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Radical Plagiarism: The Ethical Lessons of the Gamenauts Controversy
by Evan Jones on 08/15/11 05:36:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

 

In 2010, Dutch independent game duo Vlambeer (of Super Crate Box fame) released Radical Fishing, a short action/arcade Flash game. The game centered around an original, innovative mechanic: instead of trying to catch a fish, the player tries to avoid catching fish until the line gets as deep as possible, at which point the player must try to catch as many fish on the same line as possible. Oh, and then fling them into the air out of the water, at which point the player kills as many as possible with a point-and-click gun.
 
Radical Fishing is small and simple. It doesn’t have a lot of polish, but the gameplay is tight and it has a certain lo-fi charm that won the hearts of many independent game fans. Though the original was a free Flash game, soon after release Vlambeer (secretly) started work on an iOS remake of the game, entitled Ridiculous Fishing. Despite intending not to break the news of the game’s creation until its launch, Vlambeer was forced to announce their version significantly ahead of schedule. Why?
 
Earlier this month, San Francisco Bay Area studio Gamenauts announced an almost identical clone of this game, entitled Ninja Fishing, for iOS. The game is a carbon copy of Radical Fishing, mechanic for mechanic, with the minor exception of weapon choice: it swaps out a gun for a sword, and a tap for a swipe to kill the airborne fish. Other than that, it appears to be the exact same game. And they hastily released it, beating Vlambeer’s original to market on iOS.

Gamenauts chief Stanley Adrianus claimed that the game was “inspired by” Radical Fishing, though they clearly didn’t ask Vlambeer if making their own version was okay, or even reach out to them at all - Vlambeer mentioned in a blog post that Ninja Fishing “completely took us by surprise.” Vlambeer reached out to Gamenauts, and Gamenauts said they would mention Vlambeer’s original in the credits. Vlambeer refused (and why wouldn’t they? They wouldn’t want to imply tacit endorsement), and instead asked Gamenauts to delay their launch while they had the time to finish their own iOS port of Radical Fishing. Gamenauts declined that, and launched Ninja Fishing in the App Store last week, along with a considerable marketing blitz that rocketed their app up to #5 on the paid app charts. Suddenly, Vlambeer became second to market releasing their own game.

What happened here? What are the problems with it? What can we learn from this situation?

The Ethics

It’s obvious to anyone that Ninja Fishing is a clone of Radical Fishing. “Inspired by” is a euphemism here: the game is a copy, intended to capitalize on the both the quality of Radical Fishing's mechanics and its absence from the iOS market by releasing a nearly identical version as quickly as possible. The first question we must ask is: did Gamenauts act ethically?

Of course, “ethical” is a term that itself invites debate, but one of the most common and widely-cited ethical barometers is Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative, which states: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law. In other words, an action is only ethical if it’s possible for a system to exist in which everyone takes the same action without violating each other’s rights to do the same. Under this scrutiny, Gamenauts’ actions are clearly unethical for two reasons. Less importantly, if everyone cloned the same game, no one could derive financial success from doing so (as the market would be inundated with clones), but more importantly, if everyone cloned the same game, there would be no new games.

Gamenauts’ actions are indicative of a philosophy that believes that innovation is an unnecessary risk and that directly cloning an already fun game is the surest road to success. There is no game design: there is a template, a formula, a secret sauce, which they are clearly too timid to directly interfere with. (Even the single mechanical change from Radical Fishing - the replacement of gunshots with sword swipes - is lifted directly from Fruit Ninja.) Were every company to adopt this philosophy, innovation in games would stagnate, if not halt entirely. Products such as Ninja Fishing are a firm, undeniable vote in favor of this bleak future: originality is risky and expensive, so long live copycatism.

The Culture

It would be remiss to say that Ninja Fishing is the first successful game directly copied off another existing title. It’s an uncommon example, though, for two major reasons. First, it’s ripped off almost every element of Radical Fishing, right down to the upgrades that are available. (Most other ripoffs at least bother to iterate or expand on the mechanics somewhat of the games they’re imitating.) Second, Gamenauts is a small independent studio ripping off a game by another small independent studio, which released their game to the public not as a way to earn a fortune, but so as to share their idea with others.

