I invented a developer called Mark Followill who had a bee in his bonnet about the fact that Tokyo 42 was a clone of his “original 1987 ZX Spectrum and IBM-compatible title” Tokyo 41. Marben aka Bonerman produced the demake and we started leaking information about it.
You can read Mark’s angry blog post here.
After his disgruntled tweeting at me over a period of a couple of months, Mark uploaded some gameplay footage of his masterpiece:
One of the weird things about this was deliberately breaking obvious PR rules in order to fuel the story. Here’s what I decided to do, all of which is bad practise:
- Quote-tweet the allegations
- Immediately respond to-and-fro with the “developer” by nit-picking over details creating an interaction which people would follow to see how everything went down
- Instead of leaving things on a definitive note and then stepping back, I left it all open and said I was going “off twitter for a while”
The reactions were great: some people were outraged, others started combing the internet for references to the game, some people instantly called it as a marketing stunt. It was good to see how fast my friends turned on me (some of them were in on it of course)!
I left an email address at the bottom of Mark’s blog for journalists to get in contact. I was heartened to see how everyone who interviewed “Mark” was very clear about the fact that they were looking for accurate information and proof, and everyone attempted to get both sides by contacting me as well.
One thing I had tried to do here was make everything so totally ludicrous that people would be tipped off as to the nature of what was happening, and so slightly in on the joke.
I wanted this to be a prank, rather than a lie, and so anyone getting in contact with Mark was rewarded with patent nonsense like this, a quote which I’m genuinely pleased to have got onto Ars Technica:
Followill tells Ars he formed the Kent-based developer omen Barn (yes, that’s company styling) in the late ’80s with partner Michael Hernandez. The company was “named after a barn near our houses which we found to be particularly ominous in nature,” he says. “Barn is capitalised there as it was a big barn, also this was the fashion at the time.” Tokyo 41 was “inspired by my love of Tokyo and Japan which I established as a young boy, visiting the blossom season and having adventures with police,” Followill says.
Julian Benson at PCGamesN also wrote a great piece on things.
I started to get more into the character of Mark, with his strange diction and slightly absurdist bent — I do slightly wish I’d been able to run with it a bit more but I decided to wrap stuff up quickly, dropping in some very blatant references to the forthcoming launch of Tokyo 42.
Today we dropped this reveal:
What is the Moral of this Sordid Tale, Paul?
It’s incredibly hard to get attention for a smaller game these days, especially for a new platform release of something which already exists, so I felt like I had to push the boat out a little bit.
It’s also frustrating for developers when “industry drama” is at the forefront of discussion rather than games themselves. There is, obviously, absolutely nothing to be done about this: scandal and outrage are embedded at the core of the human brain.
I do worry a bit about more extreme PR tactics becoming commonplace in games — it’s something I’ve written about before. I do like stunts and silliness but there is a really fine line with this stuff: people are angry with me about this even though I was extremely careful to make everything about it scream “PR STUNT”. I’m now being told that it’s a shitty joke, that I’m taking attention away from important issues in the world, that I’m a shameful liar and so on. I can’t imagine what this would have been like if I’d really pushed things.
There was a lot of positive stuff too, of course! We even got some fan art:
I could have taken this a lot further: creating an entire plausible backstory, with multiple points of reference for anyone delving into it. Marben could have made a demake which was as historically accurate as humanly possible — there were so many “tells” in this version, including the keyboard prompts and audio. While this could have been a fun ARG, I think it would have got us into a lot more trouble.
For this kind of stunt to be effective — and I definitely traded some risk for a lower reward here — you have to play with some real issues. Cloning is a big topic, as is the issue of a whole huge stretch of early game development being forgotten or ignored (particularly the UK ZX Spectrum scene). People were also concerned for my welfare, which was lovely! I tried not to milk it too much on Twitter, and I did reach out to anyone who seemed worried so as to not cause too much concern, but this was probably the most difficult aspect. I also did not want to trivialise the experiences of people who do have to deal with difficult issues like this — again, keeping everything light and silly was important here — but I did also have to sell it to make it work. I hope that people generally were able to take this in the spirit it was intended.
If something weird like this really happens to you, say a trademark troll or another similar event, I would advise:
- Immediately stop commenting on social media and step away
- Take both reliable legal and PR advice
- Spend time offline (or on private channels) with people you trust to get yourself together — expend your emotion here, never in public
- Formulate a solid strategy and response — when and how are you going to make a statement, what should the content of that be?
- Don’t provide incremental additional details or refer to existing news coverage in real time (if ever) — this keeps the story rolling and fuels the fire
This was fascinating and I’d really like to thank both the Tokyo 42 developers for being open-minded enough to let me try this — “hey people are going to be accusing you of plagiarism for a few days, is that cool?” is a tough sell but they were totally up for it — and Marben for being super wonderful and creating such a funny demake.
One of the reasons I chose this approach is that I genuinely believe Tokyo 42 to be a brilliantly unique game. We published it for that reason, and I’m SO proud to have contributed to it. The idea that someone “came up with it 30 years ago” is absolutely ludicrous nonsense — it’s required such a huge amount of skill and work which only Sean and Maciek are capable of delivering. Again, playing around with that idea touched a nerve with people.
I don’t know if I’m going to do something like this again. The balance of fun, risk and difficulty is a tough one.
Tokyo 42 is out on PSN today, and is also available on Steam and Xbox One — we’d love it if you picked it up.