The news has been awash with talk of trademarks over the past week or so, trademarks and clones. Somewhere those two strands met, and that 'where' was on the digital doorstep of King.com.
King, if you don't know, are the company that makes titles like Candy Crush Saga, Pet Rescue Saga and Bubble Witch Saga (noticing a pattern emerge?). They specialise in mobile and social games, therefore not the types of games we're likely to cover too much on Gamereactor, but the kind of titles that'll regularly slap you round the chops on Facebook, or that you'll play on your phone on the bus when you've got exactly six minutes to kill and can't be arsed to read the adverts on the board above your head for a third time in a row.
Things first kicked off when, at the beginning of the week, word started circulating that King had secured the trademark on the word 'Candy'. It was a suggestive trademark, and only held sway in the field of gaming. Basically, it grants the company the legal right to challenge any other developer who uses the word 'Candy' in the title of a game.
The reason for this trademark, and for others like it, is to protect an intellectual property from others seeking to take advantage of its popularity, either by resembling it terms of mechanics or visual style, or by using the same words in their titles so they show up when people search using keywords. In this instance there are several App Store games that use the similar mechanics and the word 'Candy' in their title to attract gamers. Clutching their new trademark firmly in hand, King could now start to challenge companies that they felt were taking advantage of Candy Crush Saga, forcing them to either change their name or face a costly legal battle for the privilege of association.
This irked some people. Why? After all this sort of thing happens all the time. It's not unusual for companies to secure trademarks over words in common use (Apple anyone?). Two years ago Bethesda and Mojang had a dispute over the latter's use of the word 'Scrolls', with the Skyrim devs weary of brand confusion between the in-development title by the Minecraft creators, and their own Elder Scrolls series. Nobody batted an eyelid while those two companies sorted out their differences, which they did without too much hassle. Life continued much as it had before (and some lawyers got well paid for their troubles, no doubt).
So trademark protection isn't the reason that so many people are appalled by King's behaviour, as demonstrated by the reasonably apathetic response to this previous example. The industry doesn't mind that they're trying to protect their IP, it's not even because they trademarked the word 'Candy' despite the fact that it's very common (although that certainly raised a few eyebrows and annoyed a handful of people, it doesn't explain the level of vitriol levelled at the company now). People are upset, as far as I can tell, because it looks like King are trying to stop other developers doing to them what they themselves have done in the past, and that's take long established ideas and profit from them.
For a start, Candy Crush Saga is a match three game not unlike Bejeweled (and many others). We're hardly blazing a trail through a sea of originality here. But it gets much more suspicious than that when you scratch under the surface. Candyz was released in 2007 and is - yes you guessed it - a candy themed match three puzzle game. King are so scared of getting ripped off, but when so many of their own titles bear uncanny resemblances to other titles on the market it's hard to feel sympathy for them. That said, you can still understand their position, nobody likes to feel taken advantage of, and in some cases the cloning and copying of King's games was painfully obvious. When considered in those terms, it's not difficult to sympathise with their position.
That is until you consider what happened next.
Just hours after it emerged that King had bagged the word 'Candy', it was made public that they were also gunning for the word 'Saga'. It's an easy leap to make, both words appear in their most popular game, Candy Crush Saga. There's every reason to assume that a developer might use the word 'Saga' in the title of a clone as a means of communicating the similarities between their game and CCS, and thus taking potential gamers away from King. It's therefore also possible that they've got a similar fixation with the word 'Crush', but that's just speculation on my part.
However, any of King's remaining goodwill - already under strain after our years of dismissing pissy little Facebook requests from people sending Candy Crush invites - soon evaporated when it emerged that the company had filed a notice of opposition against indie game The Banner Saga. As they later stressed, King weren't trying to stop developers Stoic from using the word 'Saga' in their epic viking adventure game, they just wanted to stop them trademarking the name of their game. The legal document in question suggested something about brand confusion, and needing to protect King's customers (presumably from making a mistake and accidentally buying a viking-themed RPG on their PC when actually they wanted to download a puzzle game on their mobile phone).
