July 14, 2013 marked the release of the most anticipated Mega Man since the 2010 release of Mega Man 10. There’s just one problem; the game, MegaMan Unlimited, is a fan project wholly unaffiliated with Capcom. The link to the Mega Man Unlimited developer’s page is here.
I played through this fan project and wrote a companion review on it. MegaMan Unlimited is pretty good, but it’s release marks the exact reason a developer should never allow a fan project to be made; it’s surrendering your legal property.
The fact that Capcom allowed MegaMan Unlimited to continue in relatively public development over a five year period and then actually be completed and released shows weakness. This is literally the largest franchise management blunder I’ve ever seen, and it’s indicative of just how poorly managed Capcom is right now. This project, and it’s development, have dominated Google searches on the Mega Man franchise over the past three years at least. Either they didn’t know it was being done, or alternatively, they could have given consent to the developers (note there is some indication Capcom is aware of other fan projects and is allowing those ones to continue, but I’m not sure that is the case with this particular game).
In addition to seeing all these unaffiliated posts dominating Google searches, I learned on July 14th because I received an email alerting me to a YouTube ScrewAttack review. When the mainstream press is giving credit to these projects, it’s a bad sign for for the actual copyright owners.
Playable fan projects, although they can produce fun content, are pretty obvious copyright infringements, despite a screen stating that the developer doesn’t own the copyright. If you’re making a sequel to a game using content you don’t own, that’s as core an infringement as possible; you’re literally trying to give people the same experience as the original when you don’t own the content. When consumers can’t tell the difference, you’re in trouble. There’s no chance it could be fair use in this instance (fair use coming into play in the event of a critical blog post perhaps…). Generally, a responsive company will shut these projects down as soon as the legal department finds out. A quick Google search will show that Square Enix has repeatedly quashed Chrono Trigger fan projects over the past 10 years.
The reason I mention Chrono Trigger is that I see a parallel here between that franchise and Capcom’s handling of the Mega Man franchise. Namely, that fan projects might just be a response to the lack of supply from the owners of the copyrights. Not that there is any legal principle to validate this, but it certainly offers an explanation as to why fans keep trying to add more content. But in both instances there is an acknowledgement that there is a good project from consumers, and their need for more of it isn’t being met. I think Square Enix has the better response to the attempts by others to co-opt their rights though.
In the past three years, a highly-recognizable game franchise that has endured for over 25 years has seen no major releases and only high-profile cancellations. This includes a new installation in the Mega Man Legends franchise (which was also abandoned over the entire run of the PS2 era), Mega Man Online (a Korean MMORPG) and the cancellation of Mega Man Universe (which was a 2010 E3 debut). These failures are in part also compounded by the very public departure of the man credited with creating the franchise, Keiji Inafune. The only other major news regarding Mega Man from Capcom has been it’s release of footage of another cancelled game that the press didn’t know about, which for some reason they thought would help celebrate the Mega Man franchises’ 25th anniversary. Other bloggers have picked up that Capcom seems to be content abandoning its other storied franchises.
The ironic point is that the middle-ground between endlessly unmet demand by players for more content, but not necessarily more revenue, can be met by offering a level builder where players can design their scenarios using sanctioned tools. This lets the community develop content in a controlled environment, one subject to a end-user license agreement. Modding is always big with PC games, and it has extended into the console platforming arena with Sony’s Little Big Planet. This is exactly the project that Mega Man Universe was supposed to be though. Capcom lost its chance at crowdsourcing a renaissance here.
Lack of strong brand management and consistent development hurts the bottom line. If fan projects that aren’t sanctioned, or are sanctioned but aren’t controlled by the developers are dominating this franchise, it effectively means the future of Mega Man itself is cancelled. Capcom’s business model has been to go from money off bad sequels to making no money off sequels it has no control over. Without the strength of its strongest copyrights to rely on, Capcom might as well be dead.