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.