19 January, 2011
…don’t bother, they’re here.
In game development, clones are seemingly a way of life. A popular idea gets lifted and repurposed and hopefully expanded. It might be good, then we call it “inspired by” or an homage to the original. It might not be so good or a bit too blatant, then we call it a rip-off. (The difference between an homage and a rip-off reminds me of the joke about the difference between a religion and a cult: one is more popular than the other.)
Let’s take a look at clones, why they’re so tempting, and why they can be so harmful to game development.
The good and the bad
There are a ton of examples of “inspired by” games doing well. The big success lately has been Minecraft which looks very similar to Infiniminer, but changed the focus from direct competition to exploring a lonely randomized landscape. Of course, now we see a bunch of games cloning Minecraft trying to capitalize on its success. This is how genres start: someone develops a game and then others ape parts of the game. Eventually a “defining game” comes along and sets the standard for later games. Note that the defining game isn’t automatically better, it often just benefits from good timing. There’s also no particular agreement about which game is “defining”; witness the endless discussions on if Warcraft or Command & Conquer is the defining RTS. (I’m on the Dune 2 side of that argument myself.)
The examples of the pure rip-offs are too numerous to contemplate. For every game that tries to expand the genre by introducing new concepts, you have a least one other game doing a low-quality hack job in order to capitalize on a popular thing as quickly as possible. History often forgets the quick and dirty clones, thankfully, but it makes it hard to bring up any examples that would resonate with more than a few people who saw a particular bad clone during the short window it was around. More modern examples are a bit easier, though. Two recent examples have been League of Epic Heroes ripping off Desktop Dungeons on a new platform and MaXsplosion duplicating the gameplay of an indie game ‘Splosion Man. (The Rampant Coyote mentions a few other examples and uses a bad pun for his blog title, too.)
Many game developers will repeat the refrain that ideas are useless, it’s all about execution, usually in response to some person going on and on about their “great idea for a game that just needs programmers to make it!” Well, that’s only half the story. Good ideas are rare, and truly great ideas are truly precious things. But, it’s not enough to have the idea, you need to develop the game and often in the process of development you find out the grand game in your head just can’t be realized with the limited time and budget you have. The sign of quality is knowing what to focus on and how to roll with the punches when one of your precious ideas gets cut and changes other aspects of the design.
But, if you see an idea that has been proven and is successful, then there is some benefit to duplicating that idea. What’s interesting in the two modern examples I reference above, both were cases where someone took an existing game and essentially ported it over to the iPhone. These people were capitalizing on a market that the original developers hadn’t addressed yet. In one case it was Capcom, a large company with big resources, cloning a game from XBox Live Arcade, in the other case it was an individual who reskinned a freeware game with commercial aspirations currently available on the PC. In both cases, cloning an existing game with a proven audience cut down on the development time and uncertainty (that is, the chaos) of a new idea.
The trick here is that cloning (in the U.S.) is technically not illegal in many cases. Yeah, time for the standard IANAL disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer, this is not legal advice. Game implementation is not covered under copyright despite what some believe; source code can be copyrighted, but that only really protects you from direct copying of that source code, not from re-implementing it with new code. Trademarks can protect names and titles, but it does little to protect your gameplay. You can file a patent on your gameplay, but it is expensive to file a patent for smaller companies and individuals, and defending a patent is often about who can bring bigger legal muscle to the fight. You never know when some obscure game might be brought up as prior art, or when some large company who is technically violating your patent is going to turn around and show you a dozen of their patents you’re violating.
In the U.S. this weak protection came about from a few interesting cases and copyright doctrines. One classic case was Data East USA, Inc. v. Epyx, Inc., where Data East, maker of Karate Champ tried to sue Epyx for cloning it as World Karate Championship. The courts found that the similarities were more because both games were based on karate fighting, not necessarily because one ripped off the other. (Data East learned its lesson and later was a target in Capcom U.S.A. Inc. v. Data East Corp., where Capcom thought Fighter’s History was a bit too close to Street Fighter II. Data East prevailed.)
The underlying doctrine that decided these cases is “scenes a faire”, which means that in a piece of genre work there are some elements that are required to be included. In a karate game, you’ll have fighters in two different colored gis, with a referee who says similar things, etc. But, you can kind of see how this allows free cloning in practice: a popular or defining game for a genre will include many elements from previous games, and thus other games will be able to copy those elements easily.
The benefits of clones
Lest you think that all cloning is horrible and destructive, there are some good points. As has been pointed out, most games use mechanics that have been in other games. A smart designer learns from the development of a feature and takes the best elements for use in his or her own game. Want to create a great 2D platformer? You could do worse than to study Super Mario Bros. in depth as inspiration for your own games. Without this ability to analyze other games, innovation would move a lot slower than it already does. For example, The Fae’s Wyrd is not really different than a lot of other games that have come before it (I called it a game with Diablo style randomized treasure, roguelike random level generation, and a Final Fantasy type combat setup), even if I think the elemental advancement system is pretty original. If we would have had to come up with an entirely new game, it would have diminished the game because it would be harder to really see how the elemental advancement system works if we have to evaluate and balance a bunch of new systems.
Using what has come before can also allow a game to innovate in other ways. The genre-defining FPS DOOM wasn’t terribly original, the developers had done a 3D shooter before called Wolfenstein 3D. The real innovation of DOOM was in the ability to mod the game so heavily and in the shareware business model that arrived with the rise of the internet. Even thought DOOM was a (high-quality) clone of previous games, that allowed it to explore other aspects and add the concepts of a new type of business model and the concept of mods to the industry.
The problems of being original
This might allow for a bit more freedom for game developers to make games without fearing that collecting powerups is going to have notoriously litigious Nintendo after them for “cloning Super Mario Bros.“, but it also makes it hard for someone to really expand an idea. For example, Desktop Dungeons was originally a work for a game jam contest. It started as an interesting idea that gained some traction, and thus drew a crowd of supporters. The developers have been expanding the game, with the ultimate goal of releasing a commercial version of the game. But, this also meant that someone could take their work, code it on a new platform, and make some quick bucks. This could also potentially harm the Desktop Dungeons developers if people think their game is merely a clone, or if people are turned off by the original so they don’t try the “authentic” version.
There’s also the danger of being seen as obnoxious. QCF Design, the developer of Desktop Dungeons wrote a blog entry entitled So wait, are we douchebags now? where they discuss the steps they took to deal with League of Epic Heroes. According to the developers, they tried to work with the cloner to improve his game and expand it in a way that made the game original. It appears that the person who wrote the clone found it easier to just remove the game. But, this is the internet and nuance is often lost in discussions like this. People will see that a game developer couldn’t stand competition and bullied someone into taking down their rival game rather than competing in terms of quality and providing what customers want at the time.
Clones carry on
Ultimately, I don’t think we’re going to see the end of cloning games. We can hope that a game will take a popular game and expand upon it, but there’s obviously more than one person or organization who sees the benefit of cloning an existing game and putting it on a popular platform like iPhone if the original developers seem to be ignoring it or slow to get to it. As a developer, you’ll have to accept that if you do strike upon an idea that proves relatively popular, others will take the idea and run with it themselves; ultimately, execution of your idea will matter a lot, just as it always has.
What do you think? Are clones simply a scourge that should be purged from humanity? Or are they a necessary part of game evolution? Or, perhaps both; in that case, what separates out the bad clones from the good ones?