Controlling Player Creativity in Halo 4: Microsoft's Game Content Usage Rules

Curator's Note

Shortly before the 2007 launch of Halo 3, Microsoft introduced their Game Content Usage Rules governing how players may use  content  derived  from  Microsoft  products. While companies like Microsoft  clearly  want  to  encourage players to engage with their products, placing production capabilities into their hands instills a fear of confusion and exploitation regarding the most valuable aspect of any media product today: the brand. The anxiety of this delicate balance has accelerated the centralizing of control over user-generated content, resulting in negotiations between industry and players.

The imminent Halo 4 is rooted in this drive towards centralized control. The game is developed by 343 Industries, a Microsoft owned studio established specifically to manage the IP in response to Halo originators Bungie going independent. 343i got their start making Halo Waypoint, a cross-platform hub that consolidates Halo lore, transmedia content distribution and promotion, player statistics, and community activity, with user-generated content playing a key role.

Moreover, Halo 4 brought a revision of the Game Content Usage Rules that condenses the major institutional control mechanisms into one document, asserting Microsoft's control over technological access (no reverse engineering), content distribution (no exclusive deals), censorship (nothing "objectionable"), intellectual property (no usage of Microsoft's logos/titles or other companies' IP), profits (players cannot make money from their creations, but Microsoft can), and ownership (simply making content grants Microsoft a license to it).

Perhaps the most significant institutional control, however, is the least explicit because it is ideologically based. After news of the rules update hit the gaming news sites, 343i employees took to community forums to ensure players that changes were not legally motivated or attempting direct intervention. Instead, it was a rhetorical adjustment to reword these constraints in casual, informal terms that naturalize Microsoft's assertion of absolute economic control.

As a corporate giant trying to satisfy both audiences and stockholders, Microsoft is in a no-win scenario here regardless of intentions, and thus disavowal of domination and a light touch to enforcement have become the norm. In practice these rules have been openly ignored (even in featured content), an inevitability given the complexies of intellectual property in what Lawrence Lessig calls "Remix" culture and the impossibility of completely controlling the vast quantity and extreme variety of possible creative expressions.



Great post! While all media companies want to keep fans and consumers interested in their content, most companies often have several franchises to work with giving them some room to make a few fans angry here and there. Microsoft only has one franchise on the Xbox and that fan base is important not only to Halo as a franchise but the Xbox as a console. I think many of the things we talked about so far this week are directly related to Microsoft’s awareness of the fact that the Halo franchise and the popularity of the Xbox console are linked. If interest in Halo falls so do Xbox sales. The longer Xbox can keep fans interested in Halo, the longer they can put off putting out new hardware. I think your last point about the Game Content Usage Rules being ignored says a lot about the position Microsoft is in. Microsoft wants control yet can’t afford to upset fans at this point in the game. And as you suggested in your comment to me, there is the added pressure of downplaying Bungie’s absence from this latest installment. I am curious to see how critical fans are of Halo 4 and to whom they attribute blame for its possible shortcomings. If the game does not perform as well as expected I think we’ll start seeing some “leaked” info about a new Xbox sooner rather than later.

You're spot on in noting that, as Microsoft's flagship title, people look to Halo to gauge how well the Xbox as a whole is doing. Sony and Nintendo, in comparison, both have a large stable of ongoing franchises such that no single game could be expected to represent their corporate strategy (not even Mario). Microsoft does have other first-party studios making games, but they've largely been diverted towards establishing a presence in genre-specific markets (like Turn 10 with Forza) or increasingly to support other Xbox initiatives like Kinect (Lionhead, Rare, Twisted Pixel, BigPark), avatars (Rare), or Windows Phone (various internal studios). Gamers look to Halo as the defining aspect of the Xbox, encouraged by the bombastic nature of AAA blockbusters and their marketing, even though these other initiatives are crucial to understanding the company's health and direction. Microsoft knows this, which is why releasing new content usage rules in anticipation of their flagship title suggests that it is especially important and specifically targeted. Rumors are circulating now that, in anticipation of the next Xbox, Microsoft has started up a number of new first party studios, allowing them to remedy this single-flagship-title situation by launching new IP (or rebooting old franchises) with new hardware. This may dilute such clear moments of corporate strategy as related to games, but I suspect we'll see new and even more restrictive content usage rules attached to the next console.

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