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What the Copycat Saw: Creative Theft in Mobile and Social Games
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What the Copycat Saw: Creative Theft in Mobile and Social Games

January 5, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next
 

The distinction between theft and inspiration is often unclear in video games. Traditions are formed, broken down, and remade every few years. The most successful ideas are eagerly absorbed by others, from regenerative health in first person shooters to the subdivision of platformer levels into world and stage.

At what point does borrowing successful ideas turn into outright thievery? Like art and pornography, people know creative theft when they see it -- but coming up with a reliable definition is difficult.

In recent years, mobile and social games have been especially susceptible to creative theft. Working with small teams on games with a simple few mechanics, it's been easier than ever to swap out a jewel for a balloon or a -Ville for a -Burg and let the millions fall where they may.

In earlier years, the scope and complexity of games formed a natural obstacle for copycats. Even with a regenerating health system, a developer would have to build out huge swaths of level geometry, design enemy intelligence, calibrate the world's physics, and rejigger a few mythic archetypes into something that seemed at least vaguely new.

With these obstacles flattened by the technical limits of browser plug-ins and the need for commuter gratification, mobile and social games have become a feeding ground for people with resources and ambition but few novel ideas of their own.

And players find it difficult to tell an original from a copycat when both are represented with a mere app icon. Will the copycats eat everyone's future, or just wind up cannibalizing themselves? How does U.S. copyright law affect mobile and social games? Are there strategies to protect one's work from cheap clones?

One Sail and 100 Anchors

It's hard to calculate just how much revenue is lost to fast-follow copies. The bigger threat copycat games pose is in flooding a vibrant area of growth with creatively stagnant backwash, the precondition for a market collapse.

"We're worried that we'll pigeonhole the distribution vehicle, which in this case is Facebook, into something that's very narrowly focused," Will Harbin, CEO of Kixeye, said. "Part of why we're not attracting the hearts and minds of the core gamer on Facebook is that a lot of these games are kind of the same. There are a ton of strategy games, there are a lot of city building games, there are now a ton of mafia games again. It's just kind of more and more of the same."

Kixeye has been one of the most vocal developers in drawing attention to creative conflict. This summer, Harbin published an open letter arguing that Kabam's Edgeworld had borrowed over-liberally from Backyard Monsters.


Backyard Monsters

Kabam countered that the game was, rather, a synthesis of four of their own previous games combined with a new science-fiction overlay. Similar claims can and have been made about nearly every major social or mobile developer -- they've just ripped someone else's idea off, swapped new sprites into someone else's game.

These conflicts reflect the relative narrowness of social and mobile games so far -- when there are only a handful of genres, it's hard to not step into other developer's turf, intentionally or otherwise. "For the core user, it's really only strategy games right now," Harbin said. "There are very few adventure games, racing games, or simulation games."

"What I think would be better for the ecosystem is to have a lot of early development in a wide variety of genres, and then people deep diving on those. But instead we're seeing most people just chasing the same thing. For the most part, these fast followers are still being rewarded with revenue, so there is some demand for it, but I don't think this current approach can be sustained for long."

One of the less visible impacts of copycat games is in the subsequent draining of the talent pool. With successful clone companies making quick globs of money, they can seem like exciting places to work and suddenly programmers, animators, and designers are paid lots of money to defer their talents while new ideas wither away in their back pockets.

"I want talented employees to think twice about who they're working for," Harbin said. "Do they want to work for someone who's innovating or someone who's copying? I'd say even of the copycats and fast followers there's some real gaming DNA in there. I'm sure there are some people there screaming to make original titles."


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Comments


Bruno Patatas
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Creative theft always happened and always will continue to happen. The bombastic title of this article goes well with the anti-social games climate that can be seen on Gamasutra in the last months.

There are a lot of creative theft in AAA and other console titles. What are the vast majority of FPS's in the market than copycats of the same gameplay ideas?

Cary Chichester
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Yes there will always be creative theft, but it happens more often with smaller titles than AAA ones. The fourth paragraph explains one of the reasons for this, which is the scale and complexity of these titles that end up contributing to their uniqueness.



One other reason it's harder to blatantly copy AAA titles is due to the scrutiny they get from the gaming press. When China has a clone of Team Fortress 2 or the Nintendo Wii, that makes headlines. When they ripoff Farmville, not so much.

