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Activision Indie Games Competition

Add Comment! By Jeffrey Rosen on June 4th, 2010

You may have heard that Activision is hosting an independent games competition, like a much higher stakes version of the Independent Games Festival. We've been getting messages from fans about it, encouraging us to enter. However, after reading the finalized terms, this seems to be an entirely different kind of competition: an indie game / business plan jam to create investment opportunities and world-exclusive development prototypes for Activision to profit from.

The competition is pretty polarizing: Many stories see it and immediately laud Activision for helping the indie community, while many stories are quick to trash it, noting dubious clauses in the fine print. As an indie developer, I thought I'd take a closer look myself.

Activision Indie Game Competition, illustrated
Illustrated scenario from Aubrey

Let's look at some of the terms for this competition, starting with the eligibility requirements:

The Submission cannot have been submitted previously in a promotion of any kind or exhibited or displayed publicly through any means.

Activision's main site says that the contest is for completed or in-progress games. Are there really a bunch of indie games in the United States (the contest is limited to the US) that are in complete stealth mode?

As an advocate of open development, this makes me pretty sad. While this immediately disqualifies Overgrowth, and in fact, every indie game you've ever publicly heard of, I really hope it doesn't discourage people from being open about their games. It looks like Activision wants first dibs on exclusive, never-before-seen indie titles.

It is sort of amusing that a competition demands exclusivity from other competitions. Is that an anti-competitive competition?

Must include an expected schedule, budget, team make up for development of the game, and execution plan.

Asking for this kind of business info seems a little weird, but I can see how this makes sense to Activision. This isn't really about highlighting indie games in the same way that the Independent Game Festival, Indie Game Challenge, and other contests do -- your business plan is included in the judging. This seems pretty irrelevant to the quality of a video game, but read on, and this becomes a little clearer.

In order to be a Finalist, entrant must sign certain Submission documentation provided by Sponsor, which may include some or all of the following: release of claims against Sponsor; acknowledgement of Sponsor's development of game concepts that may be similar to entrant's Submission; first right of refusal to Sponsor for any development or publishing of Submission; agreement to provide Sponsor with splash/title/credits and logo credit similar to "funded in part by the Activision Independent Games Competition Prize 2010"; grant of name and likeness publicity rights to Sponsor; and full representations and warranties regarding the IP ownership of the Submission.

This is where it gets a little scary. To become a finalist, you may have to grant "first right of refusal to [Activision] for any development or publishing of Submission". If you're unfamiliar with the right of first refusal it basically means that you need to give the holder of the right of first refusal the option to have the same deal someone else has offered you first.

In other words, if Indie Fund, Valve, or [insert your favorite entity here] offers you "any development or publishing" for your game, whatever deal comes on the table, you must allow Activision the option to give you the same terms first. Only if Activision passes on that deal, are you legally allowed to follow up with the other entity.

Update! I received an email from someone I highly regard about this point. I may be confusing right of first refusal with first and last matching rights. I really recommend waiting until Activision clarifies these terms before seriously entering.

Initial Conclusion

While this contest is getting lauded by many news outlets and sort of seems similar to other feel-good indie contests and festivals, as it stands, it's a bit dubious. It feels more like a hybrid of a business plan competition to get some investment capital from Activision. There's nothing wrong with that (although I wouldn't personally advise it) but just know what you're getting into first! This is very, very different from the Independent Game Festival or other contests that you hear about on indie sites like TIGSource.

I may be out of line, so if any indies are actually going to enter this, feel free to set me straight in the comments (don't mention your game or you will be disqualified though). I'd also be interested in hearing from someone from Activision to clarify these points.