Star Control lead devs fire back at Stardock lawsuit

Fred Ford and Paul Reiche III, the lead developers of the original Star Control games, have sent their lawyers into the fight Stardock started over the series and filed a counterclaim of their own. Stardock are currently making a reboot-o-prequel to the sci-fi RPG-o-adventure, named Star Control: Origins, after buying Star Control assets from Atari in 2013 and want to make quite clear who’s in charge of the series and rights. Ford and Reiche, who are currently making a Star Control sequel in all but name, contest that Atari couldn’t have sold certain rights to Stardock because they had reverted to Ford and Reiche long before then.

Stardock are courtfighting with Ford and Reiche over three main things: who holds the rights to the original games and can sell them; who can use characters and lore created for the original games; and who’s allowed to associate their new game with the originals.

Mess #1: both parties selling the original games at times and claiming the other never had the right to. Ford and Reiche had sold those first Star Controls through the digital store GOG for several years, after noticing Atari were selling them. As Ford and Reiche tell it, Atari acknowledged that Atari held the Star Control trademark but the pair held the rights to the games, and they struck a deal to cut them in. Stardock say the duo did not have the rights to do this.

Stardock, for their part, started selling the original games through the Steam store in 2017, and Ford and Reiche say they didn’t have the right to do that. The duo say they petitioned Steam to remove them but Steam sided with Stardock’s counter-claim. Talking of a need to “clear the deck” while trying to resolve all this, Ford and Reiche removed the games from GOG in December. However, the games returned to the store several weeks later at Stardock’s bidding.

Mess #2: the laws of lore. Ford and Reiche say they own the copyright on the first two games, lore and aliens and all. Wardell has publicly acknowledged this. Ford and Reiche’s counterclaim includes several snippets of e-mails from Wardell asking if they could arrange deals to include some of the old aliens or ships, which they turned down. They were a bit riled, then, to see artwork of alien races from their games on Stardock’s site. They say that the spacepolice in Origins are called Star Control, which is part of lore they created. And they say they see a ship of theirs in this Origins marketing screenshot:

star-control-origins

Mess #3: associating your new game with the old Star Controls. Ford and Reiche are currently making Ghosts Of The Precursors, a game they have described as “a direct sequel to Star Control II”. It doesn’t use the Star Control name but it’s the same world, the same story, and the same sort of thing, picking up from the last one they made before another developer stepped in. Stardock object to Ford and Reiche essentially placing Ghosts in a series Stardock feel they own, they dislike Ford and Reiche using old Star Control cover art in promoting it, and they even object to the pair calling themselves the “creators” of the first two games.

Stardock’s filing says that it’s Accolade–the publishers–who created Star Control I and II. They claim that “any authorship that Reiche and Ford may have contributed to the Classic Star Control Games was limited” because the games were the product of a team. More than that, Stardock say they have reason to believe the pair “may not have created any of the artwork, animation or characters incorporated in the games, or otherwise substantially contributed to the authorship” of the first two games.

As much as I dislike our culture’s cult of auteurship which assigns all credit (or blame) to only one or two people while downplaying others, Stardock do seem to be getting a bit carried away. In video games vernacular, it’s understood that “creators” doesn’t mean “these two people did every single thing”. Yes, other people worked on them–they’re listed in the credits, and Star Control I’s manual particularly highlights the contributions of Greg Johnson and Robert Leyland–but this is a bit much. I do wonder what’s making them feel confident enough to make such bold claims.

Ford and Reiche have jokingly responded by wondering if they are clones of the original Fred and Paul, grown in vats.

On the flipside, Ford and Reiche dislike how Stardock have connected Origins to their original games. They object to an interview which explains Stardock CEO Brad Wardell said he’d talked frequently with them about Origins, when they say they only talked once and want nothing to do with it. They also object to Wardell suggesting Origins and their own new game are connected, in an image from that interview. They dislike Stardock selling and showcasing a bundle named Star Control: The Ur-Quan Masters, because while the pair don’t own the ‘Star Control’ trademark, they do have ‘The Ur-Quan Masters’.

