Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Game Developer Accuses Real-Life Weapons Manufacturer of Stealing Its Gun Design... Twice

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 team’s work – and the small following around Oceanic’s 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 B’s commitment to believability was so strong that, in early 2020, Maxim Kuzin arrived in Sauceda’s inbox. A contractor for Russia’s largest weapons manufacturer, Kalashnikov Concern, Kuzin asked for permission to turn one of Ward B’s fictional weapons into a real-life shotgun. For Sauceda, it wouldn’t just be recognition of his team’s 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.

“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 B’s 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 B’s 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 project’s earliest days, Ward B has shown off Oceanic’s 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 Mastodon’s 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 Mastodon’s 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 Oceanic’s 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 they’d 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 hadn’t 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.

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, it’s 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 Oceanic’s 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.

For Ward B, the clincher was the inclusion of a small indentation on one side of the Ultima – a horizontal L shape with a small line emerging from the corner (also seen in the gallery above). It’s a tiny detail, but one Sauceda sees as crucial, as the team has used it as a visual motif on not just the Mastodon, but multiple Oceanic guns. “Nothing about this gives the receiver stability, it has nothing to do with it because everything is functioning through the internals,” says Sauceda of that design choice. “The fact that they included this indent is kind of... it's sketchy, because I kind of feel they have the [Mastodon’s 3D model] and they forgot to exclude that part – because they did remove it on the other side with the bolt.”

On the day the Ultima was announced, the developer’s first thought was that the deal must have gone ahead after all, and that something had gone wrong on the admin side. “I was going to the page saying, ‘Oh, maybe they mentioned Ward B’ – but they clearly didn't,” he explains. The announcement included no mention of other companies in the Ultima’s creation. Sauceda’s first step was to email Kuzin: “I didn't want to make a scene to their legal department right away. And I was like, ‘The papers weren't delivered, they weren't signed. We're just checking that this collaboration’s still going through as planned.’”

“We were quiet because we thought that things were going to be going good,” Sauceda recalls, sadly. “We thought that even though he didn't send contracts to us, we felt that, OK, maybe he'll still go by his word. And even though he didn't send it and the gun's already [been revealed] we were being quiet, hoping that things would be done properly, that it was just delayed or something like that. But I already had an idea in my mind that he was definitely not going to come back. They completely stole it.”

Kuzin never replied to Ward B's emails.

"I already had an idea in my mind that he was definitely not going to come back. They completely stole it."

In a response to IGN, Kuzin tells a slightly different story. The contractor says that, alongside his first contact with Ward B, he had begun an independent investigation into the developer and Oceanic and, "found that the company does not have enough of its own funds to complete the development, there are no investors, [and] the release date is unknown," meaning it was too risky to work with the company. Ward B says that it's in the process of acquiring funding at this point, and contends that Kuzin used the company's early state as an excuse to simply take the design rather than work together legitimately.

Kuzin also says that Ward B had not paid the Mastodon concept artist, making negotiating weapon licensing impossible, as there was no clear ownership. Ward B says that, while the artist had not been paid at the time of their conversation, they were on a deferred payment plan from the beginning, and have now received payment. Ward B also points out that the concept artist specifically referred Kuzin to Ward B when asked about the design (which IGN can confirm, having seen messages between them), and that all the artist's renders included Oceanic branding on them – the developer sees this as a clear, early indication as to who owns the license.

Kuzin says that, having abandoned the Ward B plan, he then went on to work with "another designer from Russia" to create the Ultima's design "from scratch", and pointed IGN to a patent as proof of the design's originality. Kuzin says he also received confirmation of the originality of the design from the Russia Designers Association, in documents IGN has seen. Those documents list a number of real and fictional weapons – including the Mastodon – that were used as comparison points to the MP-155 Ultima design, before certifying it as original.

Sauceda doesn't see this as proof enough: "Filing for a patent means nothing, there's plenty of cases where a patent gets disputed due to provided evidence." When it comes to Kuzin's claims of creating the design from scratch, Sauceda remains defiant: "We've heard that they made sketches from scratch as well, but redrawing an existing design doesn't make it yours just because you have your own sketches of something you stole. Sounds like Kuzin is implying tracing our design on paper then bringing it into the real world and adding an Apple Watch onto it changes it from theft to innovation."

After being unable to contact Kuzin, Sauceda went directly to Kalashnikov Concern with his worries about the design. According to Sauceda, Kalashnikov also insisted that it had developed the Ultima from scratch, and that its executives had never seen the Mastodon design.

Sauceda says he thinks he can prove that’s not the case.

Little vs. Large

By September 2020, Ward B had sent Kalashnikov Concern a cease-and-desist order. The company didn’t comply, or even reply. A month later, Ward B issued DMCA takedowns for online posts featuring the MP-155 Ultima. This time, Kalashnikov did reply – in an email seen by IGN, a Kalashnikov Intellectual Property department representative requested that the takedown orders be withdrawn, insisting that the design had been used entirely legally. Kalashnikov said that the MP-155 Ultima design was created alongside AMA, a separate company that works with Kalashnikov for sports and hunting weaponry.

The email ends by asking Ward B to provide proof of its ownership of Ultima’s design. Sauceda says Ward B withdrew the takedown requests, and sent along its proof, but says that Kalashnikov Concern’s IP department never replied from that point onwards.

It felt as though Ward B was hitting a brick wall, until Sauceda was sent a message that he thinks proves what he initially suspected.

The message, sent by an anonymous source and seen by IGN, showed Kuzin seemingly attempting to buy the design for the Mastodon from the gun's concept artist, even after having spoken to Ward B. “So did they pay for your shotgun or we can buy it to stop the conflict with them shortly?” the message reads. “Cause there are lawyers connected from both side now and truly it seems like a spoiling of time [sic],” reads the message. Kuzin did not provide a response to IGN when asked about this message.

Sauceda says that the concept artist had retained no rights to the Mastodon’s design, and that their work was directed entirely by Ward B – in his eyes, this proves that Kuzin had decided to try and use the design without Ward B’s involvement. That wasn’t all he learned. Another leaked image, included in the gallery below, shows a design flowchart – branded with KDNMX (Kuzin’s personal web address), and Korolev Dynamics (a company Kuzin is seemingly a part of) – that includes a render of the Mastodon, an image of the original MP-155, and a series of designs that attempt to combine the two into a new weapon. While the final MP-155 Ultima design is not part of that chart, Sauceda sees it as proof that Kuzin was using Mastodon renders as part of his pitch to Kalashnikov. Kuzin did not acknowledge the KDNMX-branded designs that included images of the Mastodon when asked about them.

In a series of separate messages also seen by IGN, Kuzin seemingly makes contact with another artist, linking to a post featuring the Mastodon, saying the design is “soo cool”, and that he wants a similar one, apparently to bring to Kalashnikov. Kuzin even says that the new artist could just “get the existing renders and put the Kalashnikov logo on it”. Kuzin did not provide a response when asked about these messages.

Sauceda was sent the images subsequently made for Kalashnikov – they are indeed versions of the original Mastodon renders with the Kalashnikov brand name replacing Oceanic's brand name. On one image, the Kalashnikov logo has also been added to the gun render itself. You can see comparisons of the original renders with the versions allegedly sent to Kalashnikov in the gallery above. In the messages, Kuzin replies to the artist involved saying, “realy [sic] impressive gun! Just sent all pics to Kalashnikov vice president”. Kuzin did not respond to a request for comment on whether he had spoken to that vice-president.

Sauceda sees this final set of messages as proof that not just Kuzin, but Kalashnikov as a whole, took and used his company’s designs without credit.

“We've talked to them,” he explains. “We've talked to their legal department. The funny thing is they claim that their vice-president isn't aware of our design or even who Ward B is. We showed them the exact renders that were rebranded, and Maxim Kuzin stated in a message between him and his artist that he sent these to the vice president. And so they lied – they completely lied on their part that they're unaware of us.”

Kalashnikov Concern did not reply to multiple requests for comment.

Kuzin replies to the artist involved saying, “Just sent all pics to Kalashnikov vice president”. 

Tarkov Escapades

“This shotgun went through a few revisions. I think that's why we take it a bit more personally,” Sauceda tells me. “We were very, very picky about this design, and it came to be for that reason. It wasn't just something we threw in there like, ‘Oh, we'll just make a shotgun.’ I mean, we [create] all these weapons with pretty much pure heart in everything we design. So we take it personal that they're claiming it as their own when it's clearly not.”

At time of writing, Kalashnikov Concern has begun taking pre-orders for the MP-155 Ultima, priced at around $1,700 USD / £1,300. It’s received worldwide press attention for its unusual design and video game inspiration – far beyond the normal spheres of coverage for a new weapon.

On the other hand, Ward B went almost completely dark after it began to suspect that its designs were being used elsewhere without permission. Oceanic only reappeared around a year later, with Ward B showing off more of the Mastodon, assuring fans that the game was still in development, and hinting at the reasons for that lengthy disappearance. “Undergoing private development does hurt,” Sauceda tells me, “we loved showing off what our talents can achieve during development, but this approach was needed to prevent future cases such as this one.”

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 studio’s gun design made it into someone else’s 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 else’s 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 B’s 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 what’s happened, to let people know that it believes its work is on show on a global stage, without credit. It’s 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 hasn’t 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.”

It’s 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 doesn’t stand for this kind of skulduggery," she explains. "When the case goes public, they’re 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. We’re 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 doesn’t fully regret what he's been through. For the developer, the fact that someone saw his team’s 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 B’s 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 newstips@ign.com.

source https://www.ign.com/articles/stolen-gun-kalashnikov-oceanic-mp-155-ultima-ward-b

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