Atari‘s announcement of their upcoming $100,000 Pong Indie Developer Challenge came as a bit of a surprise to me, after their recent app-store cleansing of any indie games with any mechanics similar to existing indie games. Chris Priestman writes on IGM about the Apple’s removal of many — if not all — Atari-influenced indie games, at Atari’s request. He writes specifically on how this has affected indie devs Black Powder Media and their battle game Vector Tanks 3, but there are pretty far-reaching affects of this cleanout for indie devs and players of indie games. Since Atari pioneered many mechanics that are now common game design elements, copyright infringement seems to cover an awful lot of simple mechanics, and simple mechanics with new twists are a staple of indie development. Does Atari, then, own all simple shooters? All games with the physics of Pong? It’s hard to find an action game, indie or core, that doesn’t have a passing resemblance to standards like Pong, Asteroids, Missile Command, and so forth.
So that was in January, and in the end of February, Atari seems to be reversing this stance. Instead of banning these games from the Apple app store, they’re actively looking for iOs games from small studios that reimagine Pong. Wait, what?
My immediate thought was sympathy for the unlucky public-facing writer who was told to quit with the threatening cease-and-desist letters to indies, and start encouraging game pitches from indies… for the very concepts Atari was banning last month. Poor writer, I thought, jumping follow to wildly different company directives. (Perhaps I was projecting a little) I thought the indie games contest might be a direct reaction to the games community’s feelings on the app-store cleanse, that Atari might be trying to clumsily make amends with small studios. Then I thought it might be a case of one corporate branch not communicating with another. On the surface of it, one might well develop a promotional contest for Pong’s 40th, without expecting a conflict from legal’s work protecting the company’s IP.
While I still see this as a corporate gaffe more than a planned screwover of indie devs, a bit of shady wording in the official rules makes it even less advantageous to indie studios.
That promised $100,000 prize is not actually the cash that Atari will be handing to indie studio who breathes new life into their dying franchise, er, develops a fun new take on Pong. The winner will actually receive $50K (a pretty nice prize, if not marketed as $100K). The other half of the promised prize money is the maximum the indie studio can make as revenue sharing on their game. I guess Atari lays claim to the game’s revenue after explicitly offering assistance to market the game and resources to develop the game.
And, of course, implicitly reminding any small studio who may have a revamped Pong in the works, that this partnership with Atari on their terms is the only way to get that game made and released.