Fan Remakes and Sequels: The Ethics of Imitation

Posted on December 16, 2013 - 10:10pm by SanjiSasuke


Fans and smaller developers have taken to making entries in their favorite series, but it isn't always the same. Copyright infringement has been a good guy and a bad guy in many ways over the course of this trend.

Indie development is bigger than ever, and everybody knows it. With some of the best selling games on PSN, XBL, Steam and Mobile marketplaces making their way into the world, it has become apparent that the indie game has become more powerful than ever.

One side effect of this is the onset of a multitude of fan-made games being made, and even sold, based on various well known IPs. It is worth noting that not every fan made endeaver is the same, and so we will explore a few examples and talk about the ethics of this trend. But first:

Why now?

What makes indie devs so special is that most of them are just like you and I. In the past, game devs were often just coders or artists who did not have a great history of video game fandom. For example, Hideo Kojima is a huge fan of movies and loved the idea of video gaming. As a result he made a game series that many liken to movies, and rightly so.

Of course, many game devs today are big fans of video games. But even when 'big time' devs are indeed big game fans, though, they are usually working on an original project that they are assigned or one they make up themselves. It is rare that they are actually given the opportunity to work on their own favorite franchise.

But the freedom that comes from not having a boss or responsibility to profit leaves the indie developer open to a new possibility: making a game from their favorite gaming franchise. People have gone about this is quite a few different ways.

The Free Model

I'd say this is the most common (and least controversial) model of them all. The developer does not, in fact, make money from releasing the game, at least not directly. Instead it is released completely for free.

A few examples of this would be Megaman Unlimited or Streets of Rage Remake. Having actually played SoRR, I can say the quality is impeccable. It really blows the official Sega re-releases out of the water. It includes a huge variety of new features and I recommend a fan try it out.

But the point of looking at these is to notice one thing: they made the games completely independently of the original owners and, possibly more importantly, with no intention to profit from the sale of these games.

Now these can play out a number of ways, but the most common way is to have the game be released and eventually (when it becomes popular enough, usually) it will be noticed by the original owners of the IP. Most times the company will approve of the game if it continues to remain free.

This was the case with Black Mesa, a Half-Life fan remake. Valve called the move "common sense." Some companies argue that these games can hurt the franchise as a whole. But the retort to this assertion for Black Mesa was, "Well, let's say that Black Mesa Source turned out horrible. It's not going to hurt the original Half-Life."

In my opinion that is why this medium should be left alone by the companies. To me, it seems that fan made versions of games can do nothing but good for the franchise. If it is bad, people won't play it, or will comment on how much better the original was. If it is good, it will pique interest in the series. I know I didn't care much for King of Fighters until I saw the characters in MUGEN.

Company Backed Free Games

Some free games get backed by the companies, which is the 'safest' and most preferable format. A few examples include TimeSplitters Rewind and Street Fighter X Megaman. Timesplitters is the more recent example, and Crytek has officially sanctioned the release of the game on PSN (for free, of course).

I find SFXMM is so striking, because it was, in fact, a pretty big deal. Any Megaman fan knows why: this was the first Megaman game Capcom was 'involved' with in a while (pretending that thing for iOS never existed). Reception to this was mixed. Some loved that Capcom continued their open stance on free, fan-made creations and celebrated the anniversary of the Blue Bomber. But others reacted with anger that it took an independent developer to finally make the game (and there has not been one since).

That is the main controversy with this sort of game: when the original company is backing it, why didn't they make it themselves. In my opinion, this is a "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth" situation. I feel that company involvement is the most advantageous position for the game to be in, as not only will it bypass all legal issues, it also give the game a chance to influence the company. Should Capcom have made a new Megaman game? Maybe, but this way we got one, and Capcom didn't have to worry about cost assessment, which leads to the game actually being made, not squashed by some suit in Capcom's PR office.

For-Profit Unlicensed Remakes

Speaking of Capcom, we will be looking at the most controversial type of fan game remake. The one making a few headlines recently is the Ghosts N Goblins remake. Capcom has recently taken down the game from Steam under Copyright infringement.

The reaction to this has been mixed. While some attack Capcom for taking the game down, others support the decisions, on grounds that the company would be profiting off of the Ghosts N Goblins license.

Copyright law was put into place for nearly this exact reason. The small development company is trying to release a game to a franchise that they do not own, have not secured rights to or have the permission to make. But more importantly they are profiting off of it.

This is a fine example of "Fair Use" being abused. The company is making a game that uses the license to increase the popularity of the game, and in my opinion, could be using the license for that reason alone. Even the gameplay is said to be changed for the game, which indicates to me that it is possible that the name was put on for the purpose of making the game ever the more popular.

This should not be tolerated, just because they are a small company. Obviously the deed would be easy to see if a company like Konami or EA were to do it, and I don't think that a small game developer should have the right to rip off a franchise either.

Furthermore, if cases like this are not reprimanded they could be used as reasons to limit the powers of "Fair Use" even more than they already are. Companies may feel threatened if they can't protect IPs from such action.

A system where ideas are not kept to their owners is one that has been tested and didn't work well for the creators. In Soviet Russia Mikhail Kalashnikov designed the most used rifle in history, the AK-47. Now, although reports of his terrible life afterwards are greatly exaggerated, he never saw any money for the weapon's invention, and instead lives off a state pension. This is an extreme example, of course, but it emphasizes the importance of keeping ideas safe and profitable for the sake of the creators.

Why not cut the developer in?

It is possible, of course for the fan to do business with the developer, of course. But for Capcom to approve the game, they would have to approve of the quality. You see, unlike Black Mesa, in this case the game would be a representative of the franchise, at least in some capacity. If the game does not adhere to quality standards, it could hurt the franchise's reputation (especially from people who have not played the older games, and may get the wrong impression)



All and all, I would say that fan games are great, but only if they are free or supported by the owner. Of course the best set-up would be both, which can close most legal holes, but what are your thoughts on the matter? Any better examples of these types of games?

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