Imagine if you’d spent years lovingly crafting a piece of work; if you’d nurtured it, cajoled it, even caressed it, all in a bid to get it to the point where you were finally ready to let the world see your creation. Now imagine if you’d spent years, getting that piece of work ready, while all the time you knew that what you’d been working on could be taken away from you at any time.
Welcome to the world of fan-made games, where gamers, not content with merely playing as their favourite characters, create the kinds of games that they and other fans want to exist.
It’s no surprise that as video games have grown in popularity, so have the number of video-game fans who want to make games that elicit the same feeling of excitement in others that they experienced themselves. That desire can either push people to try and create original content from the get-go, or, in the same way as the Rolling Stones got started by covering the likes of Chuck Berry and Little Richard, it can inspire people to imitate their heroes’ creations.
Right now, there are two ways that fan-made games and their makers are considered. They can be thought of as paying homage to their inspirations, made by fans who want to celebrate games that they enjoy. Let’s call that the Sega approach. Alternatively, makers of fan-made games can be treated like interlopers who ruthlessly infringe upon copyright and intellectual property. Let’s call this the Nintendo standpoint.
In 2016, one game distributor, Game Jolt, reported that it was forced to remove 500 fan-made games having received a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) takedown request from Nintendo. But are video-game companies who take this approach missing the point? Instead of clinging on to copyrights and supporting IP protectionism, wouldn’t they be better served supporting gamers who want to popularise the games and characters that fans the world over enjoy, and – if the work is good enough – even consider bringing it under the official video game company’s umbrella?
The Pokemon problem
Given Nintendo’s hardline approach to fan-made games, it’s unfortunate that some of the most popular fan-created titles have infringed upon its various copyrights. In 2016 two Pokemon fan-made games were killed by Nintendo; first of all, Pokemon Uranium, which was nine years in the making, got issued with a cease-and-desist letter, and then, four days before Christmas, the ROM hack Pokemon Prism was also pulled by Nintendo.
The strange thing about Nintendo’s decision to pull the plug on Pokemon Prism is that despite all the aggression and fist shaking Nintendo aims towards fan-made games, it doesn’t have a history of blocking ROM hacks, which essentially take existing, paid-for game engines and assets, and remix them by adding a patch.
Pokemon Prism’s creator, Adam “Koolboyman” Vierra, insists his game would have launched as a free patch with no links to original Pokemon ROMs, and to make it clear he intended to make no money from the project he was going to insert a page that encouraged players to support official games and merchandise.
“I thought I understood Nintendo’s unwritten rules regarding fan games. I wasn’t making money and I made it clear when you start the game that this is a fan project,” said Vierra during a Reddit AMA. “ROM Hacks were never taken down by Nintendo, and the only ROM hack I knew of that was taken down was Crimson Skies, but that was from Squaresoft, not Nintendo.”
In truth, Prism was probably a victim of its own success. The game was eventually leaked by “a group of people interested in seeing ROM hacks succeed,” and although, for obvious reasons download figures don’t exist, we do know that the game was shared widely, and fans have been keen to share how the game works on their Nintendo 3DS.
“I understand that based on the circumstances Nintendo had to take action and I have no hard feelings against them anymore,” said Vierra. “They felt threatened by Prism’s massive hype and popularity and they had to do something to protect their trademark.”
How to make a fan-made game
If you too want to be involved in the masochistic world of fan-made gaming, then here’s some advice for you. First of all, and we can’t stress this enough, keep your project small. Part of the reason Pokemon Prism was detected was because sites like Kotaku (previously part of Gawker Media) wrote about it, while its trailer gained millions of views and its arrival was liked thousands of times on Facebook.
The best thing you can do is try to build a small, modest and loyal community, something like Prism had in 2015
“The best thing you can do is try to build a small, modest and loyal community, something like Prism had in 2015. It’s easy to get into the mindset ‘the more [people] that know about my fan game the better’, but as Prism and other fan games proved that comes with consequences,” said Vierra. “Don’t make big trailers or big pieces of promotional material.”
In reality, though, if you decide to make a fan-made game and it turns out to be good, then there’s not a lot you can do to contain the hype. Your best option is to maintain some detachment, so if the day ever comes when Nintendo burst through the door brandishing a cease-and-desist letter (it doesn’t really happen like that) then at least you’ll be able to get over your loss.
“The harsh reality is sometimes you don’t have control over the popularity and hype over your own game and it can come when you least expect it,” explains Vierra. “The better your fan game is, the more likely people are going to get excited about it and spread the word to everywhere. What you can do is at least try to contain it.
“I’m not trying to scare people,” said Vierra, “but you should at the very least mentally prepare yourself for the worst so that in case it does happen, you’ll be more mentally stable to handle the situation. I got too comfortable during the last days of Prism and when it happened I was an emotional wreck. While the worst is behind me and I’m finally comfortable … I’m still recovering. I don’t want anyone to go through that.”
Copy the Collyers
Sports games are ephemeral with new versions being released each year. But some fans have a favourite version, a favourite team and a favourite player that they don’t want to let go of, so predictably some have taken to editing games in order to keep them alive. Anyone who knows the history of Championship Manager and Football Manager will have heard the story of Champ Manager 01/02, which has been updated since its release to reflect the changes in football teams’ personnel while maintaining the spirit of the original.
To some this may be awkward, but the creators of the Championship Manager series are flattered that people are still playing a game that is over a decade out of date. “It’s fair enough, I think the games have become more complex over the years, so I can understand why people have said the main version is too complicated for me now, but I’m really happy with this version. It’s great that people are still playing the game that we made that long ago then that’s a cool thing. It might not bring the money in, but…” says Championship Manager’s co-creator, Oliver Collyer.
The situation that Champ Manager has allowed, where fan-made games and the real thing can coexist, has enabled fans to celebrate games that they love and share them with new audiences. Perhaps this is something Nintendo could embrace in the future, and we could see a fan-made Pokemon, a fan-made Metroid or a fan-made Zelda. But don’t hold your breath.
“Who knows, maybe in a couple of years Nintendo will change how it handles this kind of stuff,” said Vierra. “I’m not saying it’s going to happen, but it’s a possibility. If they do and if they’re interested in partnering with people who made fan projects, they know how to reach me and I wouldn’t hesitate to partner with them.”
Nintendo did not respond to Factor’s request for comment.