The creator of PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS (PUBG), Brendan Greene, was recently interviewed by the BBC to discuss his views on the new ‘copycat’ battle royale games that have released following the popularity of PUBG and other games that Greene has had a hand in developing. While there can undoubtedly be cause for concern in-game development of having your intellectual property “ripped off”, game development has long had a close relationship with the tight balancing act of taking inspiration without breaching copyright, and since his success Greene has been exceptionally outspoken regarding the protection of IP.
In the interview with BBC’s Radio 1, Green commented that “I want other developers to put their own spin on the genre… not just lift things from our game…If it’s just copycats down the line, then the genre doesn’t grow and people get bored.” While there have not been many big-name titles to be released in the genre on PC or console following the success of PUBG with the exception of Fortnite: Battle Royale, there have been a number of mobile titles which appear to borrow some of the elements from PUBG. The recently released Terminator 2 mobile game by NetEase in China looks fairly similar in design — although I have not had a chance to play it — and the North American mobile release Last Battleground: Survival definitely smacked of PUBG elements the first time I played it.
It’s a fair statement to argue that there is a concern with genres stagnating if they do not organically grow, but are the games above copycats of PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS or have they simply taken inspiration from it? These newer titles, whether they be console releases or mobile iterations, are reminiscent of the earlier games because they are following in the footsteps of Brendan Greene, and the mark that he has undoubtedly made on gaming. Much in the same way that Mr. Greene followed in the footsteps of Bohemia Interactive, developers of the ARMA franchise. Playing PUBG the first time immediately reminded me of the operations I mounted with my friends in ARMA II; not as a direct copy of Bohemia’s game, but in that it was clear the role that ARMA had played in PUBG’s inception.
There is nothing wrong with making the comment that we need better protection of intellectual property when it comes to video games, but the fact that this is coming from Brendan Greene — who got the concept for his game from Battle Royale, a movie from 2000, and created his first concept of a ‘battle royale’ game by modding an existing game, ARMA II — removes some of the weight of the criticisms being levied. In many ways PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS is following directly in the footsteps of his initial projects: ARMA II: Battle Royale, DayZ: Battle Royale and H1Z1: King of the Kill. Each title plays exceptionally similar to PUBG, because they have all been built from that initial concept using the ARMA systems. The difference is that PUBG is the latest and most refined iteration of these subsequent projects, many of which have been left to die in the wake of Bluehole’s success.
Greene hasn’t had the same outlook towards other developers who have taken inspiration from his project. In September 2017, Bluehole Studios threatened possible legal action against Epic Games for their addition of a Battle Royale mode in Fortnite, and more concretely the replication of the experience of PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS, but many — including myself in an article which specifically focused on how Fortnite Battle Royale could help to elevate the genre — have argued that Fortnite is a different game which is based on of the core battle royale mechanics, much like Epic Games have openly admitted that they were inspired by PUBG — they never tried to hide it; they mentioned their love in the trailer for Fortnite: Battle Royale.
Greene went on to suggest that the video game industry look more seriously into cases such as his own.
In movies and music there is IP protection and you can really look after your work. In gaming that doesn’t exist yet, and it’s something that should be looked into. Some amazing games pass under the radar. Then someone else takes the idea, has a marketing budget, and suddenly has a popular game because they ripped off someone else’s idea. I think it’s something the industry needs to look into. You’re protecting the work of artists basically. Games are art for a large part, and so I think it’s important they’re protected.
I’m not sure where Brendan Greene finished his degree on video game copyright law, but there are assuredly IP protections in the gaming industry, and there have been numerous instances of legal actions taken against developers when they have crossed a line with stealing or misusing another company’s intellectual property. But in the same way that IP protection works in the film and music business, it can be hard to make an actual case for intentional theft of property, versus artistic inspiration. The first case of legal action being taken against a game was in 1976 when Atari was sued by Ralph Baer because of the similarities of Pong to Magnavox’s electronic Ping-Pong, and ultimately won.
Over the years there have been numerous lawsuits against developers who crossed the line when it came to ‘copycat’ games. Atari sued Philips Electronics for K.C. Munchkin‘s similarities to Pac-Man in the 1980s. Silicon Knights sued Epic Games for diverting resources from Unreal Engine 3, and ended up being forced to pay over $9 million to Epic Games when it was found out that Silicon used pieces of UE3 in their own engine. This is what caused Too Human and X-Men: Destiny to be ultimately destroyed. Earlier this year Riot Games sued Montoon for use of similar assets in their Mobile Legends MOBA game. Atari sued Amusement World because Meteors ripped off Asteroids. The list goes on.
The important distinction is that these instances above were either proved in a court of law to have violated copyright laws, or in several cases were settled out of court because of the court of public opinion had determined these were obvious violations. What Brendan Greene has been saying lately has not been tested in the court of law, and if he firmly believes that there are copycat games out there which are stealing the essence of PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS, he is within every right to file a lawsuit. In fact, I encourage him to do so, so that we could actually test out these accusations in an arena which doesn’t require a 100 person battle royale…or at least involves a different type of one.
Greene may want to be careful about constantly leveling these types of accusations however, because some very precursory digging reveals that PLAYERUNKOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS is not only mechanically based off ARMA, but is conceptually based off Battle Royale, a Japanese novel/movie which facilitated the original concept of a bunch of youth being sent to an island to fight to the death in 1999. Sidenote: If anyone has not had the pleasure of reading or watching Battle Royale, especially if you are currently enamored with the video game genre, I firmly recommend that you watch it. It will give you a much deeper appreciation for the situations which may precipitate 100 people being forced to skydive out of a plane and kill one another.
When it all boils down to it though, neither the conceptual idea of a ‘battle royale’ or the mechanics which Greene has utilized in PUBG — things such as parachuting out of a plane or fighting to the last person in a 100-player battle royale — are eligible for copyright under the current law. If you could copyright a genre or mechanics such as these, it would ultimately cripple the gaming industries’ ability to innovate, much like Greene has urged that they do in the quote above. So I welcome Greene to take any of these accusations to court, if only so that we could have a more firm legal precedent for the confines of creative innovation in the gaming industry.
This in many ways is reminiscent of what happened in the early 2000s, when first-person shooters in arenas of war were becoming much more pervasive. When Call of Duty first released in 2003, there were concerns that it was just ripping of Medal of Honor, which had been around for four years at the time and had been receiving relative critical success. The first CoD in many ways played very similarly to Medal of Honor. Some of the mechanics seemed lifted right out of the previous game: the ability to crouch AND go prone, being confined to two primary weapons, and the general flow of the game with linear missions. Without getting to deep into the specifics of development in the early 2000s, this is in a large part because developers who had worked on earlier Medal of Honor games had left to launch Infinity Ward. It was no surprise then when in 2003 the first Call of Duty game released, that it played in many ways like Medal of Honor; albeit, many argued, a smoother version of the MoH gameplay.
This is because members of Infinity Ward were inspired by the work which they had done on the Medal of Honor series, but saw ways in which they could improve upon those systems and innovate the first-person shooter genre in a direction they did not see their former colleagues at 2015, Inc. I think it’s safe to say with almost 15 years of hindsight that the team at Infinity Ward was exceptionally successful upon taking the foundation which had been laid by Medal of Honor and elevating it to the point that it is now often the bar that is set for other refined first-person shooters. You can say what you want about the quality of a narrative of specific elements in newer CoD games, but it’s hard to debate the fact that they are exceptionally polished games.
I should state that I am all in favor of what Greene is arguing for: more innovation in the gaming industry and less of the same that we’ve been seeing to ensure that genres move forward and grow. The issue isn’t a lack of drive for innovation; we’ve seen in short time several games spawn which are attempting to innovate from the success of PUBG. The issue is when the loudest mouthpiece for innovation is simultaneously speaking out against that same innovation. Someone who owes almost their entire IP to another game, as well as a novel and movie. In my opinion what Greene is worried about is not innovation in regards to the battle royale genre; it’s being the sole proprietor of the battle royale genre.
I’d additionally argue that the only reason that no one has said anything prior to the release of Fortnite or the more recent mobile iterations, is that Brendan Greene had a hand in every single one of the initial games. Before Fortnite: Battle Royale, your choices were to play one of PLAYERUNKNOWN’S titles if you wanted a battle royale experience; they held the full monopoly. While I have been critical of Brendan Greene’s practices in this article, I should again state that there is nothing wrong with anything above; Mr. Greene was completely in his rights to mod ARMA II into something conceptually different, just as developers now are able to reinvent PUBG with their own unique twist; much like Fortnite has done.
This all comes down to a painfully simple point, and one that hasn’t needed to be often made in the game development before because it was just implicitly known: Inspiration drives innovation and helps to move our industry forward. I’m not upset that Greene has been so outspoken about the need for IP protection in 2017; I just disagree with how he has went about criticizing other developers after his own development path, and seemingly without a firm understanding of how the industry has always operated. We are likely to see many more Battle Royale “copycats” in the coming months and years, and if history has proven anything, any one of them could dethrone the current champion through simply innovating upon the current systems. Instead of Brendan Greene should appreciate the massive impact that he has had on the industry and the joy — and salt — that he has brought to millions of gamers.
This isn’t even close to the end of Battle Royale. Maybe now I’ll finally get my Hunger Games adaptation.