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When NimbleBit fired their opening salvo at Zynga a few weeks ago, being an indie dev myself, I went through the normal gamut of reactions. "Boo hiss Zynga evil!" "But isn't most game design essentially derivative when you get down to it?" "How dare a large corporation blatantly exploit a small developer!" and so forth.
Having been a victim of a much more direct form of game plagiarism (where one of our Android titles was literally copied, wrapped with spam and put back on the market), I never thought I would consider doing the same to anyone else. And yet, over the better part of the last year, that's exactly the choice I've been facing.
Backstory: From late 2010, I was developing an iOS version of the board game Pandemic in agreement with the publisher, Z-Man Games. An initial release version was completed in May 2011, but communication with Z-Man fell apart due to (what I later discovered to be) a change in ownership. The agreement lapsed during this time, and the new owners decided not to continue the relationship.*
This sucked for me big time, of course: I had a finished game I couldn't release. Months of work down the tubes. Personally, it was absolutely heartbreaking. And for a small indie like us, it was a huge blow; we've all since moved on to other full-time employment, though we keep loose ties to the studio.
What I didn't expect was for so many of my friends and family to push me to reskin the game and release it as a clone. Being a game designer who always thought of this practice as undignified at best, I was surprised how many of them wanted me to do it.
Obviously, being my acquaintances they felt bad about my situation and wanted to see me be able to profit from my work, but I wondered -- is blatant cloning really that acceptable to the mainstream? Am I just a wannabe "artiste" throwing himself on the sword in the name of some pretentious ideal?
So I thought about it for a while, on and off. As creative exercise, I would sit and brainstorm ways to reskin it -- new names, new settings, new themes that would fit naturally with the underlying mechanics. There were times I really, really wanted to do it -- five stages of grief and all that. And I'm a game developer. I make games because I want them to be played. If I turned it into a clone, people could play it. Even if it was free, that'd be okay, because people could play it. That was the most tempting part.
But I never went ahead with it, for various reasons. Lack of time. Lack of free resources to devote to legal responses. "Principles". But the biggest thing is who it really hurts.
I worked with Matt Leacock (the creator of the board game) throughout the development process, and he was incredibly supportive of me right to the bitter end. I still think Pandemic is an absolutely incredible game (even if I won't have the stomach to play it again), and that's his grand achievement. I respect him greatly, and he did right by me.
Releasing a clone might have a (probably negligible) impact on whatever official iOS Pandemic app comes out, whenever that happens, but that only matters to a spreadsheet.
The harm it would do to Matt, I think, is much deeper. It would be a betrayal. I consider the greatest accomplishments in my life to be when I create things that people respond to and love; I won't rob that feeling from anyone else.
Maybe it doesn't make business sense. But I figure, if I'm going to be left behind with nothing but an ideal, I'd better hold onto it tight.
*For those interested, there's some demo video of the app at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I-QhMtGabHU .