It began with a joke in the form of a screenshot: an image of two spangly fantasy ponies, glowing purple and pink like a sweet little girl's birthday party, facing off in a classic 2D fighting game arena.
The gag, you see, is that My Little Pony is soft and girly while 2D fighting games are hard and macho; a classic juxtaposition designed to elicit amusement.
Except the joke was better than this. It was posted on a very particular forum, for adult fans of the TV show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, many of them men (aka "Bronies"). The guys understood what the joke was really about: the subversion of stereotypical demographic norms.
The man who posted the screenshot, a budding game designer called Francisco Copado (aka "Anukan"), began chatting with other like-minded Bronies about the possibility of actually creating a fighting game based on My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.
They connected, they clicked, they divided tasks.
In the end they worked together for two years; thousands of hours. Despite being as far apart as Maryland, Mexico and New Zealand, they became friends. They learned to appreciate what each of them could bring to the project.
They also attracted the approval of Lauren Faust, the TV and movie writer and animator who had remade the moribund My Little Pony franchise. Faust had taken a bad TV show designed to sell toys to little girls and turned it into My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, a clever kids' show that anyone could enjoy.
The game, called MLP: Fighting is Magic, was designed as an interactive love letter to the My Little Pony characters, a free piece of fan art celebrating the team's shared admiration for the TV show. During its development phase the project attracted large numbers of followers. A YouTube demo hit half a million views in just a few days, rising eventually to a million. News sites like GameSpot ran stories about the game.
Then catastrophe struck. A few weeks before MLP: Fighting is Magic was due to be completed, the team received an email from a lawyer representing Hasbro. It was just a few lines long. The email was a cease and desist order. It said that My Little Pony belonged to Hasbro; that the fighting game project was a breach of copyright; that all work on the game must stop, immediately. The letter pointed towards various dire consequences of non-compliance.
MLP: Fighting is Magic was dead.
It was mainly just a numbness
Omari Smith (aka "Nappy") is a 24-year-old from Maryland with a passion for animation. Prior to Hasbro's cease and desist order, he worked as lead designer, overall gameplay designer and lead animator for MLP: Fighting is Magic.
Recalling Hasbro's letter, he says, "Considering how close we were to finishing, it's pretty much one of the worst feelings I've ever had. I wanted to just fight them to the death. But in reality, the amount of money and time and the guaranteed loss that would be involved in fighting them in court, it just wasn't going to happen.
"A lot of people were really looking forward to [the game]. I feel like I let them down, even though it wasn't within our power. It was an unstoppable force."
Francisco Copado is based in Queretaro, Mexico. After posting that original joke screenshot to the Brony forum, he worked on the game's interface as well as handling public-facing issues like PR.
"I wanted to just fight them to the death."
He was also the one who first saw Hasbro's cease and desist. He says the team always feared Hasbro's wrath, but hoped that the company would tolerate its game, just as it tolerated so much fan art.
He says, "After the C and D we had a couple moments of panic as we dealt with the situation. Moments of anger too, but it was mainly just a numbness. It really was not until after we announced it to the general public that the rock finally dropped on me."
Fans of the game were appalled; outraged. They took to forums to express their indignation, many arguing that Hasbro's actions were an attack on fandom, on freedom of expression.
Copado recalls, "The team in general enjoyed the hype. Whenever we put out some content that the fans enjoyed, it really drove us to work harder. Not really because of a direct ego stroke but because the work we did was being enjoyed by people. So when we announced we had been hit by the C and D hammer and we'd be stopping development, it was the antithesis of that. The biggest anti-hype we could possibly get."
Fans offered whatever advice they thought might help, some suggesting various IP-law loopholes, like "fair use" and "satire." Some, less helpfully, suggested that the team — collectively called Mane6 — move to Antarctica, which fans believed might dodge any legal issues.
But the members of the team saw themselves as just a bunch of fans with a passion. The guys spoke often on Skype. They had no money and no experience of legal tussles with gigantic corporations.
Jay Wright, a Mane6 Wellington, New Zealand-based animator and special effects artist, says, "We asked lawyers for advice. The general consensus was that it would just be ridiculously expensive to fight and nowhere near guaranteed. It could very well have been protected under fair use, considering the non-profit nature of it. But it's not a black-and-white issue. It would have cost to play that out."