Simply put, the independent games community thrives in the sort of collaborative environment Radical Fishing was released in. Despite never having been a full-time indie developer myself, I’ve heard the same story from dozens of developers: it’s hard to sit in an apartment all day working on ideas by yourself. You need to share them with those around you because that’s where your energy comes from. Several notable indie games have premiered at the Independent Games Festival years before their commercial release (indeed, it was IGF chairman Brandon Boyer who first broke the news on Gamenauts’ plagiarism.) Independent games are completely dependent upon the free and honest exchange of ideas for the benefit of everyone involved.

The problem is this: in a world full of companies like Gamenauts, there can be zero time between the announcement of an idea and the commercial sale of the idea. I can’t pretend to know what’s running through the heads of Vlambeer right now, but I’m sure part of them is wondering “should we never have released Radical Fishing?” (Vlambeer’s hired artist, Greg Wohlwend, has written an absolutely heartbreaking blog post on how he’s been personally hurt by all this.) The existence of companies like Gamenauts forces indie developers to hold their cards close to their chest to avoid getting their ideas stolen from them - which, in turn, stifles innovation even further. The release of Ninja Fishing is a clear statement from Gamenauts: “If you’re going to come up with a fun new game, and you don’t profit off it immediately, it’s up for grabs.” I certainly don’t want to live in a world like that.

The Art

I haven’t yet discussed the most disturbing part of this entire controversy, which sadly seems to be absent from most of the discussion I’ve seen online about this issue. Or maybe it’s there, just hiding in a more insidious form - the undertones of the opinions of those who don’t think Gamenauts did anything wrong here, those people who think that ideas are cheap and execution is everything.

Let me express a hypothetical scenario. Gamenauts lifted the Radical Fishing game mechanics and tacked on new art and music. Let’s presume they did the opposite: they stole Vlambeer’s art and music, and made a completely different game with those assets (say, an RPG of some kind.) Is there anyone out there who wouldn’t consider that theft? Would it be okay for another game studio to take Ninja Fishing’s art and music and put it in a completely different game, throwing a quick credit to Gamenauts and a thanks for the “inspiration”?

The answer is a clear no, and I think that’s indicative of the greater problem: simply put, game design is not regarded as a creative work to which the author is entitled intellectual rights. I’m not talking about rights in a legal sense: I’m talking about rights in a moral sense, in the same way that we regard J.R.R. Tolkien as the author of the Lord of the Rings, and of The Beatles as the authors of Let It Be, and Quentin Tarantino as the author of Pulp Fiction, and that none of us would feel intuitively that we had the right to repackage and repurpose their work and sell it ourselves.

Not so with game design: for some reason there’s a tacit understanding in the greater culture that a) game design is nothing more than coming up with the right idea, b) ideas are cheap, and therefore c) you don’t have any ownership of the design you came up with. There’s no malice in this point of view, simply ignorance. There’s a reason why game design is a full-time profession and not just something that’s done with on the day the project is created: it’s a long, laborious work consisting of trying to instill fun into every part of a game. It’s an art, not a science, and as such every designer brings their own personal touch to a project. Ideas may be cheap, but development of the idea is expensive, and often extremely influential in shaping the final creation: observe the difference between Narbacular Drop and Portal, and bear witness to what developing a good idea does to improve the original idea. Good game design is something with tangible value all its own - and if one has intellectual and moral ownership of one’s art and music, certainly the same holds true for game design as well.


The Result

Sadly, I have no doubt that Gamenauts’ actions will wind up making them lots of money - a spot at the top of the App Store charts can be worth potentially millions. Even worse, I have no doubt that when Vlambeer releases their authorized version of the game, it is they who will be derided as copycats by people completely unfamiliar with the situation. But I don’t think this is an issue that’s going away anytime soon, and it’s important to call it out when it happens, loudly and publicly.

In the meantime, take a moment to appreciate the design of the games you love the most. Examine closely the decisions the designers made. How is the designer guiding my experience as I play this game? What directs my attention to things that are important? How am I taught how to play the game and how to tackle each challenge within the game? Why are the controls the way they are? Is the game too easy, too difficult, or just right? Why is the level constructed the way it is, and why are the objects in the level positioned where they are? How could the player experience be improved?

