The Hills Are Greener: Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Villainy?

The Hills Are Greener: Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Villainy?

Aug 29, 2011

Cloning has been a hot-button issue in mobile gaming as of late; games that lift their art and game concepts wholesale from either popular games or games on other platforms. This is especially an issue on Android, where the less restrictive policies of the Android Market make it easier for apps of dubious legality, though even Apple’s stringent review process has led to several games that are blatant rip-offs of other games.

In many of these cases, the best solution for the infringed has been to just jump on to the platform where the infringement is occuring, in order to capitalize on the interest there. There were numerous illegitimate clones of Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, and Fruit Ninja on Android before their official launches. Flash developer Halfbot made their own version of The Blocks Cometh after EdisonGame ripped them off by releasing their own identically-titled game on the iOS App Store which also used a character sprite from another Flash game, League of Evil. Vlambeer, developers of Radical Fishing, are releasing a sequel for iOS after the game Ninja Fishing lifted the core gameplay almost wholesale from Radical Fishing. As well, they’re working with Halfbot to bring their other Flash game Super Crate Box to the iOS App Store.

I’ve had discussions with developers on the ‘cloned’ side of the cloning discussion, and while there is both disappointment and outrage over the violations, there’s also a despair over the fact that not much could be done about it. Either the games are just dissimilar enough to make legal claims non-pursuable, or the legal battle would likely be costlier than the possible money that could be made from a case. Many of these developers are trapped, because their games are ripe for the picking to be repurposed on mobile platforms by developers looking for an easy buck.

While the morality of cloning has come into question, especially when no specific art assets are re-used, it has led to an interesting discussion. What is it about game concepts that makes them more disposable and ripe for lifting than when art is stolen from these games? One could make a case that a game like Angry Birds isn’t really all that different from the Ninja Fishing debacle on iOS, because Angry Birds shares many similar mechanics with other physics puzzlers. What makes Ninja Fishing so bad in comparision? Game concepts are so intangible, and the language so indefinite that it is difficult to even discuss properly.

But these are things that must be discussed, because they are very important. Mobile gaming is becoming big business, and when independent developers are ripped off, it only hurts the reputation of mobile platforms. While the gatekeepers need to do a better job at preventing these apps of dubious copyright status to appear, is there anything that can be done about cloning? Or is there any way to properly define cloning at all? If not, then is there any good way to say that it’s wrong?