In short, both sides say the other is leeching from their brand, sowing confusion, damaging their trademark, and all that.

To reach the root of this confusion, we need to dig down for a brief history lesson.

The first Star Control came out in 1990, developed by Ford and Reiche’s studio, Toys For Bob, and published by Accolade. Ford and Reiche followed up with a sequel, Star Control II: The Ur-Quan Masters, in 1992. When Accolade fancied a third game but the duo didn’t want to make it, Reiche gave the publisher a license to include the characters and story created for the first games. This result in 1996’s Star Control 3, made by Legend Entertainment. After Accolade’s plans for a fourth fell through, the series went dormant. French publisher Infogrames bought Accolade in 1999, and Infogrames later renamed itself Atari after buying that too. Then in 2013, Stardock bought Atari’s Star Control assets as part of a bankruptcy fire sale. Soon after, Stardock announced the game they later named Star Control: Origins.

The question seems to be: what exactly did Stardock buy? Less than they think, Ford and Reiche claim. Documents Stardock provide show they got the Star Control trademark and Star Control 3 copyright off Atari, but they don’t list copyrights for the first two games. Wardell has seemed to acknowledge that Reiche had the copyright on them, as pointed out above. However, in one e-mail to Reiche which Stardock included as evidence in their suit, Wardell does say that they bought “all of Accolade’s publishing rights for the original trilogy”, which would be slightly different.

One thing that might seem fairly clear is that the trademark for the Star Control name has been held by publishers, passing from Accolade to Atari/Infogrames then Stardock. When Ford and Reiche released an open-source version of Star Control II in 2002, they named it simply The Ur-Quan Masters because the Star Control trademark was with Accolade. And after Ford and Reiche caught Atari selling those first three games on GOG, the store signed one deal with Atari to license the Star Control name and a separate agreement with the duo for the games themselves.

However, Ford and Reiche now say Atari’s renewals of the Star Control trademark in 2002 and 2007 were fraudulent because they hadn’t sold Star Control since 2000. On those grounds, they want the trademark, since transferred to Stardock, cancelled.

Ford and Reiche’s counterclaim seems to be pushing to take control of Star Control again. They claim that, owing to various expiration and termination clauses in their agreements with Accolade, “all rights to Star Control, Star Control II, and Reiche’s Preexisting Characters used in Star Control 3 reverted to Reiche on or about April 1, 2001” – and they want a judgement to state that decisively. They want to be the only people able to sell the first three games. They want Stardock to stop saying “The Ur-Quan Masters” and stop implying the pair are connected to Star Control: Origins. They want Stardock to return masters and source code for the original games, which they got off Atari. And they want money in damages and costs, obvs.

Stardock, as detailed in December’s opening salvo, basically say and want all that but the other way round.

And that’s where we are! Both sides have claimed their ground and fired their opening legal shots, and we’ll get to see where it goes from here. Both ask for jury trials.

If you want more detail on this, Ars Technica go even deeper and have the court filings to dig into. They also have responses from Stardock fellas which basically say “Oh yeah? But we’re the ones who are right.” Stardock have posted a Q&A from their perspective with less legalese too.

What even is Star Control though? Mate, go read Richard Cobbett’s Star Control II retrospective.

Oh, and to end: offering further proof that video game brands are a hellish breed of ouroboros, the Accolade name was recently revived by Billion Soft to release a new Bubsy game.

46 Comments

  1. geldonyetich says:

    At the rate this is going, it’ll soon turn into a real life version of the Doctrinal Conflict, with lawyer talking pets and slave shielded software revisions.

  2. pepperfez says:

    I have to assume any litigation launched by Brad “Reasonable Adult” Wardell, who once threatened to sue a video game forum because its users criticized his politics, stands on only the very firmest legal ground.