The power of tribes
The Mane6 game had initially gathered interest because of its bizarre take on a kids' TV show that had attracted a large internet tribe of fans. This connection gave the game legs.
The people who worked on the game, and those who followed its fortunes, who watched demos on YouTube, had fallen in love with a TV show that, according to established entertainment norms, wasn't really made for them.
Copado says, "What I liked the most about My Little Pony, particularly the first season, were the characters, and the fact they weren't stereotypes walking on four legs. Also, the art and music, and the fact that the show didn't rely on gross-out humor and treating their viewers like morons, like most of the shows nowadays seem to do."
"What I liked the most about My Little Pony, particularly the first season, were the characters, and the fact they weren't stereotypes walking on four legs."
A documentary film Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony was released last November. It features a section near the beginning in which random members of the public give their verdict on men who like My Little Pony. The general tone of this section is that they are weirdos, deviants, sad-sacks.
But speak to anyone connected with Mane6's game and they'll all say that they just like the show because it's warm-hearted, funny, well-written, beautifully animated. What they saw and liked in the TV show were the same shiny skills that inspired them to make a video game.
Smith explains, "I love seeing how things move, seeing how things are built up to be moved. Since the show itself is made in Flash, it was extremely interesting to me, just to see how far that program can go in terms of making a TV show. What made me stay was the writing, the characters, the world within the show. I kinda like a bit of everything about it."
Smith, like all the Mane6 team, enjoys a catholic spread of cultural interests. He says, "I feel like it's pretty much like any fandom, really. The speed at which this fandom grew is what brought them to the front of internet fascination or ridicule. But of the fandoms I've been in, it feels more or less the same. I don't think there's anything especially weird about it. At least among the people that I've met."
My Little Pony isn't just a TV show that tickles the fancy of an internet subset. It's a profit resource for Hasbro, one of the world's leading toy companies, with annual sales in excess of $5 billion. Hasbro suffers from thieves knocking off its IP and selling it around the world. Its profits are dented each time a fake Transformer, Furby or Bonkazonk is manufactured and sold. Hasbro, like all IP holders, seeks to prosecute copyright infringers as and where it is able.
But there are many other ways Hasbro's IP is manipulated and shared that constitute a legal gray area — fan art and remixes and such. Modern marketing dictates that fan participation is a good thing that ought to be encouraged. No marketing seminar is complete without a session on "activating your power-consumers." And so much fan-created content is tolerated or even encouraged.
There is a line that these companies must both form and watch. Certain works clearly cross that line. If someone identifiable were to create and freely distribute, say, My Little Pony pornography, a reasonable person would argue that Hasbro ought to use its power to stop such an abomination. (By the way, yes, of course it exists.)
"I almost feel sorry for Hasbro, because we've become a festering thorn in their side."
So it's not entirely unreasonable to argue that a video game in which the company's cute characters actually fight one another is damaging to the integrity of the brand.
Hasbro has a commercial interest in My Little Pony video games. Gameloft owns the rights to a mobile game that was released at the end of last year.
On the other hand, it is also reasonable to argue that this sort of fan art, lovingly crafted, respectful of the mythology, does marketing's job for them. This was certainly the tack taken by Mane6's followers and by some of Mane6's members in the aftermath of the cease and desist.
Luke Ellinghaus (aka "Leedin") is a Mane6 animator and designer. He says, "We were definitely bringing new fans in. There were people that got into the show and into the community through MLP: Fighting is Magic. But there might have been some cons on Hasbro's end that just weren't worth it. You get a bit too big and it's not your IP, then you start to become this extra arm that represents the corporation by accident. You're using this IP that's associated with this corporation. You start to become like an ambassador and maybe they doesn't sit well with them."
He adds, "I almost feel sorry for Hasbro, because we've become a festering thorn in their side. We've become this enigmatic pain that's drawing fans away from their community and making people hate them. So I actually kind of feel bad for them. It's unfortunate that it came to this."
(Polygon attempted to contact Hasbro and its lawyers to discuss these issues. We received no reply. Gameloft also did not respond to emailed questions sent to its publicity department.)
Ellinghaus, Smith, Wright, Copado and the rest of the volunteers recovered from the shock and disappointment of losing their game. They regrouped and decided to look on the bright side. If they could not fight Hasbro in the courts, if they could not make a My Little Pony fighting game, they would find another way.
In the two years developing the original game, the team members had learned a great deal about 2D animation, about character and gameplay design. They found that just making a game had become way more important to them than making a game specifically about My Little Pony.