Take some time to appreciate good game design - because if wholesale theft of ideas becomes the new normal, good game design will be even harder to come by.

Evan Jones is a game programmer at Lolapps, an independent game developer in his free time, and a game design enthusiast. You can email him at his first name @chardish.com. It would make him very happy if you followed him on Twitter @chardish.

 


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Comments


Brian Stabile
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I find it strange that you can write an entire article on blatant plagiarism on the iOS App Store and not mention Gameloft once. Their entire library consists of almost identical 'ports' of x360 and ps3 games to the iPhone before the developers - and they have even the gall to make the graphics and sound borderline lawsuit-able similar.



It certainly sucks when someone does something heinous like swiping your idea and profiting off of it- however, until there are more distinct guidelines that categorize how much you draw influence from other games before it is filed under plagiarism, you must learn how to protect your IP- be it through Non-Disclosure Agreements, carefully timed press reveals, or just simply rushing to put your monetized version of your game out before some vulture does. People are getting upset when companies like Nintendo try and get a patent on a particular type of game or gameplay style, so where should the line be drawn? We in the industry need to think deeply on that concept. Until then, the most Vlambeer can do is act snoody to Gamenauts if ever they meet (I'd love to be there for that possible fist fight), and when they release their game, advertise that it's the "original experience", or some angle like that - this exact same thing happened to Death Worm (free flash game) when Super Mega Worm beat them to the App Store, and they tried to defend themselves by marketing it that way.

Evan Jones
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I don't think this problem will be solved by lawyers or patents, because those can only protect individual games from being stolen. We need to fix the problem with cultural change and the acknowledgment that a game design is a creative work that belongs to its authors, not by suing enough people that everyone is too scared to do it anymore.

Luke Shorts
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Actually, assuming that Vlambeer had filed and had been granted a patent covering all the mechanics of their game (nevermind the odds of that happening), no one else would have been able to make a game containing those features, no matter how many other innovations they added on top, without paying license fees to them. I'm not sure, however, that such a state of affairs would be preferable.



I don't really think that advocating cultural change will solve the problem, since plagiarism has always existed, not only for video games, but for pretty much any form of cultural and artistic expression. It is also tricky sometimes to draw a line between plagiarizing and innovating by iteration. The only way to deal with blatant plagiarism is imho to punish who does it, but in practical terms unless you are interested to obtain recognition in some specific circles (such as academia), there is no lasting consequence in plagiarizing someone else's work.



Rather, the question should be whether the plagiarism they suffered (never played nor seen either game, so I just go by the impression I got from this article) was so extensive that they could sue the other guys for copyright violation... most likely, they either ignored that option because the case wasn't that solid or didn't consider it because of the litigation cost...

Gerald Belman
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What would the world look like if everyone stole game ideas from everyone else?



So in conclusion, It is going to basically look the way it currently does. Have you seen FortressCraft?

Jonathan Jou
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I wish the Me Too Studios would hire and buy instead of steal and imitate. Vlambeer deserves a cut of the earnings, recognition for his ideas, and at least a chance to have a career making games instead of a telling history of being second to market on original ideas.

E Zachary Knight
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Why should he get a cut of a game he had no part in creating? That argument is absurd on its face and even more unethical than what Gamenauts has done.



If the people behind Vlambeer want to make a living in games, they need to make a product that people love and successfully market that. From what I read here, they have already started, they were just beaten to a new platform by a competitor.

Jonathan Jou
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How can you say he had no part in creating the game? That's a very narrow view of what involvement means in a creative process. If I'm required to cite every single source I use in an essay, and tv screenwriters get paid every a character they created shows up in a future episode, how is it unreasonable to give Vlambeer the same sort of reward authors get? I wasn't and don't expect two-digit royalties but I hardly think 5% for effectively having been the game designer for Gamenaut's game is unfair. Being beaten to a new platform sounds like everyone is using the same technology to accomplish the same thing; this is so much closer to firing Vlambeer after making him develop a Flash prototype and showing how successful it is. If Gamenauts hadn't produced a game that resembled Ridiculous fishing, right down to the upgrades, I wouldn't feel that Vlambeer needed much of anything from them. But wholesale copying followed by cosmetic changes is one of those situations where really Gamenauts should have asked Vlambeer if they could port the original on Vlambeer's behalf, not presume that a new name, new art, and a new way to kill fish would justify pretending it was entirely original.