  3. allison says:

    Geez, that “Paul and Fred aren’t really the creators”, that’s a totally Druugey thing to do.

    • Mandrake42 says:

      Yeah, this one kind of broke my brain too.

    • Phasma Felis says:

      And it seems like pure pettiness. There’s no legal value to being a “creator” if someone else owns the rights, so there’s no benefit to him in claiming they aren’t the creators. He’s just being pissy.

  4. Skabooga says:

    This is all more confusing than a game of frungy.

  5. TychoCelchuuu says:

    I am not sure that I particularly like Brad Wardell.

  6. Kalle says:

    Brad Wardell is a scumbag and a bully. Thankfully Stardocks’ legal case is thin as tissue paper and Paul and Fred have the money to fight it.

    But hey, hopefully this publicity helps cement the reputation of Stardock as a company that’s worse than EA.

    • Lightjolly says:

      Worse than EA?

      Lmao I don’t know if you’re just joking or really a simpleton.

      Not even close

      • Marr says:

        They can be worse, but still less damaging overall due to their lesser size. Consider: A fusion bolt burns hotter than a supernova shockwave, but it vaporises a fraction of your ship rather than knocking out every system simultaneously.

  7. milligna says:

    Wardell is an idiot for thinking this will end well for him and his game that requires a certain amount of nostalgia for the originals. if every article on this game describes how he’s taking a huge dump on the originals… phew.

  8. KidWithKnife says:

    This seems like an awful lot of hassle to trudge through for a franchise that I doubt a whole lot of people give a warm shit about. But hey, Wardell always struck me as a bit of a dick so I’ll take the schadenfraude.

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      A lot of people really like Star Control 2, as well they should. But yeah I don’t think “Star Control” stands alone as a brand when completely divorced from the people who made SC2.

      • TheOx129 says:

        Agreed, particularly since, as far as I’m aware, Stardock’s game is a complete reboot, taking place in the same “multiverse” as the original trilogy…but that’s about it. Star Control is fondly remembered – and rightly so – by many for its colorful characters, and I’m not sure how much weight the Star Control name has by itself without them.

    • RabbitIslandHermit says:

      Star Control II is fantastic and everyone should play it (in the form of The Ur-Quan Masters). Here’s hoping that this legal fuckery will sort itself out properly and that there will be an actual sequel instead of some soulless garbage with the name slapped on it pumped out to pad the bank account of a sociopathic moron.

    • Urthman says:

      The politics are more nasty because the stakes are so small. These 2 teams are directly competing for business from the same 300 people.

      • Marr says:

        You’re out by an order of magnitude there. A couple thousand people already preordered the Stardock effort.

  9. Crafter says:

    Sounds like a good way to turn me away from both of these companies, well done !

    • rochrist says:

      It shouldn’t. Brad Wardell is a human turd. The other guys created a classic game.

      • Marr says:

        And to all appearances are simply defending themselves against unprovoked assault, their chosen weapon being transparency and open information.

  10. LuNatic says:

    Based on the original contract released by Ford and Reiche, it looks like Atari never actually had the rights to Star Control to sell. Stardock bought a worthless slip of paper.

  11. pookie101 says:

    Gives me an excuse to pick them up on steam just in case

    • Pich says:

      just get The Ur-Quan Masters from here link to sourceforge.net . it’s the best version of SCII, free as in free beer and developed by the original creators. Don’t give your money to Stardock

  12. overcritical says:

    Thank you guys for always sharing interesting industry news. Great write up!

    • heretic says:

      Yup, thanks Alice!

      • Risingson says:

        Alice, this was impressive reporting for what my opinion is worth. And I agree on the “authorship” comment that downplay the team effort behind a movie, a game etc but yes, this is just mean.

