On Atari vs. Jeff Minter

As reported by Eurogamer, Ars Technica, Rob Fearon and others, what currently passes for Atari (essentially a rotting corpse worn by Infogrames) has decided to throw lawyers at game developer Jeff Minter, in an attempt to get rid of the award-winning TxK, which is a bit too Tempesty for Atari’s liking. It’s been interesting to see the reaction online, which seems broadly split between staunch defence of Minter (who’s been making arcade-inspired games since the early 1980s, but not outright clones) and alignment with the idea Atari somehow has to defend its IP.

Rarely is gaming cut and dried. There’s precedent for companies suing others over a game’s mechanics, even if such lawsuits are invariably more often about a big company kicking the shit out of a smaller one with lawyers. But this particular incident is even messier, because TxK borrows from Minter’s own fantastic Tempest 2000, which he developed for Atari.

On balance, though, the side I’m taking on this scrap isn’t really for Minter nor for Atari, but for games. Much like in any other medium, individual titles do not exist in a vacuum — they are often influenced by what went before. Many titles are evolved forms of their predecessors. It’s how people learn. It’s how we get amazing mash-ups like Forget-Me-Not, or modern takes on old classics, like Pac-Man: Championship Edition.

This cannot happen when corporations fling lawyers at games in part based on older ones without good reason. And while it’s arguable Atari has some points in its letter to Minter regarding the similarities between TxK and the games that inspired it, the lawyers wilfully obfuscate and confuse, and in some cases offer outright fabrication. This includes the argument TxK includes an “electronic music sound track and sound effects which are indistinguishable from those used in TEMPEST 2000”, despite TxK having an original score. (I ‘look forward’ to Atari now suing every game that uses electronic music, just because.)

Then you delve further. Minter notes he once spoke to the Tempest X developer, who revealed it was changed just enough to enable Atari to not pay Minter any royalties. The game nonetheless remained closer to Tempest 2000 than TxK, showcasing the hypocritical nature of Atari when it comes to this series and business in general. But worse, Minter adds that he made it very clear he’d have been willing to negotiate some sort of licensing agreement. Atari, naturally, wasn’t interested. This is something I’ve heard is always the case with Atari, which is bizarre. Presumably, it’s satisfied with its terrible iOS Tempest, dumbed-down Caterpillar remakes, and using its IP as skins for gambling and casino games.

Of course, Atari’s been here before many times. It’s regularly rampaged about like a spoilt child, demolishing anything vaguely resembling Asteroids or Pong. And when Peter Hirschberg crafted Vector Tanks and the superb Vector Tanks Extreme!, Atari had them removed from the iOS App Store for resembling Battlezone, despite the latter no more being a copy of Battlezone than Space Invaders Infinity Gene is a copy of the original Space Invaders.

The smart move would be for Atari to make these games official. TxK and Vector Tanks Extreme! are both significantly better modern takes on Atari IP than anything the company has managed itself. Instead, the organisation revels in destroying games, angering people who love classic arcade fare, further ruining whatever remains of its tattered reputation; it prefers to bully developers rather than work with them, hiding behind lawyers and bending the truth.

I’ve no time for this, so fuck Atari. Hmm. It appears I did take a side after all.

March 19, 2015. Read more in: Gaming, Opinions

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Internet Arcade: when illegal IP can benefit rights owners

I recently penned a piece for Stuff on Internet Arcade, a part of non-profit site Internet Archive, designed to provide universal access to all manner of digitised content. Internet Arcade is essentially a version of MAME running in a browser, enabling you to play a bunch of classic arcade titles.

At the time I wrote the piece, about 900 games were available. Shortly after my article went live (a few weeks later, due to holiday scheduling), someone helpfully emailed me to say Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had been removed from the site, due to a takedown request. I checked through the remaining items just now, and several more I selected have gone. The overall number of titles available, last I looked, was 649.

It’s understandable that IP owners get twitchy with online content such as this, and I’m generally against IP infringement myself. But I can’t help thinking there are differences in the way we experience media and the manner in which lawyers might be able to respond to various kinds of infringements.

Clever though it is, Internet Arcade isn’t the best way to experience these old games; at the most, it’s a reminder of a title you once loved, and a fun way to waste a few minutes during a lunchtime. When I was researching the article, it also reminded me once again of how much I enjoyed specific old games. The net result with me was that I fancied hunting down versions of said titles that would run on my current hardware—legally.

Perhaps that makes me an outlier. As I’ve written elsewhere, we live in an age where younger generations have only grown up with immediate and free access to all content, and so many don’t feel compelled to pay for anything. But I also see organisations making great use of the internet and benefitting from making content freely available: musicians upload entire albums on Soundcloud and report a subsequent uptick in sales; the likes of Image offer comics for peanuts on Humble Bundle and say the knock-on effect has been more people buying new issues of said titles.

