Eat Electric Death: Atari Trying To Block Jeff Minter’s TxK

Yeah, Atari.

Jeff Minter has been making tip-top arcade shooters for a good thirty years now, including classics like Space Giraffe, Gridrunner, Revenge of the Mutant Camels, and Tempest 2000. That last one is coming back to bite him in the bottom.

TxK [official site] is his latest loud and colourful and silly and exciting shooter, and I’ve been waiting patiently for the PC port since its Vita debut last year. That port is now scrapped, thanks to the terrible creature wearing the skin of Atari. Minter says the publishers of Tempest 2000 claim that TxK is ripping it off, and he can’t afford a legal battle to defend it.

Atari are insisting that he remove TxK from sale and sign papers “basically saying I can never make a Tempest style game ever again”, Minter explained in a post on his Llamasoft forums (mirrored here). Certainly no PC port, then. He retold some of the accusations in his own words:

– in order to create TxK I must have had access to, and stolen secrets from, Atari’s source code, in order to steal the work of the other people who worked on Tempest 2000. (I *wrote* the source code for Tempest 2000, and didn’t need to refer to it at all to create TxK, even if I still had it. The only other people who worked on the game were Joby Woods who did bitmaps (TxK has no bitmaps apart from one 64×64 graduated dot) and the Imagitec musicians (TxK has neither a modplayer nor any of Imagitec’s music). So I stole my own work out of my own brain I guess.
– The soundtrack to TxK sounds identical to the soundtrack of Tempest 2000. (In fact the TxK soundtrack is entirely original and highly acclaimed; it won a Develop award and went to #1 on Bandcamp).
– The player ship can jump. Apparently Atari owns jumping.
– There is an AI Droid in TxK. Yes there is, and there has been an AI Droid in almost every game I’ve made since Llamatron. Which I made 3 years before Tempest 2000. The AI Droid is a staple of my design style.
– I deliberately set out to cash in on Atari’s copyrighted Tempest name (by giving my game a deliberately obscure name of TxK).
– I deliberately set out to cash in on Atari’s stellar reputation by associating my game with their illustrious name. (I never mentioned Atari at all as the last thing I really wanted was for Llamasoft to be associated with the undead Atari responsible for turning Star Raiders into a fucking slot machine).

Minter says that this legal trouble “has been going on behind the scenes for a while now” but he kept quiet publicly because he’d hoped they might work it out. Perhaps Atari would commission an officially licensed version, he thought, or even also revamp some of his older Atari games. “However they never gave an inch and just continued with threats and bullying,” he said.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if there were actually some kind of precedent set that determined how different a game had to be to be considered a different game legally?” he asked rhetorically. Turns out, so he heard, that when Atari had Tempest 2000 ported to PlayStation as Tempest X, they made very minor changes so they could declare it a different game and not give him royalties. “Yet now ‘Atari’ claim that TxK is in fact *closer* legally to Tempest 2000 than Tempest X was” he said. Oh dear.

He’s also been tweeting away about this today, including dreams of buying Atari and more on the accusations and demands.

55 Comments

  1. Mo says:

    Fuck Atari. Jeff is one of the most talented arcade game designers ever, he’s doing his finest design work *right now*, he’s pushing VR in an entirely different (and really quite fab) direction, and then this bullshit happens. And it’s so clearly obvious that Atari are aware that they don’t have a solid case to stand on, but that these bullying tactics will work out.

    Fuck Atari.

    • Deano2099 says:

      I’m less convinced. He has my sympathies, but he did Tempest as work-for-hire. It belongs to Atari, no if, no but. Now you can’t copyright the game concept but the code and assets are protected. Sure, Minter likely made the new one without referencing the old source code, but that’s really hard to prove. And if Atari can prove he *did* take the code with him when he left (note, his statement says he doesn’t have it “anymore” which suggests he did have it at one point), they have a case. That’s also why people unrelated to Atari *can* get away with making Tempest clones – because they can easily prove they never had access to the source.

      The AI Droid is art, he admits to using that. That he used it before he worked at Atari in other games likely doesn’t matter – the work for hire contract will probably have stipulated that Atari get the rights of anything he uses in the game he makes for them.

