One of the major issues that’s affecting the mobile market has been the problem with “clones –” Games that directly copy another more popular title in order to siphon off some of the audience and profit.
In an earlier post we talked about why this is bad for the mobile market and today we’re going to examine more about what cloning is and why it’s so hard to stop.
As we just mentioned, cloning refers to the act of designing and publishing a game that is similar to another game with the intent to take away and confuse fans from the original title.
Poor clones will literally copy art, UI and level design from another game, possibly change the graphics a little and then sell. While there are advanced forms of cloning, developers typically take the same basic game design foundation and alter it just enough so that it appears new and different and then sell it.
Cloning has become a major issue on the mobile market due to several factors that we talked about previously. When you have developers releasing titles built around quick engagement on a platform with a low barrier of entry from a development perspective, it’s a perfect environment for cloning.
Case in point, you can look at any major success on the mobile or social market and there will be clones of it out there. Angry Birds, Farmville, Clash of Clans and so on. After Flappy Bird became a major success, it only took a few days before there were clones flooding the App store.
While this is a problem, the larger issue is actually trying to legally determine what is and what isn’t a clone.
Defining a Clone:
When we talk about a game that is a clone, there are three areas that it can be — Story, Graphics/Aesthetics and Gameplay.
Story is very unlikely as most mobile titles don’t have in-depth stories to them. It’s very easy to change a few words around and come up with a different plot for a game. The use of storytelling tropes like saving the princess are also universal to storytelling which means trying to call out one game for ripping off another’s story is almost impossible.
Graphics/Aesthetics mainly has to do with asset theft which was covered on our most recent post looking at the use of asset licensing. What’s interesting about asset theft is that it can be as simple as stealing another game’s asset wholesale for your similar game, or taking an asset that is completely unrelated and putting it in your title.
In both cases it can be easy to tell if someone is cloning UI or art assets by simple comparison. The difficult part is if a developer modifies the original asset in some way such as changing the scale, color, basic model etc as this makes it hard to tell if something was created or stolen from another game.
While talking about art and story are easy, it’s the final category of gameplay where we run into trouble.
Cloning vs. Inspiration:
Gameplay, as any designer will tell you, is at the heart of any video game. It is what has made companies like Nintendo and Blizzard billions of dollars and what game designers can spend years trying to perfect. It is also why developers are really annoyed and afraid of people cloning their work at a fraction of the cost.
Trying to figure out if someone is cloning game design is very difficult beyond the most blatant means — Copying exact levels, situations, mechanics etc.
The problem is very simple — You cannot copyright individual mechanics. It’s the same thing in any other industry: Someone can’t say that they own the color blue or a car company that owns the exclusive use of a steering wheel. However, companies can own unique qualifiers that relate something to a specific brand.
Going back to the “blue” example, while someone can’t own the color blue, Pepsi Cola owns the unique shade of “Pepsi Blue” that is indicative of their products, see also Coca Cola and their shade of red. Taking this back to game design, is the same idea.
For example: No one owns the mechanic of picking up a power-up that allows a character to take more damage. However if someone makes a game where a character picks up a mushroom rolling on the ground that makes the character “super,” then we are treading into Super Mario Brothers game mechanics.
But even with that specific example, it’s very hard to prove that someone is outright copying a mechanic or design philosophy and isn’t just paying homage or using something that’s universal. Another example: In Diablo 1, Blizzard popularized what has become a standard practice of UI design for ARPGs: where health is shown on the left of the UI and magic on the right in some kind of containers.
Blizzard does not own the copyright of using this specific UI design and it has since been copied and adapted by numerous developers. The only things they do own are the actual art assets that they used to create that UI.
And right there is the problem with trying to prove a game is a clone. Rovio doesn’t own the mechanic of launching characters from one end of the screen to the other to hit targets. And if someone wants to make a game like Angry Birds but with cats and mice, they don’t have any legal recourse. The only defense they have at the moment is if someone makes a game called “Frustrated Fowls” with the same art/UI design, characters and mechanics to a tee.
The more we talk about these cases, the further we get into examining copyright law and that is another topic altogether.
What’s the Future of the Market?
While core gamers can tell if a game is a clone or not, that won’t stop the many casual fans from buying these clones or granting protection for the developer’s IP. There is still so much surrounding digital copyright law that needs to be hashed out.
Until that happens, the mobile Game Industry will have to fight its own battles and let the chips fall where they lie. In an upcoming post, we’re going to look at the main defense against cloning and why it’s so hard to do on the mobile platform.