I can’t help but think Internet Arcade is something that companies might consider nurturing rather than taking down, if not for the historical aspect—ensuring games of cultural significance remain available to all—then at least as a clever interactive ‘advert’ for when these games appear on commercial services elsewhere.

January 12, 2015. Read more in: Gaming, Opinions, Technology

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No, the App Store is not like Disney

Daring Fireball yesterday commenting on Papers, Please:

So here’s an App Store rejection that many disagree with, but which is easy to understand from Apple’s perspective. Apple tends to err on the side of running the App Store with Disney-esque family values. The company places inordinate value in its family-friendly reputation.

Maybe it’s an American thing to believe this. John Gruber, who writes Daring Fireball, is American, and so is Apple. But from the outside, I don’t see ‘Disney-esque family values’ about the way Apple treats App Store submissions. Either what Apple is actually stating in its rules is a puritanical and largely anti-nutidy/sex stance, or I’ve missed a huge number of apparently family-friendly Disney movies that, for example, feature car-jacking and drugs, running around killing people, and blood-stained horror.

December 13, 2014. Read more in: Apple, Gaming, Opinions

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Apple says: Papers, Please—but no nudity

Update: The developer reports that the rejection was a “misunderstanding”. He will now resubmit, and expects the app to be approved. I’m increasingly sceptical about this kind of error. Either it’s true, in which case the app review team needs more time per app and/or better guidance; or it’s false, and devs now essentially need to kick up an online shitstorm to get Apple to see sense. Neither of these things strikes me as especially good.

As reported by Eurogamer and elsewhere, Apple’s okayed Papers, Please for App Store release (on iPad) but demanded it be fixed to a ‘no nudity’ version included (but not required) in the original PC version. Half the internet has now apparently lost its shit, branding Apple fascists, and suggesting developers are now all going to flock to Android.

The decision Apple made is not remotely a surprise. It has consistently from the dawn of the App Store argued that if you want to describe or display things of a sexual nature, you should write a song or book. Such media may be branded ‘explicit’ in the store, but won’t be stopped from sale. However, games are different, suffering from a rigid and puritanical stance, and the question is why this is the case.

My guess—and I don’t really have anything other than a gut feeling to back this up—is this rule comes directly from Steve Jobs and possibly other senior execs with children, and also from the lack of a VP leading games at Apple. I suspect the people making the big decisions at Apple understand the cultural significance of music, movies and books, but remain largely ignorant of and clueless about games. Maybe they just don’t get them—at all. This would also explain wider fumbles with games (notably the initially botched and still sub-optimal iOS games controllers), despite games being one of the main sources of App Store income.

I’m not sure what the solution is—a VP for games seems unlikely to happen any time soon; still, it might be something Apple should consider rather than digging deeper into a hole of its own making, mired in accusations of being a company full of censor-happy philistines.

December 12, 2014. Read more in: Apple, Gaming, Opinions

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There is no abandonware and you’re deluding yourself if you think there is

One thing the Vega campaign has again showcased is that people who love old games also happily pretend that basic copyright law does not exist. To anyone wondering about how Vega was going to legally bundle 1000 games with its fake Spectrum, the response was generally “Who cares?” or “All those games are public domain now anyway.” It’s a curious idea that old games alone have somehow fallen out of copyright in only about 30 years, just because people want them to.

As a thought experiment, imagine equivalents in other media. Try reprinting a bunch of books from the 1980s into a single volume and selling it in stores. Do you think you’d get away with it? Or what about 1000 music tracks from the 1980s, bunging them on a hard drive and selling that? Again, you’d be mad to think this could be in any way legal. But people think this about games.

It’s either ignorance or entitlement that results in this belief. The facts are simpler though: unless a company or individual officially releases their IP into the public domain and without caveats, subsequent distribution of any kind is simply not legal. For example, even though hundreds of ZX Spectrum games are legally available via World of Spectrum, the rights for doing so are usually single-site, meaning you can’t suddenly create your own similar site and host the same games. And even when old developers say “Do whatever you like with my old games,” that first assumes they actually own the rights (some won’t) and secondly often comes with the addition of “But you can’t resell them in any form—they must remain free”.

The Vega team is reportedly aware of this issue, and I would be disappointed to say the least if it bundled 1000 games without securing rights to all of them—a mammoth task, but one the team promised rather prematurely. For fans of old games, I’ll concede that individuals are unlikely doing any harm by downloading and playing a copy of Deathchase on an emulator, and at any rate, if you’re strongly guided by morals, you can just buy legally distributed versions of classic games you love when the opportunity arises; but it’s another thing entirely when a commercial product dances with the concept of abandonware, and people think that’s perfectly fine, largely because they have rose-tinted glasses glued to their face and a fondness for Jet Set Willy.

December 3, 2014. Read more in: Gaming

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