Bruno Patatas
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Agreed. I remember on the old ZX Spectrum days to play a Arkanoid clone that was much better than the original. They added some cool new gameplay elements to it that worked great. It was also a question of time to market, as that game was released before the official Arkanoid release.

How many times was Pacman cloned? I have no idea, but I am sure it was several times.

You can have pure creative theft, or you can have games "inspired by". The mobile and social games space is quite new. It's going to the same phase of microcomputers and consoles back in the 80's. As developers and technology matures, we will start seeing cooler, new genres being created on that space.

Someone said the iPhone is the ZX Spectrum of this generation, the tool for the new bedroom coder. With that comes everything that is good, but also the bad.



Blatantly copy AAA titles is hard. But the same mechanics are being used over and over, the vast majority of time without any kind of clear innovation.

Kenneth Blaney
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On of the concepts brought up here is that, due to the relative simplicity of social games, the lines between inspiration and theft are closer than ever.



Although yeah, the title is very attention grabbing based on recent trends...

Jamie Mann
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@Bruno: I think you're right: there are significant parallels between the early 1980s and now.



In the 1980s, high-value arcade games were being produced in the USA and Japan. With the proliferation of low-cost home computers with built-in development tools (i.e. BASIC), hundreds of small developers were able to quickly produce relatively accurate clones at low cost - all you needed was the computer and some blank cassettes/disks, and people could (and did) knock out games like "Muncher" in a matter of weeks. Meanwhile, tracking all of these knock-offs was nigh-on impossible and even if you could find them, the owners of the original IP generally didn't have the financial resources to chase after these clones (with Atari being a notable exception).



Now, we're back to the point where the cost of development and self-publishing is incredibly low and relatively simple "arcade" games are back in fashion. And while it's much easier to track things internationally, there's now so many games being produced that most developers don't have the financial resources to chase outright cloners....

Craig Stern
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"In one instance, there was a competitor who hadn't completely copied one of our games but they were directly referencing elements of our proprietary language in their advertising. They were targeting our users and insinuating that we were responsible for the title they were advertising. It was a little bit of a gray area but the legal team realized that if we sued them we probably would have won, and so [Facebook] suspended all those ads."



This sounds much more like trademark infringement than anything having to do with copyright.

Shay Pierce
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"But the first big no-no in my book is to copy a game or take a big degree of influence from a game that's currently available on a platform that you're going to deliver to. That's what's hurtful to the industry."



It seems like an even bigger problem is when there ISN'T a competitor on the platform you're going to deliver to. There's been several instances recently of one developer releasing an experimental, innovative game design that is successful on one platform, and then beginning to port it to other platforms... but a second developer clones their design and releases it on other platforms before the originator can.



This is unjust because finding an innovative game design that is fun represents a significant "R&D investment" to use the terminology of other industries. Small companies taking such risks deserve to reap the rewards of their innovation.



Clones always come, but their rapid development seems to be hurting innovation, and THAT is bad for the industry.

Luis Guimaraes
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I keep on changing scope of my next project just because of that issue. If I release it with just the basic core innovation, then near similar backed up franchises with more budget can just incorporate my gameplay as update and leave me "too dry and unpolished" in comparison and be outclassed by more expensive projects. If I take a longer leap, can burn budget and take too long to reach market, with possibility of not being so innovative anymore, or be outclassed by even more expensive projects by the time.

Robert Green
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It seems to me that in the gaming market as it exists in 2012, one key element has been overlooked here, and that's that most of the games we're talking about are sold in some kind of closed ecosystem, owned by a third party who takes a significant cut of the revenue.

As it stands, someone like Apple can (and will) block your app if it breaks any of dozens of rules, especially things like using branding you don't have permission to use. Currently these companies have no reason to block apps on account of being complete rip-offs (they're getting 30% of that rip-off money), but that's just because developers have yet to demand it. As soon as one platform offered the ability to flag another app as a copy of one of yours, then have it removed if they agree, I can imagine it becoming standard.

Of course such a plan would require subjective appraisals and a constantly shifting definition of where to draw the line between 'inspired by' and 'direct copy of', but as the article suggests, that's already the case now.

Luis Guimaraes
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And if the copycats are the big guys, guess which App is going be taken out?

Robert Green
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In the case of something like the apple app store, probably the one that was submitted first. Or, if one of the games existed prior to that store, the one that can demonstrate the earliest existence of their game.

