Can the tide of copycat mobile/social games be stopped - and should it?

Spate of alleged clones may hint at a sea-change

Gaming is built on plagiarism. Genres, UIs, controls, Cthulhu references - the industry is by its very nature built upon a curious cocktail of respect and theft. In a way, it's thus strange to see the recent confluence of threats and complaints surrounding alleged clone games. You don't see iD Software sending cease and desist orders to every post-Doom first-person-shooter, so why should the creators of Desktop Dungeons be able to get League of Epic Heroes pulled from the App Store?

The dilemma of copycat games has long been purely an ethical one and rarely a legal one, but perhaps we're speeding towards a court-ordered stance after all these years of gentlemen's agreements and surly acceptance. Patents, trademarks, code and artwork have been protected, but ideas haven't. Should they be?

If they were, League of Epic Heroes probably wouldn't have been made. Capcom's MaXplosion, which Twisted Pixel alleges owes a big debt to its own 'SplosionMan, possibly wouldn't have been made. The creator of Doodle Jump wouldn't have faced the Langdell-like ignominy that resulted from an attempted trademark of a common English word in the hope of deterring similar looking and sounding games.

On the other hand, perhaps more formalised legal protection of ideas and concepts would have meant Langdell emerged victorious, rather than crushed by EA in the 'Edge' dispute, and able to damage the livelihood of anyone who unwittingly used those familiar four letters.

The problem has, though, come into sharp relief with the rise of Facebook and Apple's App Store. With gaming finally reaching non-hardcore audiences in eyewatering numbers, and with the titles in question requiring smaller teams, budgets and timeframes, there are simply more games. Many, many more games, created and released at frightening speeds, with only a surely overworked Apple or Facebook approval board standing in the way of their release.

It's simply a question of scale. More games, more developers and more avenues to make and distribute games means cloning is simply more inevitable, and thus more rife than ever before. The vagaries of app discovery and the frightening power of SEO means the opportunity to take monetary advantage of a poorly-promoted or rickety source game's groundwork is always there. That's why the Desktop Dungeons/League of Epic Heroes incident isn't merely a matter of making a similar game: it appears to have been a very knowing attempt to get to the App Store before the original creators could. It wasn't based on the same ideas - it was the same ideas, and presented to look similar too. In this instance, the dispute was resolved before a judge got anywhere near it, so we can't know how it would have played out in court - but surely someone's going to go the distance soon.

On the other hand, the sheer scale of game and feature cloning on Facebook means that the idea of a legal precedent arriving is terrifying. Does anyone really know how deep that rabbit hole goes, which farm-themed resource management game owes what to what, and which game could unquestionably be proven to be the root?

Yet there has been precedent, Zynga ultimately forking out between $7 and $9 million to Playdom's Mob Wars, due to a copyright dispute surrounding its own Mafia Wars. But that was copyright - and if you can't prove that, right now you don't have a leg to stand on if you want to get rid of those pesky clones.

The law forever remains several steps behind the internet, attempting to bend rules made for a simpler, quieter, ancient age to something that's continually evolving. And if there's one thing the internet's especially good at, it's demonstrating a reckless disregard for copyright.

While the debate about ideas, genres and copyright will doubtless run and run, in some cases it's completely cut and dried. Witness The Blocks Cometh and, er, The Blocks Cometh. It's absurd, it'll surely be slapped down by Apple at least and lawyers at most, but it probably won't be the last time it happens. Whenever there's an opportunity for unsavoury profit, someone will turn up to seize it.

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Latest comments (2)

Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 7 years ago
This article addresses a very important point, and is correct in that there's no easy solution that doesn't have a lot of downsides to it. However, the article might benefit from more historical perspective and analysis based on that. The law has previously fallen behind technology in similar circumstances; that's the genesis of copyright in the first place. And it seems to me, based on history, it's not "The Internet" that's "especially good at...demonstrating a reckless disregard for copyright"; it's Americans. In the early- to mid-19th century, rampant American piracy of British literary works denied authors such as Charles Dickens enormous amounts of revenue. This didn't start to change until America had produced enough writers that they started feeling the pain from piracy in England.
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Jeffrey Kesselman CTO, Nphos7 years ago
A good article that correctly, if only briefly, draw the distinction missed by so many that "plagiarism" and "copyright' are two very different things that have nothing to do with each other. Plagarism is an academic term that has no legal standing. A copyright is only infringed if a significant portion of a creative expression fixed in a tangible medium is copied. This means specific text, images and such. Not ideas.
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