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Exclusive Interview: Hit Box co-founder discusses Junk Food Lawsuit, Hit Box Patent

We’ve nearly come full circle with our coverage of the Junk Food Custom Arcades vs. Hit Box LLC lawsuit. Shawn Huffer, co-founder of Hit Box, was gracious enough to sit down with me and discuss some of the missing details regarding the civil suit.

To quickly recap once more, Junk Food Custom Arcades filed a lawsuit against Hit Box in response to a cease and desist letter on Dec. 6 in the U.S. District Courts, Georgia Northern District. The claim seeks a declaratory judgment (and potentially a jury trial in federal court) on the issues of alleged infringement and patent validity.

The filing is in response to a cease-and-desist letter sent by Hit Box’s legal representation, Dickinson Wright PLLC, to Junk Food on Nov. 9. The letter claimed that Junk Food’s Snack Box Micro and Snack Box V2 arcade controllers infringe Hit Box’s patents.

A few days later, Travis Crittenden contacted Mega Visions to discuss the events leading up to challenging Hit Box’s utility patent – known as ‘patent 623‘. This includes Junk Food’s departure as a premium sponsor for CEO 2021, some dialogue on the difference between utility and design patents, and why they feel confident in potentially invalidating Hit Box’s patent.

[Editor’s note: Any of the claims made by either party are merely allegations until otherwise proven in a court of law.]

Mega Visions: So just for starters, let’s give a little bit of background on Hit Box: just for the sake of our viewers who may not be savvy in the inner workings of the FGC – what is Hit Box’s origins? What’s your relationship with the FGC? And how have you became known for developing these ergonomic controllers?

Shawn Huffer: Oh, that was a big one. Well, let’s see. My brother and I have been playing fighting games since Genesis. Right?

MV: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Huffer: The SEGA Genesis is when we played our first [fighting game]. The original Street Fighter II, [we] played a lot of that. And also, the original Mortal Kombat back in the day, those sort of deals. The Blood Code back when that was cool.

MV: Right on.

Huffer: [That] was in maybe ’93, something like that. That’s – eons ago. So that’s when we started playing fighting games. We’ve always just loved fighting games. We were up in the Pacific Northwest, in the Seattle area, and then eventually we ended up living in Southern California down by Anaheim. Down there is when we really started to get back into fighting games again – heavy – that was back in, what, 2005? 2006? Something like that.

I went to college up in the Pacific Northwest and basically sucked at it. So, I ended up moving – I left school and I went down to Southern California to help my brother, Dustin, who was going to school. So we just traded off there. He was going to school, and I was trying to work, and things like that.

MV: Right.

Huffer: And so I think, because back then you can get a SEGA Dreamcast really cheap.

MV: Yeah.

Huffer: So I was like, “Shit, I got a few bucks.” It was just like, “Food or Dreamcast?” He was like, “Okay, we’ll go with Dreamcast games.” You know?

MV: That’s the right choice. It’s fine.

Huffer: But he ended up [playing] World of Warcraft. I didn’t play that game, but everybody else I knew played World of Warcraft. So, I was basically… since 2004 when it came out, it was basically just me alone trying to get online. Like, “Hey guys, you want to play something besides World of Warcraft?” They’re like, “Nah, we’re good, bro.”

I was living with my brother, so I would eventually try to find new fighting games on Dreamcast to play. I’m like, “Hey, you want to try ‘this one?’ Want to try ‘this one?'” They’re like, “Yeah.” We’re playing more and more [fighting games] and we really liked it.

Eventually, we really got into Marvel vs. Capcom 2. And then from there it was just full throttle. Like, “We’re going to master this shit.” So [we played] a lot of Marvel vs. Capcom 2. And then because that, we used to go to all the arcades and stuff in Southern California down there. But we are trying to compete, trying to get good.

And of course that’s freaking hard when you’re eight years late to the game or whatever, you know? So we’re just getting bodied. It was like, “Oh, we just got to get good, keep getting better.” And then eventually that just led to making our own arcade sticks – eventually we’re repairing our own arcade sticks because they break. Right?

It was like, “Oh God, what? I can’t [Dragon Punch] with Ken. What’s going on?” Eventually, you take the thing apart and you look inside and you’re like, “Oh God, I don’t even know [where to start].” But eventually, this was figured out, basically looking on the inside of it… Do you know what the upset of a joystick looks like?

MV: A little bit, it’s the stick. And then it’s got the [buttons near the base] and when you press down [on the stick], it activates that button into a certain action.

Huffer: Yeah. You pull on it and then you hear the click. Right?

MV: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Huffer: So basically, I remember at the time I was working a graveyard shift, but I’d talk to Dustin on the phone in the daytime and we’d be talking about Marvel all the time. And then I remember we were having a conversation one afternoon when I hadn’t slept in forever because it was graveyard shift and I was all messed up.

In my head, I see the inside of a joystick, and I realized that the little clicks you feel when you pull the lever. I was like, “Oh, that’s just a button. Why don’t we just have buttons on the top of the thing instead of me fixing the joystick all the time?” And then Dustin’s obviously into that. He makes it even better. And we just started slowly figuring out how to make stuff because we’d never done that before. Over time it just eventually became, after tons of modding and trying to… You know how there’s circuit boards inside of them? You can buy from websites now?

MV: Yes. [PCBs.]

Huffer: Back then there were less, and on top of that it was expensive. So we’re like, “Hey, where’s a PlayStation One pad or something that we can [mod].” So my brother Dustin learned how to “pad-hack” it. You take the controller apart and then you solder the wire to the button and thing like that. And then that just slowly turned into… Like back then, we didn’t even know if you pressed the button then it would actually go, because we never seen a button pressed – where if you press the button, the character would move...

So we were like, “Well, if you can wire the D-pad from the pad-hack to a button, and you press it – and it works – then this is going to be amazing.” But that took a month and a half to actually figure out – to get done. Finally we’re just at the kitchen table and Dustin’s like, “I got a solder. Do you want me to do it?” Plug it in, *bzz-bzz*. Like, “Oh yes, this is going to be sweet.”

MV: So, you guys were just actually homebrewing these controllers?

Huffer: Oh, hell yeah.

MV: They were just parts that you had lying around. That’s badass. I love that shit.

Huffer: But we wanted to win. We got our is handed to us in Marvel vs. Capcom 2. And we were late to the party, but we wanted to get good, you know?

MV: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Huffer: So it was just like you get hungry enough to do stuff like that, just crazy shit can happen sometimes.

MV: Hell yeah. Now, there has been some dissonance from members of the FGC that say this ergonomic design was homebrewed well before Hit Box came into the picture. So, were you actually the first ones to develop this type of design, or were you just the first ones to patent it?

Huffer: As far as I know we were. If there’s other stuff out there, I don’t know about it. Clearly, there’s been keyboard type things out there in the past and other things like that. But in terms of what we did, part of the reason why I definitely…

There was so much backlash… and when we actually… somebody made a video about it when we went to a tournament. And that got so much attention, that for me – if there had been anybody else, I was like, “I figured it would’ve come out then or something.” So, but it’s entirely possible.

But there was definitely a huge… at least in terms of the public mind, whatever was going on – when they started to do a video, showing us at the tournament with our wood boxes and stuff like that. That’s when… I remember, it was amazing to me because it was 20 or 30,000 views on YouTube about it. And I was just like, “Wow, 20 or 30,000 people care enough to watch this video about us with our button box.” You know?

MV: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Huffer: At least for us, it was a big deal at the time.

MV: Going into the cease and desist, you [as in Hit Box LLC] are asserting that Junk Food had infringed on your ‘623 patent’, specifically under claims 1 and 10. In fact, reading through the patent ‘623’ and what I’ll refer to as the ‘A1’ for the Smash Box and the Cross|Up, it could be interpreted that Hit Box holds a monopoly on the production of ergonomic controllers based on the vague nature of the patent’s language. Did you intentionally word ‘623’ vaguely to give yourselves more legal ground to pursue patent infringement against competitors?

Huffer: So are we trying to create a patent monopoly or something like that? Basically?

MV: Essentially. That’s what it’s getting at, because a lot of the backlash to this lawsuit is that the way that your patent is worded is written rather vaguely. And it does-

Huffer: Well, the way it’s worded is written by lawyers.

MV: Okay.

Huffer: I don’t even know how they worded it or whatnot. Whatever they did is most likely… We didn’t give them any special lawyer instructions, like, “Oh, man. It’s this way.” What we did is we just made a bunch of different stuff that we thought was good and interesting and had value. And we’re like, “Hey, I think we… we got to protect the stuff that we made, or at least this is stuff – that we think is stuff we would want to use in the future or build on.” And that’s basically what we did. It’s not like there’s any grand plan for a “fighting game monopoly.”

MV: Okay.

Huffer: Honestly I don’t even see how we could do it if we wanted to… But we don’t even want to because right now, we’re just keeping up with our own stuff.

