UPDATE March 4: Nacon responds to Frogwares' allegations
UPDATE March 3: Valve pulls The Sinking City from sale from Steam after Frogwares sends DMCA takedown notice.
The Sinking City developer Frogwares claims that publisher Nacon (formerly Bigben Interactive) pirated its Lovecraftian investigative adventure game in order to bring it back to Steam. The publisher reportedly bought a copy of the game from website Gamesplanet, then hacked and changed it to make it seem like its own, the developer told us.
The Sinking City was silently removed from storefronts earlier in 2020, Frogwares revealing in an open letter from August that poor communication and Nacon's failure to pay the studio on time, despite it meeting its milestones, counted among the reasons.
This led to an ongoing lawsuit during which the Paris Court of Appeal reached a first enforceable decision that allowed the contract between Frogwares and Nacon to continue "until its term or until a decision is made." When The Sinking City re-emerged on Steam on February 26, Frogwares said in a tweet that it did not create that version of the game and did not recommend purchasing it.
"[...]on February 26th 2021 to our great surprise, we found a new version of The Sinking City was uploaded to Steam and launched. But Frogwares didn’t deliver such a version. And this is not the first time something like this has happened. Alain Falc, Nacon owner and CEO warned us on December 28th 2020 in writing that 'You have 48 hours to upload a new Steam master otherwise we will use all solutions available within the law and the contract'," the studio told us.
"48 hours later, Nacon purchased a version of The Sinking City through the site Gamesplanet and uploaded it to Steam like it is a Steam version. So immediately after his ultimatum expired, Nacon broke the law and breached the contract. We informed Steam of this and prevented the game from being released because it was obvious that it was a stolen version of the game."
The publisher also tried to get The Sinking City on the Utomik PC games subscription service in February 2020. The February 26, 2021 release "is now Nacon’s 3rd public attempt to publish a pirated PC version of our game," Frogwares claims.
The developer examined the Gamesplanet and Steam versions of The Sinking City, noting the differences between their launch screens. The Steam version has the Gamesplanet logo replaced with Nacon's own logo. The former is also removed from the final screen that leads to the main menu, which has its own set of differences.
The Gamesplanet version features an advertisement for Frogwares upcoming, self-published title Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One. There's also a watermark pointing out that the version of the game was meant to be exclusively distributed on Gamesplanet, and a "Play More" button that led to the developer's other games.
All of the above are missing from the version released on Steam. In addition, Frogwares notes that the structure and names of the game's folders are identical to those on other storefronts while the game's executable has a similar name but a different file size, which implies it has been modified.
The game's packages are also using the new compression method that the developer switched to in summer 2020, reducing their size to 17GB from the Epic Games Store version's 30GB.
"In order to make changes Nacon had only one way: to decompile or hack the game using a secret key created by Frogwares since the totality of the game’s content is archived with an Epic Unreal Engine encryption system."
"To be clear this is hacking and when hacking has the purpose to steal a product and make money with it, it’s called piracy or counterfeiting. In order to achieve this goal, programmers with serious skills need to be involved. This is not DIY work by inexperienced people, this is done by programmers who know Unreal engine well," Frogwares added.
"The first step of Nacon was to obtain the key of encryption, then go through the config files and modify them (by the way, we are aware how they got their hands on the encryption key, and we are going to submit our findings to the court). Also add or change some files and then recompile the game like nothing happened and release it."
"After decrypting the archive, Nacon had access to the config files, the game files and the game executable." Frogwares used its own encryption key on the Steam version and it worked. This is how it claims to have found out that Nacon simply purchased a version of the game from Gamesplanet, then uploaded it to Steam after changing the elements mentioned above.
Nacon also "did one other notable change" to the game's executable which, by default, checks the user's internet connection. This is used for the in-menu advertisement, the "Play More" button which "leads to dynamic content with links toward external servers," and as a protection against pirates and hackers.
"In order to achieve the removal of this protection and checking system, Nacon modified both the game executable and the config files inside the packages."
"This way Nacon “anonymised” the game master, making it impossible for the average person to know what was really inside and where it is coming from, but also to prevent any exploitation, lawful or not, to be tracked," Frogwares said.
