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Dark and Darker: The Battle for the Soul of an Indie Blockbuster

Start-up Ironmace has all the makings of a Robin Hood-meets-Cinderella story; Nexon says they are common IP thieves. Korean authorities will decide.

Wren Romero

Mar 14, 2023

Photo: Ironmace

An indie game called Dark and Darker has taken over the gaming Zeitgeist for two main reasons: one, because the game's open betas have been a roaring success, already rising the top of Steam's Most Played charts; and two, because of the ongoing criminal investigation by Korean authorities being levied by Nexon, a major Korean game publisher, against one of its former employees.


The month of March 2023 has seen a maelstrom of statements, discord posts, memos, police reports, and legal filings, with both parties alleging lies and betrayal from the other. Dark and Darker isn't even out yet, and its story is already full of twists and turns, with vast fortunes and the future of two companies at stake. Before getting into all that, however, it's helpful to understand how this all got started.


The Dark and Darker saga according to Ironmace


According to an interview with Ironmace's CEO, the story goes like this. In late 2021, a team of 20 or so game developers quit their corporate jobs to join a startup, which would later be known as Ironmace. Most, if not all, of the staff were game developers working in the same suburb of Seoul, South Korea. Of those 20, around half were once coworkers in the same team at Nexon, a publisher best known for mega-hits like Maple Story and Dungeon Fighter


Among those former Nexon employees is the Ironmace CEO, Terence Park Seung-Ha. An exuberant man with a big smile, Seung-Ha had a job on the side teaching the martial art of Jiu-Jitsu. The pandemic put lessons to a halt, and left his gym empty, making it the perfect location to host his budding game company.


So, the new team rushed in, eager to work. By Seung-Ha ‘s account, there was no money to buy equipment, so developers brought in their personal computers from home. The team was so focused on the game they wanted to make that when they moved in, they didn't think to remove the padded athletic mats lining the gym floor and found their chairs and desks wobbling on the soft, uncertain surface.


The Jiu-Jitsu mats were eventually replaced by proper workstations and the new company put together a game prototype they loved so much that Seung-Ha says he had to plead with them to stop QA testing the game all day so they could actually finish building it. By Seung-Ha’s telling, he led the charge to bootstrap the company as investor after investor turned the project down. He relied on family, friends, and savings to keep the company afloat; meanwhile the presentations to would-be investors went so poorly that, according to Seung-Ha, at least one of those investors said quite plainly to him, your pitch sucks.


Undeterred, Seung-Ha kept shopping the game to investors. As his story goes, one group of those investors were gamers, who tried the game and were just as hooked as the developers. At that time, it became apparent to Seung-Ha that Ironmace had something special on their hands, and according to Seung-Ha’s telling, this investor put money behind the project. Seung-Ha did not name the investor in the interview, but according to one report Ironmace had raised a  cool 1 Billion Korean won from the firm Must Asset Management—the equivalent of about 750,000 USD.


A medieval Tarkov with soul


Now with a team, a game and investor backing, Seung-Ha and Ironmace were ready to develop Dark and Darker in earnest. Those who are unfamiliar with the game, think of a low fantasy Battle Royale built around players competing with each other to loot a dungeon and escape with their findings—one part Elder Scrolls and one part Tarkov.  For its fans, the opacity, difficulty, and cruelty of the gameplay is exactly what have drawn them in. As Seung-Ha would put it, it's a game with a soul.


Fast forward to August 2022, ten months after clearing the mats out of the Jiu Jitsu gym, the soul of Dark and Darker would be put to the test in open playtests on Steam Early Access. Each time, the tests drew more and more players, earning the game praise, hype, and rave reviews. The most recent test in February of this year would boast an impressive average of nearly 54,000 concurrent players on Steam - numbers that would put it near the top of Steam's player charts, alongside the likes of Rocket League, Warframe, and Destiny 2.


With momentum growing, potential partners started lining up for a chance to publish Dark and Darker. When the dust settled, it was decided that Tencent would distribute the game in China, including an already-trademarked mobile version, while Hive, best known for their work with pop band BTS, committed to publishing Dark and Darker in Ironmace's home country of Korea as part of an initiative to expand into gaming. In North America, Ironmace themselves would be using Steam to self-publish the game, in what Seung-Ha identified as the game's core market.


Success kept coming for Ironmace and Dark and Darker, as thousands of users played game across its betas and playtests. Money in the bank, partners secured, Ironmace is starting to look like a quintessential Cinderella tale: a scrappy team of devs quit the drudgery of corporate, put aside "predatory" design practices to make a game "with a soul," barely scraping by, until, against all odds, investors and fans rallied to the project, turning it into the next big thing.


Nexon: Ironmace is more Robin Hood than Cinderella


Only one problem: Nexon, one of the largest publishers in the world, says that Dark and Darker was stolen from them. In the Nexon version of the story, Ironmace is more Robin Hood than Cinderella.


Which brings us back to the recent headlines: according to a since-deleted March 8 report by the Korean publication Yonhap News, local police arrived at Ironmace offices with a search warrant to seize evidence related to criminal allegations made by Nexon against one of their former employees—called “Leader A” in the investigation—who was also a co-founder of Ironmace with Seung-Ha. 


Leader A had worked with Seung-Ha at Nexon, a giant in the world of gaming best known for mega-hits like Maple Story and Dungeon Fighter. The two worked together as part of the same unit and would go on to form the core of the group that would eventually move into the gym.


Certain signals by the Ironmace founders alluded to how they felt about their time working at Nexon. One example, the official About Us page for Ironmace, paints a picture of the team's feelings towards the industry in general, and likely Nexon in particular, calling up Robin Hood literary ties in the verbiage:


"We are a merry band of veteran game developers disillusioned by the exploitative and greedy practices we once helped create..."


By published accounts, there are there are dots and lines that connect Seung-Ha and the Ironmace team to a project that might resemble Dark and Darker. According to Korean news outlet This Is Game, Seung-Ha and his team were working on a project called 'P3,' which was announced in August 2021 as part of Nexon's 10 game "Super IP," initiative, intended to "support Nexon for the next 50 years."



Noticeable similarities with unreleased Nexon materials


That same report included images, supposedly comparing early builds of P3 to early access footage from Dark and Darker. The visual similarities are immediately clear: moody lighting, claustrophobic dungeons, realistic weapons and armor, a blocky mini-map, a compass at the edge of the screen, and similarly shaped user interface elements.  


That article from This Is Game went on to clarify the timeline of Ironmace's split from Nexon. In September 2021—only a month after P3 was initially touted—Nexon began hiring for project "P7," looking for planners with expertise in firearms and firearms handling, suggesting that Nexon leadership was already moving on from the dark fantasy project. Then, in October 2021, just another month later, Ironmace was officially incorporated, comprised of many former P3 devs, including Seung-Ha and the subject of Nexus criminal allegations, previously a chief developer of P3.


The quick development of Dark and Darker also raises questions. It was one of the hottest games on Steam in just ten months after the start of development. According to Ironmace, the assets for the game were whipped together in just a few weeks, mostly using prefab assets from the Unreal store. But according to Nexon as portrayed in This Is Game, the assets and code underlying Dark and Darker were stolen—hidden on a private server and then taken to Ironmace and used as the foundation for Dark and Darker.


Alleged leaked Nexon memos surface on Reddit


Nexon's side of things go as follows. According to an internal memo from Nexon's legal team (as reported by Korea Jangoon Daily, via Kotaku) "We verified that Leader A, the then-chief of the P3 project team, had leaked thousands of files including the source codes and builds...We also found that Leader A had suggested to teammates of the P3 project that they quit the company and work together on a game similar to P3, citing outside investment sources."


Another supposed memo circulating the net appears to corroborate the story. When Nexon stepped in to investigate this server, Leader A claimed innocence, and that the server had already been wiped. His bosses didn't buy it, and in July 2021 (a month before P3 was announced, three months before Ironmace was formed), Leader A was terminated from Nexon, followed by a criminal complaint in August 2021, the very same complaint which would later bring police to Ironmace's doorstep.

