Friday the 13th: a Legal Dispute and a Community’s Loyalty to a Struggling Game

Friday the 13th: the game

If 80s cinema taught us one thing, it’s that Jason Voorhees won’t stay dead no matter the lengths you go to try and off him.The iconography instilled in that hockey mask is so thoroughly engraved in pop culture to the point where it’s familiar even if you haven’t seen one of the films.  I didn’t grow up in the 80s, and I haven’t even seen most of the Friday The 13th movies, yet I’m still oddly nostalgic for them. So when Gun Media and Illfonic announced they were making a game based on the franchise, I was elated. Unfortunately, after Friday the 13th: The Game‘s difficult launch, ongoing technical issues, and a legal dispute, Jason may have finally been struck by a blow that not even he can get up from.

The idea was perfect: create an asymmetrical multiplayer game based on the Friday the 13th franchise. One player is Jason, and seven others are counselors trying to escape Crystal Lake. It’s practically tradition when watching a Friday the 13th movie to exclaim “oh these people are so stupid, I’d survive this situation, no problem,” and this game finally gives the audience a chance to prove it.

What was most exciting about the project was the palpable passion on the part of the developers. They weren’t just making a multiplayer game and slapping the Friday the 13th brand on it; they cared so much that they went out of their way to bring in a lot of talent that worked on the original movies to help. Friday the 13th co-creator Sean Cunningham granted them the rights, stuntman Kane Hodder helped with motion capture and reprised his role as Jason, composer Harry Manfredini returned to score the game, and special effects maestro Tom Savini designed the kills for the game. None of these names needed to be attached to the project, but Gun Media and illfonic brought them in because they themselves were fans of Friday the 13th. This was a passion project through and through, and it’s immediately felt upon playing the game.

After spending a good week with a pre-release review copy, I was certain the game was going to be a giant hit. In particular, playing as a counselor is some of the most fun I’ve ever had in a multiplayer game. Whether it’s scrambling car parts together to fix your ride, barricading yourself in a cabin with others, or narrowly making it to the police in time, it turns out running from Jason Voorhees is the sort of thing that induces nervous giggle fits. The perfectly laid out plan between you and your fellow counselors can (and often does) go spectacularly wrong in the best ways. Imagine getting in a car with only two available seats with your friend, leaving some poor soul behind in the process. You think you’re safe, but at the last second you crash into a tree by mistake and wreck your ride. Don’t worry, though — Jason is bound to show up soon and put you out of your misery before you die of embarrassment. Often, I’m reminded of all those times I made fun of the goofy decisions characters made in the movies while trying to escape–and realize how I’m not faring much better.

Playing as Jason is a whole different matter entirely. Despite the fact that Jason is severely overpowered, he’s quite intimidating to play as. Most of the fun to be had in Friday the 13th comes from the chase. The better the Jason player is, the more satisfying it is to escape his clutches, for everyone’s fun relies on the Jason player’s ability to keep the counselors on edge. Once you get over the performance anxiety, it’s hard to not grin while brandishing that hockey mask. Inching your way up to a group of counselors and seeing them scurry about upon revealing yourself never gets old.

If you haven’t played the game yourself, you’re probably scratching your head as to why I’m so into it, especially after how much negative word of mouth Friday the 13th has cultivated over the past year. It all began with the catastrophe that was the launch in May 2017. As I mentioned earlier, I had access to a review copy about a week before the launch. During this period, when the only people playing were press and streamers, the servers held up fine and getting into games was quick and flawless. However, once the game was available to everyone, the servers could not handle the immense load from all the players trying to log in, the main culprit being a ‘Database Login Failure’ error that made it so most people could not even log into the game.

At the time of launch, there was no single player component to Friday The 13th, leaving thousands of people with a game they could not play in any way. No matter how many good ideas go into a game, if most of your audience literally can’t play it at all, then it’s pretty easy to understand where all the bad reputation Friday the 13th has garnered came from. First impressions are extremely important, and if you don’t stick the landing the first time around, most people aren’t going to bother giving you a second chance.

