Earlier this week, Llamasoft founder and veteran game developer Jeff Minter spoke out publicly for the first time about his months-long legal disagreements with Atari over the rights to Vita tube shooter TxK and the resemblance to that of Atari Storm series. After some heated public comments on the matter (including complaints about being “devastated by [the] undead corpse” from Atari), Minter spoke to Ars Technica via email to further clarify his stance on the game and its legal status.
Minter says he first learned of “Infogrames” last April (“I refuse to call them Atari,” he says of the ever-changing legal entity that owns Atari’s classic IP), through a lawyer-drafted letter about TxK‘s alleged infringement. Since then there has been a succession of letters from [legal firm] Dorsey [and Whitney] which can basically be summed up as, ‘Give us personal information about your finances or we’ll screw you up.'” Even after Minter sent financial information revealing that the Vita version of TxK no longer earns any significant income, he says Atari persisted in “demanding that I quit TxK from the PSN store and that I sign papers stating that I will never receive a Storm-style game again.”
Despite Atari’s claims that he is in “constant contact” with Minter on the matter, he says he wouldn’t classify the back-and-forth between his lawyers and theirs as genuine communication. “There was never any dialogue as such, just a set of demands where I had to give in a little more each time, expecting a little concession from them in return, but never getting it,” he says.
After receiving the initial letter from Atari’s law firm, Minter said he was trying to propose a mutually beneficial solution to the situation, “which may involve Atari getting into licensed ports of ours and maybe helping with the promotion along with some sort of royalty share arrangement.” After all, as Minter puts it, “I have a game that, with a little twist, could be marketed as a legitimate successor to some… Atari IP.”
As Minter sees it, Storm 2000 is still remembered as one of the best games from the end of the “golden age” Atari, and TxK was rated better than anything Atari has made in years. “I mean attack me? They should have rented me for God’s sake. … [Llamasoft] could have been a powerful ally and helped them regain some credibility among Atari fans and take the Atari brand and games to new worlds like VR and give it a bit of gamer-worthiness. … [Hiring Llamasoft] probably would have gone down well with Atari fans who were increasingly feeling that Infogrames had no idea what to do with the brand.”
TxK‘s distinct design
Despite the implications of Atari’s legal letters, Minter says he didn’t have physical access to any of the Storm 2000 source code or documentation when creating TxK and never had access to the source code for the original arcade Stormdeveloped by Dave Theurer for Atari in 1980. Minter says he was a freelance contractor for Atari when he worked on Storm 2000 and would receive a royalty from anyone Storm 2000 ports to other platforms. However, he did not clarify how his contract with Atari defined ownership of the long-term rights to the game itself.
While Minter admits that both Storm 2000 And TxK are based on Theurer’s original design, owned by Atari, he said that “being generous … Storm 2000 is probably 20% Theurer and 80% Llamasoft. Even if you were generous and said TxK was 30% Storm 2000 and 70% Llamasoft, that’s genetically a lot of Llamasoft in that line.”
Even TxK may look very similar Storm 2000 On the surface, Minter states there are plenty of design changes to differentiate the final game, such as “a fully articulated ship that actually walks across the playing surface” instead of the “series of vector sprites” in Storm 2000. TxK also features the ability to shift firing path from one “hand” of the ship to the other and lean out to fire along an adjacent channel without moving the ship.
Minter also points out new features such as “loads more enemy types; surfaces that are dynamic and can be warped and rotated; several bonus rounds; transition bonus sequences; [and] a million improvements and tweaks that simply reflect my extra 20 years of experience as a designer since I created Storm 2000.”
“TxK is a tube shooter, but it’s not Storm game, it has no links to Atari; it’s just a Llamasoft designed tube shooter made 20 years later Storm 2000he continued. “If I had released a game called ‘Tempest 4000’ and based it more deliberately on Storm 2000 then maybe they would be rightly angry, but… when Atari ordered Storm 2000 from Llamasoft, they haven’t forever ordered every tube shooter Llamasoft could ever make.”
“Atari seems to deny that games can have a lineage,” he continued. “Of course they do – look at Super star dust 3D it clearly has Asteroids genes, or Geometry Wars who has ancestors robotron (like any twin stick shooter). You can’t expect to own every game that draws inspiration from an old design. If that isn’t already legally proven enough then it has to be proven because otherwise it just allows for this kind of situation where a dog can stomp in the manger with a bunch of old IP on the head of anyone whose game has lineage that touches that old IP address and that situation is positively detrimental to game design.”
Legally, it can be extremely difficult to prove that a game is an infringing “copy” of an older title. Unless specific art/sound assets, source code fragments, or trademark names are reused, simple similarity in overall game design rarely reaches the level of legal copyright infringement. However, there are exceptions, such as The Tetris Company’s successful lawsuit against iOS clone minand case law on the subject continues to evolve as new judges take a fresh look at the changing landscape.
In Dorsey’s first letter, Atari also claims that the TxK name is an attempt to familiarize yourself with the ordinary T2K abbreviation often used to describe Storm 2000. Minter instead insists that “TxK was specifically chosen to prevent anyone using it from stepping on their toes Storm trademark. I didn’t want to be associated with it anymore StormI didn’t want to call it anything Storm-I like Typhoon or Cyclone, and while I thought it would put the game at a disadvantage to give it such an obscure title, I did anyway. I find it rather strange that I even did things to avoid association with Storm are held up as things I must have done to associate myself with Storm.”
The ultimate fate of planned ports for TxK to platforms like the PS4 and Oculus Rift “depends entirely on what Infogrames do next, I suppose,” says Minter. “Should they ever go out of business, and I’m sure a stake really goes through the heart this time, I will of course release the gates.”
An Atari spokesperson told Ars that the company has no further public comment on the situation beyond the statement provided earlier this week.