For Creators of Games, a Faint Line on Cloning
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In any commercialized art form, be it movies, literature or fashion, the creators often tread a fine line between inspiration and shameless copying. Some small video game makers say that line seems to have all but disappeared.
Vlambeer, a small start-up based in the Netherlands, made a free online game in 2010 called Radical Fishing. The game involved catching fish with a hook, reeling them in and tossing them in the air, and then shooting them with a gun. Radical Fishing became popular, so Vlambeer planned a sequel, Ridiculous Fishing, for Apple's iPhones and iPads.
But then a new game appeared in Apple's store: Ninja Fishing, made by a company called Gamenauts. This game involved catching fish with a hook, reeling them in and tossing them in the air, but then slashing them with a katana sword. Ninja Fishing became a top app in Apple's App Store.
NimbleBit, another game start-up, had a similar situation. Its Tiny Tower, in which players added floors to a building and made the little residents happy with good jobs and lots of recreation, became the Apple App Store's game of the year. Along came Zynga, the big game developer, with a game called Dream Heights, in which players added floors to a tower and made the little residents happy with good jobs and lots of recreation.
Cloning the soul of a game -- its gameplay mechanics, design, characters and storyline -- is now commonplace in digital marketplaces like Apple's iOS App Store and Google's Android Market.
And while the app stores have offered an unparalleled opportunity for independent software makers to reach customers and make money with an innovative game, they are learning it is just as easy for another game studio to compete with a very similar game.
"When another company takes inspiration from the game and they try to make a different game out of it, that's when getting imitated turns into a compliment," said Rami Ismail, a co-founder of Vlambeer. "Getting cloned is like getting punched in the face. It's like a robbery."
Demoralized, Vlambeer stopped development of Ridiculous Fishing for several months. "It was kind of a motivation black hole," said Jan Willem Nijman, another founder. "It almost destroyed Vlambeer."
One reason that cloning is so frequent in the game industry is that there is no easy way to protect a game. A piece of published writing or a photograph can be copyrighted, but not the mechanics of a game. Small game makers could seek patents protecting software design, but they generally shy away from this because acquiring a patent can be both time-consuming and relatively expensive, said Ellisen Shelton Turner, an intellectual property lawyer at Irell & Manella in Los Angeles.
In addition, because games so often draw inspirations from previous works, many game creators believe that patent protections could stifle creativity in future games, Mr. Turner said. "A lot of them are anti-patents," he said. "And only in hindsight do they think patents are the proper thing to do when someone has stolen their idea."
Spry Fox, another independent game maker, tried suing. It had made a puzzle game for Facebook called Triple Town and then discovered a company called 6waves Lolapps released a very similar game in Apple's App Store called Yeti Town. In response, Spry Fox filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against 6waves Lolapps in January in United States District Court in Seattle.
In its complaint, Spry Fox argues that it had been in negotiations with 6waves Lolapps to publish Triple Town and had given private access to an early version of the game.
"It feels like the Wild West," said Daniel Cook, a chief creative officer of Spry Fox. "There are a lot of very, very powerful people. There's a lot of money. There are smaller companies, and there are also people who have learned from history that cloning is a valid business model, and they're going to build out entire companies around that concept."
Representatives from Gamenauts and 6waves were not immediately available for comment.
Many small game companies share a fear of one big game developer: Zynga, the publicly traded maker of popular games like FarmVille and Words With Friends. The sentiment among many small game makers is that it is a matter of when, not if, Zynga will clone a game after it becomes successful. In Zynga's offices, screenshots of competitors' games were sometimes taped to the wall, said two former employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, while management goaded teams to "fast-follow," or reproduce, their rivals' best features.
When asked about how it creates games, John Schappert, Zynga's chief operating officer, said he did not think of Zynga as a clone maker, but as an innovator. He said that Tiny Tower was not the first tower game, as many titles in this genre, like Sim Tower, had preceded it. He said Zynga's mission was to win over consumers with the best quality games of each genre.
The issue of copying, Mr. Schappert said, is not unique to games, but for the entertainment industry as a whole. He compared the game industry to the movie industry, where new films always borrow ideas from older ones.
"The winner is the one with the best ideas, the best script writing, the best actors, the best cinematography," he said. "It's the same thing here. We have to earn the engagement of the consumer. This is entertainment."
"Who's going to win?" Mr. Schappert asked. "The winners are going to be the consumers, because they're going to get the best game possible."
The founders of Vlambeer, the maker of Radical Fishing, said they disagreed that cloning was good for consumers. They said cloning would make it more difficult for small companies to take risks on new ideas, but easy for big companies to succeed by rehashing old ideas. As a result, all new games could look extremely alike and unoriginal.
"If we go into that sort of spiral we'll end up in a place where there's only cloners, and there's a limited amount of creativity happening," Mr. Ismail said. "That's the biggest horror scenario."
Zynga itself has fought the issue of cloning. In 2011, Zynga filed a lawsuit against Vostu, a Brazilian company, accusing it of blatantly copying Zynga's games.
In the end, NimbleBit resorted only to public shaming as a recourse. The maker of Tiny Tower published a graphic stacking screenshots of the two games side by side to show how closely they resembled each other.
NimbleBit wrote in the graphic: "Good luck with your game, we are looking forward to inspiring you with our future games!"
Evelyn M. Rusli contributed reporting.
First Published March 12, 2012 12:00 am