Dark and Darker developer Ironmace has released a four-part response to its legal challenge from Maplestory publisher Nexon, including an overview statement, a written rebuttal and asset comparisons from Ironmace's character concept artist, a list of in-game assets and their origins, and the reportedly full, only partially-redacted git log (a sequential history of changes to the game's code) of Dark and Darker's development thus far.
Dark and Darker timeline
- July, 2021: Nexon project P3 lead developer Ju-Hyun Choi is fired from the company. Choi would later be project lead on Dark and Darker.
- August 5, 2021: Nexon reveals name of project P3 to the public as part of an initiative of games "developed at a faster pace and brought to market where they can be fine-tuned based on valuable input from players." P3 is set to be a first person, medieval fantasy, dungeon crawling PvPvE game, similar to Dark and Darker
- August 9, 2021: Terence Park, director of game development at Nexon and "head of the sub-team for P3 project" leaves Nexon. He is currently CEO at Ironmace
- September 2021: Nexon hires for a project "P7" that is later revealed (in March 2022) to have replaced or evolved out of P3, supposedly becoming a more contemporary, firearms-focused survival game
- Development begins on Dark and Darker, according to the git log released by Ironmace "The [Ironmace developers] worked for more than a month in a shabby jiu jitsu gym without pay using our own personal PCs as a test of our resolve and teamwork."
- October 2021: Ironmace officially founded
- February 6, 2023: A playable online demo of Dark and Darker is a hit at the Steam Next Fest. We loved it, and it quickly became one of the most played games on Steam while its demo was live.
- February 16, 2023: Allegation that Dark and Darker uses assets and/or code taken from project P3 first appears on Korean gaming site, This Is Game.
- March 8, 2023: Police raid Ironmace based on Nexon allegations of stolen code.
- March 25, 2023: Dark and Darker is delisted from Steam entirely following DMCA request by Nexon to Valve.
- Nexon alleges that concept art, code, and in-engine assets from P3 were all used in Dark and Darker, additionally that P3 and Dark and Darker project leader Ju-Hyun Choi illegally transferred a significant amount of development materials to a private server before being terminated from Nexon. Nexon also alleges that Park and Choi encouraged P3 team members to leave Nexon for Ironmace.
Ironmace's overview response is six pages long and also includes a link to Nexon's takedown request to Valve. Ironmace frames the private server accusation against P3 and Dark and Darker project lead Ju-Hyun Choi as a belated retaliation for his choosing to leave Nexon in the middle of 2021, claiming that his usage of a private server to store game assets was an outgrowth of work from home adaptations during Covid lockdowns.
As Ironmace puts it, Choi's usage of the server was discouraged by Nexon, but never directly shut down, and receded to a secondary concern as the team returned to office. It was when Choi announced an intention to leave Nexon, Ironmace claims, that legal proceedings against him began and he was terminated by the company. Further, Ironmace alleges that Nexon only copyrighted its P3 development materials in February of this year, seemingly in response to Dark and Darker's success in the Steam Next Fest.
Ironmace also had harsh words for Nexon's claim that the studio could not have produced working prototypes of Dark and Darker so quickly without trade secrets from Nexon: "The fact that a big game company like Nexon can't develop games this fast doesn't mean that other studios, big and small, can't develop at that speed."
While both P3 and Dark and Darker are being made using Unreal Engine, Ironmace claims that P3 was "written while learning because none of the programmers had any experience using Unreal Engine at the time of the project," and that "using the code and assets of the P3 project as a reference would not have been helpful in proceeding with the Dark and Darker project." To bolster the claim, Ironmace released partly redacted git logs of Dark and Darker's development, a massive document stretching back to the project's inception in September 2021.
Another claim of Nexon's that Ironmace contests is the list of assets Nexon says is shared between the two games. Nexon argues that this is an overwhelming similarity and evidence of theft, while Ironmace points out that they are all either purchasable assets on the Unreal store, or else generated by development tools like Wwise. Ironmace included a spreadsheet detailing the sources of the files singled out by Nexon.
One of the more interesting exhibits from Ironmace is its comparison of P3 class concepts to those from Dark and Darker. Nexon claims that Dark and Darker's character classes derive from copyrighted concept art, while P3 and Dark and Darker share an as-of-yet unnamed lead concept artist. The artist in question outlines various reference images they used in creating Dark and Darker's characters, before contrasting them with counterparts from P3. The artist seems to be arguing that both sets of characters merely draw from the same well of generic, tabletop fantasy inspiration dating back to Dungeons and Dragons, and they all do represent distinct pieces of art rendered in different poses and settings.
Curiously, Ironmace includes a conversation log with ChatGPT where the company attempts to secure a definition of a "PvP dungeon crawl game." While a strange gesture, it seems to be an attempt to undermine Nexon's claim that P3 and Dark and Darker share identical premises. Whether that is true or not, videogame genres are not protected by copyright, and many examples of "Antz vs. Bug's Life" games exist across multiple genres and platforms (Chivalry vs. Mordhau, CoD vs. Battlefield, hell, even Mario vs. Sonic to name a few.)
Nexon has significant financial and legal weight to bring to bear against Ironmace, but it may not have an airtight case against the developer. Circumstantially, one can certainly see an outline of disgruntled developers convincing a team to leave Nexon and make their dream game on their own, but absent specific uses of copyrighted art or code for Nexon to point to, the smaller developer may be able to squeak it out of this conundrum.
As for why Ironmace is publicizing its materials, my best guess is that it is attempting to reassure fans and potential investors of Dark and Darker's future, or else to tip its hand to Nexon in the hopes that the publisher may withdraw its claims. I find it hard to ignore the parallels with the saga of Disco Elysium, its developer ZA/UM, and its founding artists feuding with its moneymen, a battle that is similarly getting slugged out in public through duelling lawsuits and public statements.