On the morning of January 26th, 2012, Korean Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) conglomorate “NCsoft,” pressed charges against up-and-coming independant Korean MMO developer “Bluehole” and its North American publisher En Masse Entertainment, Inc. The charges brought up included over 83 separate copyright infringement, misappropriation of trade secrets and confidential information, unjust enrichment, and unfair competition claims. In layman’s terms, NCsoft believes that Bluehole stole data that belonged to NCsoft’s “Lineage 3” project, to develop their new title, “TERA.”
“TERA,” an acronym for “The Exiled Realm of Arborea,” was released in South Korea exactly a year and a day ago. The title saw relative success, but fell short of competing with NCsoft’s Korean hit, “Aion.” It is a much anticipated title in North America and Europe, due to release on May 1st and May 3rd of 2012 respectively. The very week the local publisher “En Masse” disclosed the release dates, NCsoft went in for the kill.
It’s said that Bluehole CEO Gang-Seok Kim instigated a mass exodus of key developers behind the development of Lineage 3, forming his studio shortly thereafter. Much of the team was found to be in violation of former agreements with their previous employer, in possession of stolen data stored on personal storage devices. NCsoft notified Korean law enforcement officials of suspected theft in March of 2007, and shortly after, a police investigation of Bluehole began. The company was found with proprietary data–and several developers, including Head Producer for Tera, Yong-Hyun Park, were indicted for trade secret misappropriation, unfair competition, and breach of trust. They were fined in a separate civil case for about $2 Million in damages.
Bluehole, however, continued development of TERA and was able to release the title in Korea with relative ease. What NCsoft seeks to do with this new suit, is block the title from expanding outside of Korea and making extra, allegedly “unjust” income off of what was originally intellectual property belonging to their company.
NCsoft hasn’t always had a great reputation in the courtrooms, but the suit in and of itself seems to hold some merit. The full PDF civil action documents can be found here. In short, a few of the glaringly identical features between TERA and what was to be Lineage 3, are as follows: Seven playable races of nearly identical shape, size, and characteristics (including two races that have not appeared in any other MMO); nearly identical continents and world; the same capital cities, the same giant monsters for players to fight, a unique combat system that does not rely on auto-targetting, a player-controlled political system, specific customizations to the “Unreal” graphics engine, and specific software.
It’s no coincidence that much of the Bluehole development team were a part of the Lineage 3 team before they decided to walk. The founder of TERA’s company, in fact, was the project lead for Lineage 3.
The short of all this legal mumbojumbo is this: The founders and staff of Bluehole left NCsoft with confidential information that they had legally agreed never to disclose or misappropriate. Bluehole, even while being examined by Korean authorities, continued with the development of TERA and already had plans in the works for a Western release. Two of the big boasting points for TERA–the political system, and active combat system–were innovations that belonged to NCsoft’s Lineage 3. TERA is already out and, having saved quite a bit of time and money through blatant theft, they get the credit and the player base for these new innovative impliments to the MMO genre.
It might not seem like a big deal to the rest of the world, but anyone who’s ever played an MMO knows that every MMO title competes with every other MMO title. Subscribers are the type who will claim that one game is a rip off of another game. To the consumers, with Lineage 3 behind TERA, it will look like L3 stole from TERA, when in fact, it was the other way around.
As it stands, NCsoft scrapped millions of dollars worth of development to build L3 back from the bottom up. That’s a lot of wasted time and money.
In Korea, Bluehole is still being investigated by authorities and may very well be shut down–but it’s impossible to say at this point. The case here in the U.S., is an attempt to block the game–something that could cripple TERA. It’s a case worth watching–that’s for sure.