Apex Legends developer Respawn recently introduced a new character, Fuse, who will join the futuristic battle royale game on February 2 with the kickoff of its eighth season. Shortly after that reveal, indie studio NOWWA told Nintendo Life that it believes the character is a knockoff of Hunter, a one-eyed "space bandit" who stars in its upcoming hero shooter BulletVille.
"We are happy that the Apex Legends team liked Hunter’s style to the point of wanting to recreate it in Apex Legends—we were even hoping for an eventual crossover!" the studio said. "Nonetheless, we are afraid that, as a small indie game producer whose game hasn’t been launched yet, we’ll be called a ripoff of Apex Legends, which is certainly not true."
In a series of emails, NOWWA CEO Yohami Zerpa explained that the studio has been in talks with EA's indie-focused label, EA Originals, about a publishing deal for BulletVille. Those talks started in early 2020, and included playtest demos in October and November 2020.
"I don't necessarily think there's a connection between EA Originals and the people at Respawn, but suffice to say that EA is aware of us at the bare minimum," he said.
There are undoubtedly similarities between the two characters: They both have hi-tech eye patches, a flash of grey in their hair, a sweet moustache, a mechanical arm, a necklace, gloves, low-slung holsters, and a penchant for serious firepower: Hunter carries a pistol and a rocket launcher, and Fuse's ultimate is—you guessed it—a rocket launcher.
At the same time, the sheer number of new games being developed across a very limited selection of genres, and employing a comparably small number of character archetypes, makes some design overlap inevitable. Fuse looks like Hunter, but Hunter reminds me immediately of Lockwood from Atlas Reactor (now Atlas Rogues); he also owes a debt to TF2's Demoman, a one-eyed, grenade-belt-wearing explosives fan with a Scottish, rather than Australian, accent.
BulletVille also doesn't seem to be above borrowing concepts itself: Its Angel character, for instance, has cyborg wings that bear a very strong resemblance to those equipped by the Overwatch medic Mercy.
That's not to dismiss NOWWA's claim out of hand, but rather to acknowledge that the more hero shooters there are, the more likely it is that similarities are going to occur. It's increasingly hard to say what's intentional copying and what's just coincidence or the result of shared ideas about what looks cool. In a similar recent case, Riot was accused of borrowing a real person's likeness for a League of Legends character, but nothing apparently came of it—Riot denied the claim, saying that the similarities were coincidental. This may be something that happens more often in the future, and deciding who's right won't be simple.
Zerpa said that in this case, the complaint is not aimed at securing a big payout for NOWWA. The studio is still evaluating its options, including a possible cease-and-desist letter, but he acknowledged that a meaningful legal claim against EA would be extremely expensive to pursue.
For now, perhaps with an eye to the unfavorable comparisons with Overwatch that met Hi-Rez's hero shooter Paladin, Zerpa said the immediate goal is to ensure "that people don't call us a rip off when we release the beta in a few months." He also said that rather than rolling the dice in a legal showdown with EA—who it still hopes to do a publishing deal with—NOWWA may opt to "take the bullet" and change its character so that no one claims that they're making a knock-off.
I've reached out to Electronic Arts for comment on NOWWA's claim, and will update if I receive a reply. In the meantime, if you'd like to take BulletVille for a spin when the opportunity arises, you can sign up for the beta program at bulletville.com.