It was true that none of the assets they had created would be of the slightest use going forward, but they had each other. A functional working relationship among volunteers is a difficult thing to maintain, yet they had managed this accomplishment.
Omari Smith says, "I've been a part of several projects throughout my life. Something always happens, where either the team falls apart or I end up being the only one who's motivated to actually do the work. It's really hard to find a team that is willing to go the distance."
After they had announced the news of the cease and desist to their fans, something magical happened. Lauren Faust, the woman who had resurrected My Little Pony, said that if the team decided to press on with making a fighting game. She would voluntarily design new characters.
So it was decided: They would make a new game, just like the first, except without the official Ponies. The game would be called Fighting is Magic.
Faust is a gifted animator and storyteller who has worked on movies like The Iron Giant and TV shows such as The Powerpuff Girls and Foster's Home For Imaginary Friends. Back in 2009, Hasbro asked her to develop a new show based on the faded My Little Pony franchise.
Although she quit during the second season, it was her vision and skill that had rebirthed My Little Pony, that had made it successful with small children and with adults. As the show attracted the non-kiddie crowd — as it became a focus for memes and adult fan art — dedicated Bronies recognized her contribution. She was received rapturously as a speaker at BronyCon last summer.
Faust got the Mane6 joke — even if Hasbro didn't — of sweet Pony-characters like Fluttershy, Applejack, Rainbow Dash and Rarity behaving like Ryu, Ken, Johnny Cage and Sub-Zero.
"As far as we know, we're the first fighter game with a cast that is composed mainly of four-legged fighters"
"For me it's funny," she says. "I get the irony of this show that talks about friendship and is supposed to be about small little girls and having the characters fight. I appreciate the sense of humor behind that.
"But the other thing that I was impressed by with the original version of the game was that they made the Ponies fight in character. They were staying true to the personalities. It wasn't just the dumb obvious idea of, 'Let's give Ponies weapons; let's give them guns.' That impressed me."
When Hasbro killed the project, she volunteered to create characters for the new game. She's spending spare time on weekends to work on the project.
"There are six new characters," she says. "We've got three of them pretty nailed down. There are three more that I'm still trying to finalize, but at this time it's mostly just sketches and concepts. Hopefully in a month or two we'll have some more finalized stuff."
Jay Wright says, "It was incredible. There was a tweet by her, just saying, 'Sorry to hear about the C and D, and do you want some new characters?' We got in touch and had a Skype call and she says, 'I'm willing to give you guys some time every week to work on these.' We were all excited and raring to go."
He adds, "You can't copyright Lauren's distinctive style. If she's going to draw something that has four legs and is cute, it's going to come out looking somewhat like the Pony style. Which is totally OK, because you can't trademark that. It's her style. It's not going to be confused with My Little Pony, because it's different characters altogether. But it also has that feel about it."
Francisco Copado says, "As far as we know, we're the first fighter game with a cast that is composed mainly of four-legged fighters, and everything that implies graphically and mechanically."
Mane6 has embarked on creating the new game, making free use of the Skullgirls engine, donated by fellow 2D fighting game developer LabZero after recent crowd-funding success.
"We get a universe of our own, a setting of our own, with characters of our own we can flesh out, detail and explore," says Copado. "We also get to try out a proper, professional-grade engine with the Z engine, thanks to the folks over at LabZero and all the people who donated to their drive. The whole thing is a great opportunity and a learning experience, in every sense of the word."
It's been a frustrating journey for a bunch of guys who just wanted to celebrate a TV show they all loved. But copyright issues were always going to be a problem. Making fan art restricted them creatively, and it meant they could never truly own their work. The new game belongs to them. Faust's help gives them the credibility of My Little Pony, without the baggage of IP infringement.
Smith says, "This new game is ours. There's not really any way we can get destroyed by a large company."
During their time working together accruing new skills, overcoming obstacles, the emphasis among the team members has shifted away from making fan art, of celebrating a TV show, toward making a game, something that they can point to as all theirs.
Smith adds, "People are always saying how cool it would be to make a game. But making games is extremely difficult, especially as part of a team. Throughout our time together we've had many challenges that might have destroyed other teams."
The project that began as a joke has turned into a life-changing mission for four guys who are traveling the road from enthusiasts to game developers.
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Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis
Images: Mane6, Lauren Faust
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone