Game Developer Accuses Real-Life Weapons Manufacturer of Stealing Its Gun Design… Twice – IGN

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The developers at indie studio Ward B really like designing fictional guns. The small team has been posting highly detailed weapon designs for its in-development game, Oceanic, since 2019. Crucial to the teams work and the small following around Oceanics development is that while the weapons in question are meant to reflect tech created 200 years in the future, they must look like they could feasibly work in reality.

We’re looking to have them very, very scientifically explainable, CEO Marcellino Sauceda tells me. There’s actually a few weapons we ended up scrapping and not putting in the game because there were design flaws that we weren’t too happy with in the end.

In fact, Ward Bs commitment to believability was so strong that, in early 2020, Maxim Kuzin arrived in Saucedas inbox. A contractor for Russias largest weapons manufacturer, Kalashnikov Concern, Kuzin asked for permission to turn one of Ward Bs fictional weapons into a real-life shotgun. For Sauceda, it wouldnt just be recognition of his teams hard work, it would be a genuine milestone for the industry to his knowledge, it would mark the first time a video game gun had been turned into a physical, mass-market model.

A render of Ward B's EPM28 Mastodon shotgun. (Image credit: Ward B)

A render of Ward B’s EPM28 Mastodon shotgun. (Image credit: Ward B)

It’s huge. There’s no game studio today that collaborated with a weapon manufacturer to make a fully operational firearm. And we would have been the OGs of that. Sauceda stops for a second. But they’ve completely ripped that opportunity from us.

Sauceda never gave his formal permission for the gun to be adapted for real life and yet Kalashnikov Concern subsequently announced a weapon kit that bears what Sauceda sees as a striking resemblance to one of Ward Bs own creations. The company now alleges that Kalashnikov Concern not only stole its weapon design but, in a bizarre twist, subsequently granted an entirely separate video game the rights to use it.

« They’ve completely ripped the opportunity from us.

Meet the Mastodon

Oceanic is a science fiction first-person hero shooter, and the debut game for Ward B a 40-person team working mostly part-time, but with experience developing the likes of Call of Duty, Halo, Overwatch, and Destiny. We don’t have anything under our belt yet, we’re completely indie, explains Sauceda. Most of us come from AAA backgrounds. We are not particularly, like, funded quite yet.

The goal, then, is to build a game that can attract the necessary investment, before going full-time on development and that has meant Ward Bs done whatever it can to get the word out about Oceanic. In its early stages, the studio saw its best success when showing off weapons.

Since the projects earliest days, Ward B has shown off Oceanics arsenal, filling a devblog with immensely complex renders and in-universe explainer text. On February 18, 2020, the team revealed its take on a futuristic shotgun, named the EPM28 Mastodon. Just like all the others, this post included multiple images of the new gun rendered in different colours, with individual components shown off, as well as in-game stats and an in-engine screenshot. To say it caused a splash on social media would be an overstatement, but it was enough to pique the interest of an unexpected party.

Just over a month after the post, in an email seen by IGN, an individual billing himself as a producer of industrial projects for multiple companies including Kalashnikov Concern introduced himself to Sauceda with a pitch. Maxim Kuzin had seen the Mastodons early renders via the portfolio of a concept artist Ward B had worked with, and wanted to pitch Kalashnikov on using the fictional design as a gun kit for its real-life MP-155 shotgun. Essentially, it would see the Mastodons futuristic looks wrapped around an existing weapon, and would potentially be followed by airsoft and toy versions of the weapon. In return Ward B would replace Oceanics in-game branding with that of Kalashnikov. In a response to IGN, Kuzin confirmed the above, but said his conversations with Ward B were « preliminary ».

Sauceda was excited by the idea, and organised a call with Kuzin to finalise it. He stated in there that [we would] be credited for this collaboration: Kalashnikov Concern will be showcasing your name, you’ll have a brand on the gun, and all that stuff, Sauceda says. And he said that we would receive three units of the finished product. They would ship it out [to the US] without internals of course, because they have sanctions but he laid out the whole groundwork of what’s going to happen. Kuzin didn’t respond to a request for comment about what was said in the Skype call.

Sauceda and his team loved the idea, and said theyd be happy to sign contracts to formalise the deal. But the contracts never arrived, and neither Kuzin nor Kalashnikov Concern got in touch.

Ward B assumed that Kuzin’s pitch to Kalashnikov hadnt gone well, and that the deal had simply fallen through. Disheartened but not defeated, the team kept working on Oceanic as usual until someone on the team spotted a Kalashnikov announcement for a weapon that looked very familiar.

Kalashnikov Concern's MP-155 Ultima. (Image credit: Kalashnikov Concern)

Kalashnikov Concern’s MP-155 Ultima. (Image credit: Kalashnikov Concern)

Ultima Goes Online

The day they first announced it and they showed it off, the concept artist came to me and they were like, Hey, they finally made our shotgun!