To say that the move didn't go down well would be something of an understatement. King's attempts at damage limitation were largely ignored, as by then most people had their minds made up about the company. Trademarking 'Candy' was bad enough, but chasing after an indie dev with a game that has absolutely nothing to do with their own, that doesn't exist in the same space (one's a social puzzle game, the other's a tactical RPG on Steam) and is in no way a threat to their product; well that was enough to send people over the edge.
The perfectly sound explanation that they had to do it: "otherwise, it would be much easier for future copycats to argue that use of the word "Saga" when related to games, was fair play," sits at odds with what's actually written in the legal document that states that "potential customers are likely to believe that Applicant's goods originate from Opposer, resulting in a likelihood of confusion in the marketplace, and damage to the Opposer." Common-sense dictates that, in this particular case, this just isn't true.
"We're not trying to stop Stoic from using the word Saga but we had to oppose their application to preserve our own ability to protect our own games," King CEO Riccardo Zacconi said when outlining his company's position on IP. That's fine, and again we can understand where they're coming from, but if you look at it from Stoic's position, they just want to be able to trademark their own game without lawyers challenging them.
Before we go on... The definition of 'Saga' is "a long story of heroic achievement, especially a medieval prose narrative in Old Norse or Old Icelandic", not "brightly coloured freemium experience that drags out on social and mobile channels". Just saying.
The response to King's manouvering has been huge and unanimous. Beyond the plethora of news reports and articles, and the running jokes being shared by indie devs and journalists alike on social media channels, there have been other notable examples of the gaming community coming together to fight this perceived evil. Indie devs are coordinating a game jam. Nothing unusual about that, except this one's called Candy Jam and it challenges game developers to make a game about candy, and they're encouraged to use words like 'Scroll' and 'Saga' in the title.
Indie poster-boy and Mojang developer Markus "Notch" Persson took to Twitter to demonstrate his distaste towards the very same company that used to employ him: "@King_Games I am very sad to see that you are turning more and more evil over time. You are hurting the industry. Please stop."
George Broussard, the creator of Duke Nukem, was among many voices calling for people to show their displeasure by vetoing King games: "I don't have any King apps installed on my phone, but if I did, I'd be deleting them right now in meaningless protest," he Tweeted. The list goes on and on.
When we reached out to Stoic, the independent developer stuck in the middle of all this, they told us: "We won't make a viking saga without the word Saga, and we don't appreciate anyone telling us we can't. King.com claims they're not attempting to prevent us from using The Banner Saga, and yet their legal opposition to our trademark filing remains," before elaborating their postition to Polygon by saying: "They've blocked our trademark and extended the deadline for the opposition twice so that we are unable to have the rights to the name. Essentially, we are not allowed to own the name 'The Banner Saga' for our game about a viking epic, because King.com says they have claimed rights to the noun 'saga,' which means 'a viking epic,' forever more in the realm of games."
No matter how you look at it, that doesn't sound fair, and it's no surprise the vast majority of people are siding with Stoic on the subject of Saga.
Personally I have no doubts that the next chapter of The Banner Saga will get made. Despite the obvious frustrations for Stoic in the short term, they may well look back in the months and years ahead and appreciate the additional coverage this incident has granted their game (you can read why we liked it so much here). It's certainly only a potential silver lining at the moment, we're still not sure how this will work out for either studio. But as it stands it feels like King is throwing their considerable weight around, pushing (some might call it bullying) smaller companies with their wealth and the size of their legal team. We shouldn't be too naive in this regard, after all we are talking about big business, but in an industry based so much on perception and good will, it pays to have a positive image.
King's image no doubt took another knock with the final revelation from last week, where indie dev Matthew Cox accused the company of cloning his game back in 2009 because he and his studio had the audacity to walk away from a deal. Cox claims that no contracts were signed. According to his account King were in talks to publish a game called ScamperGhost, but when Cox had a better offer and took his game elsewhere, King hired another company specifically to clone their game and bring it to market first.
