On Tuesday, video game publisher Bethesda Softworks released a free tabletop adventure to promote the upcoming Elsweyr expansion for Elder Scrolls Online. Announced on their Facebook page, it aimed to give interested gamers a two-hour taste of the new adventures that awaited them in a traditional tabletop game format.
However, just over a day later, the game was pulled down as multiple people began to note significant similarities between the Elsweyr tabletop game and a 2016 Dungeons & Dragons adventure entitled The Black Road, which was written by Paige Leitman and Ben Heisler.
Leitman herself spoke out about the plagiarism in a lengthy Facebook post that is no longer available entitled How They Plagiarized Our Adventure, An Annotated Powerpoint Presentation. The lengthy note highlighted many examples of overlapping text and ideas said, “Hey, The Elder Scrolls Online, would you please let your legal team know? This is REALLY not cool.”
Bethesda, for its part, has taken down the game, both removing the post and the files themselves (Ars Technica has a backup copy). They’ve released a short statement on The Elder Scrolls Online Facebook page saying that, “We have pulled a previously shared ESO tabletop RPG adventure while we investigate the source. Thank you to those who reached out with concerns.”
While the response and removal seems to end the worst of the scandal, it does leave a lot of questions unanswered. The biggest of which is: How did this happen in the first place?
A Clear Plagiarism
Looking through the images and examples in the original Ars Technica reporting, you don’t really need a plagiarism expert to tell that this is a plagiarism. There are many similar or identical plot points in the game, a great deal of overlapping text and even some characters that even share the same name.
It’s pretty clear that, rather than writing an original work, the author of the Netherland’s Adventure started with The Black Road and simply rewrote it to fit better in the Elder Scrolls universe.
Whether it’s that both stories have caravans of the same size and configuration, down to what is in each cart, nearly all of the same characters and plot points, just with different language to make it better fit the universe, or the matching text, it’s a pretty clear rewrite.
While there is, in parts, significant text rewriting there’s also more than enough copied text to easily see the similarities and nearly everything else about the two are the same.
The question isn’t “Is this a plagiarism?”, it’s a question of “How did it get to this point?”
Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer for that question, especially since all of those involved are not longer discussing the incident.
The Importance of Being Proactive
Bethesda’s statement and the way they discuss investigating the “source” makes it seem as if they purchased the content from outside the company or hired an outside contractor to write it.
If so, they are likely a victim here too. They most likely paid a fairly significant amount of money for a tabletop game that ended up being a plagiarism of a recent D&D work.
For the plagiarist, it was a ridiculously stupid plagiarism that was bound to get caught, especially considering how much overlap there is between fans of The Elder Scrolls and D&D. Still, Bethesda may ultimately be joining the authors of the original work in the list of people their contractor ripped off.
However, this doesn’t mean that Bethesda is totally innocent here either. Whatever it cost to have someone write the game, it would have only cost a tiny fraction of that to run it through an automated plagiarism detection services.
Disclosure: I am a paid consultant and blogger for Turnitin, which owns and operates iThenticate.
While it’s unclear what such a check would have found (that would depend on if The Black Road is in the relevant database and if the rewriting was enough to mask it), there’s at least a good chance it would considering that pirate copies of The Black Road are available online in text-searchable format.
Note: I performed a quick comparison of the two documents. Due to the rewriting, the amount of matching text is low from a percentage standpoint. However, there are several phrases that do match. Still, it would have been difficult to spot before publication and, with all of the news coverage, it's nearly impossible today.
Even if the plagiarism check didn’t find it, Bethesda could at least say that it performed its due diligence and show that it wasn’t reckless.
Even though Bethesda acted swiftly and decisively in removing the game, it also comes across as somewhat overly trusting. They put their brand and their weight behind a clearly plagiarized work and seemingly did so with little verification.
If they didn’t perform such a check, hopefully it’s a mistake they don’t repeat. If they did, they should tell their fans as such.
When you go to a drive thru, you most likely don’t just get your food and drive off, especially if it’s a large order. You take a moment and count the items and sanity-check what you got.
While it doesn’t mean every item is perfect, it does prevent the biggest problems such as getting the wrong order or an incomplete order. That quick check has the potential to save a great deal more time down the road if something is found.
Checking for plagiarism is very similar. It comes at a fraction of the time and cost of producing a work and heads off incidents like this. While there’s no way to 100% guarantee that a work is plagiarism-free, a quick check can catch most major problems and even if a problem is found later that the check missed, you can prove due diligence and show that you did what you could to prevent it.
It’s a simple step that more companies, not just Bethesda, need to start doing regularly. As this case shows, failure to do so can result in time, money and reputation lost.
Here’s hoping that Bethesda, as well as others, learn from this mistake.