You’re hanging out with your friends and take out your mobile phone to show them something. Before you can get to the site, one of your friends notices the carrier and proceeds to berate you for going with that other company that came after their own carrier. How could you support such a dishonest practice for a lower monthly fee or your preferred choice of handset? Their company was first! If we were actually talking about phones, this scenario would be incredible. Switch mobile phones with video games and this story is unremarkable.
The news is old at this point, but Bluehole Inc., the developer of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), issued a statement later in September accusing Epic (who released a free to play Battle Royale mode for their game Fortnite) of copying PUBG and even implying that specific PUBG innovations may be ‘leaked’ (or could be in future). Game fans being what they are, battle lines were drawn roughly corresponding to people’s preferred title. There appears to be a general feeling that Bluehole was overreaching, and yet I notice a certain persistence in some fans to insist that Epic has done something wrong, and I think something has been missed in the overall discussion. As such, I thought it would be instructive both to examine the case itself, and why Bluehole seems to be relying on a fairly undesirable trait in the gaming community to try and push their claim.
The perceived case against Epic
One curiosity that has emerged from this controversy is that the consensus seems to have formed around what people think Bluehole has said, rather than what their press release and CEO has said. The perceived case seems to be that Bluehole believes Fortnite is infringing on some kind of property that they own and that they should be compensated by Epic for ripping off their game. This is not what is found in Bluehole’s statements but rather my estimation of what a casual observer thinks that this dispute is about. I think this may be why I’ve found the conversation around this dispute so unedifying. Both sides, untethered to reality, launch into their respective dystopias where PUBG fans envision indie developers being perpetually screwed by big companies and Fortnite fans forsee a litigious nightmare in which all genres are reduced to iterations of some ur-game (Bertie the Brain if you go by Wikipedia) and any developer that dares create a game is instantly buried under a mountain of royalty claims. Why spend time discussing untrue claims? They seem to be fairly prevalent, and communicate a misunderstanding as to the role of copyright. I need to entertain the possibility that at least some people reading this may also hold these views on either side, and so this will hopefully clarify a few things and move the discussion into more productive territory.
If we assume the battle lines are not drawn around fandom for a particular game or developer, then the dispute can be seen between one that wants to ensure the rights of developers are protected, while the other wants to ensure competition in the market for video games. The rush to dystopia outlined above is likely a function of the fact that both of these are entirely reasonable values, and it seems that when we discuss it we spend more time making the opposing side unreasonable rather than recognizing that these values are not incompatible. We desire competitive markets for a number of reasons. All things being equal, they seem to be fair: Anyone with a good idea can enter, and people can decide for themselves, rather than having some external force dictate who is allowed to make things. They ensure the lowest price while simultaneously stimulating innovation for fear that a competitor may offer a better product for less. Acknowledging that at least some subset of readers will not be so enamored with capitalism (and a smaller business-minded subset will be even less enamored with competition), I will at least offer that competitive markets have been deemed worthwhile enough to set up institutions to ensure they continue to operate that way, and that a broader evaluation of economic systems is beyond the scope of an article about a tiff between two video games.
Can we have perfect competition in video games? No. And not because it only exists in textbooks, but specifically because games are virtually costless to reproduce. Once the game is made the expected outcome would be for the price to effectively fall to 0 as distributors of this game enter the market to capture some of the surplus. In addition to ensuring the creator receives the rewards for this product, there are a number of other rights we want to protect as well, as I’ve discussed in two other posts. This protection is copyright. Copyright is not intended to protect the profits of a business. At best, it simply ensures that whatever revenues emerge from the work accrue to the rights holder. Another way to look at this is the old saying that copyright protects expressions, not ideas. Copyright ensures that I cannot put a character like Wilson from Don’t Starve in my own game, or that I can’t make a survival game based on Clementine from The Walking Dead without getting permission from the rights holders. However, the protection is narrow enough, that I can have a cartoonish gentleman scientist named Wilfred in my game, and Telltale cannot prevent me from producing my own adventure game in a world overrun with zombies with an adorable child as a moral center.
Hopefully these examples are enough to provide some intuitions as to why this version of the Epic-Bluehole dispute is a non-starter since genres are not covered by copyright. This does not mean that we have to like existing copyright law, as its protections are quite narrow, novelty doesn’t appear to be a requirement, and it has done a very poor job of protecting developers such as Vlambeer when their games were cloned. However I’m not sure the dispute is over the current state of copyright law, otherwise we’d be hearing a lot more about it. Before moving on to what was said by Bluehole in their press releases, I’d like to talk a bit about previous cases in gaming to see how we have navigated this territory in the past.
