A reasonable person might look at Them’s Fightin’ Herds, a game filled with cute horses looking to punch each other, and assume it’s based on the modern My Little Pony TV series. The character designs look just like the characters from the show , as if designed by the same creator—or a very good imitator. There’s a good reason for that: Them’s Fightin’ Herds began as a My Little Pony fangame called Fighting is Magic, and the game’s charming creatures were designed by Lauren Faust, creative director of 2010’s My Little Pony reboot .
Them’s Fightin’ Herds’ arrival on Steam late last month is the surprising conclusion of a daunting seven-year journey of fandom.
The fan-driven fighting game building on Hasbro’s kid-centric property, whose hardcore, adult (largely) male fans are affectionately called bronies, began development in the summer of 2011, and for the next year and a half, seemed to face no legal opposition. It was long enough for fans to wonder if the lawyers at Hasbro were prepared to turn a blind eye. But on February 8, 2013, Fighting Is Magic was effectively cancelled, and despite the team’s attempts to find a resolution with Hasbro, the company wasn’t interested.
“There's a giant crater in my mind involving the timeline of events around the C&D [cease and desist] because it was pretty devastating,” said combat designer Omari Smith to me recently.
Whenever a fan project gets announced, especially one that garners real attention, a countdown begins. Eventually, it’s likely to get a scary-sounding letter from a lawyer—aka a cease and desist—from the rights holder, and the project will be forced to shut down. Just do a Google search for "video game cease and desist." Whatever the intentions of fans might be, no matter how cool the project looks, despite how many hours they’ve poured into making it, they don’t own the properties they’re riffing on.
There’s an argument that fan projects worried about legal problems should be made entirely in secret, only to reveal themselves once the work is completed and can be shared with the world. A cease and desist might still come, but it’s too late; the genie is fully out of the bottle. That almost never happens because people naturally want to share what they’ve made.
That wasn’t an option for Fighting Is Magic because the project was largely an accident, its entire formation the result of like-minded people stumbling into one another in public view.
In the spring of 2011, a My Little Pony fan and artist named Anukan uploaded a series of images quickly mocking up what a fighting game based in that universe might look like.
"I never intended those screenshots to be taken seriously,” said Anukan in an interview with GameSpot from 2013. “I invested a total of 15 minutes and 16 seconds between getting the idea of making them from a comment on Ponibooru to the actual first execution. I look back at the horrible, tutti-frutti combo of a GUI I made for that and wonder who spiked my punch."
The response to the images was explosive, and suggested people were legitimately interested in seeing Anuka’s vision through. A public recruitment effort ensued, resulting in formal announcement of My Little Pony: Fighting Is Magic, a play on the show’s “Friendship Is Magic” subtitle, on a My Little Pony image board. The team called themselves Mane6.
“I had only just heard about the show due to internet mumblings,” said artist and animator Jay Wright. “I gave it a watch and thought it was super slick, loved the simplistic design and was surprised at the non-girliness of the writing, despite its implied extra-girly nature. At that time I was a 31-year-old recently-but-maybe-not-surprisingly-single man. I think the show had a positivity that attracted people that were in a certain mindset.”
The game’s small and unpaid staff, first made up of six people, worked in secret for the first few months, as they tried to wrap their heads around the game they were trying to make. One of the earliest obstacles was trying to wrangle their engine of choice, 2D Fighter Maker. Though 2D Fighter Maker came with all sorts of limitations, it allowed them to start working.
(You can watch someone mess around in 2D Fighter Maker over here.)
Their work culminated in the game’s first trailer during the summer of 2011. It was a pretty basic trailer, one that showed a small fight between two characters on a single background.
It was a hit. The trailer was viewed more than 150,000 times overnight. It would be watched more than 900,000 times before Hasbro’s cease and desist brought it down from YouTube.
“It was then when I realised that something I helped create really resonated with people,” said Wright. “That people could see our effort. That people wanted to touch it themselves and interact with it. It’s a huge buzz, and I’m sure a lot of game developers can relate. For me, that was when it flipped from being ‘I’m making this for me’ to ‘I’m making this so people can enjoy a thing.’”
Fighting Is Magic was unable to avoid the spotlight, largely due to others dragging it there. A little over a year after the game’s splashy debut trailer, Fighting Is Magic was invited to join the “indie showcase” at EVO, the fighting scene’s annual blockbuster fighting tournament. It was legitimacy and validation for a game that’d otherwise been prone to fits of mockery, due to the subject matter. Even if it looks like a solid fighting game, it’s based on a kids’ cartoon.
“I love that dichotomy,” said animator Lucas Ellinghaus. “‘I love seeing reactions like ‘Wait this actually looks legit?’”
"That was when it flipped from being ‘I’m making this for me’ to ‘I’m making this so people can enjoy a thing.’"