And like, people are afraid of like, a monopoly – but we’ve been around, what, since 2010 we’ve been doing this. And everybody’s been left alone. I think the patents were filed in the beginning of 2011 on a lot of the ideas that we’d worked on. There’s like 10 years of us not really going after anybody. People have been making Hit Boxes on their own forever. Well, at least since it’s been going on.

In terms of… We have to basically attempt to protect our ourselves, our patents, and things like that. Just because like, anybody would if they patented something. Basically if you’re lucky enough to where other people want to make what you’re doing, it’s like, “Wow, cool.” But at the same time it’s like, “Oof.” It’s bittersweet or something like that, you might say.

MV: Yeah, it almost sounds like everyone has to walk on a tight rope when approaching these type of things because there is-

Huffer: In one sense it’s like a report card that that says, “Hey, it’s working.” Other people want to do it. Other people want to make it and things like that. So it’s like, “Hey, okay. After 11 years of this stuff, people are into it.” I think it’s just part of what comes with the whole deal of that design of Hit Box, actually beginning to succeed more in the fighting game community. But if anything, we’re afraid of gigantic companies, or competitors, things like that, that would… not just us, but everybody.

MV: And that was one of the other questions I was eventually going to lead into. Should Hit Box lose this lawsuit, do you fear that companies like HORI and Qanba are going to move into the market?

Huffer: To be honest with you, we’ve done this for a long time. Right?

MV: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Huffer: So we’ve always believed in it, that it had real value and real potential to be something that was meaningful to the fighting game world and really make a difference and an impact. And because we believe that, there’s always been that idea that something like, the time that we’re seeing now would come, whether it be from a giant company or whoever. You know?

MV: Right.

Huffer: We’ve known and believed it worked for forever. So we’ve always been prepared. I moved to China back in 2015, just because… for the first five years I just literally sat in my parents’ garage, just making Hit Boxes, (laughs). All day, every day, I was like, “Going to make this work, it’s going to be good.” And then eventually came to the realization like, “Okay, after five years of doing this, people really do like it. They believe in it and it really works. If that’s true, just keep working. Then eventually it’s going to get to that level where the big guys want it.” You know?

So that’s why I was like, “Well, then I have to learn how to make it out of more than just my garage if we’re ever going to keep up.” So I moved to China and really just tried to learn how to do manufacturing there, learn the ins and outs of that, which I didn’t plan on moving to China originally. But I got there. And everything went wrong. Everything was wrong. And I was like, “Oh, this is a thing that is an art or some sort of weird process of just making it all happen.”

And so I ended up just going like, “Well, if we’re ever going to have a chance to actually get big or bigger, I’ll have to actually learn how to do assembly lines, and make sure quality control’s there, and all these things. And then somehow do it in Chinese.” Which was its own ball of wax.

Eventually, left China and moved all of that stuff to Vietnam which is where I’ve been the last year. But that’s all an attempt of like, “Sooner or later, whatever happens, we’re going to try to be ready for, if something, if we did lose a patent or anything like that.” And honestly just because, well, it’s driven me to do crazy things in terms of trying to make sure that we’re prepared for whatever would happen. Whether it could be go, if just like suddenly patents didn’t exist or whatever, and they’re just like, “Screw you, Hit Box.” I would just be like, “Well, we’re still going to keep making our shit. And we’re going to make it better. And we’re make it competitive.”

I guess that’s a really roundabout answer. But yeah.

MV: No, I think that is an excellent answer. It’s explaining where the origins and the thought process behind everything is coming from. It answers the question on “how was this worded?” And it’s like, “Oh, you went through legal representation.” Which is a valid thing to do. I don’t know much anything about patents outside of what I already read.

Huffer: We hate legal stuff. We’d rather spend making stuff instead. Honestly, for just all of us over here, all of us get a queasy feeling in our stomach. It’s just like, “None of it’s fun.”

MV: Moving [back] to the cease and desist that was sent to Junk Food. What is the factual analysis that Junk Food is expecting Hit Box to provide, outside of the claims that you’ve already made in your C&D?

Huffer: Honestly, I’m not sure. That’s going to be up to the lawyers of whatever, they know all that stuff better than me, in all honesty. Just the baseline premise of the whole deal is like, “Okay, we’ve got a patent, so they expect that we’ll protect the patent, basically.”

MV: I do want to ask this. It wasn’t one of my questions I had prepared, but – what took so long for you to actually start protecting the patent? Because like you said, people have been making Hit Boxes for a while. I know that personally, I’ve had a few of them that are not Hit Box manufactured, I’ve gotten products from Marvelous Customs. I’ve gotten products from Arcade Shock. What has taken so long for Hit Box to actually start sending these cease and desist orders?

