When I agreed to host yesterday's Keiji Inafune panel at PAX, I knew that he'd be announcing something somehow related to Mega Man -- hence my questions' focus on that part of his history -- but I didn't know the specifics. I hadn't seen the video until the audience did, so I certainly didn't expect him to launch a Kickstarter page for Mighty No. 9.
Mighty No. 9 clearly draws on Mega Man's history, from its obvious manga influences (the title echoes both Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy, aka Mighty Atom, and Shotaro Ishinomori's Cyborg 009) to the silhouettes and designs of many of its characters. The protagonist's "No. 9" designation hints at the idea that he may be the ninth of "Dr. White's" creations, similar to Mega Man's numeration among the "Light Numbers," the six robot bosses of the first Mega Man for NES. No. 9 himself (a robot named Beck) is practically the DC "New 52" version of Mega Man: The same character, but with a fussier costume. And from the looks of things, the two games will play similarly, too.
PAX's staff cut the panel short, so the extemporaneous follow-up Q&A that was supposed to take place after the video didn't happen. That means I didn't get to ask the first question on my mind (and, I assume, many others): Does Capcom know about this? And are they cool with it?
You can read Inafune's thoughts in our interview (the short of it: He isn't sweating it). Before we spoke, though, I reflected on why Capcom probably couldn't do much about it even if they were furious. And I'm sure they will be deeply unhappy, but Inafune's no dummy, and despite his deference he's made a conspicuous attempt to distinguish his new project from his older creation -- just enough to stay out of court, that is. While his intro video conspicuously riffed on the older series, it didn't actually include images of Capcom's character. If memory serves, it didn't even mention Mega Man by name, instead using terms like "those classic games." While Comcept openly uses fans' familiarity with Mega Man as a lever to build interest, it does so in just a circumspect enough fashion to keep Capcom's lawyers at bay.
Mighty No. 9 certainly looks similar to Mega Man based on the one screenshot that's been shown (or rather, the screen mock-up), but all the details are just different enough to be safe. And yes, I think there's pretty clear legal precedent for this.
The first that came to my mind was the landmark case that helped define the law in such matters: Apple's suit against Microsoft over the "look and feel" of Windows. For more than a decade, the two software giants duked it out in court as Apple claimed Microsoft's operating system was too blatantly copied from the Macintosh OS (never mind that they both allegedly swiped it from Xerox PARC). But the courts never once agreed, repeatedly denying Apple an injunction and holding the line that Apple could trademark, copyright, and patent specifics of their interface but not the concept of a windowed environment nor features that emerged naturally and logically from such a system. Eventually, Apple conceded defeat.
Still, Microsoft didn't include any ideas quite so close to Apple's as, say, a blue robot who defeats other robots to steal their powers looks to Mega Man. Yet even within the video game space, Mighty No. 9 isn't without precedent. More than a few game designers have departed from the companies that made their names to create remarkably familiar projects. Bungie may have left Halo behind with Microsoft, but Destiny seems rather similar -- all the way down to its sound effects.
An even more blatant example happened more than a decade ago in Japan, and it also established legal precedent, this time on the other side of the ocean. Shouzou Kaga, one of the lead designers of Nintendo and Intelligent Systems' Fire Emblem series, left the company to venture out on his own. The first project he announced was "Emblem Saga," a turn-based strategy RPG set in a fantasy realm and featuring a rock-paper-scissors combat mechanic. Sound familiar? Nintendo certainly thought so... and promptly sued.
However, the courts said Nintendo didn't have a leg to stand on. Though Nintendo appealed and reportedly won a cash settlement, the courts ruled that the game did not infringe on Nintendo's copyrights, and no injunction was allowed. Kaga and publisher Enterbrain did eventually change the game's name to Tear Ring Saga to help blunt the lawsuit, but not only did the game ship and remain legally on shelves, it even saw a sequel.
Intellectual property protection exists in three forms: Patents, copyright, and trademarks. Patents cover concepts, but it offers very finite protection on very specifically documented concepts. Trademark covers names and logos. Copyright tends to offer the broadest protection, but it also protect only the actual content of a work: The art, text, code, or appearance. By the looks of it, Mighty No. 9 manages to steer clear of all of these pitfalls; I think we can safely assume Capcom didn't actually trademark the idea of beating eight robot bosses and stealing its weapon.
There are, however, questions of taste and integrity, and plenty of gamers have expressed open criticism of Inafune's plan for being so openly derivative. And while that debate certainly will be batted around, it's one that will take place in the court of public opinion, not a court of law.
Which isn't to say Capcom couldn't sue Comcept, of course. Legal precedent can always be overwritten by new decisions. The question, of course, is whether or not the company would want to do so. From what I've gathered, Capcom knows full well how resentful many fans have become in the wake of the Mega Man series' repeated, ignominious cancellations. Spending money to quash yet another game in that vein when they refused to finance anticipated sequels like Mega Man Legends 3 wouldn't do many favors for the company's image. And Capcom may well be gunshy after the way their Fighter's History lawsuit turned out.
In short, Inafune's boldness has put Capcom into a situation where the only winning move appears to be not to play. No, scratch that; the most winning move they could make would be to produce a true Mega Man game that equals Mighty No. 9... but unfortunately, that doesn't seem terribly likely at the moment. Mighty No. 9 looks like an interesting game, but the story around it should prove to be every bit as fascinating.