While I was dismissive of the ‘copycat’ case, this is a matter that has been before the courts. There is an unfortunate tendency in discussions about gaming and intellectual property to say a given topic has been untested in court. While this is often true for a specific complaint, there are often instructive cases we can look to. Ars Technica has identified two potential legal cases that relate to this issue, and I found their analysis of the Fortnite and PUBG to be in line with the impression I had gotten from watching Twitch streams (though I think the differences between the two games are more substantive and so think they overstate the similarities between the games). I am not especially convinced by their invocation of the Sega vs. EA settlement as Sega claimed to have a patent in this case (although it has certainly piqued my curiosity as to that patent) while most disputes of this nature do not involve patents. The injunction granted in the case of case of Atari v. North American Phillips Consumer Electronics (link from the Ars Technica article) is more interesting. A memorable quote from that case observes “it is enough that substantial parts were lifted; no plagiarist can excuse the wrong by showing how much of his work he did not pirate.” In this case Atari was granted the injunction against a Pac-Man clone due to it capturing the “total concept and feel” of Pac-Man.
This outcome seems favourable to Bluehole’s argument, but it is important to remember that this case (and similar cases) are very much about the audio and visual components of the game and whether or not they are subject to copyright. Games are much more sophisticated today, and in the case of Fortnite and PUBG the one point of agreement seems to be the difference between the visual styles. When considering the ruling in favour of Atari, it’s helpful to actually look at the games.
Assuming that these look and feel rulings could be extended to gameplay, we should consider Capcom USA Inc. v. Data East Corp and Data East USA Inc. v. Epyx Inc. (there’s 6 years between these cases so I’m assuming this accounts for the difference in names). The Capcom v. Data East case concerned a claim of infringement between Street Fighter II and Fighter’s History. Despite the clear (and likely intentional) similarity of Fighter’s History to Street Fighter II, the supposedly infringing elements followed necessarily from the genre of karate fighting game and so were not protected.
These are not especially strong precedents for Bluehole as even if we were to move past the fact that all of these cases were about elements where there clearly is not a similarity between the Fortnite and PUBG, they would need to show how the areas of similarity did not follow from the battle royale genre. It’s already clear that one cannot copyright a genre, and so we’re left trying to establish that the allegedly lazy rip-off that is Fortnite somehow managed to copy something that was not essential to the genre (that is, they just copied the genre, but in somehow doing so they copied something extra that was not essential to the battle royale genre).
The actual case against Epic
Bluehole’s statements seem carefully worded to maximize on implications and put a lot of focus on Epic as the developers of the Unreal Engine. The original press release talks about their community’s “growing concerns” regarding the similarities in Fortnite (I don’t really think anyone heard about these concerns before the press release, but then, this statement could mean anything). Bluehole also says that Fortnite “… may be replicating the experience for which PUBG is known” which is more specific than “growing concerns” but isn’t especially concrete, and so hard to claim is protected. The specific issues that we can actually deal with are that Bluehole feels it is improper for Epic to make a competing game due to their relationship through their licence of the Unreal Engine, and that PUBG was mentioned in promotional material for Fortnite (presumably in reference to this video).
You may have noticed that promotional videos and advertisements often leave comparisons to “another leading brand.” When I saw Bluehole’s complaint, I had to wonder if this ad copy was a result of a legal restriction placed on mentioning a competitor, or if was because advertisers do not want to give any additional airtime to a competitor. The FTC have issued a statement on comparative advertising that answers this. Comparative advertising is permitted so long as it is substantive and truthful. This doesn’t provide us explicit guidance as it does not seem to be written with the scenario of ‘Help a competitor is saying nice things about my product and I want them to stop’ in mind, but it’s hard to imagine this complaint forming the basis of any litigation. Presumably Epic will be happy to comply with Bluehole’s wishes that they not mention PUBG in future, but I leave it to your own judgement as to how upset Bluehole actually is about all of this. The claim that Epic’s mention implies that Bluehole is ‘on board’ with the Fortnite battle royale mode omits H1Z1‘s mention in the same sentence and assumes that they are in a position to authorize such modes in the first place. Furthermore, Bluehole’s complaint that their players are misled to believe that they can play PUBG in Fortnite now does little to credit their players and is inconsistent with their other claim that they do not feel they ‘own’ the genre. In truth, I think very few players of either game know or care about the relationship between the two companies, and the statement seems tailored to the sort of person who does read up on industry gossip and is likely to take a stand one way or the other. To believe Bluehole’s claim requires that there are players who presently play PUBG, are aware that the developers licence the game engine from Epic, and then parse the sentence “At Epic we’re huge fans of the battle royale genre and games like PUBG and H1Z1…” in such a way as to mean ‘the developer of PUBG has allowed us to implement their game inside of Fortnite.’