The kind of blatant copying that bothers me the most is fairly easy to spot, because they're copies of games as well known as farmville and angry birds, months later and with similar iconography. There may well be a fine line between being inspired by something and completely ripping it off, but the worst offenders are well over that line. Start with those, then work up.

Robert Webb
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"The kind of blatant copying that bothers me the most is fairly easy to spot, because they're copies of games as well known as farmville and angry birds, months later and with similar iconography. "



Angry birds is just a clone of crush the castle, or whatever it was. It is exactly the type of game this article is ranting about. The thing is, the double tap timing mechanism in crush the castle sucked. The angry birds swipe mechanism made the genre. We wouldn't have Angry birds if crush the castle had any sort of recourse for clones. Which would have been bad for consumers.





As for the many reskins of angry birds, are they really that bad? They are filling a nitch. What if I don't like birds? I wouldn't buy Angry birds, but maybe would if it was ghouls and ghosts. A purchase of the clone doesn't automatically mean a lost sale for the original game.

I don't see those types clones as all that bad and definitely not the dooms day they'll destroy the market like people have been crying about lately. They add choice for consumers, which is always a good thing.

Robert Green
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I think we're arguing slightly different things. In your example, angry birds changed the look of an existing game and improved the mechanics. I'm referring more to a game like Angry Chickens for example, which features different gameplay to Angry Birds but could easily be confused for it in screenshots and icons. As Craig Stern mentions above, it's the videogame equivalent of trademark infringement.

Simply by forcing your competitors to actually make their game look different, you largely remove their ability to piggyback off your success. You'd still have the problem that a large company with a good advertising budget can take your idea and reskin it, but as you say, if someone prefers their skin and they make a good game, so be it. That's been happening in the console/PC space for ages.

Victor Soliz Kuncar
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I find it a little out-worldly to see that there are games getting called a copy-cat game just because they follow the same mechanisms and rules as another game. I also find the call to further law abuse very inappropriate.



Let us please go back to the basics? What would the world have been if Universal was able to stop Nintento from releasing Donkey Kong? After all they, Donkey Kong is a copy cat in regards to the platform and ladders gameplay. After Id software made Wolfestein and Doom and they became so popular, quite a plentiful of FPS games were released and I remember that my generation called them "doom clones". The Legend of Zelda basically created the graphic RPG genre and subsequent games would copy quite a lot of things from there.



So what to do if some people are making games that copy your game mechanisms? I don't think feeling entitled to more legal protection than Nintendo and Id software enjoyed, seeing how they were indeed able to become tech giants regardless of so many "copy cats". If the "copy cat" is not using the name of your original game nor is reusing graphics, levels or other resources from the original then I don't think there is any sort of copyright infringement and your only defense is to (like Nintendo and Id software did) just have a better quality than the competitors and keep innovating.

Luis Guimaraes
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Genre offspring is not the problem. Problem is when copies get to market one month later from a company with lot's of money to market and a couple friends inside the platform holder offices, and then obscures the actual deserving title before it can even be known.

Jamie Mann
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"What would the world have been if Universal was able to stop Nintento from releasing Donkey Kong? After all they, Donkey Kong is a copy cat in regards to the platform and ladders gameplay"

I got confused about this for a minute, until I realised Victor was talking about the game company Universal and their title Space Panic, rather than the better known conflict between Nintendo and the movie studio Universal Pictures (who claimed to own the copyright for King Kong)!



In any case: Space Panic and Donkey Kong both use platforms and ladders, but there are significant differences between the implementations; DK's platforms can have an incline, platforms are not continuous (and can be arbitrarily positioned anywhere on the screen), you can jump, you can't dig holes and there are moving platforms in some levels.



(in fact, thinking about the "Kong stomp" animated sequence at the start of the game, I'm starting to wonder if that was a deliberate dig at Space Panic - "look at what we can do with our platforms!")



As such, while DK may have been inspired by Space Panic, it's in no way an outright clone.



And therein lies the issue: where does a game cross the line between inspiration and plagarism? How do you tell the difference between copying and parallel evolution?



Back in the 1980s, access to new games was often limited, and it wasn't unknown for people to try and "copy" a game based on limited information (for instance, the design for the BBC Micro game Repton was based on a *review* of the game Boulderdash). At the opposite end of the scale, today there's so many games being released that it's physically impossible to have seen or played them all...



