'The Sinking City' Dev Alleges Publisher Hacked and Illegally Uploaded Game to Steam

A messy legal situation for the Lovecraft adventure game has become even stranger.
March 1, 2021, 8:32pm
A screen shot from the video game The Sinking City.
Screen shot courtesy of Frogwares

Last Friday, The Sinking City appeared on Steam without the consent of the game's developer, Frogwares, the company said. It's the result of a messy and ongoing lawsuit between the studio and the game's publisher, Nacon. The developer was actively campaigning for fans to avoid buying this copy of the game, and said it would have more to say about what was going on "soon."

That "more," it turns out, is a deeply serious accusation: that Nacon hacked the code to The Sinking City and subsequently uploaded an "illegal" version of the game to Steam and began profiting from it. The company outlined the accusation and evidence for it in a lengthy blog post and video. The blog was shared with VICE Games today, ahead of its publication.

"Some of you may have heard about our troubles in the past," reads the statement. "This last action was the straw that broke our backs. Here is a step-by-step outline of how a French publisher stole, hacked, changed the source code, and tried to cover up the reporting trail. It’s corporate bullying, and incompetent hacking, at its finest."

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Nacon did not immediately respond to a VICE Games request for comment on these allegations, but the publisher did issue a statement about re-releasing the game on Steam.

"For the release of The Sinking City on Steam, published by Nacon, Frogwares posted on Twitter urging players not to buy it. We regret that Frogwares persists in disrupting the release of the Sinking City. It was Frogwares who came to Nacon to request financing for the development of the game, and to date, more than 10 million euros have been paid to Frogwares by Nacon. It was Frogwares that relied on our marketing and promotion teams, representing thousands of hours of work and several million euros worth of investment. Now that the game has been fully developed, and published, largely thanks to Nacon's money and work, Frogwares would like to revise the terms of the contract to their sole advantage. It's easy to play the victim, but all we seek is that Frogwares respect its commitments both in the contract and as demanded by the courts."

The publisher did note this version was not up to date, and blamed Frogwares for their "lack of cooperation." It's unclear if the company intends to invest more development resources.

Frogwares was unaware The Sinking City would be re-released on Steam last week. Its litigation with Nacon, related to various allegations of contract breaches, has resulted in the game being removed from several storefronts. Frogwares recently published a PlayStation 5 version of The Sinking City on its own, but some versions remain out of its control. You can buy a PC version of The Sinking City from them without DRM, but it's not on Steam yet.

The studio alleges that in late December, Nacon offered an ultimatum: Frogwares had 48 hours to deliver a version of the game to be released on Steam, or else Nacon would "use all solutions available within the law and the contract." Frogwares claims that after that 48 hour period was up, Nacon purchased a copy of The Sinking City from Gamesplanet, the storefront where Frogwares is selling The Sinking City itself, and uploaded an altered version of that game to Steam.

"Nacon under the management of its president Alain Falc," reads the blog, "asked some of their employees, who we even identified, to crack, hack and pirate our game, change its content in order to commercialize it under their own name."

Frogwares claims this is the third time Nacon has attempted this.

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In the blog, Frogwares notes several changes that raised red flags: removed logos, a different file size for the game, and various UI features no longer being present. To do this, Nacon would have, according to Frogwares, had to hack the game.

"In order to make changes," said the studio, "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."

When Frogwares downloaded this new version on Steam, their encryption key still worked. 

"The hackers didn’t even care to use a different encryption key than the one we created when recompiling," said the company. "We therefore opened the packages and we identified immediately in the config files the version that was stolen and hacked."

Frogwares believes Nacon intends to release this copy of the game on other platforms, too.

What follows in the blog is a highly technical explanation of their research, and how it was able to inspect individual files to find evidence of what it believes Nacon was tampering.

As for next steps, Frogwares did not outline specifics, but said Nacon will "have to face the legal consequences of the decision of pirating and stealing Frogwares property."

This version of The Sinking City is still currently on Steam.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).