Bluehole Studios this week decided to release a press release stating that it is considering “further action” against Epic Games over the Battle Royale mode recently added to Fortnite. According to the release, Bluehole is concerned over similarities between the two games, and how Epic uses Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds in conversations with the community and press in comparison to Fortnite.
“We’ve had an ongoing relationship with Epic Games throughout PUBG’s development as they are the creators of UE4, the engine we licensed for the game. After listening to the growing feedback from our community and reviewing the gameplay for ourselves, we are concerned that Fortnite may be replicating the experience for which PUBG is known.”
As someone who has been following actual cases for years, I’ll give this as simply as I know how: Bluehole Studio doesn’t have a leg to stand on, either legally in court or morally in the court of public opinion. And since PUBG is running on Epic’s Unreal Engine, any action taken by the former against the latter would accomplish little more than a self-inflicted gunshot to the leg, just ask Silicon Knights how that worked out.
So let’s take this piece by piece.
1. (Legal) Bluehole Studios Doesn’t Own The Mechanic
You can’t copyright game mechanics, it is not within the purview of United States and UK law, and the EU has not weighed in on the matter yet. It is, however, possible to protect your game mechanics through trademark, however the process is extremely time and resource intensive, and I can say by simply pulling up a list of patents owned by Bluehole (a list of one) that they do not own the patent for a Battle Royale game mechanic. In short, Bluehole Studios has no legal standing because they don’t own the concept. Neither does Brendan Greene.
For legal precedent, we can look at exactly the kind of company devious enough to patent a game mechanic, and of course I am talking about Namco Ltd. Back in the 90’s, Namco patented the concept of having a mini-game that can be played during a game’s loading screen. The patent didn’t actually have the chance to be legitimized in court, as Namco never used it to sue another developer, and it expired in 2015. There are heavy doubts as to whether or not Namco would have won such a lawsuit, but the threat was enough to keep some developers from taking the risk.
Namco’s patent very likely would have failed because patent law stipulates that your patented item can’t have existed, and there are verifiable records of games with mini-game loading screens existing before Namco patented the idea in Ridge Racer. Likewise, the existence of numerous Battle Royale style games ensures that, even if Bluehole decided to head over to the patent office and absorb that cost, that they would ultimately fail in their attempt at ownership.
2. (Moral) That Time Bluehole Tried to Steal Lineage III
Out of the two parties involved in this dispute, incidentally Bluehole is the one most acquainted with criminal theft, a matter that MMO Fallout covered heavily back in its infancy. Back in 2009, civil and criminal charges were brought against multiple Bluehole Studios employees alleging that they had stolen trade secrets and assets while employed at NCSoft and used those assets in creating the action MMO Tera. Six employees were found guilty, with jail sentences being handed out as part of the criminal proceedings, however Bluehole as a corporate entity was found to not be guilty. Those employees, as you might expect, haven’t been working at Bluehole since then.
But still, there is a certain level of hypocrisy for a company with an established record of employees going to jail for stealing from another developer, to start pointing figures and making threats, over a mechanic that it doesn’t own, against other developers. Bluehole didn’t start the genre, even if it does have the most popular game in it as of present, and it doesn’t own the genre. If Bluehole does take the threat further, they open themselves up to a world of hurt from Epic’s legal team. Let’s not forget what happened to the last developer that tried to take Epic down in a frivolous lawsuit.
Otherwise I have no opinion on the matter.