Editorial – WotC Copyright Issue Not Just a Digital Issue

Editorial – WotC’s Copyright Issue Not Just a Digital Issue

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Mike Eaton, Play Unplugged (5/15/14)

 

Yesterday, Wizards of the Coast LLC, a subsidiary of Hasbro, Inc. and publisher of the card game Magic: the Gathering, filed a copyright complaint against Cryptozoic Entertainment and Hex Entertainment. You can click to read the complaint, but in the simplest terms, WotC is concerned that the online game Hex: Shards of Fate is a clone of Magic that intrudes on its Intellectual Property (IP).

Originally, I didn’t think I’d have much to say on this issue, as Hex is a digital game, but the nature of the game isn’t the big question, here. I spent a fair amount of time researching U.S. Copyright Law back when I wanted to be a cartoonist, so it is something I know to be concerned about as a content creator.

As writers and editors for Play Unplugged, though we like to keep the tone loose and fresh, Rico and I have to be diligent to make sure anything we do falls within fair use or parody or other protected areas, and not tread on any of the games we have the honor and privilege to play and cover. Folks go back and forth on copyright as an idea, but for a game producer — whether it’s an industry giant like Wizards, or one of the many wonderful small publishers we work with — IP is no joke. Nobody wants to put years of their life into a game just to have someone snag the best ideas, package them another way and build an audience they could have had and now may never get.

I had heard of Hex in passing, but I had never really looked into it. When the WotC announcement started to make its way through the usual Internet channels, I went to the Hex website and took a look. Here’s some copy that I found on their “How to Play” page:

“The HEX team is filled with people that have been playing and working on TCGs for the better part of their lives. When it comes to stuff that ain’t broke, we don’t want to fix it.  Veteran TCG players will find plenty of innovations that have never been seen before, but we also felt it was important that many rules will feel familiar.”

Looking through the game, that’s putting it mildly. While there are certain elements to card games that will feel familiar in many different games — resources, permanent cards vs. transient cards, a points system, various piles with various meanings — there are myriad ways to accomplish these. In the Star Wars CCG, the discard pile was called the “Lost Pile,” because your characters didn’t “die”; they were just gone from the game. In Legend of the Five Rings, a discarded Personality might be in the same pile as an Honorably Dead or Dishonorably Dead personality, but they’ll be turned different directions and function in different ways with different cards. And in Magic, discarded or dead creatures go to a pile called the Graveyard. As do cards in Hex.

In SWCCG, the cards in your various face-down piles represent your attachment to The Force, and therefore your life points. In L5R, there are several ways to win or lose, including Enlightenment, Honor, Dishonor, and military domination. You do keep track of an honor score, which could be considered your life total, but it ranges from -20 to 40. In Pokemon, you generally win by claiming all of your prize cards — similar to Kaijudo, but since the Pokemon game was originally developed by WotC and taken away by Nintendo, they presumably have no issues, there. Wotc sued Nintendo for patent infringement in continuing to make the game, by the way, much like this complaint; it was settled out of court. But back to Magic, you most commonly win the game by reducing your opponent, who starts at 20 life points, to zero. And in Hex, the “Paragon” who represents your deck has 20 health points, and you lose when that total reaches zero.

Other striking similarities between Hex and Magic that (in my opinion as a TCG player and not a legal expert) are not necessary to a card game and might be considered willful appropriation, even if it’s in the spirit of familiarity:

  • Sixty-card deck
  • Fifteen-card booster packs
  • Seven-card opening hand
  • Optional re-draw of your hand with one fewer card each time
  • Five “Thresholds” that sound (and look, in color and flavor) extremely similar (though not exactly the same color pie) to both the five colors of Magic and the five Kaijudo civilizations — plus Artifacts, which can be played with any type of resource
  • Play one resource each turn, which corresponds to one of the five Thresholds, and a certain number of which Threshold will be required for certain cards
  • Attacking and “defending” is functionally similar to Magic combat. Troops attack opponents directly and un-exhausted opposing troops step in to block. Troops cannot attack the turn they enter play. Attack and Defense statistics interact the same way (admittedly common) and damage is removed from living Troops after combat (also common).

Layered atop these are some innovations that can only work or work best online (counting the number of a type of card in your deck for an effect, for example), and there’s no mistaking a Hex card for a Magic card by looking at it. But I don’t think that’s enough to call it a new, unique property, and neither (apparently) do the Wizards of the Coast. In fact, it could be problematic down the line if Hex were to come up with a mechanic and stick it onto an otherwise very Magic: the Gathering card; if WotC later thought up something similar, suddenly Hex could fire back with a lawsuit of its own. That would be a shame, since you have to build a skeleton before you put on the skin, and the skeleton of Hex couldn’t have happened without WotC’s flagship card game.

I also think it’s worth noting that some Hex terms like “Unique” and “Lore Text” are found in the defunct Star Wars CCG verbatim. The stated goal of making the game feel familiar comes off less like the comforts of home and more like finding your mother ironing your laundry and realizing she’s stuttering and sparkingHex seems to have tried to cobble together the best TCG it could think of from spare parts, whatever their reasons, except the parts weren’t spare. They are very much in use, and they are not for the taking. Historically, Wizards of the Coast has gone back and forth on this issue — these are the same folks who created the d20 Open Game License back in 2000, after all, and later the GSL for D&D 4th Edition — but they make it very clear that the ball is in their court to lend their properties first, and not for someone else to take them.

Wizards of the Coast’s problem right now could be that of any gaming company. It could be yours or mine. Lawsuits and complaints and rivalries will always sound tacky and against the community spirit to me, on some level, but appropriating someone else’s IP is against the spirit of fair play. And fair play is very important to us here at Play Unplugged. Speaking for myself, I hope this is settled quickly and quietly, but I understand why WotC is upset. If I had spent twenty years and countless dollars polishing and perfecting a game that is cherished all over the world through my hard work, I wouldn’t stand for it if I thought I found someone cherry-picking the best parts from it and using up potential design space for themselves.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions of Mike Eaton are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of Play Unplugged. Mike has, without the company’s input or oversight, reviewed products for Wizards of the Coast, sometimes with compensation limited to the review copy of the product itself.

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