BATing for Bucks: A Pandora’s (Brown) Box

In the past couple years, a practice prevalent in other games’ content ecosystems (including that of Cities: Skylines) has begun to creep into the SimCity 4 community, and one which has attracted some controversy of late.  That practice, of course, is for creators–namely, BATers–to attempt to (at least partially) monetize their uploads, most often through services like Patreon.  Under this model, those who wish to download that creator’s files must sign up for a monthly subscription, typically at one of multiple tiers.  Each tier is distinguished by the types of downloads and services available to the patron, with higher tiers often granting things like access to special downloads and request priority.

Speaking as an SC4 modder who has sunk tens of thousands of hours into developing content for the game over almost a decade and a half, who knows intimately what’s involved here, I can certainly understand why some creators may feel the need to be remunerated for their efforts.  However, that being said, this practice has a real potential to be a Pandora’s (Brown) Box sort of situation for the overall trajectory of the community if allowed to proliferate, and depending on the particular implementation of it, can verge on being dubious at best from a legal perspective.  Here are my main issues with the notion of “BATing for Bucks”:


The Building Architect Tool (BAT), the series of Gmax scripts (later adapted by others to work with 3ds Max) that allow for models to be processed into orthographically-projected form and used by the game, is subject to the EA Tools End User License Agreement (EULA), which has the following to say in its first three paragraphs (the whole thing can be found here).  I’ve bolded the particularly pertinent bits:

Electronic Arts Inc, and its subsidiaries, affiliates and licensors (collectively, “EA”) grants you a non- transferable non-exclusive license to download and/or install and use one copy of the software tool (“Tool”) and/or materials (“Materials”) (collectively the “Tools & Materials”) solely for your personal noncommercial use in connection with EA’s products, in accordance with the terms below.

EA owns all of the rights, title and interest in the Tools & Materials. You may not alter any of EA’s trademarks or logos, or alter or remove any of EA’s trademark or copyright notices included in or with the Tools & Materials or EA’s products. Your right to use Tools & Materials is limited to the license grant above, and you may not otherwise copy, display, distribute, perform, publish, modify, create works from, or use any of the Tools & Materials. Without limiting the preceding sentence, you may not modify, reverse engineer, disassemble, license, transfer, distribute, create works from, or sell the Tool, or use the Tools & Materials to further any commercial or unlawful purpose. Without limiting the foregoing, you may not use the Tools & Materials to promote another product or business, or on any site that operates or promotes a server emulator.

You may include materials created with the Tools & Materials on your personal noncommercial website for the noncommercial benefit of the fan community for EA’s products, provided this is beneficial to the product(s) in EA’s judgment, and provided that if you do so, you must also post the following notice on your site on the same web page(s) where those materials are located: “This site is not endorsed by or affiliated with Electronic Arts, or its licensors. Trademarks are the property of their respective owners. Game content and materials copyright Electronic Arts Inc. and its licensors. All Rights Reserved.” You will not represent that your site is endorsed or approved by or affiliated with EA or our licensors or that any other content on your site is endorsed or approved by or affiliated with EA or our licensors.

The term used to refer to custom content throughout the EULA is “materials”.  The prevailing legal interpretation in the SC4 community is that the game-readable version of the model files are “materials” and effectively EA’s property, and that the sale of SC4 custom content is effectively prohibited–the word “noncommercial” is very prevalent throughout the EULA.

Some may wonder at this point, what about things like the site donation DVDs/collections (i.e. the STEX Collections)?  In general, the interpretation there has been that the sites are effectively operating as non-profit enterprises seeking to recoup hosting costs, and that the discs/special downloads here (mostly comprised of content already available for free on the exchange, with some exclusives) are being offered in exchange for a donation, not being put up for sale as a commercial enterprise.

This, of course, begs the question–can a BATer with a Patreon be seen as offering their content up for donation, rather than as a commercial operation?  From my perspective, this depends a great deal on the specifics of how the BATer is using Patreon.

I’ll state upfront that I am okay with how Jasoncw has used the platform–he charges a very modest rate in exchange for “early access” to files that will end up being free on the STEX (with a guarantee of at least one new building per month), and uses the (still) modest higher tier to allow patrons access to a special Discord server and the ability to help guide his future projects.  This is really as far as anyone should go down this path.

Making BATs and other SC4 content “exclusive” to subscribers in perpetuity, however, is effectively paywalling content, and, as far as I’m concerned, clearly constitutes commercial use of the tools, in violation of the EULA.  Given that the creator in this case is not using the funds to cover site operating costs–indeed, Patreon will let anyone set up shop for free, and only charges a small percentage once they’ve started receiving subscriptions–there is no way of deflecting the notion that such a creator is selling BATs, acting as a sort of SC4 equivalent of Adobe Creative Cloud.

Community Longevity and Financial Impact on the Userbase

A large part of the reason why there is still an SC4 community active in some form today, over 18 years after the game’s release, is because of the availability of a massive oeuvre of free-to-download content–and more still being developed.  For those of you who have Plugins folders of 1GB or more–consider just how many creators whose content is in that folder.  Chances are, it’s at least dozens.  (And that’s not counting the NAM–over the past 17 years, there’s been north of 100 individual members who have contributed at least some small part to it.)

Imagine now that, instead of getting that content off of free exchanges like the STEX and LEX, you had to subscribe to each of those creators’ Patreon pages for a monthly fee to get a drip feed of that content.  Let’s say you have files from 10 creators, and they’re each charging an average of a mere $1/month to let you access their content.  That’s $10/month–and $120/year–to support your SC4 habit.  It’s like subscribing to yet another streaming service, and one that doesn’t have a lot of shows on it, to boot.

Suffice to say, if everyone was having to pay $10/month (and probably in actuality quite a lot more–the lowest SC4 Patreon tier I’ve seen is $3/month) in order to play a barely-modded version of SC4, I don’t think we’d be here having this conversation.  The vast majority of the community would have been priced out and lost interest long ago.  And if people think the consternation about off-exchange “unofficial” redistribution of files is bad now, just imagine how it would be if there was money involved.

Lack of Financial Gain for Creators

SC4 is an 18-year-old game, in the relatively niche genre of city builders/simulators.  While it does still have an active and very passionate userbase after all these years, it’s a small fraction of what it used to be.  Simply put, if you’re a creator who is wanting to make some money off the work you’re doing making content for SC4, if you’re lucky, you might be able to make a little coffee money.

Face it: you’re in a small market, and effectively “in competition” with almost two decades’ worth of content available for free off the STEX and LEX.  You’re basically asking for EA and/or the ESA (Entertainment Software Association) to hit you with a DMCA-related cease-and-desist, all for a few lousy bucks, and the enmity of a large portion of the small community you’re trying to get to pay you for your work.  The prospect of growing that SC4 market is also going to be hampered considerably if newcomers arrive and see they have to pay for content (though granted, if that puts them off, I doubt that other city builder out there is going to be their cup of tea, either).

Simply put: “BATing for Bucks” is not worth it.