Thursday, May 20, 2010

Palladium Sues MMO Developer: A Rifts Author's Thoughts

I first read yesterday morning about Palladium's lawsuit against Trion Worlds over their new name for an MMO in development: Rift: Planes of Telara. Palladium Books, as I'm sure you know, has been long-publishing the very popular and often maligned tabletop RPG, Rifts. That's basically all there is to the story, that the new MMO shares a name with Palladium's flagship title. There are other blogs and news sites covering this better than could I, so I'll refer you to, which even has screen captures of the MMO. I thought that for my part, I'd offer some commentary on my thoughts.

For more on what I think as a Palladium freelancer and Rifts author, please read on.

Why my opinion might be relevant

Who am I? Why, I'm Jason Richards, of course. I'm an author and game designer and was first published by Palladium Books in the fan magazine, The Rifter, in 1998. I've done more Rifters than I can recall at the moment, both strictly fan material and in an official capacity, and my first full sourcebook for Rifts was published in 2006, among my other official/contracted writing gigs for the company. I have a completed manuscript for Rifts Chaos Earth sitting on Kevin Siembieda's desk, and once all of my current Palladium contracts are closed out, I'll begin working on my next sourcebook. In short, I have an extensive professional history with Palladium Books, even so far as I think that with the exception of Carl Gleba, I'm the longest-tenured contracted Freelance Writer with Palladium at this time. Yikes.

While I am employed on a contract basis with Palladium, and am subject to a Non-Disclosure Agreement, I think it's important to note that I don't have any special information about this lawsuit. I hadn't heard anything about it until it hit the web. Everything here I say is simply my own opinion, formulated in whatever way it is that my mind does such acrobatics.

Burdens of the past

Palladium has the reputation of being litigious. I don't really know how to compare that company to others, so maybe they're no different than any other publisher, but there have been high-profile instances that involved Palladium Books in a courtroom. Of that, there can be no doubt.

Palladium sued Wizards of the Coast in its early days. The company is far more aggressive in the prevention of the publication of fan conversions to and from the Megaversal rule set than are other companies in the market; this supposedly goes so far as to the issuing of cease and desist letters to the owners of websites hosting such material, but I have never actually met, spoken to, or corresponded with anyone that has received such a letter, so that could be urban legend. I actually owned and operated a peer editing website with fellow freelancers, Carl Gleba and Todd Yoho, designed to help Palladium fans prepare articles for The Rifter, but the three of us stepped down after less than a year when we were told that reviewing fan work could compromise our future employment with Palladium. So, maybe there's something to all of that.

Whether it's fair or not, this perception will haunt Palladium on this issue, for sure. Even if Trion is blatantly ripping off Palladium properties for their game, the history of lawsuits and other legal actions will bring opposition out from the woodwork. For better or worse, that's the bed that Palladium has made.

Rifts video games

It's also worth mentioning here that Rifts has a pretty sordid history in the video gaming market. Its biggest success was also its biggest disappointment, the handheld video game for the Nokia N-Gage, Rifts: Promise of Power.

I will defend this game, and the decision to license it to Nokia, to my dying breath. It was a massive flop, thanks entirely to Nokia's mismanagement of the hardware. The image people have of the N-Gage isn't even the actual version that was released, so poor was their marketing. It's a shame, because I owned an N-Gage and the Rifts game, and both were great. That's the truth. Despite how it turned out, I still say that when a giant like Nokia comes calling, you jump in bed with them as fast as possible. It's not like the deal was done to the exclusion of other avenues; it just didn't work out.

There have been many, many other Rifts video game projects that have been halfway announced or hinted at in Kevin's blog posts or press releases, but none have come through. More's the pity, because regardless of what you think about Palladium, I think we can all agree that some sort of Rifts MMO would be crazy fun.

Legit lawsuit?