  13. PancakeWizard says:

    Ignoring the RPS comment section’s usual bias against Wardell, it seems to me whatever side you feel has the moral weight (which is legally irrelevant), it looks like Stardock are the only ones with the actual paperwork to prove they own anything.

    I feel it’s far more likely Atari were trying to make money off the same thing with two different sets of developers, because if anyone has a history of being shady it’s Atari.

    • gwop_the_derailer says:

      Vávra a few articles back, now Wardell – are you contractually obligated to sympathize with unpleasant people?

      • Yglorba says:

        Yes, yes they are.

        As I recall, PancakeWizard is heavily into Wardell’s flavor of reactionary bullshit culture wars.

        No discussion of Wardell or criticism of anything he does will ever seem “fair” to them, because he is THEIR GUY and on their side and therefore always in the right. Their assessment of the situation (like most of their posts here) is about their politics and nothing else; ironically, people like that tend to accuse everyone else of being all political while eagerly looking for an excuse to cram their garbage views into every discussion.

    • Risingson says:

      Where does the bias come from? Why do you think it’s not justified?

      • rochrist says:

        Considering Brad’s history as a human turd, that’s a good question.

    • trjp says:

      Pancake Wizard has a point – I’m not sure Atari were ever ‘the good guys’ but the name has been used as a label to slap-onto lightly toasted bullshit for a LONG time now.

      The following line is taken from Wikipedia

      “On June 22, 2014, Atari announced a new corporate strategy that would include a focus on “new audiences”, specifically “LGBT, social casinos, real-money gambling, and YouTube”.[49]”

      Really?

      • Marr says:

        Their million year operatic death aria killed off Champions Online too. Utter bastards.

    • RabbitIslandHermit says:

      Stardock’s “actual paperwork” proving ownership is about as valuable as a note from some random dude off the street selling them the distribution and trademark rights to Star Control II.

      Looks like poor ol’ Brad Wardell got swindled. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

      • DatonKallandor says:

        Yeah he bought a thing from someone who didn’t actually have that thing, and his response is to claim “no I totally have thing” and sue the people that actually have thing.

        Also, it’s hilarious to me that anyone would do business with the latest zombie wearing Ataris skin. Like, Atari hasn’t existed for a long time, and the name has been stuck to various IP trolls for ages. Who buys something from them because the real Atari used to maybe have it and expects to get the genuine article?

  14. Jac says:

    Crumbs. What a shambles. Great write-up, I particularly enjoyed this sentence:

    “They want Stardock to stop saying “The Ur-Quan Masters””.

    I have an image of stardock employees hiding behind curtains, lampposts and plant pots shouting “The Ur-Quan Masters” at unsuspecting members of the public.

  15. 4thofeleven says:

    What they are doing is wrong. Why do they do this thing?

    • KRVeale says:

      Nice. Very nice.
      About the only comment that I’ve seen which feels equally appropriate is a friend who read this RPS article and said: “Juffo-Wup fills in my fibers and I grow turgid.”

  16. Detocroix says:

    So, in essence:
    – Stardock bought a cake wrapping and a burned up cake.
    – Stardock calls the cake makers as frauds.
    – Stardock tries to grab the better cake from the people who made it.
    – Gets sued by cake makers who want the cake wrapping and the burned up cake back.

    • KRVeale says:

      Yep, except Stardock also try to ban the cake makers from describing themselves as cake-makers, and insist that there’s no evidence they ever actually made cakes.

  17. gtb says:

    Stardock has a history of publishing nostalgia packed with juuuust enough code to be barely classified as a shallow game. I hope the original creators win this.

  18. DataAngelis says:

    To be honest I hope Ford and Reiche win this case..
    Star Control 3 was a shambles of a game and the story was quite literally a huge pile of sh*t..

    Star Control 2 was a masterpiece of a game with qwerks and hidden gems rarely seen in games anymore unless the game has some prestige to justify it.

    Personally I would love to see The Ghosts of the Precursors and strike off Star Control 3 from game lore all together!