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Back From The Dead

Red 5 Studios' Mark Kern on the League For Gamers, the lingering threat of piracy legislation, and the erosion of publisher power

Barely a month has passed since the controversial SOPA and PIPA bills looked certain to pass through Congress. However, a wave of protest saw both fall at the last hurdle, shelved by their authors and sponsors until a more palatable compromise can be reached. While the heat of the issue has dissipated, Red 5 Studios founder Mark Kern believes that the real work has just begun.

The ESA's support for the bills, both financial and political, ignored strong complaints from both the gamers and developers it purported to represent. Kern took action. He withdrew Red 5's forthcoming online shooter Firefall from E3, and invested $50,000 to establish the League For Gamers, a new entity to watch the watchmen and safeguard the free internet.

In this interview, Kern discusses the foundation of the League For Gamers, the role of the ESA, the possible agenda behind support of SOPA and PIPA, and a future where content, and not distribution, determines the winners and the losers. You established the League For Gamers as a reaction to the ESA's advocacy of SOPA and PIPA. A lot has changed since then, not least the ESA's entire stance on the issue, but how did you see things at the time?
Mark Kern

I had been following SOPA/PIPA for a while, and I was growing very concerned. First of all, I noticed that there was a conflict of interest; the ESA also created the Videogame Voters Network, and it used that support to defeat legislation such as in California and different states about the sale of videogames over the counter, restricting R-rated games from sale. They also won, with the support of the gamers, support for first amendment rights and free speech, which are fantastic victories.

But when push came to shove there was a conflict of interest. It was obvious from the ESA's Facebook page that gamers were very opposed to the methodologies behind SOPA/PIPA, as well as the way it came into being, and they felt they were being ignored.

There is going to be future legislation that really is harmful to games, and we need gamer support to do this, and the ESA is squandering that right now

I just saw so many posts on that Facebook page that just went unanswered. And more than unanswered, they would actually update their Facebook page with a new link to an article, and people would say, 'Stop sending us more articles, and tell us what's actually going on.'

When the ESA's official response came out shortly afterwards - which was 'we support this legislation' - I was reading articles about actual members of the ESA saying they were either against it, or at least back-pedalling to a neutral stance. I began to wonder, well, who is the ESA really representing? Did you speak directly to the ESA about the issue?
Mark Kern

I wrote a letter saying, 'Listen, here's why I'm concerned about SOPA/PIPA', and I got a nice letter back saying, 'Hey, our general counsel would like to call you about this.' It turns out that the general counsel and I worked at the same company - we were at Blizzard together - and we went through some copyright issues and some packing issues together on World of Warcraft, even though we didn't directly know each other there.

So we had a lot in common, and we were able to have a very free conversation. I said, 'I totally understand wanting to protect IP rights, but this is just going to be completely abused.' We disagreed on that, so I said, 'It's being abused now, we're having takedowns now, we're having actions now without a law. What makes you think that it's ever going to get to a court to decide?' Was this at the point when DNS blocking was still in the legislation?
Mark Kern

Yeah. A registrar is just going to pull the plug rather than have to deal with [the courts], and he disagreed on that. So I said, 'Listen, we need a gamer voice. There's gonna be future legislation that really is harmful to games, and we need gamer support to do this, and you're squandering that right now. You're basically trading that off for this legislation, which isn't even going to do its job in the first place.' And that's the real key of it; it's not even going to stop piracy.

It was a nice call. It wasn't confrontational. He was very nice, and we both spoke our minds, but as it went on I realised that I was very upset about gamers' voices not being represented, that developer voices weren't being represented. When you say that developers were being ignored, was that mainly smaller and independent studios, or was it more broad?
Mark Kern

It's a broad thing. If you look at Epic's stance, they're against, and that's a major studio. But a lot of the smaller ones too, but I'll explain that in a little bit.

Matthew Handrahan avatar
Matthew Handrahan: Matthew Handrahan joined GamesIndustry in 2011, bringing long-form feature-writing experience to the team as well as a deep understanding of the video game development business. He previously spent more than five years at award-winning magazine gamesTM.
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