In addition to the promotion issue, the relationship with Epic came up in the (not very clear) clarifying interview. C.H. Kim (CEO of Bluehole) believes that Epic should have talked to Bluehole before embarking on their own battle royale mode. He also expresses concerns that a feature internally developed for PUBG could be “… leaked, or other things could happen.” This seems to be implying that Epic will steal source code from Bluehole and release it as part of the Unreal engine, or otherwise make it public. If Epic does this then it seems that there are very clear mechanisms for Bluehole to seek redress, especially since they have been accused and convicted of the theft of valuable trade secrets from the game Lineage 3 and so have more working knowledge than most developers about this process. To the best of my knowledge Epic does not vet projects made using their engine and their audits are limited to financial ones in the case where they believe they are not being paid royalties. The most relevant sections of the Unreal Engine’s EULA seem to be 9 (Feedback and Contributions) and 11 (Ownership). These sections say that you keep your own code, but they are free to use any feedback and contributions you make (contributions being defined as “any code, whether in Source Code format or object code format, or any other information or content, that you make available to Epic by any means…” with certain restrictions). Bluehole is entirely in control of the code it submits to Epic, and the existence of Fortnite does not change this fact or the EULA. Simply put, if Bluehole thinks Epic is stealing their code, they should come out and say it, otherwise they are operating under exactly the same terms they were at the start of the project.
It is worth mentioning that Bluehole is not the only company under discussion that has been the target of litigation. Canadian developer Silicon Knights sued Epic for failure to provide a working game engine and sabotaging Unreal Engine 3 licensees. Other claims included a failure to meet a deadline to deliver a working version of Unreal Engine 3 for Xbox 360 developer kits, insufficient documentation, withholding improvements to the game engine, and using licensing fees to fund development of their own titles rather than the Unreal Engine. This case is interesting because it moves beyond implication, which is what Bluehole has provided, and claims that Epic has specifically been attempting to abuse its position when competing against licencees. Epic’s response to the suit was to counter-sue, effectively accusing Silicon Knights of stealing their engine. Silicon Knights had made something of a big deal over the fact that Epic’s mismanagement of their license required them to develop their own engine in house. As it happens, the engine Silicon Knights developed contained thousands of lines of Epic’s code, including comments (with typos), modified variable names, and the copyright notices removed. The judge declined to award Silicon Knights the damages they wanted (which included all the profits from Gears of War), and ultimately awarded over $9 million to Epic. Silicon Knights was ordered to recall and destroy all copies of Too Human and X-Men: Destiny (among other games that were under development and do not appear to have been released at the time of the judgement). The counterclaim muddies the waters quite a bit as the theft of the Unreal Engine is a bigger headline than whether or not Epic is allowed to compete with licencees, but so far as I was able to read, none of Silicon Knights’ claims regarding the crippling of the engine were regarded as legitimate (in many cases these seemed to stem from seemingly deliberate misreadings of certain deadlines), and no other developers joined their suit regarding the abuse of licensees.
When elaborating on Bluehole’s complaint I was surprised at how little substance there was to their position. The specifics of the complaint don’t change with the release of Fortnite’s battle royale mode. The statements are vauge and heavy on implication, which seems the only possible option when there is so little to go on. But perhaps there is a moral case that has been sidelined in the discussion of the possible legal avenues Bluehole might consider. We will examine what could be considered a moral case before moving on to what I consider Bluehole’s true intention is with these statements.
The moral case against Epic
It is not a particularly good look to licence an engine to a game and then release your own version after it becomes successful. While I think Bluehole’s case against Epic is essentially non-existent, this post isn’t intended to be blindly pro-Epic. Nobody who has worked on a game really wants to see a competing product come out, though there is some consolation in the fact that this type of competition usually only comes after a title has been successful. But this competition will seem especially harsh when the company you are licencing your engine from enters that space and provides a free offering.