Huffer: Well, that’s a good question, actually. Well, a lot of the time, to be honest… firstly and foremostly, is we’re just focused on us doing our thing and doing it well. And usually, if you do your thing while you’ll let the rest play out as best you can. But we usually have our plates so full that we’re not super concerned about it anyway – because honestly, we pretty much believe that the community’s good and should be encouraged – and helped – and things like that. You don’t want everybody to think that you’re like, out to get them or something, you know?

We’re like, “So you guys do your thing. It’s the fighting game community. It’s how we started. And people didn’t mess with us and this and that.” But in terms of when it reaches a certain level where it’s not community and it’s more like competitors and people really… It’s one thing to be community and another thing to just where it’s like, “Oh, this actually can potentially hurt us.” Things like that, and then it gets scary enough to where you’re like, “Oh, what do we do?” And largely even then you leave it alone. And because all in all, we still are mostly just focused on what can we do better.

MV: Right. Can you comment on your relationship with Junk Food Custom [Arcades] or Travis Crittenden leading up to Hit Box’s legal team issuing out the cease and desist ahead of CEO?

Huffer: What can I say? Nothing negative to say. Basically, I think the only thing I’d ever heard about it was that there was a father and son team that were making Hit Boxes, which sounded pretty FGC to me.

MV: Right.

Huffer: They were pretty cool, and I guess they were saving up for his boy to go to college, which sounded great.

MV: Were you surprised by Travis’ response in filing a lawsuit against the [‘623’] utility patent ?

Huffer: I don’t think anybody expected any of anything that’s going on, you know. That’s about all I can really say. We’re just on the roller coaster ride at this point.

MV: Okay. Do you feel that Junk Food requesting a trial by jury is an attempt to sway the opinion of those who are less than knowledgeable of patent law?

Huffer: I don’t know what any of that would be about, honestly. A lot of this stuff I’ve just been at a loss at.

MV: So, the way that I’m interpreting this is that, a lot of this is being handled by your legal team. Would I be correct in saying that?

Huffer: I think, even then, they’re just responding to what’s happening. And honestly, I’m sure something that makes sense will be figured out. I honestly don’t really know what… Honestly, [I’m] just trying to run the other stuff and then it’s like, “Oh yeah, lawsuit stuff. Okay. I’ll stick to what I know.” And then just try to keep the rest of the train going.

MV: Knowing that Junk Food provides products other than ergonomic controllers, like traditional arcade sticks – specifically, I believe their Snack Box Version 2 – why [did] Hit Box demand that Junk Food not attend CEO? And why are they asking for all records per to wholesale transactions, retail transactions, so on, so forth?

Huffer: I think most of that is lawyer stuff.

MV: Okay.

Huffer: I know that particularly I was surprised that the premium sponsor of CEO was somebody that was primary using Hit Box design. And I was like, “Wow, that doesn’t match what I thought was going on.” So that’s just where it came from. Because I was like, “Oh, a father-son thing, that’s cool, doing stuff.” And then all of a sudden it was like, “Oh, CEO, the biggest tournament and the only tournament we’ve had in forever.”

MV: Yeah.

Huffer: And then there’s a bunch of other people I supposedly talked about. Honestly, it was just like something that was like, “Oh, this doesn’t make sense. What’s going on?” And it was just a big surprise. Honestly.

MV: Now, I can kind of expect the answer that I’m going to get from this, but we’ve seen other modders and manufacturers either list their products as “sold out” or completely shut down listings for similar products. Is Junk Food Custom [Arcades] the only manufacturer that you have issued a cease and desist to?

Huffer: There was one other. And it was because of basically competitor stuff.

MV: Okay. Are you at liberty to identify by who that competitor is?

Huffer: No. But it was not like in any interest of monopolizing everything, it’s just really just trying to protect what we’ve built.

MV: Considering that there is a market for ergonomic controllers like the Hit Box, what do you feel is the best course of action others may want to take to produce their own Hit Box style device? And are you open to collaborations or would it be under the pretense that all proceeds or a percentage of the proceeds would be yielded to Hit Box?

Huffer: For a long time, we’ve been wanting to put together a community licensing program so that people could be officially supported by us, or we could officially refer them, for customs and things like that. Or even if people had an old Hit Box that needed repair, or something like that, it would be nice to have a place on our website where we could refer to people that were modders or custom builders and things like that. And that’s been something wanted to do. But honestly it’s, like I said, where we’re just hanging on, and growing, and trying to make the regular stuff work.

So it’s like, “Oh yeah, that other thing. I’ll get to that when I’m not underwater.” And then some guy’s just got a bucket dumping more water. It’s like, “Oh, okay.” So that’s the plan. That’s been the plan. And obviously with all the stuff that’s been going on, there’s been some people that reached out wanting to do that, that we’ll work with and probably make that happen in this next year coming up, 2022. That’s the plan.

MV: That’s awesome. Over the years, we’ve seen a vocal population within the FGC be very upset with Hit Box between the delays in production, the increase in pricing, and now this lawsuit. Do you feel that Hit Box has been treated unfairly?

Huffer: I don’t think it’s fair or unfair. I think it’s just the way it goes. It’s a big internet out there, and there’s going to be all sorts of different opinions. So I can understand how somebody would either have problems with us or not. It just depends on what you think we are, and what you think we’re about, and what you think we’re doing. So some people just really don’t like… I remember were back in the beginning when we just had our wooden boxes walking around and – just Dustin and I, my brother, with couple of prototypes and just even then – people then really despised it because it wasn’t an arcade stick.

MV: I still get comments. I can relate.

Huffer: It’s gotten a lot better because back then they were giving pad players shit, too, which, I was like, “Well, there’s a lot of pad players. How can they even begin?” And as time goes on, things have relaxed. But… just… that’s where they’re coming from. So they weren’t never going to be too inclined to be like, “Hey cool stuff, bro.” You know? It’s just-

And other people, in terms of production delays and things like that, I get it. I don’t like it, either. It’s like, “I’m doing my best. I literally spend all day, every day trying to make it work.” So it’s one of those deals where I’m like, “You do your best and hopefully that’s enough.” Life’s not fair all the time. It’s just not. So you just take it and I’m just grateful for a lot of the things that have gone well and just keep doing our best.

MV: Are there any final remarks you’d want to give the FGC or those invested into the situation?

Huffer: Well, that’s another good question. Yeah. I feel like there’s a lot of people that are just afraid that we’re out to get them or something like that. We’re definitely not out to monopolize the FGC. Like I said, we’re just trying to protect what we’ve built and like we just talked about, the licensing stuff, and trying to work with people in the community. A lot of times people in the community are afraid to talk to us, it seems like. Like, “If I just stay clear, then it’s not a problem.” Which they’re right. We haven’t been talking to hardly anybody. We’re not out to get everybody and honestly, we’re not really different than… we’re just FGC. Mind you, it’s been a weird, crazy ride for us – but we’re still FGC. It’s what we’re about. And I don’t know, just hopefully everything can move in a direction where everybody’s happier, and not angry, and can have cool video game controllers, because we all care about it enough to be here and paying attention. You know?

MV: Obviously. Yeah.

Huffer: So it’s like, “Yeah. That’s what we all want.” And that’s what we need more of… and probably just less drama, hopefully – just in general – and things so we can all relax. Because there’s enough other stuff going on to be feeling like it’s all difficult about.

So this has always been – even before Hit Box – it’s my oasis, and I think for a lot of people, our oasis away from the BS that is a lot of the stuff in life. And to have that bastion of “whatever”, feel threatened or in trouble, that’s definitely not good for me. I’m sure a lot of other people don’t like that feeling as well. I just hope that things can relax and everybody can feel better about it.

MV: Shawn, I 100% appreciate your time. Thank you so much for talking to us, man.

Huffer: Glad to be here, and Happy New Year, and all that. Should be relaxing.

MV: Happy New Year.

Huffer: Dustin and I are going to play Diablo: Resurrected. We got a special Cross|Up profile to play Diablo II on Cross|up that we’ve been playing with. So that’s what we’re going to do tonight.

MV: That’s sick. Hell yeah.

Huffer: Yeah. I’m looking forward to it. Finally got some time to do it.

MV: Absolutely. Well, thank you and wish you all the best.

Huffer: You too, man. Thanks

MV: All right. Be easy.

As it stands, we’ve likely heard the last about Hit Box’s lawsuit with Junk Food Custom Arcades until discovery begins sometime next year. What are your thoughts about Shawn Huffer’s comments on potentially issuing licenses for modders to repair and create custom orders for Hit Box? What of the revelation that this is actually the second cease and desist letter Hit Box has sent out? Share you comments with us below!

Christopher Wenzel

Mega Visions Operations Manager and Features Editor for Mega Visions Magazine. Covers game development for under-appreciated games on YouTube. Used to have a blog on Destructoid before being conscripted to the Mega Visions Empire.
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