"I don't really care that much that King.com copied our game," Cox later said to RPS. "I have no interest or goal whatsoever of limiting other people's ability to create whatever they want. I only resurfaced this in response to the actions King is taking to limit the innovation of others. King's treatment of our intellectual property combined with their partial use of NAMCO's trademark Pac(man) in their copied game shows extreme hypocrisy."
King has since removed the offending game - Pac-Avoid - although they initially refuted allegations that they cloned the title, releasing a statement that said: "King does not clone other peoples' games. King believes that IP - both our own IP and that of others - is important and should be properly protected. Like any prudent company, we take all appropriate steps to protect our IP in a sensible and fair way. At the same time, we are respectful of the rights and IP of other developers."
It then continued: "Before we launch any game, we do a thorough search of other games in the marketplace, as well as a review of trademark filings, to ensure that we are not infringing anyone else's IP. However, for the avoidance of doubt, in this case, this game - which was coded by a third-party developer 5 years ago - has been taken down."
They then shifted position slightly, making a few concessions in this statement made on their website: "The game [Pac-Avoid] strongly resembles another game called ScamperGhost. The details of the situation are complex, but the bottom line is that we should never have published Pac-Avoid. We have taken the game down from our site, and we apologise for having published it in the first place."
So they're sorry, then. "Let me be clear," the post continues. "This unfortunate situation is an exception to the rule. King does not clone games, and we do not want anyone cloning our games." Except that one time. It's impossible to check the veracity of their claims, as we can't now see if any other games were also removed at the same time as Pac-Avoid. Unfortunately we weren't proactive enough to catalogue King's entire collection of titles when this all started last week.
The dev that made Pac-Avoid has also weighed in on the matter, with developer Matt Porter posting the following statement on his blog, giving some insight to how the deal was struck back in 2009: "One day, Lars [Jörnow] messaged us and asked us if we wanted a small job. He then told us that he was working with another developer to secure a sponsorship for the game ScamperGhost and that the developer had backed out of the deal. King wasn't too pleased with that, and so Lars requested that we clone the game for them."
"I had a good working relationship with King then and was quite upset that someone would break the FGL terms and conditions," he continued. "I initially thought the job was a little immoral, and a bit sketchy, but we had worked with King before, talked regularly, and Lars made these other developers seem like some really unprofessional jerks. Lars requested that we build the game quickly and explained that it would be optimal if we could beat the original game to market. Between needing the money, and Lars painting the developers of ScamperGhost as the bad guys, we took the job."
Porter then finished off with some closing thoughts where he laid out his personal opinion of the company that once contracted him: "I find it pathetic that a company such as King would throw the blame around in this situation while hypocritically attacking others. Trademarking common words such as "Candy" is just ridiculous. Bullying indie developers is even worse. The company is sitting on billions of dollars and everyone already knows about Candy Crush; I don't think they need to worry about getting ripped off, especially not by the people they're targeting. Based on their response to the recent allegations, I now know that the company is both deceitful and hypocritical."
Ultimately this last story is just a footnote to recent proceedings. An aside that will only further cement public opinion of a company who have, in the space of a week, gone from hero to zero. While they may have started off with the best of intentions - to protect their intellectual property from those that would take advantage of their popularity - their actions over the last few days, in particular their attempts to block Stoic from trademarking The Banner Saga, have probably done more harm than good. Having said that, whether they'll feel the brunt of it remains to be seen, as many of their audience aren't core gamers and will remain blissfully unaware of this whole situation. Their reputation within the close-knit gaming industry may be in tatters, but out there in the wilds of Facebook and the App Store, there's every chance life will continue for King in much the same way as it has before, and people will continue to download their games. They may even start to make more money as they clamp down on the other developers that are syphoning off their profits thanks to their newly acquired trademark.
We've reached out to King and are awaiting their response, though what happens next is anyone's guess, but rest assured we'll be keeping an eye on this saga in the weeks ahead to see what the next twist in this candy coated story will be.