I don't know anything about Rift: Planes of Telara beyond what I've read, but Kevin and the guys may have a legit beef here. What do you think? The following is an excerpt from the game's website:

Mysterious rifts are tearing the world of Telara apart. A powerful magic explosion during the final days of the Shade War has left the veil between Telara and other planar dimensions fractured and torn.
Treacherous and powerful, these rifts occur when another plane of reality intersects with the magical Ward protecting Telara. Rifts create doorways for planar invasion, destroying the lands and people of Telara, but they may also grant otherworldly power to those brave enough to seize it.

That sounds pretty much like the premise of the Rifts RPG to me. There is even art on the site that looks a lot like the depiction of a tear in space and time a la the Palladium game line. Then again, we've all seen the concept of the swirling blue mystic energy around a portal far too many times to count. I mean, come on:

Palladium doesn't own the word "rift" in all contexts. Doing a Google search for "rift in space time" brings up a myriad of applications, but that word used to describe a magical tear in space-time in a role-playing game? Maybe so.

Then again, parallel development happens. Kevin named a major character in the Beyond the Supernatural RPG, Victor Lazlo, without realizing that it paralleled a character in the film, Casablanca. Sometimes words or terms just seep into our consciousness and we integrate them with our own creative thoughts without recognizing their origins.

Palladium also certainly doesn't own the concept of tears in magical space and time, or portals to other dimensions. The question will be, when you add up all of these common factors, is it enough to convince anyone that wrong has been done to Palladium?

If I had to guess

If forced to predict the outcome of this, I'm going to say that Trion will simply change some verbage to avoid conflict with the Rifts RPG property. That's what makes sense to me. I hope that Palladium can deal with this amicably and avoid any sort of drawn out, public battles. Maybe, if they deal with everything in the right way, Palladium could end up with a new friend in a business that it has desperately wanted to get into for years and years.

Then again, maybe not.


A.L. said...

On the one hand here, I'm not sure I like the idea of the lawsuit. Rift is a pretty common word, especially when dealing with the tears between multiple dimensions/worlds which is also a fairly common theme. Yes there are similarities, but in many ways you are talking about base line values here.

At the same time, I also remember when Todd Macfarlane(sp?) sued Palladium over the game Night Spawn for too closely resembling his Spawn series (which I still don't see aside from the name), and Palladium changed the name to Night Bane.

So Palladium definitely has ground it seems, if from precedent a lone. It could also be an attempt to get their name out there a bit more. There is supposedly no such thing as bad publicity afterall.

Jason Richards said...

A.L., Personally, I never like a lawsuit as a first resort. I can only hope that papers weren't filed until after the courtesy of a phone call was extended. We just don't know. Kevin could have called Trion and been cussed and hung up on. Or, the only call could have been by Kevin to a lawyer. Palladium isn't talking about it, so who knows?

A.L. said...

Oh, I agree completely. Lawsuits shouldn't be the first resort for it. Especially between companies. I was more just commenting on the situation.

Though I guess the only thing to do is to wait and see now.

Robert G. Male said...

I want to add one thing that I've picked up over the years. If you have a trademark, especially a registered one like Rifts(R) and you let someone else make use of it without evidence that you tried to defend the trademark then when someone else comes along and really rips you off you have to take it. Meaning, trademarks are only defend-able if you defend it every time. Seems like a stupid bit of legal wrangling, but when has that stopped law makers.

Anonymous said...

Compare and contrast with White Wolf, which when the WWF blatantly ripped them off in coming up with a vampire wrestler named Gangrel, responded with handsprings instead of lawsuits, on the grounds that they couldn't buy publicity like that.

Anonymous said...

In all honestly Palladium Books doesn't have much to stand on regarding their lawsuit against Trion Worlds for the name Rift in Rift: Planes of Telara. Palladium Books would have a long legal battle to defend the trademark as it is, but its hard to defend a trademark that's a verily common word and theme like Rifts. Palladium Books neither has the money, nor enough evidence to support their actions against Trion. Palladium Books really should call quits before it starts biting them in the behind.

Anonymous said...

I hope they work a settlement and change the name to Rifts

Eludajae said...

Kevin is lawsuit happy he has like anywhere from 3 to 5 going at any time. At this point I would just love to see his butt get handed to him so he would just go away.

Post a Comment