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Warcraft III: Reforged: What the new custom content policy means for modders

Warcraft III: Reforged is officially out in the world, taking players on a trip down memory lane. However, what should have been a light nostalgic moment has quickly spiraled into another controversy for Blizzard, which has been no stranger to fan outcry in the past year. The latest round of scrutiny comes after Blizzard released an acceptable use policy for Reforged’s custom tools, which gives Blizzard sole ownership of any user-created content.

The guidelines set several ground rules for the game’s customization tools, the biggest of which revolves around who owns the rights to anything created within the game. Blizzard leaves little ambiguity in the policy, which states, “Custom Games are and shall remain the sole and exclusive property of Blizzard.”

Blizzard also outlines rules for commercial exploitation of custom games, which restrict players from making any profit off of their creations whatsoever. In short, that means players won’t be able to sell or license their custom content to anyone other than Blizzard.

The rest of the policy is somewhat straightforward, with rules in place that give Blizzard the right to take down any content that uses unlicensed content. Back in Warcraft III’s heyday, several popular mods featured third-party content, making this new rule particularly contentious for the modding community. The rules also state that Blizzard can take down any content deemed unlawful or obscene, adding a way to shield players from abusive or hateful conduct.

While the idea of a company owning any content you create in their game is nothing new, it’s significant in the context of Warcraft III. Back in 2003, a player used the game’s custom tools to create Defense of the Ancients, which quickly became a popular competitive mod and sparked interest in the MOBA genre. 

The rights to that franchise were later picked up by Valve, who went on to create the wildly popular DOTA 2. That game has since become something of a phenomenon, positioning itself as a cornerstone in the modern e-sports scene. 

Blizzard’s new policy for Reforged ensures that won’t happen again. If a player creates a popular mod like DOTA, no one other than Blizzard would be able to snatch up the rights like Valve did.

Richard Flamm, a long-time legal consultant and former general counsel for Nintendo, spoke with Digital Trends about the policy. He emphasized that since mods are derivative of the games they alter, there isn’t much of a case against such guidelines.

“The mod has to run on the original work. It doesn’t exist without the original work. So for the owner of the underlying copyright work to insist that they own the whole thing is fairly normal stuff,” Flamm said.

The Warcraft community received the approach as a blow since modding was a significant component of the original game’s popularity. While the policy adds new limitations to what modders can do, Flamm explained that it doesn’t limit creativity, so much as create some basic ground rules for the tool. “This very short new policy simply says we own it, this is an open platform and you can’t mod it in a way that limits who can use the content, and you can’t commercially exploit what you do. You’ve got to do it for the love of the game, and if you don’t want to do it for the love of the game, then don’t do it.”

It doesn’t help that Reforged shipped with several bugs and missing features, which have sparked dissent among fans across the internet. Only 24 hours after release, the game’s user score is already sitting at a 2.0 on Metacritic in an apparent review bomb from fans.  It’s unclear how the backlash will ultimately affect Reforged in the long term. However, the situation is already proving to be a mess for Blizzard’s brand, which is still recovering after the company banned a Hearthstone player who voiced support for Hong Kong protestors during a livestream.

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