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To Clone Or Not To Clone
by Henry Truong on 02/15/12 07:24:00 pm   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.


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 .

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Jon Ze
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While avoiding the re-skin could be easily considered an appropriate moral stance...why would innovating on top of the property be a problem?

This often makes me think of tower defense style games. If these never existed on the web prior to the iOS platform, would the original iOS pioneer of tower defense had taken a similar role as NimbleBit? Who can predict what collection of game rules becomes interesting enough to warrant an entire genre? Personally I'd be thrilled if I was the catalyst to such a movement.

Does this then become a question of acceptable levels of innovation?

E McNeill
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Thanks for posting this. It's an interesting, unintuitive situation.

It's certainly bizarre that you built the game with an expectation of a legal release yet now have to refrain from publishing it due to your sympathy for the original creator. You mention your "impact on whatever official iOS Pandemic app comes out", but why would he or his publisher go build another iOS app, now that yours is already complete? It sounds to me (speculating from few details) like this was an unfortunate business situation and possibly a bad contract. Were you not protected from a cancellation?

It's also an odd situation because the game was not your original design. If you were essentially a programmer-for-hire, I still feel bad for you in the same way I would for anyone who was laid off or had their project cancelled. But it doesn't seem to be all that related to cloning.

Henry Truong
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The agreement wasn't cancelled, per se; when we were ready to release we tried to get their okay, and then because of the change in ownership they simply didn't open a line of communication until the agreement term had expired.

The new owners disagreed with the direction I took with the adaptation, and opted to start building their own version in-house that they would own from the ground up. (Our old arrangement was a simple they-get-a-cut-of-revenue model.)

The cloning connection is more about the conflict between how I always had disdain for direct clone games, and yet part of me still wants to get this out there more than anything.

Jesse Tucker
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So did you get any sort of compensation for your work?

Henry Truong
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Edmund Ching
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Isn't such a situation not fair to you and your team? Is there no legal means for your team to seek compensation for the work done?

I too have a disdain for direct clone games. I have seen and played (some) games created in Asia for the asia regions, despite each game's popularity, they were simply clones of each other. Given a choice, and only for the sake of putting food on the table, I would put my game designer pride aside and probably do what Zynga did: Take an existing game, improve upon it.

Sorry if my post seem "amatuerish", its my first post. It's just that I feel great unfairness for you for what you have gone through for this project that I want to voice out.

Henry Truong
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Thanks for voicing out, I appreciate it. =)

I had a number of talks with a number of people after this all went down (mid-2011) and the prognosis was not good. In retrospect, there are a whole whackload of things I should have done differently; alas, this is one of those mistakes that there's no recovering from.

Bisse Mayrakoira
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In your own words: "The new owners disagreed with the direction I took with the adaptation".

What that means is the new owners think the game they may eventually release is substantially different than the one you have made. *They* think your game is not a carbon copy. You have every reason to re-brand and release your game.

Henry Truong
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Mechanically, the game is identical. The disagreements have more to do with presentation. Instead of going the traditional route of making an iOS version that resembles the board game as much as possible, I wanted to adapt the experience to make it feel more like a video game, while still being unmistakably the original board game in terms of gameplay.

Bisse Mayrakoira
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It doesn't really matter if the difference is mechanics, presentation or both. *They* think the difference is so great it's worth it to start development from scratch! I really don't see why you'd have a moral dilemma in this situation. It's not like you set out to clone an existing game.

If I had an agreement (whether legal, or gentlemen's) with someone where they produce a game based on my design, and then I chose to walk out when they already have the game done, I absolutely would expect them to re-brand and release the thing they have already invested a lot in.

(BTW, was there any real discussion or negotiation of you changing the presentation to their liking?)

Henry Truong
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I offered to, but the other part of it was that we are a very small developer, and they were (understandably) hesitant about working with us. The arrangement made sense back when it was between us and Z-Man, being two indie-style efforts, but with the "upgrade" to a bigger business, we suddenly became more of a risk to them.

Bisse Mayrakoira
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Then it's even clearer you have no reason to abandon your work. They had a chance to continue with you and they chose not to.

Victor Salas
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It seems someone has decided on "to clone" already...