Friday, September 25, 2015

Kickstarting Nostalgia: How Hard Can Creators Lean On Past Successes?

I wonder when we'll run out of things to say about Kickstarter's impact on game development.

Morality, economic viability...we seem to have talked about it all, but one thing I haven't seen much about is whether the respected developers turning to crowdfunding are playing with fire when they lean so heavily on their past games to market their new, independent ones. So far, developers haven't had any problems with their marketing campaigns running afoul of the companies that still hold the trademarks to the older properties, even where those old names are plastered all over the campaign. But that's something I can chalk up to the pragmatic rule of thumb that lawyers hate to spell out for people: If everyone's cool with something, it's cool. Thing is, you should never rely on everyone staying cool. People not staying cool is why lawyers have job.

Pictured: A dude being chill.
Not pictured: The legal profession. (source)
So what happens if everyone isn't cool anymore? What happens if the studios that still own the trademark's on those nostalgic, beloved properties decide they're not so thrilled with those marks being used to get funding for a competing project? The Kickstarter I want to use as our example case is the epic campaign for Koji Igarashi's "Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night." It's long been funded (which, for disclosure's sake, I'll say that I was not a part of), and it's undeniable that his past works are huge part of why it was so successful. Considering how....un-cool Konami  has been lately, maybe it's worth investigating from the outside whether they might try to turn the marketing for "Bloodstained" into another way of cutting down the competition.

The Kickstarter for "Bloodstained" knew exactly how to leverage Igarashi's history on the "Castlevania" series for maximum effect. As kickass as the little movie he made to pitch the idea was, he literally could not have made work without pulling from the imagery and tone that made the Castlevania series such a classic. Common sense tells us that the campaign wants to remind us of stuff like "Symphony of the Night" right off the bat in the new game's title. He's even got a term on the page - "Igavania" - as a description of gothic, exploration-focused action platformers like the ones he's built his reputation on. Even if they don't say it out loud, Castlevania is all over this Kickstarter, and the property is basically being used to sell a non-Konami product. I think there's an argument to be made that Bloodstained is advertising with a trademark it doesn't own. That makes me nervous!

Thankfully, there are protections for people who want to use their past work to advertise themselves on the internet. This is the part where I usually link to some case from back when Netscape Navigator was still a thing and use that to go point by point, but....I can't this time. Trust me, there is totally a case that is directly on point for this and it actually gets cited by courts on the regular...but I'm not going to link it. Don't make me link it, guys, it'll really mess up the search engine terms that bring people to this site. I'll do the best I can to describe it without getting too direct. See if you can crack my code.
Before you bust this thing out, remember that I have absolutely zero creativity for anything
other than crafting terrible, rambling analogies. (source)
In the early days of the internet, there was a very pretty young lady who was well known for photographs that existed of her. These pictures presented her in states of near-to total-undress, and she had built a career out of being in these pictures. Before setting up her own website, this young lady had been in pictures for a certain magazine owned by a man we will call..."Blue Blefner"...and this magazine..."Blayboy"...had at one point named this young lady its...."Blaymate of the Year." On her website, she listed her past work and credentials, including her title of Blayboy Blaymate of the Year. Blayboy found out about this and sued the young lady for misappropriating their trademarked terms. The court ultimately held that she could use her past professional association with Blayboy and her title as Blaymate of the Year as long as it was made clear that she was no longer associated with Blayboy and was operating independently. This case is pretty thorough and gets cited in most of the useful decisions that follow as the internet starts taking center stage in socialization and commerce. One could even say that rights to...bornography...was absolutely vital to shaping the rules that guide internet law to this very day!

Alright, I think I managed to dodge search engine confusion with that top-secret code, but you get my point. As long as it's just one part of marketing that you're doing, use of trademarked names and phrases as a description of your past experience can be okay. But is Igarashi's campaign a little far over the Blaymate of the Year line? I think it might be.

Couple reasons: One, the name of the game. Might as well have called it "Transcastlestaindia: Rituaphony of the Night." Feels like they're pushing hard for the "We're the real successor to C:SotN!" market. Two: "Igavania." I love making up words as much as the next English-speaker, but this one makes me nervous. Where'd you get the -vania, IGA? It's not in the name of the intellectual property you actually have a claim on. It's from someone else's license. Three: Konami. They've seemed to have no qualms about playing the Saturday morning cartoon villain of the video game industry these days. Between the obvious tie in to a property owned by Konami and the fact that Bloodstained is going to look like a direct competitor to any future Castlevania games the publisher might want to put out.

I can fret all I like, but I think IGA and Bloodstained are going to be just fine. And it'll be awesome to see the game when it comes out since it looks cool. I mean, I'm probably not going to be able to play it since my awful reflexes, spatial perception problems, and terrible sense of direction make me bad at action, platforming, AND exploring, but I'll love watching it on Twitch!

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