Mark Johns
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Gamenauts offered Vlambeer a cut of revenue after they got called out but Vlambeer refused to take it, as they didn't wnat to support this kind of wholesale opportunistic game architecture shoplifting.

E Zachary Knight
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This article is based on the assumption that ideas should be protected rather than the execution of the idea.



Games are protected by copyright as well as patents. While patents protect specific technologies within the game, copyrights protect the expression of the idea behind the mechanics.



I highly doubt that Vlambeer holds a patent on their game mechanics. However, in US copyright law, they hold a copyright on their game. However, their game was not lifted wholesale. The idea was taken and put into execution using a different expression of that same idea. This is not illegal, nor do I consider it unethical.



Our entire industry is based on borrowing and building on the ideas of others. That is how genres are born. If we were not able to copy mechanics and ideas for use in our own games, we would not have the huge FPS market we have today. We would not have the huge 3rd person action genre today or any other genre of games.



I am glad that Vlambeer did not agree to a "Inspired by" credit in Gamenaut's game. That would have been foolish of them if they did agree to it. The only real protection from this is to make a superior product. To advertise it as such and those who are true fans of the game will buy it and support the developer they like.



As Gerald points out above, we have already seen that with Minecraft. Not only does Minecraft borrow game mechanics from other games, they have popularized the mine and build genre and others are now copying it. We will continue to see people build on that mechanic and expand on it and better it. Will this somehow diminish Minecraft? Only if notch fails to provide for his fans.

Evan Jones
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Game design is mostly - by far - about the execution of the idea. I've never talked to a single game designer who didn't make radical changes to the initial idea during the creation of their game.

E Zachary Knight
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And it is the execution of the idea that gains the protection under law, not the idea itself.

Evan Jones
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How do you make a game nearly identical to someone else's game, and then claim that only the idea was stolen, not the execution? I'm curious.

E Zachary Knight
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Did Bungie steal Halo's mechanics from Id? Did Square steal Final Fantasy's mechanics from Enix? Did Sony steal God of War's mechanics from Capcom?



Is the mechanics of this game truly so original that no one else should be allowed to make a game using the same mechanics? Is it so special that what has happened to hundreds of games and companies before it should not be allowed to happen to them? I don't think so.

Evan Jones
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There's a profound difference between "let's develop and iterate on existing ideas," which is common among all art forms, and "let's copy this thing exactly, because we don't understand it but we want to profit off it" which is precisely what Gamenauts did. I'm not going to pretend to know where the line sits, but Gamenauts is far, far on the wrong side of it.

E Zachary Knight
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On that note, we have the massive giant of a company Zynga. They made their start re-skinning existing games on MySpace and Facebook. Now they themselves are the ones innovating and being copied. Their origins change little about who they are now.



Now Gamenauts saw what was a novel idea in the web space and decided to bring that same experience to the iPhone. That is not a crime. That is not unethical. They saw an untapped market and went after it.



You said it yourself, Vlambeer did not publicly announce their iPhone port until after Gamenauts announced theirs. So there was no unethical big fish preying on the smaller fish here. They didn't swoop in at the last minute and steal their thunder. They created thunder of their own in a space that wasn't getting any.

William Arbuckle
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Ephriam, are you seriously saying you'd be absolutely fine with this scenario if you were in Vlambeer's shoes?



"Zynga's origins change little about who they are now". Not to the consumer it doesnt, no. Doesn't make it right though.



And what does it matter if Vlambeer didn't publicly announce their game before Gamenauts. What on earth has that got to do with how wrong this all is?



Have you seen the 2 game's in question? There's no innovation there. none. It's just disgusting.

E Zachary Knight
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Yes I would be because I would recognize the fact that someone liked my game idea enough to spread it. Would it suck if I was not able to be first to a market? Sure, but that is part of business. The best thing to do is to make a superior product and release it a little later.

