Epic Games faces copyright lawsuit over its hit 'Fortnite'

An image from "Fortnite."
An image from "Fortnite." Epic Games

Epic Games is facing a lawsuit in South Korea that alleges its current hit game, "Fortnite," infringes on the copyright of a leading competitor.

The Korea Times reports that the PUBG Corp., developers of "PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds," targeted the Korean subsidiary of Cary-based Epic, and is seeking an injunction from the Seoul Central District Court. The article quoted an anonymous PUBG official saying that the case has been pending since January.

The Korean-based publisher of "PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds," Bluehole Inc., first hinted at litigation last September when a Bluehole vice president said the company was "concerned that "Fortnite" may be replicating the experience for which PUBG is known."

Both games are third-person shooters that feature the so-called "battle royale" play mode that pits a large number of players against each other in a contest won by the last person or team standing.

They are also built on the same underlying software framework, Epic's Unreal Engine 4, which provides the beneath-the-hood code that game developers flesh out with their own art and game logic.

"Fortnite" and "PlayersUnknown's Battlegrounds" differ in artistic style, with Epic's game having more of a fantasy look and PUBG's a grittier, more "realistic" one like such traditional first-person shooter games as "Battlefield" and "Call of Duty."

PUBG and Fortnite are both hits, with "PUBG" hitting the market first in March 2017. "Fortnite" debuted three months later, but had been in development for much longer. Epic added the battle royale mode to its game in September.

"Fortnite" quickly surpassed "PUBG" in popularity and revenue.

The reasons for that are complex. "PUBG" players have complained often about frame-rate problems and slowdowns, a critical flaw in shooter games that depend on an avatar's fast and fluid motion. The artwork in "Fortnite" may appeal more to kids, and Epic's game is also "cross platform," meaning players on PC, Mac, game consoles and mobile devices can play against each other.

The Korea Times article noted that Epic was working with a South Korean company called Neowiz to place "Fortnite" in the country's popular gaming cafes.

It was not clear whether the lawsuit is specifically trying to block that move. Bluehole officials have complained that beyond the similarity between the two games, Epic "references PUBG in the promotion of Fortnite."

Epic in fact alluded specifically to PUBG in the September launch trailer for Fortnite's battle-royale mode.

"At Epic, we're huge fans of the battle royale genre and games like PUBG and H1Z1," Epic's worldwide creative director, Donald Mustard, said in a video whose mention of H1Z1 alluded to another competing title that debuted in 2015. "And we thought 'Fortnite' was the perfect world to build one in."

The mention in the trailer didn't go down well with PUBG or Bluehole because the companies, in using Unreal Engine 4, are customers of Epic.

"It was just a bit surprising and disappointing to see our business partner using our name officially to promote the game mode that is pretty similar to us and there was misunderstanding in the community that we're officially involved in the project," PUBG CEO and Executive Producer Changhan Kim told the magazine PC Gamer in September.

In that interview, which surfaced a couple weeks after the release of the 'Fortnite' battle royale mode, Kim added that PUBG's worry wasn't necessarily about having competition, but about having competition from Epic given PUBG's status as a customer and Epic's as the developer and licenser of Unreal Engine 4.

"That's the concern, that it was Epic Games," he said. "We're going to get some technical support, and we're going to work with them to make sure Unreal Engine better supports battle royale gameplay which requires 100 people in one session, and now we're starting to have concerns that they're going to develop new features or improve something in the engine to support that battle royale gameplay, and then use it for their own game mode."

The same interview, however, saw Kim complain about "copycats in China" and say PUBG "will definitely look into similarities if there are different products that are very similar to our game."

PUBG in April actually did sue a Chinese company, NetEase, in a San Francisco-based federal court.

That case alleges that NetEase produced a couple of knockoffs for mobile platforms that mirrored the look and feel of PUBG, down to its "frying pan worn as butt armor."

Epic officials declined to say anything on Tuesday about the lawsuit. "We don't comment on ongoing litigation," said Nick Chester, the company's public-relations manager.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg