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?
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.
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."