Kalashnikov announced the MP-155 Ultima on August 21, 2020. While the internal components in the gun are identical to the original MP-155, its external chassis is very different. Equipped with an angular design, multiple colour schemes, reflex sight, and even an in-built computer that includes camera support, ammunition readouts, and a digital compass, its a design that Kalashnikov openly says is inspired by video games.

Sauceda contends that it was inspired by one video game.

The more the Ward B team looked at the design, the more convinced they became that the MP-155 Ultima was based on Oceanics Mastodon. Aside from the general sci-fi aesthetic, color choices, and overall shape of the weapon, Sauceda points to multiple smaller similarities between the two designs, many of which are decisions that were taken for aesthetic reasons in Oceanic, but have no practical purpose in real life (see gallery, below, for Ward B’s specific comparisons). Elements of the handguard, receiver, and more appear to Sauceda to have been replicated on the Ultima, despite him seeing no utilitarian reason for their addition.

Mastodon & MP-155 Ultima Comparisons

And yet there was one more twist to come. Earlier this year, ultra-realistic shooter Escape From Tarkov added a fully-branded in-game kit for the MP-155 Ultima to its digital arsenal in June presumably as part of a licensing deal with Kalashnikov. You can see images of the Escape from Tarkov version of the weapon in the gallery above. Ward B repeatedly emailed Tarkov developer Battlestate Games to say that it saw this as an unauthorized use of its designs, but Sauceda says he never received a reply.

Effectively, Sauceda believes that a version of his studios gun design made it into someone elses game before it could ever have been released as part of his own. Sauceda sees this not just as a major loss of potential exposure for his little studio, but a huge factor for morale.

A lot of the people that were working on the shotgun with us, every day they wake up and they see the Ultima, or they hear people talking about it, Sauceda says. It’s completely demotivated a lot of us because it feels like [we could just be] making something, just for some international corporate-ran business to just take everything from us.

Despite multiple requests for comment from IGN, Battlestate Games failed to reply.

Sauceda believes a version of the Mastodon made it into someone elses game before it could ever have been part of Oceanic.

The Short Arm of the Law

Ward B has, by this point, given up on any formal legal case. We came to the point of realization that, due to Kalashnikov Concern being out of the country, filing any official legal action would require us to be present in Russia, which our funding would unfortunately not cover, Sauceda tells me. We’ve dropped the goal of reclaiming our property legally.

It is probably the wisest course of action. Micaela Mantegna, a lawyer specializing in video games and intellectual property, tells me that no matter the potential strength of Ward Bs evidence, the sheer difference in scale between an indie developer and a global arms manufacturer makes any legal recourse potentially devastating for the former. As Mantegna puts it, Litigation is clearly the worst possible outcome, particularly when it involves foreign law and overseas jurisdictions. It’s an expensive and lengthy process, with potentially uncertain results. You might reach a settlement, but you have to consider all the possible downfalls before suing. This is to say nothing of the legal complexities introduced by a US company taking action against a Russian one.

Instead Ward B now simply wants to raise awareness of whats happened, to let people know that it believes its work is on show on a global stage, without credit. Its not really about lost money Sauceda makes it absolutely clear that even the original, abandoned deal was never about quick profit: When we were in contact with Maxim Kuzin, we simply agreed on only receiving credit for the design. Ward B was to not receive any payment, and [we] saw this as a plus to have potential partnerships in the future.

Going into private development hasnt hurt the project too much, and Sauceda hints that Ward B is closer than ever to securing the funding it needs to take Oceanic into its next steps. His real disappointment is that those hours already spent making a dream project in spare time have been as he sees it co-opted by someone else, and that his team remains an invisible part of the process.

We’ve dropped the goal of reclaiming our property legally.

Its a situation Mantegna sees as endemic in the gaming industry, particularly with smaller studios: Unfortunately this is something that happens a lot in the indie development scene, small teams working in an informal way and covering a lot of roles simultaneously. They work super hard on their game, prioritizing resources, and maybe they don’t have the time or the money to get legal advice […] Legal education to see the red flags is very important there might be bad actors out there, and they’re going to take advantage of your naivety.

Ultimately even Mantegna sees the most potential value for Ward B coming out of being public with its concerns, rather than any legal process. As an activist, one of the things I feel about the gaming community is it doesnt stand for this kind of skulduggery, » she explains. « When the case goes public, theyre probably not going to buy the gun and they’re going to stand for the underdog. That’s the amazing power of gamers when we unite around a good cause. Were very vocal about the things that we don’t like, and we take action to change them.

Whatever the outcome of this episode, it remains the beginning of a journey for Ward B albeit a rockier one than the studio would’ve hoped for. Perhaps unexpectedly, Sauceda doesnt fully regret what he’s been through. For the developer, the fact that someone saw his teams work and seemingly made it a reality is still an honour in its own way, and proof that his team is on the right track. He just feels that it should be Ward Bs name on that work.

We all took this as a huge opportunity, which we’re still proud to see has come to life, he tells me. We just wish this was handled properly.

Joe Skrebels is IGN’s Executive Editor of News. Follow him on Twitter. Have a tip for us? Want to discuss a possible story? Please send an email to [email protected].
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