William Arbuckle
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hmm ok. well it seems to me- people more interested in money don't have a problem with this plagiarism. people more interested in creativity, do.



can I ask, just out of interest, how close would ninja fishing need to get to the original before you also had a problem with this? Would it be, changing the sword swipes to gunshots? Would it be, changing the graphics so that they were in a similar style? Would it be basically tracing all graphics, animation, sound? Or would it still be fine with all the previous as long as all assets were originally created?

E Zachary Knight
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how close is a bit of a subjected argument as far as I am concerned.



I have no problem with people copying game mechanics. Actually copying code and artwork would be bad. For example, Wolfire, the guys behind the Humble Indie Bundle, released the source code to one of their games. Then later found the complete game on the Mac Store advertised as the complete game. They were in the wrong. The people who copied the whole game could have used the exact code with all new assets and would have been fine.

William Arbuckle
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Say I was to find a digital painting online. "Wow!" I exclaim, "what a fantastic idea for a painting! I feel so... so... inspired" I then physically re-create the painting... very closely and sell the painting for a few thousand pounds.



This is clearly wrong and I don't see how it differs from re-creating a flash game and taking it to another platform like I did with the painting.

E Zachary Knight
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Except you are completely recreating the painting. Gamenauts did not completely recreate Vlambeer's game. They copied mechanics. This would be more like the impressionist movement in artwork.

William Arbuckle
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well that, I suppose, is why our opinions differ. I think they did re-create Vlambeers game, and you don't.

Alexander Jhin
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If you feel displeasure at this situation spread the information!



1) Link to this article and do other things so that Googling "Ninja Fishing" will bring up this or related articles.

2) Go on the Apple App Store and write a review citing the copy cat nature of the product while mentioning the original game.

3) Go onto metacritic: http://www.metacritic.com/game/ios/ninja-fishing and do the same thing.



Spread the facts and let the morality of the consumer help out some. It may not do much but spreading facts and information is never a wrong thing to do.



That said, it really is a moral gray area. Where would our industry be if game play mechanics were, say, patentable? There'd only be one FPS, one city builder, one real time strategy game. Government or even legal enforcement is most certainly also not the solution...

E Zachary Knight
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I don't think that your second two options are the best way to go. They are both unethical from my standpoint. Giving a negative review on something you have not played will not solve anything and will only lead to Gamenauts claiming they are a victim of attack by Vlambeer.



If people truly like Ninja Fishing, are they somehow wronged when they buy it rather than Radical Fishing? I don't think so. Some people may like Ninjas more than people with guns and would rather play a game that appeals to them.

Alexander Jhin
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Ephriam -- while you were replying, I was updating my original post. I changed it to remove the "write a negative review" part and just changed it to suggest spreading information.



But, I don't think that writing a negative review is unethical as long as it is truthful. If, say, you knew that 100 horses died during the filming of a Western, I don't think it would be unethical to write a negative review of the film on that basis. While that's an extreme example, I think the immorality of the creation of a product should be reflected in the review of that product.



Plus, anyone reading the reviews can tell the difference between a real review and 0 rated "this is a ripped off game idea" review. I do think a "this game sucks and is no fun" negative review would be unethical, as it wouldn't reflect the true opinions of the reviewer.

E Zachary Knight
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Even in that case, I don't think it is ethical to add a review on an official channel stating your objection.



The review feature of the App Store and Metacritic is meant to be used by those who have actually played the game. If you want to voice your disapproval of a game you have not played, you can ethically do so in forums and blog posts such as this.



In the case of a review, you have two options if you are trying to make a point. You could 1) place a 5 star review and express your disapproval. This will increase the likelihood you comments would be read, but it also pads the number of 5 star reviews. Thus increasing the likelihood that someone will by it, defeating your purpose. Or you could 2) write a 1 star review, decreasing their overall rating. You do this knowing full well you have not played the game and that your actions could hurt someone else.



I think the better option would be to buy Vlambeer's game when it comes out, rate it 5 stars and support that developer.



Positive actions increase the likelihood of a positive response while negative actions increase the likelihood of a negative response.