Development continued through 2012, amid rumors a lack of updates was a worrying sign the project might be abandoned. Given how many fan projects, even ones with promise, never see the light of day, it wouldn’t have been shocking. But at the end of 2012, the developers said they would stop flying to conventions and focus on finishing the thing.
Then, a couple of big things. One, GameSpot ran a huge feature on the game. Two, Fighting Is Magic was in the running to be legitimately featured on the main stage at EVO 2013. These were high-profile, high-publicity moments that greatly elevated the quirky fan project.
It wasn’t exactly a surprise when My Little Pony’s corporate owner came knocking.
“Not all wonder is endless,” began an update from the team, revealing the case and desist.
“I think we got the C&D from Hasbro specifically due to the visible attention our project received,” said Wright. “Of course, without the attention I’m not sure the project would have had the fuel to get where it did. I think the other guys took it harder than I did, honestly. It wasn’t like we were ever going to make money from it anyway. It was never a consideration. It was just the sad death of something that cost us all a lot of energy.”
Several developers walked away, and the whole endeavour was in doubt. When I asked various developers about this time period, some described it as a “blur.” A version of the game leaked to the public, and some fans tried to finish it up themselves. The Mane6 website was forced to scrub everything related to Fighting Is Magic from existence.
But everything changed after a fateful tweet from My Little Pony creator Lauren Faust.
“There were tens if not hundreds of other MLP fan projects going on at this point,” said Wright, “and ours was one that got Lauren’s seal of approval. That’s pretty special.”
Faust didn’t respond to my request for comment on this story, and while everyone described the experience of working with an idol as surreal and intimidating, she believed in the project. They credit her outreach with providing the interest and energy to, in practice, start all over.
“Being a fan of the show, naturally I awkwardly acted like a lowly peasant in the presence of a god,” said Ellinghaus. “Over time, those barriers ebb away and you come to realise that everybody is a cool human being you can grab some beers with.”
Even if Fighting Is Magic had been allowed to continue, the game had troubles. They had stretched their engine used to its breaking point, and it wasn’t clear if they could finish the game. Not long after Faust reached out, however, Lab Zero Games was raising funds on IndieGoGo to develop new characters for their 2D fighting game, Skullgirls, and during livestream to promote the crowdfunding effort, a developer said they’d be interested in giving the Fighting Is Magic team access to the engine, if Skullgirls raised a certain amount. It was a serious offer, one that required Skullgirls hitting $750,000.
The game ended up raising $828,768.
Lab Zero’s “Z Engine” was theirs, and thus began a long year trying to figure out what they actually wanted to make. 2013 was pretty quiet for the team, as they worked with Faust on designing characters, learning the new tech, and coming up with a roadmap building on what they’d learned from making Fighting Is Magic.
It wouldn’t be until September 2015, a year and a half after hearing from Faust, that Mane6 would formally introduce Them’s Fightin’ Herds, aka Fighting Is Magic 2.0. The developers were asking for $436,000 but ended up raising $586,346 from the show’s rabid fanbase. It certainly helped having the involvement of the show’s creator, and gameplay footage that suggested the team wasn’t coming to fans with ideas, but a game that could actually ship.
For two years, the team had worked on Fighting Is Magic without pay. For nearly another two years, they’d prepped Them’s Fightin’ Herds without seeing a dime. Now, they had money. Some worked on the game full-time, others pitched in when they could.
“The brain-space something like this takes up is immense,” said artist Jay Wright. “It’s always there. When I go to my day-job, I’m thinking about not working on the game. When I take a day off, I’m thinking about not working on the game. When I go on holiday, I’m thinking about not working on the game. When I’m working on the game, I’m thinking about how I can’t get all the things done that I want.”
The team estimated it would take them 18 months to finish Them’s Fightin’ Herds, and while, like most games, it took them a little longer—it was closer to 28—they were in constant contact with their community. There were regular streams showing off work on the game, and it was never in doubt Them’s Fightin’ Herds was working towards a release. (This is unlike—cough—some other games I’ve covered lately.)
Them’s Fightin’ Herds launched in Steam early access on February 22, 2018, a little more than five years after Fighting Is Magic had been erased by Hasbro’s legal team, and nearly seven years after a My Little Pony fan uploaded the goofy mockups that started everything.
It’s finally real.
“My absolute favourite thing right now, “ said Wright, “is going to Twitch streams of people playing the game and watching the inevitable evolution of the comments. ‘WTF am I watching?’ ‘They actually made a pony game?’ ‘What’s this brony garbage’ ‘OK that was actually legit’ ‘Why does this game look so good?” ‘This has no right to play as well as it does.’ ‘Why aren’t AAA developers doing X feature?!’ ‘The alpaca is the best!’ etc.”
The game is expected to leave early access shortly, with a story mode coming to Them’s Fightin’ Herds in the months ahead. The reception has been extremely positive.
Follow Patrick on Twitter. If you have a tip or a story idea, drop him an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.