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Copying Mechanics is Not Theft, Nor is it Infringement

Why what Gamenauts did to Vlambeer is ethical and expected in game design.

E. Zachary Knight, Blogger

August 16, 2011

5 Min Read

I had never heard of Vlambeer or Gamenauts before yesterday. I had never heard of Radical Fishing or Ninja Fishing either. Yet in a single day, both companies and both games came crashing through my browser. Why?

To make a long story short, Vlambeer made a simple little flash game called Radical Fishing. They have a following of supportive and caring fans. They released this and made some money off of it.They decided they wanted to port the game to the iPhone but with improved graphics and gameplay. However they needed money now and made a couple more games browser.

While all this happened, Another game company, Gamenauts, saw a fun game that did not have an iPhone equivalent and decided to bring a game to that market that had those mechanics. This caused an uproar among fans of Vlambeer and their games.

That is the story in a nutshell.

What makes this story interesting is the reaction from gamers and game developers. First we have the reaction from Vlambeer themselves:

We don’t want to discuss cloning and patents, because we think the only thing that matters is that we feel that what Gamenauts did is morally wrong. The worst thing is reading positive reviews complimenting the super original design of the fishing gameplay – by people who have no clue that we even exist.

What we want to do is thank everyone for speaking up without us having to ask for it.

We also have a more in depth thought from one of their partners:

Specifically the “prematurely” part of this announcement. Basically we’re announcing this news before we’re ready to because a quasi-clone of Radical Fishing has been announced for iOS. It’s called Ninja Fishing and it’s a game that appears to play exactly like Radical Fishing but includes a ninja with a sword instead of a fisherman with a gun. When we saw the footage, our hearts sank because we knew we wouldn’t get it done in time to be first-to-market. Now I don’t want to get into the larger debate of patents and all that nonsense. Game design is game design and should influence others and be built upon. I understand that everything is a remix of everything that has come before it and there is no such thing as a purely original idea if you examine it deeply enough.

So my point is not that Gamenauts is doing something illegal or that original creators should be able to lock down design with patents or other nonsense, my point is about common decency and the little guy getting fucked over by a studio that is both creatively and morally bankrupt. This kind of thing is so common today that flash developers, essentially doing R&D for anyone that cares to watch, expect this kind of excrement to rain down on them if they wait too long, furthering the anxiety of making games on your own without a safety net.

So, while both blog posts express disdain for Gamenauts' move, neither are calling for anything bad to happen to them. Nor are they calling for increased protection from law. However, the internet community does not feel the same way.

Here on Gamasutra we have two blog posts specifically talking about this event.

In the first we have Evan Jones talking about how the move was completely unethical. This I can't understand. The entirety of game design's history has been chock full of wholesale copying of mechanics with more often than not only minor changes. To claim that Gamenauts acted unethically is to claim that Square, Blizzard, EA, Activision, Bungie, Sony and countless other big name and smaller name companies acted unethically when they copied game mechanics into their own games and found success.

What Gamenauts did was find a game they liked that was only available on the browser. They saw there was no similar game on the iPhone and no indication that that game was coming to the iPhone. So they used their considerable resources (as determined by a browse through their site) and made it happen. They saw an untapped market and tapped it. That is not unethical. That is good business.

The next article is by Andy Schatz and he calls for greater copyright protection of game mechanics.

I can't back this at all. Copyright is meant to protect the expression of ideas and not the idea itself. We cannot control the idea of "fishing by dragging as many fish as possible, throwing them in the air and shooting them." However, we can own a full game called Radical Fishing that uses that idea.

Can you imagine a world where JRR Tolkien controls the fantasy adventure or where animated animals were owned by Disney or Warner Brothers? I would not want to live in that world.

In a world where game mechanics could be copyrighted, the games industry would have completely stagnated shortly after it started. Our entire industry has thrived on the fact that game mechanics are not covered by copyright.

This is the state of the game industry. There is no reason why it should change. Did a company get beat to a market by a similar game? Yes, but that happens everyday in this industry.

We don't need added protection through copyright or patents. We just need to suck it up and do what we do best and make games.

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