And there's other factors too; game companies were smaller back then and generally didn't have the resources for legal action (and arguably, with the field being so new and primitive, mechanics-copying was generally viewed in a more relaxed way than today) - and it was obviously harder to find out about "foreign" clones and/or trigger international legal action.



Which isn't to say that people didn't get sued - Atari chased a lot of people over Pacman and Star Wars - but generally, the market was new, highly profitable and rapidly evolving, so cloning wasn't as much of an issue as it is today, where the market is mature, tending towards razor-thin profit margins (at least in the mobile landscape, where most cloning takes place) and evolution is incremental, rather than exponential...

Michiel Hendriks
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"""The Legend of Zelda basically created the graphic RPG genre and subsequent games would copy quite a lot of things from there."""



You might think that, but before Zelda there were numerous graphic RPG games like Zelda released years before it. The most notable w.r.t. Zelda would probably be "Dragon Slayer".

Titi Naburu
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Let's ban car racing, it's a clone of cycle racing.



Let's ban American football and soccer, they are clones of rugby. Or was it the other way round?



I love cars. And it's not the same driving an overpowered muscle car, a nimble Italian supercar, a heavy tall pickup truck or an F1. Just changing the weight and power of the vehicle makes a completely different experience. The same happens with other genres: it's not the same chasing ogres with a bat than American spies with rifles or Japanese ninjas with katanas.



I'm not convinced of chasing copycats, or to be more precise, about what some consider "substantial". Even if the goal and basic mechanics are the same, moving a few parameters changes things completely.

shayne oneill
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"Good artists copy, great artists steal" - Pablo Picasso (I think).



Sampling is for better or worse a major component of the post-modern in art, and still others have claimed it was always that way. Its not great, but it doesn't necessarily mean that creativity is in trouble. Look at music.



Its absolutely flooded in bands knocking each other off. Its usually called "genre". But things still evolve musically.



And you see it in games. There are tonnes of garbage mine-craft clones (which seems to draw an intense amount of ire from the fans), but finally we're actually also seeing people innovate turning it from clones into a genre. Cube-world is brilliant, it takes the minecraft thing, and turns it into a RTS, and its sufficiently different enough that its a completely different concept (and interestingly Mojang have just hired the developers... possibly to keep working on Cube-world, or to kill it! Not sure which yet!)



If the guy who wrote "Collossal cave" back in the 80s went after everyone who made a medieval adventure game we'd never have had "The hobbit", "Leather godesses of phobos" , RPGS, Sierra games, MMORPGS or Skyrim. All of these where evolutionary iiterations of games before them, as much copycatting as they where innovating.

James Coote
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I pretty much agree with everything said on the third page of the article



Just keep on innovating. Whether it be by moving on to the next game or relentlessly innovating within the existing one, if you always have something new and interesting, it will make people see the clones as inferior and always one step behind your games



Or to put it another way, copycats tend to be good at taking an idea and really milking it for all its worth. So don't try to compete with them on that, but focus on what you're good at that they aren't, which is coming up with the ideas (or even better, have a business partner who is good at the other side of things as well).

Ron Dippold
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The only copying that really bothers me is when an indie puts out a great alpha and then it gets stolen wholesale by a faster copycat. There are dozens of examples, one of which is Kingdom Rush http://www.ironhidegames.com/



This is troubling because I've got two dismissals of it and I can smack them both down.



First, the indie studio shouldn't have released a prototype to be copied. But in some cases this is the way they get enough funding to finish the game (http://www.desktopdungeons.net/ - another one that got stolen).



Second, the indie studio is just too damn slow. Okay, but it's often just one or two guys who can't compete in speed with a whole studio of coders churning out copycat crap. And they often spend a lot of time polishing it, whereas the copycat just churns out a direct mechanical copy of the current version.



Is there a fix for this? Probably not - those games who got ripped off are mostly doing okay, the theft was extra publicity (I bought Desktop Dungeons because of it), and you can still argue that if they were bizarrely creative enough nobody could copy them (Fez).



No answers here, I'm not sure there's a good solution, but it still grates when it happens.

Florian Garcia
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Those who copy will always find a good reason as to why there will always be copycat and bla and bla and bla.

I'm tired of the "industry" and from now on will define myself being part of the craft, not of a shameful and greedy industry.


none
 
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