Ironmance rebuts on Discord


In defense of Ironmace,  Seung-Ha made a series of posts in the official Dark and Darker Discord channel, where he asserted that, contrary to Nexon's allegations: "ABSOLUTELY NO stolen assets or code were used to make our game," (emphasis his), going on to state that "this has already been audited by an outside agency." However, no details on this audit have been forthcoming. No document or summary of the audit was given, and no agency was named, making it impossible to verify conclusions or even existence of the audit in question.


In the same burst of messages, Seung-Ha also gave a statement on the case against Leader A that brought police to his gym: "Regarding the lawsuit [against Leader A], we consider it a personal matter."


Nexon, for their part, absolutely does not consider the case a personal matter, having stated in a leaked memo that the publisher will "hold strict responsibility not only to [Leader] A, but also to all people and corporations involved in the leakage and use of project information, both at home and abroad." This statement implies that Nexon is looking to pursue the full extent of possible legal action against all parties involved - not just "Mr. A," or Seung-Ha; but against Ironmace itself and any of its business partners, potentially including the likes of Tencent.


Tera Online lawsuit parellels

There have been comparisons drawn to a similar case from a decade ago, when NCSoft sued a company called Blue Hole (known in the west as En Masse) over the alleged theft of assets that would later be used to develop Tera Online. The lawsuit alleged that NCSoft Employees wrongfully took assets from the project they were working on, left the company, and then began working on their own game (Tera Online) using the smuggled assets. NCSoft won the suit but were unable to secure damages after the charges were overturned in civil court.


Nexon seems to be pursuing a similar track, and with a keen eye for retribution. The company's memo on the charges against Leader A and Ironmace called the case "a matter of pride," and that it "goes beyond simply infringing on the company's interests, and damages not only the game industry, but also all content production areas based on creation and the ecosystem itself of related industries."


The threat of legal action has shaken some backers of Dark and Darker, such as the aforementioned publisher Hive, who reportedly backed out of their deal to publish the game in Korea. No word yet on how Ironmace's other partners have reacted to the allegations.


What does this mean for the release of Dark and Darker?


If Ironmace or Leader A are found to be in violation of the Korean "Act on the Prevention of Unfair Competition and Protection of Trade Secrets," as Nexon alleges, then Nexon could be entitled to damages including all future revenue from any project developed using stolen assets. In layman's terms, Nexon believes they have a right to whatever money Dark and Darker, or at least Leader A, might make—and they're willing to fight for it.


Backing their claim, Nexon have their previous investigations into attempted theft of assets, including the termination of Leader A for mishandling company assets shortly before he co-founded Ironmace. There are also images that suggest, at face value, P3 and Dark and Darker are similar products; and a number of statements from Ironmace staff members that suggest grievances with the game development industry as a whole, and Nexon in particular. Circumstantially, this all implies that at least one Ironmace founder had a motive to betray Nexon and start working on a project in secret, either intentionally or unintentionally breaking the law in the process.


But much of that boils down to speculation. What we have are a series of allegations, memos, and minor updates in a legal proceeding. In the meantime, Dark and Darker is set for another Beta test beginning April 14th of this year, while no further details have emerged regarding P7's development or eventual release.


If Ironmace set out to take on the titans of the industry, then the anti-heroic band of merry veterans are certainly getting what they asked for, and it's sure to be a nasty fight with a few more corners to explore yet.

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Wren Romero

Wren Romero is an art school dropout, fighting game scrub, incorrigible drifter, and the most corrupt jester in games journalism. You can find them on social media @CUIDAD


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Avenir Light is a clean and stylish font favored by designers. It's easy on the eyes and a great go-to font for titles, paragraphs & more.

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Avenir Light is a clean and stylish font favored by designers. It's easy on the eyes and a great go-to font for titles, paragraphs & more.

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