Atari’s been a shell of its old self for decades now, but the rise of smartphones and tablets has rejuvinated the game publisher, as it remakes old classics for new platforms. Apparently this has become a problem for a few smaller developers, whose Atari-inspired creations have prompted takedowns from the publisher’s legal team.
Most recently, Black Powder Media raised a stink when Apple removed two of the developer’s games, Vector Tanks and Vector Tanks Extreme, from the iOS App Store at Atari’s request. Atari more or less confirmed the news, telling GamesIndustry.biz that “we need to vigorously protect our intellectual property and ensure that it is represented in highly innovative games.”
It’s the kind of story that sparks predictable outrage: Big bad game company shuts down scrappy indie game creation. Only in this case, I’m having a tough time getting angry.
Let’s be honest: Vector Tanks rips off plenty of the Battlezone aesthetic, including the green wireframe tanks, the square- and triangle-shaped obstacles, and the wireframe mountains in the distance set against a black backdrop. Watch some video of both games, and you’ll see that the sound effects and controls are pretty similar as well. Vector Tanks even rips off the way the Battlezone title text scrolls up the screen. The follow-up, Vector Tanks Extreme, adds a lot more original features, but it’s built on the same cloned foundation.
Because this is a case of the indie developer ripping off the big guy, customer sentiment falls in Black Powder Media’s favor. (TouchArcade’s post sums up that sentiment: “Either way, it’s just sad to see Vector Tanks and Extreme caught in the crossfire, as I never saw those games as “rip-offs” or ‘clones’ of Battlezone, rather, just very tasteful fan-made homages.” More on this distinction shortly.)
When the big publisher rips off the indie developer, however, a double standard applies. For example, Capcom took heat a year ago for shamelessly copying Twisted Pixel’s Splosion Man with an iOS game called MaxPlosion. I doubt anyone would have complained if Capcom was the one that got ripped off.
I’m all in favor of developers drawing upon old games for inspiration, improving them and turning them into entirely new ideas. And I like fan-made homages when they expand significantly on the original and–this is important–are not sold for commercial gain (Vector Tanks cost $1, and Extreme cost $2). But in this case, the makers of Vector Tanks simply copied Battlezone’s look, feel and core play mechanics, and added a few frills. That’s a soulless approach to game design, and it’s best left to Atari.