      And he called it TxK. Read any discussion about Tempest 2000 or 3000 anywhere, and they’re referred to as T2K and T3K. I mean, if I release a fantasy MMO called Warriors Of Wonder I’m rightly going to be accused of passing off.

      It’s shitty, and it sucks that the law works that way, but I don’t think this is legal bullying. I think he would lose the case.

      • Baggypants says:

        If that’s your argument then Jeff should have got money from Tempest X3 for the playstation.

        • Deano2099 says:

          It doesn’t follow. It’s not about how different the games are, you can’t copyright the game concept anyway. It’s about potentially re-using the source code. If Minter walked away from Atari, and kept a copy of the code, it’s going to be a really hard argument to make that “I never used it”. As I say, that’s why people who aren’t Minter that make Tempest clones (as he mentions) don’t have this issue.

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            Neurotic says:

            I know nothing at all about programming, but I would imagine that the code he wrote in 1994 for the Jaguar, would logically have to be entirely different than the code he wrote for TxK on a modern machine, now.

          • Mo says:

            I *am* a game developer, and this is spot on. Working on the Jaguar in 1994 is entirely different in almost every way from writing a game for a modern computing device.

          • RobF says:

            What would Jeff need to use the source code for, exactly?

      • Mo says:

        > And if Atari can prove he *did* take the code with him when he left

        But they haven’t. And reading through the statement they sent Jeff, they don’t have probable cause either. (That the games look or play similar doesn’t prove a thing) If previously working at a company is probable cause enough, then every person in tech would be sued all the damn time.

        > That’s also why people unrelated to Atari *can* get away with making Tempest clones – because they can easily prove they never had access to the source.

        Can they though? Using the same moon-logic as above, there’s no reason why a game that looks and plays similar to Tempest couldn’t have decompiled the code, stolen it, hacked Atari’s servers, and so on.

        > I mean, if I release a fantasy MMO called Warriors Of Wonder I’m rightly going to be accused of passing off.

        That describes the entire mobile market. Look, I get that the games are similar. I don’t think Jeff would disagree, TxK *is* a spirtual successor after all. But there isn’t a single case here that would hold up in court, especially since there’s no precident for any of this (afaik).

        And it *is* legal bullying because Atari stand to gain nothing from this. They’re not planning another Tempest game, and they don’t want to license this from Jeff. They have no plans for Tempest.

        But sure, at best I’d understand a request to rename TxK. But what they’re demanding is removal of the game and destroying all the source. That’s absurd! I can’t see it as anything but bullying.

        • RobF says:

          And worth noting that this is a -repeated thing- from Atari no matter how specious their claims are. They have been a house of litigation first and next to fuck all else of use for years now.

          They’re a sad, sorry excuse for a company and I’m deeply sad and angry about all of this happening to Jeff now too.

          • Baines says:

            Atari has been a house of (threatened) litigation for over 25 years. I recall stories about how when Atari found itself in need of money, it would go to whatever console maker was popular at the time with a stack of patents covering the most simplistic of things.

            Mind, they might have learned the tactic from Magnavox, when in the early 1970s Atari was forced to settle out of court over a Pong patent infringement lawsuit because it couldn’t afford to fight the case in court. (Magnavox would threaten multiple companies over the years, and even beat Nintendo when Nintendo challenged the patents in court.)

      • Hrinix says:

        His statement more than suggests that he had the code, unless he is a practitioner of some mystical programming discipline where you write the code without looking at it.

        • Devan says:

          I understand that it might seem that way, but as a software professional for 7 years I can tell you that there’s nothing mystical about it. When you leave a company what you take with you is your skill and understanding of how to solve problems. Writing a video game involves coming up with elegant code designs to solve the numerous problems of all sizes that you encounter. By doing this you develop a solid understanding of the issues and you get better and better at making similar accomplishments in the future.

          It is not uncommon for me to have made a piece of code that solves some problem, then forgotten about it, and then when I encounter a similar problem I decide what I need to do and go start to do it and then realize that it’s already been done. If I ever have to write an entire piece over then the second implementation is usually done faster and better.

          So if you ask me, it’s completely reasonable to say that this person made Txk without any reference to the source code of the previous games. Of course he may have had access to the source but that doesn’t seem to be implied from his comments. It sounds to me like he had access when he was contracted to the company but not afterward.

