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The Cloning Conundrum
by Josh Bycer on 09/13/12 09:26:00 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.


With the rise of the social and mobile game markets, the issue of cloning has appeared. For those not familiar with the term Cloning: it is when someone allegedly copies the design, look and art of another game and passes it for their own. This past year, the issue of cloning has escalated and has recently come to a head with EA suing Zynga for allegedly coping The Sims Social with Zynga's game: The Ville.

At the time of this post, EA has put up a video* showing just how similar the two games are, right down to the UI design and art assets. This could become the biggest case of cloning in the industry and set the precedent of this issue for future games. There are several arguments about the issue of cloning: some people say that the industry was built on cloning, while others aren't sure what the ground rules over what is and what isn't considered cloning.

Why Cloning is Happening Today:

In my opinion the industry was not built on cloning, but on drawing inspiration from other games. And the evidence is with how it has become so easy to clone games today.

First is due to how the storage medium and technology has changed. In the early days, all games were on a storage device, either a cartridge or a CD. The rise of the internet and the move away from traditional mediums puts a lot of power in the hands of the community.

Before, CDs and cartridges had built in security measures to prevent someone from accessing the data, but in today's world, once you download a game, you have access to all the code and assets. Most social games are built for a browser and that makes it very easy for someone who knows what they're doing to analyze the elements that go into a specific game. The technical aptitude of people has also increased. Back in the late 80s and early 90s when computing was still young, most people did not know how to program much less use a computer.

I didn't get my first computer until the mid 90s and before that; I took basic computer training in elementary school. Today, with game design a major option for college, more and more people are learning how to program and manipulate code. Each year, development software becomes more powerful allowing someone with the right know- how, to use assets and code for their own projects.

The reason why the industry was not built on cloning was simply because no one had the same level of access to game assets as they do today. Security measures on cartridges prevented someone from easily obtaining someone else's game assets. Because of that, another company couldn't just copy another game, but had to design original concepts drawing inspiration from popular titles. This is also why a lot of early licensed games were so difficult, as they were inspired by challenging games such as Star Wars on the Nes.


                                              The Ville
Setting Some Ground Rules:

We need to lay some ground rules. Because the issue of cloning is so new to the industry, we don't have a formal set of rules to define cloning, which becomes a major bullet point whenever we talk about if a game is cloning another game.

Here are in my opinion - The definitions of a Clone:

1. If someone uses the code and/or assets from another game on a project they intend to sell.

This to me isn't just cloning, but flat out stealing and should be adopted as a zero tolerance policy in the industry. Earlier this year, Runic Games: The developers behind Torchlight 1 and 2 accused the developers of the game Armed Heroes Online of stealing Assets from the first Torchlight**. Upon looking at the code, the developer reported that the Armed Heroes developer took sound files and even art assets from Torchlight without their consent.

They even found out that the developer stole the actual code of Torchlight right down to spelling mistakes the Torchlight developers made in the code. 

2. If someone designs a game using the same game elements from another title without adding any meaningful changes

The Game Industry's growth was all about taking inspiration from other titles. Many of the best games that came out were built on the concept from earlier titles. Ninja Gaiden, Metroid and Castlevania all took influence from the platforming in Super Mario Brothers. However, each game took that basic concept and expanded on it by going in a completely different direction.

Today, not only do we have games that feature the exact same gameplay as a similar title, but in some areas they use the same elements. With the Ea v. Zynga comparison video, you can see how The Ville is using the same systems for character design, and playing the game.

If I want to make a game about using portals to go to and from specific areas I don't have to worry about Valve's legal team. But if I want to make a game about using portals in a giant laboratory to solve puzzles while a crazy AI is watching and during which I befriend an inanimate object, that’s different.

You can see in the mobile and social market, that a game that sells well is copied using the same exact mechanics. Some may change the theme, while others may just change the name and leave it alone. Copying and pasting game mechanics from one game to another in my opinion should be frown upon as the offending party isn't creating a new game, but using someone else's hard work to profit from.


                                            The Sims Social

3. If someone takes specific gameplay and/or brands from one platform, and moves it to another without getting consent from the owner.

Earlier this year there was a lot of buzz*** surrounding the Playstation move title: Johann Sebastian Joust. iOS developer Ustwo released: Papa Quash that uses iOS devices instead of the playstation move controller which the original developers released it for. According to Ustwo, they were contacted by a fan that wanted the game for the I-Phone and told them that he got permission from Die Gute Fabrik (JS Joust's developers) to make the port.