Luke Shorts
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While it's true that you should review what you have played, I don't see the problem in submitting a negative review in light of obvious plagiarism (I am not expressing judgment on this specific game, I am just assuming this is the case for the sake of the argument).



I am not aware that metacritic (not sure about the app store) indicates a strict set of objective criteria that reviews should analyze but in any case, originality of a work is often considered when reviewing (again, I think about scientific and literary papers, but more examples could be made). So, provided that one can be reasonably sure that the situation is as depicted in the article (that is, after playing both games, not just by copy/pasting parts of the text above) I think that it is both ethical and appropriate to submit negative reviews.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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I don't see how rating either game 5 stars for the sake of spreading a message is ethical while rating Ninja Fishing 1 star is unethical. If your stance is that a game's rating should be based on your legitimate opinion of its quality (which is what ratings are supposed to be for), then either way is deceitful.



Probably best to spread the word other ways, or write an honest review with an honest rating that mentions the controversy..

Evan Jones
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Ephriam, are you seriously suggesting that it's not unethical to steal someone else's game idea and sell it yourself, but it is unethical to negatively review the clone without playing it?



Does this strike you as normal?

E Zachary Knight
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If Gamesnaut stole Vlambeer's game wholesale, or in any way made it seem like it was Vlambeers game, then that would unethical. What Gamenaut did was make a game that had similar mechanics. They did not commit copyright, trademark or patent infringement in any sense.



Purposely creating a negative review of a game you never played and rating it low for the sole purpose of lashing out is unethical. What you are doing here posting an article discussing the merits of the issue and expressing your distaste for the move is ethical.

Harold Myles
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Even though, straight clones with little to no additions or distinct creativity or not desirable, "borrowing" ideas is at the center of all Art. It is the driving mechanism for innovation in the games.



Honestly, I don't see much Ethical violation in what Gamenauts did. Especially since they were bringing it to a platform where it didn't exist.



Giving credit to the original idea is more than they had to do.



And to echo a few of the responses already given to the question: What would the world look like if everyone stole game ideas from everyone else?



It would look like it does right now. Which is pretty good.

Evan Jones
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Platform is more or less irrelevant as far as intellectual property is concerned. Just because you release an album on CD doesn't mean I can sell my own digital download version of it.

Harold Myles
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This whole conversation is pretty much irrelevant to intellectual property.



No art was lifted. No source code copied. No trademark violation. No patents infringed.



They reused an idea. Which can't be owned.

Andy Schatz
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I also posted an article on the same subject, but with a significantly different take, this morning:

http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/AndySchatz/20110815/8198/Fishing_t
he_iOS_Clone_market_and_PatentCopyright.php

Evan Combs
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If you don't want someone beating you to the market with your own game idea you should do everything within your power to keep that idea secret until you are at a point where you aren't going to be beat to the market.



Yeah, clones are defiantly an ethical grey area, but that is better than not being able to create a new and innovative game because someone holds a patent on the base mechanics of the genre.

Mike Reddy
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Finally, here is an example of why Academics need to be revered for attempting to stem the copycat tide. Plagiarism is the theft of ideas. Art does mimic, but it explores/expands/iterates even when it doesn't always cite its inspirations. Business is another thing. Cheating is good economic practice, which is too tempting unless you have the honour to care how life is led. Zynga are still "doing the games of others but 'better'" even if that's merely a bigger marketing budget. History is, sadly, full of people who didn't profit frpm their own ideas. Moral indignation is all that can be brought to bear; meeting the copiers with "That was a dick move" seems perfectly reasonable, even if it might not change their behaviour. Where's the financial incentive for the original developer to put the effort in now? Apple could quietly promise a showcase or editor's pick for Radical - both without cost and levelling the play field - or more radically pull Ninja from the Market. So, public discussion here IS useful. We need to send a message out here. Crayon Physics is a similar example, where significant time/effort and building a community, which is what giving it away free is, should be recognised. Scott Sigler is a master of this in SciFi, having stuck to his guns of giving all his books away as free podcasts and still hitting Amazon and New York Times best seller lists for fiction, possibly because of his principles; his publishers were brave I'm sure, but Scot deserves his notoriety for not selling out like J.C. Hutchins as soon as a book deal appeared.


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