Don’t Get Mad at Atari for Shutting Down an iOS Battlezone Clone

By  |  Wednesday, January 4, 2012 at 9:54 am

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 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.

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14 Comments For This Post

  1. Pablo Says:

    Really? That's your opinon, "don't get mad at Atari"? They've also been going after emulators. It's a little late for that don't you think? I've already bought Atari's Greatest Hits for iPad, I do support them, but I'll still be playing Atari games via emulators, thank you very much.

    Vector Tanks is so much better than the original Battlezone. I hope the developer has made a bundle of money from it. It's an amazing app, something that Atari in it's current state probably couldn't do.

  2. Jared Newman Says:

    Totally agree that going after emulators is futile and misguided.

  3. Varek Says:

    I was under the impression that as long as they created the content (code/graphics) themselves, even if it's similar to Atari's, that it's not infringement. Clearly I'm having a misunderstanding about this as they *have* been removed. Can someone tell me what the criteria is?

  4. John Fenderson Says:

    You're confusing two different copyrighted things. In the case of the copyright on the actual source code, you're correct. You can produce your own implementation of code that operates identically to the original without violating the copyright on it so long as your implementation is your own (you didn't use the original source).

    However, there's a different and separate copyright on the images and sounds used (and, in some court cases, the gameplay mechanics — although that's fuzzier). You cannot duplicate them, even if you engineered them from scratch to do so, without violating copyright.

    If the game was functionally identical, but used different graphics & sound, there would be no copyright violation.

  5. Matt Says:

    I assume your opinion extends to Gameloft?

  6. Jared Newman Says:

    Somewhat. I think Gameloft's practice of ripping off popular console games is shameful, but I don't think the aesthetic resemblance between, say, Halo and NOVA, quite reaches the same level, mainly because the look of Battlezone is pretty distinct, whereas there's a lot of room for deviation in the graphics of modern games. I'd be more peeved if Halo-shaped structures figured prominently into NOVA, or if Triforces were a part of Sacred Odyssey.

    Having said that, if Microsoft, Sony and other companies ripped off by Gameloft were to complain to Apple, I wouldn't blame them.

  7. Jared Newman Says:

    Not a lawyer, but I don't think that's how it works. If I made a game that looked and played exactly like Super Mario Bros, but created the graphics and code myself and tried to sell it in the app store, I'm pretty sure Nintendo's legal team would be all over that.

    Anyway, I'm not arguing about legality in this case, just morality of being upset with Atari for protecting its IP.

  8. The_Heraclitus Says:

    The "thing" to get upset about (if anything) is the insanely long copyright time period. Congress has extended it too far.

  9. Terrin Says:

    I have an easy time getting mad at Atari. Copyright law has been warped in ways that severely undermine the intended purpose

  10. Allan Says:

    You cant just steal someone's game, guys. Plus Black Powder Media straight up LIED to everyone

    Dec 30 – "The cruel irony here is that I tried for years to get a hold of Atari to license their IP but they seemed to have fallen off the planet"

    Jan 5 – "We then called Nolan Bushnell who suggested we make Vector Tanks an official Battlezone title and then put us in touch with Atari" … The conversation continued for almost two months

    So which one is it? Did they try to get in touch with Atari and they said no, or did they lie?

    PLUS these guys are NOT indie developers. Indie developers are two guys after hours cranking on a great game. Black Powder Media is backed by private equity. They are just trying to get free press by yelling.

  11. solo4357 Says:

    "That’s a soulless approach to game design, and it’s best left to Atari."

    Yes definitely leave soulless design to Atari, they are good at it. Heh.

  12. Oisín Says:

    "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."

    That is either disingenuous or very naieve. Battlezone was released in 1980. Over THIRTY YEARS AGO. Thirty years before it was more-or-less ripped off. Atari has already profited greatly from the game, and there's little or no damage to be done to Atari's bottom line by this clone. If anything, it increases visibility of the original game/franchise.

    On the other hand, Splosion Man was released ONE YEAR before Capcom blatantly copied it. Not only were they released within a year of each other, but clearly Capcom has a huge advantage in terms of marketing power, not to mention a legal team and budget to initiate (see Data East, 1993) and defend against legal action.

    In fact – just to drive the point home – the small developer didn't even bother to go to court, since Capcom is just way too big for them to handle.
    On the other hand, Atari are absolutely happy to send cease and desist letters and take people to court the slightest whiff of infringement on an ancient game – even targeting non-profit retro websites and emulators.

    How can you even compare these cases in good faith, and have the audacity to suggest that treating them differently is a double standard?

  13. Allan Says:

    Actually, the original battlezone came out in 1980. It was re-released and updated in 1998 and 2008. Both games saw commercial success, even if you might not have heard of them.

    So Vector Tanks didn’t just rip of a 1980 game, but a game from this millennium as well.

    Additionally, how do you know that the new Vector Tanks wont hurt Atari today? Considering Atari is now focused on mobile and might (speculation) have an OFFICIAL Battlezone game coming out soon. Wouldn't VT damage Atari's bottom line in that case?

  14. Oisín Says:

    If (continued speculation) Atari have an "OFFICIAL" Battlezone game coming out soon, then of course that would have a bearing on this case. But speculating about whether Atari might knock out a third clone of their 32 year old game seems rather pointless, does it not? We know for certain that Capcom ripped off a one-year old game by a small publisher.

    Additionally, the marketing and development budget (and automatic marketing thanks to their well-established brand name) of both Capcom and Atari gives them a huge advantage compared with a small developer working out of their garage.

    Not to mention the chilling effects of legal threats, and the practical impossibility of one of those developers either defending themselves in court against allegations of ripoffery, or of taking a mammoth like Capcom to court for same.

    Capcom (and Atari) can afford to rip people off and not even worry about going to court, while small developers get a takedown notice at the drop of a hat, or risk being destroyed in expensive legal action. Do you think that's right?