However, Die Gute Fabrik said that they never gave permission and the app was taken off the store. Some people argued that because there was a market for the game on another platform, that it was fair for someone to copy the exact game play. In my mind that is a big NO: Just because you want something you can't have, doesn't make it ok to steal it from someone. That same mentality is one of the excuses pirates have for stealing games: Because they want to play a game without copy protection, it's ok for them to pirate it.

That kind of thinking is juvenile in my opinion. There are several iOS games that I saw that looked interesting to play, like the Infinity Blade series. I would like to try one, but I don't have an iOS device. Because I can't play it, does that give me the right to make or commission a game in the same exact style and design to be made on the PC? No it does not.

There are cases where interested modders port a game from one platform to another, or simply update a game for modern audiences. As was the case with the Star Control 2 freeware project: The Ur Quan Masters. That was a situation where the original designers released the source code as open source, allowing anyone to work with it.

With the EA v. Zynga lawsuit, we need to nip this problem in the bud by establishing some basic rules for the industry to follow. As the bigger the social and mobile markets get, the more this issue will rear its head before all is said and done. Before I end this post I have a quick challenge for everyone. I'm going to post the description of three imaginary game ideas, two of which fall under the realm of cloning by my definition. Can you figure out which one doesn't?

A: This is an isometric view action RPG. The game takes place in the future where the Devil has been made real by creating a sophisticated cyber organism in a giant research lab. The creature has taken over and infected the residents and machines with a virus turning them into its slaves. The player has to descend into the complex (with randomly generated floors on play) and fight their way down to the bottom where the creature is and destroy them.

The player must keep track of their life energy and nano reserves to keep themselves alive and able to use skills respectively. The player can warp out of the complex to a nearby military complex where they can use collected scrap to create new equipment they can use and get quests to complete.

B: This is a 2d Platformer. To help cut costs, a friend gave the designers the assets from the original Super Mario Brothers that they found online. To help differentiate the game, the designers changed the color for each of the assets and mix up the level designs.

Level one will have segments of world 1-1 and 2-1 spliced together for instance. As the player gets further they'll run into new enemies, including zombies and robotic spiders that they'll have to dodge. At the end of the game, Mario will jump into a robot to fight a giant bowser to save the princess.

C: Journey for the PSN was such a good game, but there are no other games close to it on the PC. This sparked a development team to create a version of Journey for the PC market. For this project, players wander around a vast jungle as a figure completely covered in a cloak without legs, going through temples to reach a massive mountainous temple in the background. The level design and platforming sections mirror Journey except for the difference in the setting.

 Instead of a scarf, the player has a circular belt that grows bigger with each piece they find while exploring. Players can team up in the world to explore, but there is no voice chat available.

Josh Bycer

* Gamasutra link where the video is 

** PC Gamer article looking at the comparisons

*** Gamasutra article with more information about the issue

Reprinted from my blog: Mind's Eye

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Benjamin Quintero
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Cloning is a complicated issue. Ive recently been under heavy attack (again) over my game. And no matter how many times you list all that is different people will show you what is the same. So honestly I just cant care anymore about this topic... Nerd rage has no boundaries and shows no respect for how hard it is to make anything playable.

m m
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"The gaming industry was not built on cloning". You're right. The gaming industry was almost obliterated because of it, in the early 1980's. There were no less than 5 versions of Donkey Kong at one time, each one crappier than the next. The market was so over saturated with copycat game carts that consumer confidence plummeted and so did sales. Stores wouldn't carry games of any variety and were it not for Nintendo, we in the US may have missed out on the premier entertainment medium of our generation.

Some would argue it can't happen today because:

A- In the 1980's the sales industry was far more splintered than it is today. Where as in modern times sales and appliances are utterly dominated by big box stores, a few decades ago the industry was jam packed full of family run and regionally successful department stores. This meant publishers and manufacturers had to hold sales conventions and actively sell the sales merits of their product to retailers. Because of this, even a crappy product could find a fool or fellow slime bag to huck their toxic wares.

