In the great river of “borrowed” ideas, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds floats midstream. Itself broadly based on the wonderful Japanese film Battle Royale, it then saw its central conceit lifted somewhat wholesale by Epic with the original version of Fortnite. Now, a million iterations later, the cellphone version of the game, PUBG Mobile, may be borrowing from another creation according to an indie game developer.
Hypnospace Outlaw was a PC indie hit in 2019, then again in 2020 on consoles. Its incredibly distinctive art style and color palette evoked an alternative-world internet of the mid-90s, a sort of pastel GeoCities-meets-cyberpunk. Which is to say, it’s a very particular style. So when creator Jay Tholen was searching his game’s name this morning (“as one does”), he came across a reference to PUBG Mobile promoting something called the Hypnospace Diva Set.
“I figured since it was called ‘Hypnospace Diva’,” Tholen told Kotaku over Twitter DM, “it was maybe someone’s fan art they made in some in-game character creator.” He quickly discovered this wasn’t the case, however, when a user in his game’s Discord channel posted a link to a YouTube video (not this one in particular, but this is an example of many) showing it in-game. And more importantly, how it was only available through PUBG Mobile’s loot-box-like mechanic.
“I got a bit perturbed when I saw a few YouTube videos because it’s definitely linked to some gambly shenanigans,” Tholen explains. “It annoys me that there’s a skin thing bearing a close visual resemblance to my game and its name that may encourage folks to gamble.”
In Plunkbat Mobile, players can use something called Matrix Spin that allows them to “win” new cosmetic items through “Lucky Draw”s. This involves paying various amounts of the in-game currency, Unknown Cash (UC), to essentially spin a wheel (a light dances over a number of rectangles containing possible prizes), to see if a player can get lucky and score items from the particular set.
Videos on YouTube show the set being collected for amounts varying from $7,000 UC to $40,000 UC, which works out to an enormous amount of money. The official PUBG store sets the exchange rate for UC at 60 for $0.99, with increasing bonuses for buying in larger amounts. So to get that cheapest 7,000 would, by my estimation, cost one hundred bucks. Spinning the wheel 10 times in the game costs 540 UC, which is about $10 a pop. However, players who get the free Royal Pass get given UC every few levels, 6,000 in total. Paying the $10 a month for the Elite Royal Pass gets more, and more quickly, and the season pass even more so.
Tholen’s key objection, beyond just the apparent rudeness of his creation being used in a game without permission (it would be an extraordinary coincidence, certainly, and we’ve reached out to publishers Krafton to ask—as of publication they hadn’t replied), is the association of his game with this gambling mechanic. “In general I’m fine with ideas being taken and developed by others,” he tells Kotaku, “but this seems to only involve the image and name and none of the actual idea. Also I’d never allow a gambling adjacent game to feature it.”
Tholen too has reached out to Krafton, but has also yet to receive a reply. When I asked him what he wanted to happen, he said, “For them to simply rename it would be enough.”
Update: 15.53, 7/23/21: PUBG finally got back to Jay Tholen this morning (although have still yet to respond to our request for comment), and have promised to rename the skin set immediately.
“As soon as we saw your tweet, we began looking into how our new skin had been developed and promoted,” the developers told Tholen in a Twitter DM. “We want you to know that we do care and want to explain what happened and to let you know that we are renaming the skin.”
While the Chinese developers say that the skin was never designed with Tholen’s Hypnospace Outlaw in mind, the lifting of his game’s name came during localization. “An individual on our localization team saw the visuals for the skin and was reminded of your game,” they told the indie dev. “Rather than adopt the literal translation [of the Chinese], ‘Golden Diva,’ the team member decided to change the name to Hypnospace Diva, not considering the consequences or implications of doing so.”
Goodness gracious, it’s extraordinary to see a clear and frank admission of fault! The continue to say that those responsible for approving the work done by the localization team were not familiar with the indie game, which they say is the reason the poor choice got through. The result is it will no longer be using Tholen’s game’s name, meaning the association with their lootbox mechanics that he objected to will no longer be a problem.
Tholen tweeted his pleasure at the news, but added, “I hope no one was sacked :/”