Why Buying Video Game Assets Can Be Risky
On March 10, independent developer Archangel released its latest game, Bleak Faith: Forsaken. Widely dubbed a “Soulslike”, the game clearly took heavy inspiration from FromSoftware’s Dark Souls series, from which the genre is named.
However, after the game’s release, gamers noticed similarities that went well beyond the elements common to the genre. Specifically, they began to point out that some of the game’s animations appeared to have been lifted from the FromSoftware latest game, Elden Ring, as well as other titles in the genre.
Fans began compiling examples of duplicated animations and began posting about the similarities on both Discord and Bleak Faith’s Steam forum. These similarities went well beyond imitation or coincidence and made it appear that Archangel had literally copied the animations from the source games.
However, Archangel did not deny the similarities. Instead, they pointed to where they had purchased those assets from, namely the Epic Marketplace store, and identified one of its sellers, PersiaNinja.
Archangel then quickly set about removing the assets involved from the game. Epic, the company that runs the marketplace, has removed the assets at issue, but did not say why. In a letter to Archangel, the company said that it is, “not in a position to independently verify such rights, and Epic makes no such guarantee to purchasers of the content.”
Because of this, Archangel is hoping that other developers will learn the lesson from their mistake and understand that, “assets on these storefronts seemingly cannot be purchased in good faith.”
According to Archangel, they’ve already removed the animations at issue, though updates will be patched in over the next few days or weeks.
While it seems like a happy ending to the story, the case raises a serious issue for video game developers: How to be sure that the assets they buy are original.
The Problem with Video Game Assets
To be clear, Archangel did pretty much everything right that it could. It bought the assets from a reputable store and used them in the intended fashion. The problem is that the seller clearly misrepresented their animations as original, when they were actually lifted from other games.
While it might be tempting to blame Archangel for not realizing that before releasing their game, especially since the animations were from a major game in the same genre, it’s pretty much impossible for anyone to know every animation in every game. Simply put, there’s a reason why the effort to find all the copied animations was a community one.
In short, Archangel is pretty clearly a victim in this scenario, and the effort that they put in to address the issue speaks highly of them.
However, their lesson is likely to leave many developers in a bad place. As they noted in one comment, asset stores are critical tools for many developers, in particular smaller ones. Recreating assets, like animation, is a time-consuming task and being able to tap asset stores, especially for more generic elements, is a tremendous time and money saver.
But that speaks to the problem. Epic has made it clear that they cannot and will not guarantee the authenticity of works sold on their marketplace. Instead, they put the onus on the sellers to verify their work as original.
Compare this to a paid stock photo site or service. Most such services offer indemnification, meaning that if an image bought or licensed through them turns out to be infringing, the agency will shoulder the legal blame.
Similar arrangements are made for stock video, audio and text sites. Though free services rarely offer indemnification, most of the paid ones do, giving buyers a degree of legal certainty. Without that, developers like Archangel are more or less thrown to the wolves and, for them, every purchased asset becomes a legal and a public relations gamble.
Unfortunately, that’s something that isn’t likely to change any time soon.
Why Video Game Assets Are Different
Video game assets are different from most other kinds of a content for a simple reason: They’re difficult to search for.
With other types of content, there are tools that can fairly trivially search for the content online and allow marketplaces to perform some due diligence with the content. Whether it’s a plagiarism analysis for a ghostwritten book, searching for stock video on sites like YouTube or using a reverse image search to verify a photo, there are tools to perform at least some level check.
With video game assets, that kind of due diligence is nearly impossible. Even if two files are identical, the way video games are distributed means that it may not be obvious until they are extracted from the game.
That becomes evident when one looks at how this case unfolded. There was no plagiarism analysis or search performed, just fans of the genre noticing the similarities and creating comparisons.
Because of that, there isn’t much that can stop a user from extracting elements from one game and reselling them as their original assets. Furthermore, Epic has made it clear that they aren’t going to defend developers from the risk that comes with that.
That puts everyone involved in a tough place.
So, What Can Developers Do?
All this puts developers in a difficult position. As Archangel noted, asset stores are an essential part of many smaller developers’ process. Without them, it would be impossible to make many games.
However, as this case highlights, every purchased asset is a potential risk. Though cases like this one are fairly rare, it’s still a warning shot.
So, what can developers do? The first step is to simply not use purchased assets when they aren’t necessary. The potential risk needs to be weighed, and it may make some asset purchases less appealing.
Beyond that, the usual advice one would give applies. Keep careful track of where assets were purchased from, buy only from reputable stores and reputable sellers, and perform whatever due diligence you can. This includes examining both the asset and its seller the best that you can.
To be clear, none of this would have really helped Archangel in this case. They, by all accounts, had every right to think they were purchasing legitimate animations. They simply got burned. However, having good records not only made it easier to show that they weren’t the ones who plagiarized, but it also made it easier to remove the assets.
That, in the end, may be all that a developer like Archangel can do.
There’s not much doubt that Asset stores have been a boon for video game development, and that stories like this one are rare. Typically, when we hear about copyright issues in asset stores, it is developers making low-effort asset flips that are dubious in how they follow the license they were granted.
However, this story is a warning shot. Things could have been much worse for Archangel, especially if they hadn’t had good records or if FromSoftware wanted to take a litigious route. Luckily, this seems to be a resolved issue, and hopefully, it is one both Archangel and their game can put behind them.
Still, Archangel is right to caution other developers to reconsider how they use asset stores. Without indemnification, developers are taking on risk with every asset they purchase. But, even with legal indemnification, there’s nothing to protect developers from the reputational harm that comes from something like this.
That, in the end, is likely to be the much bigger risk. Though a developer may not be sued or even threatened with a lawsuit over assets that were purchased in good faith, fans will inevitably pass their own judgment and that can have painful consequences for a new game.