For some people, making tributes to their favorite movies, games and other media is the highest form of devotion. While most often this inspiration goes towards making either artwork or writing stories based on the original work, sometimes especially dedicated fans take their devotion even further by pouring thousands of hours into making their own versions of their favorite games.
You might remember from earlier this year that an HD remake of Super Mario 64’s+ Bob-Omb Battlefield level earned a lot of attention from Nintendo lovers all around the internet. The project was made by Erik Roystan Ross, who not only gave the graphics and animation an upgrade, but even made additions to the gameplay mechanics by creating two new types of jumps. But as well-received as it was, the creator quickly took down the game after Nintendo sent him a notice of copyright infringement.
This kind of story is common among fan games that attract a lot of attention. Even if it isn’t for profit, most companies and their legal departments aren’t too fond of having their own intellectual property (IP) being taken into someone else’s hands and distributed through the internet. Unless the company is particularly friendly to fan-created content, a copyright infringement notice or even a cease and desist order is pretty likely. Over the years there have been a lot of really promising projects thwarted by this kind of treatment.
You don’t have to be a game developer to understand that receiving a legal notice from a multi-million dollar company isn’t the best way to start off your day. It’s especially scary when you don’t even fully understand what’s going on (i.e. just about everyone who hasn’t gone to law school).
“I was a little taken back as I didn’t even know what Cease & Desist was,” said Nathan Lazur, designer of Chrono Resurrection. “I thought it was a fake e-mail until I e-mailed the lawyer asking him if it was a joke. Pretty naive of me!”
Chrono Resurrection was intended to be a 3D remake of Chrono Trigger, one of the most critically acclaimed role-playing games of all time. Since its 1995 release on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), the game has been updated and released for several newer platforms, but none of these versions have attempted anywhere near the graphical revamp that Nathan and his team were looking to achieve.
In the end, the development team did as Square Enix, the company in possession of Chrono Trigger, asked and ceased production of the game. “[I] came to the conclusion that we had no legal ground to stand on. They had every right to protect their property,” said Lazur. Although Chrono Resurrection was prematurely ended, there are some fan projects that were a bit more fortunate.
Phoenix Online Studios’ The Silver Lining is an unofficial ninth entry in the King’s Quest series of Adventure games. The project, originally known as King’s Quest IX: Every Cloak Has A Silver Lining, has been in production for over fifteen years and has been through a lot of turbulence since its inception.
The first time The Silver Lining ran into a legal wall was when the rights owner, Vivendi Games, sent them a cease and desist order. The developers for The Silver Lining anticipated this and were prepared to work for the game to be licensed by the company, as the company had previously granted permission to another team making a fan game. “We were truly blown away by how much [fans] rallied to support us, sending emails, letters, and making phone calls, starting an online petition, they were just tireless in their efforts and that was huge to us, to know how much they believed in us,” said Katie Hallahan, PR Director and Designer for Phoenix Online Studios.
Even after successfully getting their project licensed thanks to an enormous outpouring of support from their fans, Phoenix Online Studios was hit with another roadblock in 2008 after Vivendi merged with Activision, the massive game publisher behind Call of Duty, Destiny, Guitar Hero and more. The company revoked the fan license and issued another cease and desist order to the team. Two years later it was announced by Phoenix Online Studios that they had come to an agreement with Activision and were once again allowed to work on the game. As of the writing of this article, the final episode of The Silver Lining is being worked on, but no date for its release has been given yet.
While negotiating with the rights owners is one way to make sure a fan game actually gets finished, there’s always the option of totally revamping the project. In 2011, Mane6, a group of developers united by their love of the children’s cartoon My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, started the creation of a fighting game based off the show.
Their game, My Little Pony: Fighting is Magic, got a lot of attention early on, thanks largely to the cartoon’s devoted fanbase. The game featured characters from the show, creating fighting styles that matched their personalities. Fighting is Magic was even invited to be demonstrated at the 2012 Evolution Championship Series, one of the world’s most prominent fighting game tournament events.
Just like every other game in this article, Fighting is Magic was halted by a cease and desist order. But instead of responding by either shutting down the game forever or trying to get permission from Hasbro, the company that owns My Little Pony, Mane6 decided that they would redirect their efforts into making something wholly original.
My Little Pony: Fighting is Magic has evolved into Them’s Fightin’ Herds, a fighting game comprised of original characters and concepts. The game will feature a variety of four-legged animals like cows and deer as fighters. The game is still in early development, but it’s already received a lot of support. Lab Zero, the studio behind the fighting game Skullgirls, has allowed Mane6 to use the technological foundation of Skullgirls for Thems’ Fightin’ Herds, saving Mane6 a lot of work. Even Lauren Faust, one of the original creators of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has shown some love to the team by designing the original characters for the game.
Thems’ Fightin’ Herds took to crowdfunding to complete the game and successfully ended its campaign exceeding its goal by over $150,000. The game is expected to be released in the first quarter of 2017 and will be available on PC, Mac and Linux.
That’s basically the best case scenario for fans hoping to make their own games based on their favorites. Creating a fan game may very well be one of the most frustrating experiences in game development, but it can be rewarding, too. With some luck, even be able to see it through to the end.
Norbert Daniels Jr. is a freelance writer and one of the few remaining ska fans under 30. Follow him on Twitter @norbert_dan and listen to him take cartoons too seriously over at Saturday Morning Block Party.
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