While this scenario is pretty much extinct in modern retail, if stores like walmart or online direct vendors pick up on the notion of a cheaper (and usually shoddy) clone product, with the less expensive price as a point of sale, we could see the well manufactured product actually never making it to the market or being quickly supplanted. Smart phone gamers are not exactly made up of the hard core gamer demographic. Their tastes aren't as sophisticated as they are not looking for a 100+ hour, multifaceted experience. They're looking for a few minutes of entertainment. It is not a stretch to think this type of consumer isn't exactly going to be super well educated on the merits of checking out a design studio's ethos and credibility the way hardcore gamers do.

and B: The economy today is in shambles and there is the ever present danger of calamity radiating from the ailing Euro. The issues with Greece and Italy are far from settled, though the media has somewhat forgotten about them due to the newer, sexier problem of Spain starting to look like it's going to need a bailout. The likelihood of an aggravated recession overtaking this flimsy recovery is disturbingly high. With more and more game studios eschewing the traditional and expensive process of heavy studio development for the cash cow, quick riches of tiny mobile platforming pseudo games, we could quickly see an "all the eggs in one basket scenario". The allure of these mobile luxuries will be among the first markets to dry up in the event of a second recession, due in no small part to the already grossly inflated costs of simply owning and operating a cell phone that functions purely as a phone, let alone a data plan. As more and more design studios lay off team members or are outright closed by their parent publishers, we could quickly find ourselves in a scenario where all the standard and well trained talent has vanished from the industry, leaving us with only the less reliable cloners.

I think we are looking at a very uncertain future for gaming. I doubt it will vanish, at least not forever. It's too much a part of the mainstream culture now for it to altogether disappear. But that doesn't mean we may not be faced with a scenario that could aggressively rearrange the industry, and take several years to do so. The only upside to this is that the field will be cleared of the vulture capitalists and room will finally be made for a new "Nintendo" to rise to prominence and deliver a gaming experience along the lines of quality that was offered up in the mid-late 80's.

Michael O'Hair
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"The only upside to this is that the field will be cleared of the vulture capitalists and room will finally be made for a new "Nintendo" to rise to prominence and deliver a gaming experience along the lines of quality that was offered up in the mid-late 80's."

The rise of a "new Nintendo" will require very strict controls on what games a published on a platform. Remember the "Nintendo Seal of Quality"? Strong gatekeeping in terms of what games are available at market would facilitate such an occurrence; otherwise you'll have current environment (the app store model): a couple killer apps, and tons of clones offering less than incremental improvement over their predecessors.

m m
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@ Michael: Absolutely! And, at least for a while, there will be little impediment for that scenario after a game market crash. App stores may be a new medium, but they run on the ages old principals that every retailer ever has. Once a product becomes toxic, it will be sold off at cost or lower and a culture of aversion will grow. The fact that digital copies do not have the same overhead costs that a physical product does is not all that relevant. It will still become an undesirable money sink to burdened consumers, and thus, a poor investment for retailers.

It will certainly result in many of the old guard studios/corporate logo stickers (Atari) vanishing. You can find examples of this phenomenon ALL over the place, all over history. It's not unique to the game market or to modern retail that companies who were previously successful in whatever medium they were involved with fail to bridge the gap when a generational change occurs. Studebaker. Sears and Roebuck. K-Mart. All examples of companies that SHOULD have had the resources and business acumen to remain profitable but did not after major market upheaval who were replaced by newer retailers/manufacturers.

Who ever survives the collapse, or who ever rises from it, will have unprecedented control over the market to set standards and lobby for legal support from law makers in their primary markets.

Toby Grierson
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We had a publisher who wanted us to clone Infinity Blade, "but don't make it look like Infinity Blade so people don't know it's a clone", and every small detail would be micromanaged to look as much like Infinity Blade as possible.

Copying some game mechanics is one thing – as some might call that "stealing", not "copying" – but this pattern of detailed, careful mimicry is one born of cowardice and ignorance more than financial ambition, IMHO. One who does this aims to be #2 in a large crowd of #1s.

Some funders in the industry don't know anything about games, but do not want to trust their developers, so the only path that feels safe for them is to look at a winner and say "does it look like that yet?"

The importance of timing & context of the winner tends to be ignored; you really can't think about things like timing and context of your next project if you don't even know who Mario is.

This (among other things) is why Valve is so fantastically successful in terms of real money; they work hard to hire well so they have people they can trust – then they trust those people. Decision-making is then done by people who are fit for purpose, rather than an outsider with more money than relevant knowledge.

In any case, we made a night project for fun ( – Unity web player) that's dressed up like Infinity Blade at the start, but it's ACTUALLY a Fruit Ninja clone.

*taps head* think about it.

Or better yet, don't.