I think the optics of this decision are worse than the reality of it. Epic has always released its own games alongside its engine. Unreal Engine 4 is probably the most accessible version of the engine to date and there has been a concentrated effort to make a broader range of games with it. In addition, Epic has gotten out of AAA game development and is focusing on smaller projects that don’t require them to bet the farm with each new installment. With more people using Epic’s technology to make games and with Epic expanding its portfolio of games, it seems inevitable that there will be some overlap between Epic’s games and the ones that licence their technology. Of course, the Fortnite battle royale mode is not a product of random chance but a specific decision to implement a game mode because of another title’s success. The reason why I have such difficulty getting worked up about this is that I haven’t been outraged by any previous times Epic has released any of their own games. Epic have released plenty of First Person Shooters, including a free to play one, along with mobile games, MOBAs, and platformers, and people have continued to licence their engine for these types of game.
Is it the fact that the battle royale mode is in a different genre from what they normally do? Perhaps, but then, Fortnite is also different from what they have traditionally produced, and right now all battle royale games are different from their developer’s usual genre. Even if it were inside a more established genre, the question seems to be boiled down to: Can Epic pursue other lines of business given that it is the developer of an engine? It seems to me that we are best served when these kinds of rules and restrictions are in place to address some imbalance from the ordinary state of the world. For instance, we motivated copyright as being a means through which we can ensure creators have the means and incentive to continue to create in the face of an easily duplicated product. It is not clear to me what imbalance is created by Epic’s licencing of their engine. Developers licencing their engines is not a new practice, though the accessibility of these engines has improved tremendously. I don’t think there would be any particular uproar of Daybreak (developer of H1Z1: King of the Kill) opted to licence the ForgeLight engine to other developers despite the fact they would likely be competing with them. If we reverse the scenario and take a company likely better known for its engine now (Epic), the formula does not seem to change. That is, there does not seem to be any prima facie reason to restrict the lines of a business a game engine developer can enter into.
There also seems to be a tendency to think that Epic has made this decision from the top down, while I think the reality is that the decision to incorporate a battle royale mode into Fortnite came from the development team and probably only passed a layer of “we’ll be competing with a high profile licencee” at the top once they decided to implement the mode. This seems a lot more consistent with how battle royale modes have been developed historically. The original battle royale mode existed as a mod in multiple games, before being implemented into H1Z1, with PUBG being the first game to start off as a stand alone title. The popularity of this genre has led to the mod/alternative mode to be a dominant growth engine for most of these games, and Epic’s approach in adding the battle royale mode to an existing game is unremarkable compared to past implementations in this sense. Furthermore, I think gamers are largely underweighting the effort that Epic, or any other developer, needs to put in to implement a mode like this. The maps between the two games are substantively different, but in order for the constricting battlefield mechanic to work there should be no dominant strategy of going to a particular location (i.e. the whole map has to be balanced or it all falls apart). The construction of shelter is a genuinely interesting innovation to the genre, and the addition of traps is an element missing from existing battle royale modes that is present in the original inspiring material (the Battle Royale film). Discounting this effort is the same kind of thinking that leads to Reddit comments like “adding multiplayer is easy.” In some ways, it’s good that we’re not thinking about all the trouble a developer went through because we really just want to play the game. However, the fact that I think something looks easy should not give me licence to proclaim on what took effort on a developer’s part and translate that opinion into assertions as to what games they should be permitted to develop. I suspect the Fortnite team is being forthright when they say they love battle royale games, and that they thought that their interest aligned well with a clear demand for this kind of game. This is exactly the kind of thing we tend to praise in indies (make what they love, or what inspires them). I do think they came about this honestly both in terms of offering their own take on the genre and assessing it as being a good fit with their existing game.
