Friday Slide: Attack of the Clones

Everyone knows stealing is wrong. But in game development, stealing can be a slippery concept. There’s a difference between a developer taking inspiration from another game and outright copying it. Inspiration actually pushes the medium forward. If no one making games used ideas found in other titles, the creative well would have run dry long ago, and we’d all be stuck playing Pong and Asteroids our whole lives. It’s bleak.

But some unscrupulous iOS developers go beyond just “being inspired” when using ideas from other games. Finding the line between the two reminds me of the famous quote from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart trying to define hardcore pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

An actual screenshot from Monino.

Let’s look at some examples on iOS. Super Mario Bros. has been ripped off probably more than any other game, in titles like Ricky, Monino, and Super Jump World Plus. Actually, Mario cloning goes back a lot further, at least to the 1987 game The Great Giana Sisters which, incidentally, has been ported to iOS and is still available in the form of Giana Sisters.

It’s not just small-time developers who rip off ideas from popular games. Capcom came under fire last year for their iOS game MaXplosion, which blatantly lifts the “explode-to-jump” mechanic from the Xbox Live Arcade game ‘Splosion Man. Gameloft, one of the biggest and most successful iOS developers, is famous for pumping out titles obviously based on famous franchises.

From MaXplosion.

If you don’t feel too sorry for big companies when their games are cloned, take a look at all of the indie developers who’ve faced similar situations. Developer Vlambeer has had this happen twice on the App Store, with their Flash game Radical Fishing (which was copied with Ninja Fishing), and their PC game Super Crate Box (copied with Muffin Knight). Vlambeer eventually brought Super Crate Box to iOS and is currently working on a Radical Fishing sequel for iOS.

The most egregious examples are when an indie developer finds a nearly exact duplicate of their game for sale on iOS. The developers of the Flash game The Blocks Cometh were busy porting the game to iOS when they discovered that someone else had already ported it, even using the same title and almost identical graphics. We recently received an email from the developer of the Flash game Paper Venture telling us of a similar situation.

So how do you determine when a developer has crossed the line when borrowing ideas from other games? For one thing, you have to consider how common the gameplay element in question is. Another useful question is whether or not the borrowing developer has tweaked or added to the ideas with fresh concepts of their own. And thirdly, how much does the clone harm the original developer? A cloned The Blocks Cometh is a lot more detrimental to Halfbot than Gameloft’s Modern Combat 3 is to Activision and their Call of Duty franchise.

Developers taking inspiration from existing games is natural, useful, and even desirable in a healthy gaming environment. That’s how genres advance: developers take existing ideas and add tweaks and ideas of their own to create fresh new gaming experiences. The problem comes when developers copy without adding anything, or when they borrow too heavily and harm the original developer in the process. The best thing we can do as consumers is use our own judgement and not purchase games we consider harmful clones.

What do you think? Is it worse to clone indie games than blockbusters? Are there any games you’ve bought or refused to buy that you thought were rip-offs? Let us know in the comments below.

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