          Nowadays, modern game engines and middleware is available

  2. pilouuuu says:

    It’s weird since he is the mastermind behind all those games, not Atari.

    • bad guy says:

      No, Dave Theurer made the first Tempest. (1981)
      Jeff Minter made Tempest 2000. (1994)

  3. iainl says:

    On the bright side, it surely can’t be too long before this appalling excuse for Atari are dead, no?

  4. hotmaildidntwork says:

    I would contribute to this kickstarter.

    • Baggypants says:

      If that’s a kickstarter to buy Atari, sack everyone, and gift the company to Jeff, I’d donate to that too.

      It must be very difficult, this is a bigger thing than the Space Giraffe OXM debacle which very nearly did for Llamasoft. I hope they pull through, get another fantastic person to fight his corner like he had at Microsoft, Sony and indeed at Atari, and push out something world dominating.

      • LionsPhil says:

        Buying out Atari would financially reward the very assholes who now run it this way.

        • jrodman says:

          Contrarily, I would contribute mightily to a legal defense fund.

        • April March says:

          It would financially reward them, but we’d be paying money for them to stay away. That sounds like it’s worth it.

          I’d definitively contribute to crowdfunding to buy Atari and place all those classic games in the public domain. If you love something set it free.

  5. Eight Rooks says:

    So they’re trying to screw over pretty much the one developer responsible for any remaining goodwill core/old-school gamers have for the Atari name? Is this pretty much confirmation there’s never going to be anything else developed under it bar horrible F2P cashgrabs?

  6. Nimble Cat says:

    This is a really fun game and I really hope he gets a chance to release a PC version. I will happily double dip.
    It’s a great follow up to the excellent Space Giraffe and he deserves to make some money off of his hard work.

  7. SupahSpankeh says:

    Someone should start a defence fund. I’ll chuck in a tenner to slay the zombie Atari.

    Also, fck Atari for being dicks.

  8. Urthman says:

    Now Tempest X:
    – but was close enough to Tempest 2000 that *Tempest 2000 was available as a hidden unlockable by entering a specific word into the highscore table*.

    How the hell is this not the basis for a slam-dunk lawsuit against Atari?

    • Wulfram says:

      With all the mergers and bankruptcies that’s gone on with Atari since then, I’m not sure who you’d sue

  9. vorador says:

    Jeff, why not doing a kickstarter or something in order to fight back? I’m pretty sure you would get funded.

    By the way, after seeing what Atari did with Blade Kitten (sitting on the finished sequel for 4 years simply because they weren’t willing to publish the game, nor to give the license back until it ran it’s course) i’m not really surprised.

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      Mungrul says:

      Yeah, I’d donate to a KS.
      Either to buy Atari and gift it to Jeff, or simply fight the claim in court.

    • Caiman says:

      Yep, someone launch it, I’m backing it. Given all the awesome Jeff has given us over the years, this is the least we can do.

    • Hmm-Hmm. says:

      This is disgusting. Iif I could help in any way I would definitely do so.

  10. Mr Coot says:

    Oh, that’s terrible. Surely there is some pro bono IP lawyer out there that could give this chap a hand? (Both to release his TxK and also to claw back some royalties for Tempest X)

  11. LionsPhil says:

    That first tweet is depressing because the replies show Infogrames’ brand necrophillia worked. People think this Atari has anything to do with the 8/16-bit era home computer company.

  12. trjp says:

    The US Supreme Court has already ruled that you cannot plagarize yourself (Fogarty vs Fantasy) – so a copyright suit would almost certainly fail

    Someone needs to call-up Notch – he could buy Atari and we could make it a proper company again instead of a shambling shell operating a protection racket around some IP is had no moral or ethical right to own.

  13. airmikee says:

    So Atari threatened to sue him if he made a PC port of the Vita game, but they’re not threatening to sue him over the Vita game? That doesn’t pass the smell test.

    • trjp says:

      Shaking down a man living with some ungulates in the Welsh Valleys and shaking down Sony are not the same thing.

      You may intimidate something smaller than yourself – but you don’t intimidate BIGGER things unless you are – erm – my dog, usually (she’s not OK in the head tho)

      • airmikee says:

        The platform the game is on is immaterial to a copyright claim against the creator of the game.