When considering a moral case against Epic, I do think it’s worth considering the past behaviour of both companies. Bluehole appears to take a zero sum view of the battle royale genre. While I think it’s fair to say that they won’t be able to collect the same kind of surplus they did before the entry of Fortnite into this space, I also think they don’t allow for the fact that people playing the competing free to play game may lead to future purchases of their premium game (I speak from my own experience here where I did not consider buying PUBG but will likely try Fortnite at some point to see what all the fuss is about. I’ve gone from a 0 probability of purchasing PUBG to some slim probability I may find I like the genre and want to play more). I invite you to contrast Bluehole’s response to the dynamic between Chris Roberts and David Braben, designers of the seemingly competing games Star Citizen and Elite Dangerous. Epic does not seem to think in zero sum terms. It does compete with developers who use its licence, but it also funds its competition through the Unreal Dev Grants program. Unlike licensees, Epic has a vested interest in releasing the improvements it makes to the engine when developing its own games, and provides technical support for them. This is why it is not surprising that the announcement of the battle royale mode was followed by a series of related improvements to the engine. None of this has to be viewed as altruistic, but simply a function of the incentives that Epic faces as the licencor of a game engine. Epic’s business model seems to allow that encouraging the development of competing titles on its engine drives improvements and allows them to showcase successful or innovative uses of it. EA’s Frostbite and ZeniMax’s id Tech 6 engines do not follow this model, being used only for games developed by their respective publishers. As someone who plays more small and independent releases, I benefit more from developers that have access to high quality engines without being attached to a big publisher, but this also means that developers necessarily face a more competitive environment, regardless of whether the developer of the engine chooses to participate. In this light, Epic’s decision to implement a battle royale mode seems not only consistent with their past activity, and with the use of the Unreal Engine more generally, but with how past battle royale modes have been implemented in the past.
While I have tried not to have a particularly strong prior when writing this post, I am generally more sympathetic to Epic’s case here. One reason for this is that I believe Bluehole is well aware that they don’t have much of a case against Epic and that their real intention with these press releases is to tap into an unfortunate and negative feature of gaming culture: a propensity to form self-righteous mobs.
It is hard to generate a lot of sympathy for a South Korean developer who has released multiple titles, including one of the biggest hits of 2017, and characterize it as a scrappy indie and so the interview with the Bluehole CEO contains a number of references to Brendan “PlayerUnknown” Green. The PlayerUnknown brand is what allows Bluehole to attempt to move from a fight between two successful businesses and instead reframe the discussion as “Hey, you could be the next PlayerUnknown. Epic is trying to screw you!”
The interview points out that Bluehole hired PlayerUnknown to develop the game and that the other major battle royale game, H1Z1: King of the Kill, hired him as a contractor to develop their own mode (which eventually became a stand alone game). This is an admirable decision, and I think it’s encouraging to have multiple instances of gamers who developed successful mods translate this success into careers (other examples would be League of Legends, Dota 2, and Ultimate General: Gettysburg). I also think this is an entirely sensible decision from a business perspective, since PlayerUnknown has the most human capital built up in this particular genre and was available for hire. While a sense of respect for PlayerUnknown may have been the motivation, it cannot be disentangled from the fact that Bluehole moved to establish itself as the first standalone offering of an emerging and popular genre. A large portion of their success can be attributed to being first to market with a viable standalone product, and hiring the person most familiar with this genre saves tremendously on time. Bluehole identified a gap in the marketplace and has been richly rewarded for it, but to reduce PlayerUnknown’s involvement down to an act of charity or respect is to understate just how essential he was to the success of the game.
What is smuggled into the conversation with this idea is that Bluehole “licensed” the battle royale idea from PlayerUnknown. The genre is not PlayerUnknown’s to license for the reasons that we have outlined above, and if Bluehole really did pay a license for the game mode that’s on them, not the other developers who are under no obligation to do so. Again, the implication here is that ‘unlicensed’ implementations of the battle royale genre are somehow denying PlayerUnknown (and by extension the millions of would-be PlayerUnknowns) an income. By focusing on the gamer turned developer, I believe Bluehole is attempting to poison the well for Fortnite and extend their nearly uncontested status in this genre through intimidating would-be entrants. If players were sufficiently outraged as to boycott or harass Epic (which was entirely plausible as “Fortnite copied PUBG” is still an unprovoked comment you’ll see in Fortnite casts) then not only would Fortnite be eliminated as a competitor, but Bluehole would demonstrate that it essentially has a private troll army to frustrate entry into the genre unless they are paid a license. Not only do gamers lose out from the lack of competition, but content creators who simply want to play their game of choice are the ones who bear the brunt of such a mob.
While this is speculative, it is the simplest explanation to me why Bluehole’s statements on a subject that should otherwise be so clear are so heavy on implication. Epic has not stolen code, but Bluehole is apparently very concerned that they might. Bluehole hasn’t officially stated that they feel Epic should pay them a license, they only point out that Daybreak and Bluehole paid PlayerUnknown. An appeal to gamers’ tendency to form mobs is contemptible on its own, but doing so when the cost will be primarily be borne by people playing the competing game is unconscionable. Fortunately, it seems that a consensus has formed that Bluehole is trying to stifle competition, and that it is in gamers interest to allow a proliferation of battle royale games. I am happy to see this strategy fail.
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