need to keep setting off sparks. Eventually one will ignite.

    -Haljackey

    • Tarkus says:

      Thanks, Haljackey–and I think the “good faith” process you’ve established with the ST staff is a good model for what we could do on the larger scale. I agree that it’s going to take a real push to overcome the inertia that’s set in with the traditional way of doing things, but I’m happy to keep setting off those sparks, and I don’t want the fire to go out on my watch.

  2. F.I. Wibell says:

    Forgive me if I’m not viewing the situation correctly, but I’m struggling to see how this policy has managed to make the community more civil. Is it about preventing internet randos uploading other people’s content and claiming it as their own?

    Even so, I think public access has to be prioritized over the dignity we project upon absent authors: I’d suggest changing the policy, so that, if the author hasn’t been active in over a year and does not respond to your plea for permission within 3 months, it’s alright to re-upload the missing content.

    • Tarkus says:

      Thanks for the thoughtful feedback, F.I.

      To answer your question about the preservation of civility, my perception there is primarily informed by the issues I’ve seen in other game modding communities, where allegations of plagiarism and “ripping” run rampant, and everyone is constantly fighting. Aside from the brief period with the the official Maxis SC4 exchange, before it shut down, there’s only been a couple isolated incidents of this sort of thing in the mainstream SC4 community in the past 14 years, and those have been swiftly shut down.

      Granted, thinking about it a little further, I think you’re on to something, in that may not be a product of the rules themselves, but more one of a combination of a relatively rule-conscious community, and site staff carrying out enforcement. The big blow-ups in the SC4 community between about 2006 and 2009 all actually stemmed from disagreements on modding practice.

      Now, getting back to the core matter of what we can do to deal with the current issues, I’m absolutely in agreement with you about establishing a waiting period, and I think three months of no response is a very reasonable window.

      I think the year window of inactivity beforehand could potentially work, but there are cases where I think that could be detrimental–particularly emergency situations (i.e. a site going down), and there’s also the matter of what constitutes activity. Does simply logging onto a forum count, or would one have to post or upload a new file? With creators who were operating off their own sites, and aren’t active on the main sites, it may not even be possible to really tell when they were last active.

      -Tarkus

  3. sommargrön says:

    ‘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.’

    I think this is a very important point, and a very good way to put it. We must not let the people who have left the community, for one reason or the other, risk the future of that community and enjoyment of those who remain or come afterward. I think very few of the people who move on to other activities would like that to happen. Even though I have created very little custom content — mostly using what others have created — if I had, I would have nothing against other people using it, refining it and developing it further. This goes for the ideas I have developed in my MD as well — I only feel pride and happiness if I see people taking inspiration from my creations or building upon ideas I have explored. After all, I have shared them with the community for a reason. If the creator no longer wants to share their creations with the community, that is totally fine, and over the course of the years some people have revoked their sharing, even though that creates a lot of feelings among us who can no longer access some high-quality content.

    The main problem, I think, would be the transition itself. Some people, who do not share these views on more free reuse and redistribution, who have shared content in trust of the guidelines that we are challenging, will feel deceived and deprived of a right they thought they had. I am not sure how the terms and conditions associated with uploading are written (since I have never uploaded anything) and whether loosening restrictions would even be possible.

    If it is possible, I think the decision would have to be made democratically, by the whole community, not only among the creators. Maybe a public vote on both sites, extending over enough time for even the less active to partake, would be the best way? And then, for those who check in once every second year and do not like the change, a possibility to flag their creations as “no reuse, no redistribution” content.

    /Themistokles

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