        But my original question has been answered by another article, Atari is going after everything TxK, not just the PC port. Their lawyers have demanded that the game stop being offered for sale everywhere on any platform.

        • Jac says:

          Was going to post the same comment about why the vita version is allowed. Did he self publish? Surely him and Sony can challenge Atari?

          Not really sure why they feel this particular game is so close to their game. I thought this sort of nonsense didn’t extend beyond petty companies arguing that they own the rights to words not actual game play?

          Not played either game but surely unless they are literally identical in every way and Jeff Minter just pressed ctrl+c ctrl+v there is no case? Or are we about to witness a precedent leading to nearly every game ever being banned from sale.

          • Wulfram says:

            Game “ideas” are not copyrightable, but the “creative expression” of those ideas is. And TkX is very similar to Tempest and successors in ways that seem to be the latter – and aren’t really established cliches or necessary to the idea or based on real life. Like the appearance of the ship, for example.

          • airmikee says:

            It almost looks to be personal attacks against him by Atari. First they slightly alter the game so they can sell ‘Tempest X’ without paying royalties to him, then after he’s released a more dramatically altered version of the game they claim he can’t sell it? And that he’s backed down so quickly and without putting up any kind of resistance speaks volumes, but mostly on subjects that aren’t worth speculating about.

          • Wulfram says:

            The company that released Tempext X and the company that are now called Atari are pretty much totally different entities.

        • trjp says:

          This “different entities” thing is bullshit – if the current ‘Atari’ owns the good things which Atari had (IP, trademarks and goodwill). it also owns the bad things (debts and liabilities as well as actionable bad behaviour)

          I despitethis mentality of “we bought the company and own it’s assets but we won’t take on it’s debts or responsbilities” bullshit – if companies persist in avoiding responsibility whilst waving the moral sword of ‘ownership’, we’ll have to change the law to say that when a company becomes insolvent, it’s IP/patents/trademarks etc. are null and void – asset strippers are a species best left to die out imo

  14. kwyjibo says:

    Congratulations Jeff, by going public after you’ve signed away all your rights, the chances of any ports have dropped to zero!

    If you’re going to court public opinion, do so before giving in.

    • RobF says:

      He hasn’t signed -any- rights away. I’m not sure where you got that idea from.

      • airmikee says:

        Probably got the idea from the parts of the source post that mentions Atari demanding he sign papers that he can’t ever make a Tempest like game again, and the very next sentence being “So no chance of releasing the ports.”

        If Atari’s paperwork demanded that no Tempest like games be released in the future, and the PC-port of a Tempest like game gets cancelled, isn’t it safe to assume that the paperwork received the necessary notification to make it a binding, legal document?

        • Mags says:

          Ummm….no?

          Rather, why would you continue to work on ports that either may never see the light of day or will just kick-off another round of litigation?

          The most sensible options are to either fight and win, before going back to the ports, or to drop them entirely.

  15. Kaeoschassis says:

    It’s consistently disappointing how willing big publishers are to screw over the little guys, but it’s not surprising. What IS surprising is how few fucks said big publishers seem to give about their own image. Someone help me out here, am I just being naive? Can Atari REALLY afford to be such colossal willies and still have enough people willing to buy from them afterwards?

    • jrodman says:

      The value of goodwill is hard to measure, so it can’t be worth much. *cough*

      More seriously, it takes a lot of fuckups to really ruin your reputation, so the first 30 or so don’t matter, right?

    • iainl says:

      When they have time away from legal bullying, the vampire currently wearing an Atari namebadge make their money on slot machines, mobile F2P nastiness and T-Shirts. They’ve kind of ruled out offering any product people who might boycott them would be interested in purchasing in the first place.

  16. wonkavision says:

    Just compare gameplay videos on YouTube. The two games are REMARKABLY similar.

    • Josh W says:

      But the problem with that is that loads of Jeff’s games are similar, from before and after the ones he made with atari. It’s a style, like sprite based side scrolling platformers, just one that is mostly taken on by him.

    • cederic says:

      Wow, anybody would think they had the same designer or the same programmer. Maybe even both!