"We believe Nacon did this to hide the fraudulent exploitation of the game on Steam but also on other portals which they may be planning to send the game to. Nacon wants Frogwares or anyone, including the French Justice, to never know the true scope of their exploitation of the game."
The executable of The Sinking City's most recent version also lacks Frogwares' digital signature. On top of that, the current Steam version lacks achievements, which the developer claims were deleted, while Nacon reportedly pirated content from the game's Deluxe edition, "stealing additional content of our game that is outside the contract we had with them."
"Nacon then requested keys from Steam to commercialize the game on platforms where Nacon doesn’t have any rights to commercialize the game in order to extend their market with a pirated and hacked version of the game and prevent Frogwares from getting any money from their property," according to the developer, who pointed out that it "still fully trust[s] Steam and Gamesplanet."
Delving into the credentials of the people who worked on the current Steam build of The Sinking City, Frogwares was led from the neopica_fh account, to that of Filip Hautekeete, who is the Founder and Managing Director of Belgian studio Neopica. Known for its work on Hunting Simulator 1 & 2, FIA Euro Truck Racing Championship, and other titles, the studio was acquired by Nacon in October 2020.
"Filip Hautekeete is the technical director of his studio, a programmer with more than 20 years of experience. His experience is exactly the one needed for someone working on compiling games on a daily basis. The last games of Neopica are using Unreal Engine, just like The Sinking City," Frogwares states.
"There are long term damages we need to take care of, Nacon unpacked our data, stole our source code and used it. Nacon can create a new version of The Sinking City using our assets; they can resell, reuse, recycle our content and our tools etc."
"We have to take the measure of what happened now and follow the best path on the legal side to prevent anything like this happening again," the developer concluded.
As we mentioned in our article reporting on the causes behind The Sinking City's removal from stores, this isn't the first time Frogwares has run into issues with its publishers.
We've reached out to Nacon for comment.
As of March 3, The Sinking City has, once again, been pulled from sale on Steam after Frogwares issued a DMCA takedown notice.
"The Sinking City has been in dispute in French courts for a while," Valve VP of marketing Doug Lombardi told Vice. "An interim decision last fall appeared to give Nacon the right to distribute the game on Steam while the litigation proceeded. However, today we received a DMCA take-down notice for the version that Nacon recently shipped, so we have responded to that notice."
Publisher Nacon has responded to Frogwares' claims that it pirated The Sinking City in order to bring the game back to Valve's storefront, saying that it "is contractually the sole exclusive distributor of The Sinking City game on STEAM."
"NACON has contributed to the financing of development and the payment of royalties to FROGWARES to the tune of 8.9 million euros to date (including the full payment for a version of the game for STEAM), making the global investment far above 10 million euros when integrating the marketing costs. Contrary to FROGWARES’ allegations, NACON has paid all amounts due."
"In the past, FROGWARES has improperly relied on accusations regarding a lack of payment to refuse delivery of the game on STEAM, at which point they tried to unsuccessfully terminate the contract. The Paris Court of Appeal deemed this action 'manifestly unlawful'; ordering the continuation of the contract and encouraging FROGWARES to refrain 'from any action which would impede such continuation'," the publisher's statement reads.
"In line with the courts’ decision, NACON has repeatedly and unsuccessfully requested that FROGWARES make the game available on STEAM, failing which it would apply a clause in the contract wherein such a case, the game would be adapted by a third party. FROGWARES then attempted, without the knowledge of NACON and in violation of our rights, to make the game available on STEAM without mentioning NACON in its capacity as the publisher. This is, therefore clear proof that no technical impossibility prevents the game from being put back on STEAM."
The publisher also brought up "expressly indicating the ownership of FROGWARES’ rights to the game," likely by naming it as The Sinking City's developer on the game's now-removed Steam page. It also said that Frogwares "will also receive the royalties generated by STEAM sales."
"By encouraging the gaming community via Twitter not to buy the game on STEAM, FROGWARES is once again sabotaging our investments in the game."
The publisher noted that it "obviously regrets this conflict," but "reserves the right to take legal action against FROGWARES for its aggressive and prejudicial comments."
"FROGWARES has been careful not to indicate that all court decisions in the dispute between NACON and FROGWARES have thus far been favorable to NACON," the statement concludes.
Keep updated on the latest PC Gaming news by following GameWatcher on, checking out our videos on , giving us a like on , and joining us on .