As someone who's worked in the games industry for over a decade now, I have to admit the press release sent out by Bluehole last Friday was the weirdest I ever received in my inbox.
In the press release, as you will surely have read by now, the Korean development team literally came out of left field to throw a bunch of wild accusations at Epic for their freshly announced and released Fortnite Battle Royale mode.
Even the very first words in that press release are factually incorrect. That's how it starts:
Bluehole, Inc., developers of PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS (PUBG), the first standalone Battle Royale survival shooter game....
PUBG was never the first standalone Battle Royale survival shooter game. H1Z1: King of the Kill and The Culling came out about a year before Bluehole's game as they were released on February 18th, 2016 and March 4th, 2016, respectively.
Moving on, Chang Han Kim, Vice President and Executive Producer for Bluehole, Inc., stated that the Korean company had concerns about Fortnite "replicating the experience for which PUBG is known". That would imply that experience was somehow trademarked in any way, which is laughable to even say it out loud since obviously game mechanics or even design concept cannot be trademarked. We all know how often ideas from a game flow into others - it's happened since the beginning of the industry.
The press release went on to quote Brendan 'PLAYERUNKNOWN' Greene's comment in the recent Reddit AMA, where he said:
Other companies will, of course, enter the marketplace, but I would just hope they put their own spin on the game mode and not just make a carbon copy.
This would seem like a direct stab at Epic, hinting that Fortnite's Battle Royale mode is merely a carbon copy of PLAYERUNKNOWN's Battlegrounds. But that's also factually incorrect as anyone who played both games even for a single time could tell. For instance, Fortnite uses the game's signature crafting and building tools to put its own unique spin on the genre. The physics and aiming are also much more arcade-like, which is another fitting variation given the title's art style.
Moreover, speaking of PLAYERUNKNOWN himself, I very much doubt that he fully agrees with Bluehole's rash decision. So far he didn't speak of this at all and in a fairly recent interview with Rock, Paper, Shotgun, he stated:
Look, I don’t claim ownership. So, it’s a last-man standing deathmatch. That’s been around since people could pick up clubs and hit each other. I would never claim ownership over that. The ever decreasing circle – I couldn’t program squares like it is in the Battle Royale movie. The code for doing squares that shrink, I just couldn’t do it because I wasn’t a very good coder, right? So I moved it an ever decreasing circle that sort of moved around inside itself, because that’s how I could do it. I don’t even claim ownership on that. These are old ideas. I love to see what the genre has created. It’s various versions on something that I guess I popularised, you know? The idea itself is not mine.
Exactly on point. The idea isn't even PLAYERUNKNOWN's, to begin with. In fact, he got the concept from Battle Royale, a novel published in 1999 by Japanese writer Koushun Takami and adapted into a movie released in 2000.
While the movie and novel might not be very popular in Western countries, there's another gigantic example we can make: The Hunger Games, a trilogy of novels written by Suzanne Collins and adapted in the highly successful tetralogy of movies starring Jennifer Lawrence as protagonist Katniss Everdeen. The concept is basically the same.
As if that press release wasn't damning enough on its own, Bluehole then followed up with PC Gamer on Saturday. However, as far as I'm concerned they kept digging their own PR grave.
Chang Han Kim said that a big issue is that Epic is a partner of Bluehole, obviously referring to Unreal Engine 4 technology, and then went on to picture some totally made up hypotheses.
We're going to get some technical support [from Epic], and we're going to work with them to make sure Unreal Engine better supports battle royale gameplay which requires 100 people in one session, and now we're starting to have concerns that they're going to develop new features or improve something in the engine to support that battle royale gameplay, and then use it for their own game mode.
We could be afraid when we make new features in the engine by modifying it internally, that is not already available and public, that feature could be leaked, or other things could happen.
So, we just want to emphasize this only a problem because Epic Games is the company that makes the engine we use and we pay a large amount of royalties to them. And we had this business relationship and we had trust that we would be getting continued support, and we were looking forward to working more closely with them to get technical support, maybe develop new features.
So what's the issue here? Do they seriously think that Epic would stop giving them support, or perhaps they hoped that no other developer would use the Unreal Engine 4 to build a Battle Royale game? Also, the fact that they pay Epic a large amount of royalties to license the UE4 doesn't mean that Epic cannot build a game in the same genre themselves. Besides, if they really didn't want to share any kind of tech with other developers (Epic included), they could have built their own engine.
The next part is perhaps even more mind-boggling, though.
But our name was used to officially promote their game without our knowledge. There was no discussion. It was just a bit surprising and disappointing to see our business partner using our name officially to promote the game mode that is pretty similar to us and there was misunderstanding in the community that we're officially involved in the project.
It was in their promotional video that was posted on Twitter and they would openly mention that they were fans of PUBG, we wanted to make this battle royale game mode, and that kind of gave the impression that we were officially involved in this.
[...] and there were players like, "Oh it's cool, now we get to play PUBG in Fortnite", and there was nothing we could do about it, because it was depicted that we were officially involved.
I'm still trying to wrap my head around this blatantly false statement. It is embarrassing that they would try and claim anyone could have been fooled into thinking Bluehole was "officially involved" with the development of Fortnite.
Epic merely stated in their Fortnite Battle Royale announcement blog post that they are fans of Battle Royale games like PUBG, which prompted them to develop this new mode for their game. So they're actually citing Bluehole's game in a positive light, rather than a negative one, and in no way being fans of a game translates to having collaborated with the makers of that game.
Besides, in the very same promotional video cited by Chang Han Kim, Worldwide Creative Director Donald Mustard also mentions H1Z1 alongside PUBG. Why is that Daybreak didn't throw a tantrum, too?
Lastly, it's worth reminding that Bluehole was founded by former NCSoft employees who had been working on Lineage III. The new studio went on to make TERA (The Exiled Realm of Arborea) and NCSoft sued them in South Korea for misappropriation of trade secrets. Though the final ruling reversed the initial verdict of $2 million worth of damages, three Bluehole employees were found guilty by a Korean civil court.
Also, prior to TERA's release in North America and Europe in 2012, NCSoft filed another civil action in the United States trying to prohibit the game's launch or seeking damages for the substantial harm that the release would cause to NCSoft. The lawsuit was eventually settled out of court, which likely means that Bluehole paid a sizable sum to NCSoft to drop it.
The developers of PUBG should stay focused on improving their own game, which is doing increasingly well (it just broke 1.5 million concurrent online users on Steam this weekend), rather than lashing out in backfiring moves like this one. As many have pointed out, these statements have only managed to get more people interested in Fortnite not to mention damaging Bluehole's image from a PR standpoint.