My counterpoint to that idiom, though, is that multiplayer games are ever-changing, and a problem present at launch is often a distant memory later in a game’s lifespan. For example, Final Fantasy XIV was a total disaster when it launched in 2010, only for it to reemerge in 2013 as one of the best MMORPGs available and one of the most beloved entries in the franchise. Diablo 3’s launch was also in ruins, with Blizzard’s servers being completely overwhelmed by the amount of players trying to log in, producing the infamous ‘error 37’ and a myriad of other technical issues that don’t persist in Diablo 3 today.

It’s all about how a developer responds to a rough launch to show where their heart is. Despite all the negative feedback from fans and critics alike, illfonic kept improving the stability of the game and adding content throughout the past year despite dwindling concurrent player numbers. {articularly a free content update in June 2017 that included a ‘retro’ Jason skin — a callback to the Friday the 13th game on the NES. This update was specifically made as an apology for the rough launch, and showed a first step in Illfonic’s commitment to fixing the game. Further content updates have persisted all the way to as recently as May of this year, where the long awaited single player challenge mode was finally added.

However, unlike Final Fantasy XIV or Diablo 3, Friday the 13th does not have a massive publisher behind it willing to spend millions of dollars and do whatever it takes to fix everything wrong with the game. Illfonic is a very small studio, and the game’s financial backing originally came from a kickstarter so there’s a finite amount of money that can even be put into development. Additionally, the low player numbers (not even 1000 concurrent on Steam) mean there’s probably very little revenue currently being generated by the game.

To make matters much worse for Illfonic and Gun Media, the Friday the 13th IP is now part of a massive legal dispute that has left the franchise deadlocked. The current lawsuit makes it so no new content and material for can be made at this time, and that unfortunately includes content updates for the game as well. This is an especially tough pill to swallow as Illfonic was planning on releasing more DLC, including a map and Jason skin based on 2001’s infamous Jason X that took place in outer space (yeah, that actually happened).

The developers have expressed that the game’s multiplayer servers will remain up and running and that they are not giving up on supporting it, but with the dwindling player numbers and no further content updates, you have to wonder how long they can keep this up. In an interview with Slash N’ Cast, Gun Media’s Wes Keltner said this on game development: “The cost of dedicated servers is significant, and I don’t think gamers get that.  Gamers complain ‘how come they’re turning servers off? This game is only two years old.’ Are [developers] just supposed to spend every dollar they’ve made? Cause then what’s the point of being a company?

This interview was from before the game even launched, and Keltner was speaking about the nature of game development rather than directly about Friday the 13th, but the statement holds true still. Game development is costly, and with Friday the 13th being in a situation where the developers are paying for support and server hosting while very little money comes in, I can’t help but wonder how long the game’s servers will remain up despite their promises.

So with no future content updates, that leaves those of us still playing Friday the 13th to just make the most of it here and now. “Why don’t you just play Dead By Daylight instead?” is a notion that’s been floated by me any time I express concerns over the state of Friday the 13th. While it’s true that there’s more than one hat in town when it comes to asymmetrical multiplayer featuring serial killers, for me, they lack the personality of Friday the 13th. For example, in Dead By Daylight, I can play as Freddy Krueger — Jason’s long time slasher rival, but what makes Freddy a fun character is totally absent from the game because he’s just a skin that plays just like all the other killers in Dead By Daylight.

Conversely, when I play as Jason in Friday the 13th, it feels like you’re actually in the shoes of the Crystal Lake killer. Kane Hodder brought a distinct body language to the character in the films. Illfonic knew this and made sure they had the man himself do the motion capture for Jason. When you see a Jason player slowly-yet-elegantly making his way to a counselor as Harry Manfredini’s music blares in the background, only to have the moment crescendo with one of the kills designed by Tom Savini, it feels like you are actually transported into one of the movies.

It’s little touches like this that make Friday the 13th special for me because it’s got a bit more personality than its peers. It’s certainly not a perfect game and I’m not going to tell you it’s a flawless experience, as bugs and crashes still arise even to this day, but it’s got heart.

Despite everything negative that’s befallen the game over the past year, Gun Media and Illfonic haven’t given up on it, when they could’ve turned tail and ran already. That’s because this was a passion project for everyone involved on the development team, and their efforts shine through the game even today when its future seems so bleak. Over the course of 12 movies, people have tried anything and everything to kill Jason for good, only for him to come back each and every time. For the sake of myself and everyone else that loves playing Friday the 13th: The Game, I hope he can keep one foot out of the grave once again.

               
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